A little ignorance is useful for developing one’s own ideas. Around thirty years ago, I sought out a VHS of Ernst Lubitsch’s “That Uncertain Feeling” (1941) to fill in a blank in my viewing of his seminal Hollywood sex comedies. Unaware that it was widely dismissed as one of his weakest films, I instantly became obsessed with it, and I still consider it his starkest, purest, wildest masterpiece. “That Uncertain Feeling” is newly streaming on the Criterion Channel this month, and with its ready availability I propose an illuminating cinematic challenge: compare this movie, which was shot in 1940, under the censorious regime of the Hays Code, with any of Lubitsch’s pre-Code comedies and see in which he gets away with more flagrantly erotic allusions and more brazen assertions of sexual freedom.
“That Uncertain Feeling” is the story of a young, rich, and childless Park Avenue couple, Jill and Larry Baker (Merle Oberon and Melvyn Douglas). They are prominently featured in a glossy magazine as “the happy Bakers,” but their happiness is revealed to be an empty façade. Jill is suffering from a long-term case of hiccups that her high-society friends suggest can be cured only by the ministrations of their circle’s psychoanalyst of choice, Dr. Vengard (Alan Mowbray). Jill resists, claiming to be “normal.” Aware of the propensity of analysis to drive married couples apart, through the relentless force of its revelations, yet desperate for a cure, she soon consults him. But, once in his office, she admits that she has trouble displaying her symptoms to doctors because, she says, “When I come, it goes, and when I go, it comes.” (It’s astounding to realize what the censors weren’t thinking.)
Delivered a mere few minutes into the movie, this medical confession sets the outrageous tone of sexual frustration that ricochets throughout the film—and the thick layers of social graces and material comforts that conceal it. In wry dialogue, Vengard coaxes from Jill—who admits to (or claims to) be twenty-four—that she also suffers from sleepless nights in bed beside her husband, a busy thirty-five-year-old insurance executive who sleeps soundly beside her. Armed with the insight, Jill tries and fails to rouse him from his slumbers (a sly and symbolic stratagem, involving the family dog). That’s where adultery comes to the rescue, in the person of another of Vengard’s patients, Alexander Sebastian (Burgess Meredith), an intellectually cantankerous and ludicrously misanthropic pianist-composer whose attentions to Jill suddenly fill her days with cultural sophistications as well as with the frenzy of new romance. Larry’s discovery of their affair—in an astounding bit of business involving mistaken identity—leads him to seek a divorce, quickly and cleanly, in the hope of winning her back.
The framework of “That Uncertain Feeling” is based on a silent film of Lubitsch’s, “Kiss Me Again,” from 1925, which in turn…