Archive for A Royal Scandal

The Sunday Intertitle: Catherine Was Great

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 7, 2019 by dcairns

This is the little essay I penned for HippFest to accompany the screening of FORBIDDEN PARADISE: introducing a general audience to the filmmaker and stars, that sort of thing. Hope you enjoy.

Ernst Lubitsch came to Hollywood as part of the first European exodus, what Billy Wilder called “the exodus of the talented ones.” In other words, Lubitsch didn’t leave Germany because he was Jewish, but because Hollywood offered him a lot of money and a set of fresh challenges. Later, he would become Wilder’s mentor, teaching the director of Some Like it Hot much about the art of comedy.

In his native land, Lubitsch had begun as a rather broad clown, before becoming a sensitive director of historical epics which uncovered the private lives of kings and queens from Ann Boleyn to Marie Antoinette. His ability to probe these boudoir activities without ever upsetting the censor made him ideally suited to the movies’ golden age: the famous “Lubitsch touch” referred to this ability to be discretely suggestive, titillating without vulgarity. He became famous for his use of closed doors (much on display here, along with the attendant keyholes), which could imply offscreen antics far filthier than anything that could be shown at the time.

In Hollywood, Lubitsch embarked on a series of more modern stories with The Marriage Circle, where he found star Adolphe Menjou an ideal interpreter of his sly wit. And Menjou, as the fixer to a lusty queen, is very much the star attraction in Forbidden Paradise, despite the presence of the stellar glamour icon Pola Negri, with whom Lubitsch had made several German films.

Negri had always wanted to play Catherine the Great, and that’s more or less what she’s doing here, though the story is updated and the location changed to one of those little Ruritanian films so beloved of this director. The idea of the royal lady who uses her personal guard as a male harem certainly derives from gossip about the tsarina. Here, hilariously named leading man Rod La Rocq is on hand to be seduced – something of a stiff in early talkies, his wooden demeanour is perfectly exploited by Lubitsch as he plays an upright plank of a man, astonished to find he’s as corruptible as anyone else. Among Lubitsch’s many gifts was an ability to find comedy gold in unlikely places, often transforming unpromising stars into effective comedians by exploiting their weaknesses (comedy is all about weakness).

Pola is tempestuous and lusty as her fans expected, but also poking fun at her own persona. Having taken royalty slightly seriously in Europe, he was waking up to the comic possibilities, which he would go on to exploit in a whole series of operetta-films and Ruritanian romances. In Lubitsch’s world, power is always in the hands of people as basically ignoble and petty as the rest of us, so the contrast between the dignity of office and the indignity of basic human life is sharply expressed. “At least twice a day, the most dignified man in the world is ridiculous,” he was fond of saying.

But it’s the silk-hatted, mustachioed Menjou, exuding the satisfaction of a cat who’s just cornered the world market in cream, who captures the attention, his smallest gesture registering as a comic tour de force. Always on top of the situation even when it seems he’s sure to be flummoxed, never at a loss for words (no mean trick in a silent film), and somehow just slightly aware of our admiration (or maybe it’s his own?), Menjou holds the film together, adding dry wit even to scenes he’s not in.

One of Lubitsch’s advantages in Hollywood was his background in European theatre: he knew of seemingly thousands of obscure but well-designed plays that could be adapted to the screen. Rivals suspected him of employing a secret roomful of Hungarians, penning all these plays especially for him to turn into films.

Lubitsch must have liked this story: he adapted it again as A Royal Scandal in 1945, with Tallulah Bankhead as a formidable Queen Catherine. But Pola got there first.

Lubitsch’s Final Touch

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2017 by dcairns

Ernst Lubitsch had a sensational end run, with TO BE OR NOT TO BE, HEAVEN CAN WAIT and the less celebrated but easily equal CLUNY BROWN. Before those three is the less stellar THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING, but then you have THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and NINOTCHKA. The only blots on this celluloid landscape are the Preminger intrusions, A ROYAL SCANDAL, produced and heavily supervised by Lubitsch, and THAT LADY IN ERMINE which Lubitsch began but died before finishing, with Otto Preminger stepping in to complete, uncredited.

A ROYAL SCANDAL isn’t all that bad, and it does have a wonderful moment where William Eythe (of Who the hell is William Eythe? fame) steps out of a tight two-shot with Tallulah Bankhead, paces the room, distracted, and is then surprised to have himself wind up back in a tight two-shot with Tallulah Bankhead, who has nipped round the back of the camera, unseen, and positioned herself in his path. A witty, self-conscious and wonderfully silly use of screen space.

THAT LADY IN ERMINE doesn’t have the benefit of a live Lubitsch to watch over its late production and post-production, and so it’s a lot more uneven. Still, it’s not exactly terrible. Preminger’s broad, ham-fisted approach to comedy (see SKIDOO and Vincent Price’s delicious line, “Otto had the sense of humour of a guillotine,”) pushes through the smooth understatement of Samson Rafaelson’s script, to create a giddy sense of goofiness that doesn’t feel under anybody’s control.

Hard to know if that script would have played markedly better under Lubitsch’s baton, because there’s a prevailing sense of derangement. The movie is a kind of operetta, with a few songs (by Frederick Hollander, so not bad, but not his best) and a Ruritanian setting. So it’s harkening back to Ernst’s early 30s Chevalier productions at Paramount. But, as they say, something new has been added, or several somethings.

First, Technicolor™! While it’s true that the colour in HEAVEN CAN WAIT is a little ugly and adds an unwanted heaviness to the proceedings (20th Century Fox tended to pump up the chroma to almost Goldwynesque levels of vulgar intensity), it really can’t harm such a surefooted and charming work, any more than the sexism and the contortions to get around the censor can. Here, with less ideal circumstances, the colour does hurt, even though it’s cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s trademark golden honey light and cobalt blue shadows, which I usually like. ladled over fairytale kingdoms and dream sequences and Hungarians, it gets a tad gooey.

Then there’s the cast. Lubistch had a genius for getting adept light comedy perfs out of unlikely thesps. Preminger didn’t. Lubitsch knew he could coast along on the sheer surprise of Gary Cooper being funny, and Jack Benny being dramatic (and funny). Here we have Betty Grable, who’s sometimes funny, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who can play anything, but can’t BE a husky Hungarian warlord. Preminger has good fun with his fatuousness, which Lubitsch might have tamped down. Further down the list, Reginald Gardner returns from CLUNY BROWN as milquetoast cuckold #1, and Cesar Romero plays milquetoast cuckold #2 a little uncertainly, as if he’s not quite sure why his character’s meant to be funny. His presence along with Grable’s recalls Preston Sturges’ THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND, another late film, the following year, where “Butch” is even more miscast. Fox films had this problem a lot, it seems to me — the contract players got shoehorned into movies they weren’t suited to. Walter Abel is a skilled farceur, and some of the weird innuendo is pleasing — there’s a sense of a sado-masochistic thing going on between Abel and Fairbanks, his superior officer, which is amusing. Plus, gratuitous Harry Davenport.

Betty sings, several times, a song with the lyric “What I’ll do to that wild Hungarian,” and Lubitsch seems very pleased indeed with his double entendre and with his use of the word “Hungarian” as a kind of all-purpose punchline. Or maybe it’s Preminger’s cackles we seem to hear.

A few gruesome cartoony sound effects showcase Otto’s leering comedy style, but mostly the problem is a subtler one of feeling, a sense that nothing is quite right. The story involves not only the fantasy of musical numbers and mythical realms, but paintings coming to life at midnight and a long flashback and a couple of long dream sequences. Double voodoo, and triple voodoo. And the feeling, as with yet another, but far better Sturges late film, UNFAITHFULY YOURS, that if so much of the movie is dream sequences, what’s left for us to take away rom it? (I never felt this really answered the question of what’s wrong with the often-brilliant UNFAITHFULLY, but it was Sturges’ own pet theory.)

Still, as a vaguely Christmassy (at the end) romance about marriage and dreams and fidelity, maybe you could double-bill it with EYES WIDE SHUT (also completed after it’s auteur’s demise, though at least shooting was finished) for a nice festive Fever-Dream Double Feature?

Danger: Otto at work

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2008 by dcairns

“Otto had the sense of humour of a guillotine.” ~ Vincent Price.

The Brown Bunny

In this age of high oddness — more things are available to see on home video than ever before, but not necessarily the RIGHT THINGS — it is particularly odd that Otto Preminger’s second Hollywood feature, DANGER, LOVE AT WORK, should be available from the BFI on DVD. Why not his first feature? Why not his only pre-Hollywood film? They might be completely negligible (Otto thought so), but then, so is this.

My dog-eared copy of Halliwell’s Film Guide calls the film “not inconsiderable”, which might be true, but I would go so far as to actually call it “considerable” either. Halliwell then compares the film to YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, which is bang on the money (something that can rarely be said for the once ubiquitous Leslie H, a steaming middlebrow who didn’t love anything made after 1968) — both films try to create comedy out of an excess of eccentricity. Both have dated badly and can irritate more than they amuse.

Preminger claimed that studio head Darryl Zanuck, having handed him the project, tried to foist Simone Simon upon the director as leading lady. OP protested that with SS’s scanty command of English she would be unable to cope with the current fashion for fast-talking screwball dialogue, and he claims that after a couple of days filming he was proved right. Simone was sent packing, only making her real mark in American movies a few years later at RKO.

I find it hard to believe that Zanuck would cast Simon as the daughter of a family of wealthy American eccentrics. How would he get around her obvious ooh-la-la? Some studio bosses may have been stupid, but Zanuck wasn’t one of them. Preminger tells this story in Gerald Pratley’s critical study of the director (mostly a bunch of Otto anecdotes), again in his ottobiography, and it’s repeated in Willi Frischauer’s unauthorised bio (mostly a bunch of suspiciously similar Otto anecdotes), but I’d love to hear the Zanuck version, or better yet, an account by a neutral third party.

Anyhow, Ann Sothern landed the part, and she’s the most appealing feature of the film, sexy and zesty and doing a bit of a Katherine Hepburn impersonation but not so’s it gets annoying.

Sothern Comfort 

Preminger further claims that Zanuck LOVED what he did with the film, and this is harder still to accept, since it’s conspicuously UNamusing for a comedy of this period (it’s pretty hard to find dull studio comedies of this era, though they do exist). The film also lacks much of Preminger’s flowing visual style, tending to cut into closer views whenever it threatens to get any visual momentum going. The exception is a nice shot that follows Jack Haley and Ann Sothern out of a bedroom, along a looong landing and down a staircase, which also serves as build-up to Edward Everett Horton’s entrance.

Horton Hears a Hoo

Horton (see B. Kite’s splendid profile in The Believer: “Edward Everett, are you gay?”) is another of the film’s delights, cast flamboyantly against type as a notoriously “masterful” he-man. As interpreted by EEH, this character is a mass of neurotic tics, obviously living a lie: HE knows he’s not masterful, and he expects at any instant to be rumbled by all and sundry, and so he strides around in a perpetual tizzy at the thought of his imminent shaming. A joy.

Jack Haley is a weak spot as leading hombre. With the appearance of a cherub gone to seed, he apparently thinks he’s CUTE. Fiona didn’t recognise the Tin Man without his lead-based face paint. He proves to be one of those select unfortunate actors who only really works when he’s wearing a funnel on his head. Richard Gere is another.

Fiona: “I don’t recall Richard Gere ever wearing a funnel on his head.”

Me: “He never had. But BOY does he need one.”

Also troublesome: John Carradine as Hollywood’s idea of a modern artist. One enjoys the Carradine presence, of course — a cadaver jerked about by invisible wires — but the loony modern artist is a tiresome comic trope. Then there’s the irritating kid — the problem here is that most Hollywood kids are already irksome without seeming to try (well, they DO try, awfully hard, but to be sweet and moppet-like rather than irksome), so an annoying little professional who’s actually an ass-pain ON PURPOSE is more than can be stood without anaesthetic.

Surviving Picasso

What I’m really complaining about is an accumulation of bits of zaniness, that tiresome substitute for the genuinely surprising. In a zany context, almost nothing is surprising except shock brutality (Jack Haley savagely kicking the little boy into a mud puddle isn’t funny exactly, but it’s a welcome change of tone). And surprise is lifesblood to comedy.

10,000 BC

But but but — Preminger was not totally without comedy props. His two Lubitsch-related films are hard to see, but I did manage to get my mitts on a VHS off-air recording of A ROYAL SCANDAL, made under the Great Ernst’s supervision (the other “collaboration”, THAT LADY IN ERMINE, was developed by Lubitsch then taken over by Otto after the maestro was struck down by post-coital heart attack). The film has just gotten a BFI DVD release.

And it’s pretty good! While most attention has focused on the film being unusually weak for a Lubitsch comedy, one could as well say that it’s unusually funny for a Preminger comedy. And it has Charles “Piggy-Wiggy”Coburn, who can’t NOT be funny unless seriously handicapped. The script seems to get wittier when he’s around, possibly because he’s playing a Macchiavellian rogue politician and that’s something both Lubitsch and Preminger can get a kick out of. Vincent Price is enjoyable as ever and in the lead, Tallulah Bankhead is a great Catherine the Great.

The Queen

William Eythe is the weak spot here — his timing is impeccable (EVERYBODY’S timing is impeccable when Lubitsch is lurking by, he mines comedy from the unlikeliest people) but he lacks charisma, and even in a tight white uniform he doesn’t really have what it takes to explain Tallulah’s lust for him. But he does get the best gag in the film…

Tallulah has laid her cards on the table — she hasn’t laid William but she’s declared she wants to. He steps away from the divan where she reclines and retreats to the wall. Pensive, abstracted in deep thought, he paces the room. For a long time he paces. Preminger’s camera follows him in one of those long, elegant tracks. Then — double take! he paces right into Tallulah, who has left her divan, unseen by us and him, to stand patiently in his path and wait for him to pace into her velvety clutches.

It doesn’t sound much, but it’s an elegant joke on the camera’s ability to be fooled, during a long take, if things don’t stay still. It marks the point in the film where Lubitsch’s wit and Preminger’s rather different pure style come together for one glorious moment.

The Importance of Being Ernst