Thursday 31 January 2013

Bombs Over Monte Carlo (1931)

Director: Hanns Schwarz
Stars: Hans Albers, Anna Sten and Heinz Rühmann

It's clear to see that after Peter Lorre's stunning performance in M, the cinematic world was his for the taking. He was just as noticed on stage, his individual work in Bertold Brecht's Mann ist Mann, in which he'd acted during the production of M, impossible to ignore, whether critics appreciated it or not. Yet by the time he took a small role in this film, a comedy musical, M hadn't been released, so he was still an unknown face to widespread audiences. He doesn't get much to do here but he makes the most of it, with such a wide grin every time we see him that it's hard to imagine it's the same actor who played a paedophile murderer only a few months earlier, not only because of tone but because he looks so much younger. It is surprising, however, that in the rôle of Pawlitschek, the chief engineer of a battleship owned by the fictional Balkan nation of Pontenero, he only rates eighth on the credits list, as he's far more memorable than a couple of those listed higher.

Without benefit of hindsight, audiences of the day were here to watch Hans Albers and Anna Sten, who are clearly Teutonic equivalents of Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. As Queen Yola I of Pontenero, Sten is a delight, reminiscent of Claudette Colbert in both moonface and comedic style, but vamping it up like Marlene Dietrich, a big star in German cinema after The Blue Angel a year earlier. Albers is harder to take as Capt Craddock, Pawlitschek's commander, though this is due to what Craddock does rather than how Albers plays the part. The script by Hans Müller and Franz Schulz was based on a novel by Fritz Reck-Malleczewen, released only the year before, and the unbridled sense of entitlement within hints at what the Germans would do next historically. I was surprised to discover that the novelist was a staunch opponent of the Nazis, who banned his works. After he denounced Aryan purity in 1944, they sent him to Dachau and shot him dead.

You see, the morals in this film are all kinds of screwed up, not just on the surface but deep down within the guts of the story too. As the film opens, we discover that Craddock's crew are lounging around doing a whole lot of nothing, because apparently the queen hasn't seen fit to pay them for a while. We might imagine that Pontenero is going through a financial crisis or some such, but no, when the orders come in to clear for departure, it's to pick up the Queen at Livorno and chauffeur her on a pleasure cruise through the Mediterranean. She's en route on the Adriatic Express, ready to live it up on her country's dime. At this point, we can almost sympathise with Craddock when he decides to utterly ignore his queen's command, hijack his own battleship and set sail for Monte Carlo instead. The telegram he composes in response is a joy. 'Will no longer act the fool for Your Majesty. Stop. Been bored long enough. Stop.' I'd love to send that verbatim to my manager.
It's no surprise when the queen decides to follow him to Monte Carlo and see what sort of man he is, listening surreptitiously in the Pontenero embassy as Craddock demands 100,000 francs from the consul to pay his crew and fuel his ship, which isn't unsympathetic. She even redeems herself a little in our eyes too by giving up her necklace to cover that demand. So we overlook the mutiny and prepare for the songs and romantic comedy that the format conditions us to expect. This one adds the subterfuge angle by having the captain fail to recognise Queen Yola, even though he has a portrait of her in his cabin, thus allowing her to get up to all sorts of shenanigans at his expense, and I can buy that in a romantic comedy. It's not too far distant from Roman Holiday, after all, and the battleship is notably crewed by volunteers from a variety of nations, so perhaps Craddock has little knowledge about his adopted country of Pontenero.

Where it all gets a bit much is in the tone that these two characters persist in adopting, while the film presumably expects us to treat them sympathetically as endearing leads. We've already seen that Queen Yola happily flounces around having a blast while her armed forces and her embassies go without pay. Of course, she treats Capt Craddock as her personal plaything, manipulating him without shame, because we expect that she's going to get her comeuppance at the end, probably by him turning her over his knee. What we find is that Craddock is no better. Clearly some sort of playboy, given that the orchestra at the Monte Carlo Casino knows him well enough that they play the Craddock March when he walks towards the dancefloor, he might talk the talk about paying his crew but he doesn't walk the walk, however much they adore him. Effectively, he's the same character, as deserving of getting his comeuppance, perhaps by her turning him over her knee.

But no, we get neither of those things. Rather than have our leads learn the error of their ways, face up to their selfishness and turn over a new leaf, accompanied of course by a song or two to keep it all jolly and a romantic entanglement that gifts them both perspective, instead we get a rather surprising set of escalations that only proves that neither of them has any conception of morality whatsoever, not to mention remorse. So Queen Yola sets her sights on Craddock and he unwittingly falls for her machinations. It takes him precisely one night to spend his ship's entire payroll to inadvertently buy back the queen's necklace as an ironic gift for his brand new pickup, who I'm not sure has even given him a name yet. He covers the 30,000 franc percentage for the jeweller by giving him his ring and collecting ten grand back to gamble on the tables, playing not with skill but with romantic whimsy, risking all for the luck in her glance.

It's no surprise to find him win big and sit pretty with that ten grand turned into half a million, but his new ladyfriend blows it all on an insanely risky gamble at the end of the night. Presumably she plans to teach him a lesson, especially as he's told her outright that he aims to sail for Honolulu in the morning with the queen's battleship, crew and that half a million, but his response is still more insanely risky. He literally stands on a chair in the middle of the casino, commanding everyone's attention and suggesting that they all keep away for the next twenty four hours. Then he asks for 100,000 francs of his losses back from the casino manager; like any casino is ever going to do that, however politely he suggests that they can keep the rest of his losses. Well, Capt Craddock thinks he has a rather unique bargaining chip to back him up: a Pontenero battleship sitting in the bay. He gives the casino until nine in the morning or the picture's title will gain bloody meaning.
The sense of entitlement here is truly astounding and, while I won't reveal how this all plays out, it never goes away and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. I can enjoy the cast, because Albers, the biggest star in Germany during this era, is a force of nature and Sten is a bundle of charms. Both have able sidekicks: Ida Wüst hams it up as Isabell, Yola's maid, in a coquettish Ruth Chatterton sort of way, and Albers's regular co-star, Heinz Rühmann, anticipates Donald O'Connor well as Lt Peter Schmidt. The only catch is the relentless chummy relationship between the commander and his senior officer, which may be innocent but surely doesn't seem so. Even when talking about young girls in Monte Carlo, they smile enticingly at each other and cuddle up closer than might be appropriate, every opportunity for physical contact being leapt at. The pet name Craddock has for Schmidt of 'Little Peter' is surely unfortunate, given hindsight, but distracting nonetheless.

I can even enjoy the style exhibited throughout, this being a lesser UFA production but still an UFA production nonetheless. There are many capable shots like one where casino patrons descend in elevators as missiles ascend through battleship mechanisms. Even the songs aren't distracting, a pleasant surprise for me, and there are fewer of them than I remember from the Chevalier and MacDonald vehicles that I've seen thus far. UFA certainly put their weight behind it, also shooting the picture in English and French versions simultaneously for foreign release. The French version, Le capitaine Craddock, had a completely different cast led by Jean Murat and Käthe von Nagy, but Albers reprised his role in English for Monte Carlo Madness, opposite Sari Maritza. Critics were not enthralled by the latter, but I don't know about the others. I wonder whether audiences outside of Germany saw this differently. Did they leave it with a laugh and ignore how callous it really is?

Perhaps because the only other lead role I've seen Albers play is Baron Munchausen, in the 1943 German version titled simply Münchhausen, I couldn't help but see this less as a viable framework for a story and more as a tall tale. It worked a little better for me that way, as it becomes wild and far fetched almost immediately and doesn't let up as the story runs on, each escalation still more outrageous than the last. Yet this reading still ends with that bad taste, because the Munchausen stories I've read in print and seen on film had him as a lovable rogue, arrogant perhaps, but not to the degree that everyone else would be left so ruthlessly high and dry. This is almost like an Ayn Rand musical, where the moral is that you can do anything you like as long as you can get away with it. Perhaps that might not seem so obnoxious if the nation behind this film didn't promptly do exactly that starting only a couple of years later. Perhaps not, but obnoxious it would remain.

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