The master of Judge Clark Douglas' house is a cat.
A jewel of silent cinema.
In 1928, Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer helmed one of the most influential and powerful silent films ever made: The Passion of Joan of Arc. After that point, Dreyer became increasingly ambitious and increasingly methodical, only directing one feature film per decade for the remainder of his career (well, he technically made two features in the '40s, but one was essentially an experimental film which the director quickly disowned). However, before he became a cinema legend, Dreyer was merely a hard-working guy churning out a new movie every year. The most well-regarded film of his pre-Passion era is undoubtedly Master of the House, a domestic comedy of sorts which offers some gentle messages on the importance of treating others with respect.
Our tale places the spotlight on an overbearing man named Viktor (Johannes Meyer) and his timid wife Ida (Astrid Holm, The Phantom Carriage). Ida does everything within her power to make her home a perfect place: she helps the kids with their homework, puts a great deal of work into the creation of every meal, cleans constantly, repairs the family's clothing, shines Viktor's shoes and generally spends her every waking moment attempting to keep the house in order. Even so, her efforts are generally unnoticed and unappreciated by Viktor, who complains about everything and charges Ida with laziness. Eventually, the family nanny (Mathilde Nielsen) and Ida's mother (Karen Nellemose) determine that enough is enough. They send Ida away for awhile, telling her that they have a scheme which will ensure that Viktor learns to appreciate his wife.
It's a simple idea which is executed in simple fashion. Roughly the first half of the film is devoted to showing what a monster Viktor can be, and the second half is devoted to watching him slowly-but-surely learn his lesson. This humble morality play was made as a comedy, but it seems a bit more dramatic today than it must have at the time. The movie was made in an era in which men were expected to rule the home and women were expected to be good housewives. As such, it takes quite a bit of awful behavior to convince the other characters in the film that Viktor is a worthless tyrant. I suppose there's a little humor in his moments of comeuppance, but it seems less a comedy than a well-intentioned, semi-serious fable.
Dreyer would take huge leaps forward with The Passion of Joan of Arc, but to be honest, Master of the House is shot and told in a fairly conventional manner. Yes, it has a handful of smile-inducing moments and some fundamentally good-hearted ideas at its core, but the pacing is remarkably sluggish at times. Honestly, the material might have easily supported a brilliant half-hour short, but 107 minutes simply feels like too much. It's not that Dreyer pads the story with needless subplots, either—the movie is exceptionally focused and simple. It's just that the film takes its sweet time about moving from point A to point B; it's more concerned with maintaining its lumbering rhythm than with narrative efficiency. I realize I probably sound like an ADD-riddled action movie buff who just doesn't have the patience for this sort of thing, but believe me when I say that I'm a fan of most of Dreyer's work. Honestly, I'm a fan of Master of the House too, but I doubt I'll be revisiting it anytime soon given the lengthy amount of time it takes to do relatively little.
Master of the House (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection sports a respectable1080p/Full Frame transfer. The film was made it 1925, so it shouldn't come as any surprise that the image is very soft and grainy—honestly, it doesn't particularly benefit from the Blu-ray format, but the film has been fairly well-preserved given that it was made nearly 90 years ago. The LPCM 2.0 Stereo track is devoted solely to the piano score penned by Gillian Anderson (no, that that one), which veers comfortably between classical drama and charming playfulness. Supplements include an interview with Dreyer expert Casper Tybjerg, a visual essay courtesy of film historian David Bordwell, a DVD copy and a booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Mark Le Fanu. Not the most comprehensive package in the world, but this certainly isn't the most significant Dreyer film of all time.
Master of the House is an intriguing piece of cinema from the early portion of a great director's career. It isn't essential viewing, but it's certainly a respectable, worthy effort. Recommended.
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