Sunday 7 January 2024

Finances of the Grand Duke (1924)

Director: F. W. Murnau
Writer: Thea von Harbou, based on the novel by Frank Heller
Stars: Harry Liedtke, Mady Christians and Alfred Abel

This film is a heck of a way to kick off a new year, because, its boring title notwithstanding, it’s a screwball comedy directed, of all people, by F. W. Murnau. It could have gone horribly wrong or wonderfully right but it surely had to be something to see and I’m very happy I’ve now got to see it. I had an absolute blast.

It’s worth mentioning here that Hollywood was dominant in world cinema in 1924 but the Germans were nipping at its heels. This is the first of two pictures Murnau would deliver in 1924 and I’ll be covering two others by Fritz Lang and more by Robert Wiene, Paul Leni and Carl Theodor Dreyer, just to highlight a few.

This is a great start, because there are a lot of pivotal names involved and all of them do a wonderful job.

Murnau is the first, important for directing Nosferatu two years earlier, but he’s not alone. The script, adapted from the Swedish novel by Frank Heller, is by Thea von Harbou, Mrs. Fritz Lang, who would write Metropolis three years later. The impeccable cinematography is by Karl Freund, who had shot Der Golem and a few earlier Murnau films but would also go on to Metropolis and Dracula as cinematographer and The Mummy and Mad Love as director. I’m told that the production design is Edgar G. Ulmer’s and he also shot second unit. He would go on to become the king of doing very much with very little, directing low budget gems for PRC like Detour and The Strange Woman.

The names we see on screen aren’t as well known today but they also do excellent work and I’d love to follow some of them into other pictures. I only knew a few of them, including Ilka Grüning, a cook here, so memorable a year earlier in G. W. Pabst’s The Treasure.

The Grand Duke of the title, whose name is Don Ramon XXII, rules a small Mediterranean island nation called Abacco and is played by a major actor of the day, Harry Lietdke, who had debuted on film in 1912 and was a favourite of Ernst Lubitsch. Even with his finances a major MacGuffin, the Grand Duke seems a happy and sometimes carefree gentleman.

Most of the debt is owed to Herr Marcowitz, the Minister of Finance, and Guido Herzfeld is suitably beady eyed in the role. He wants full payment in only three days or all Abacco will be forfeit to him.

One option that literally walks in from the blue is Herr Bekker, who appears to our 2024 eyes as a quintessential rich American tourist, even if he’s played by Hermann Vallentin, who was a German. He wants to give Ramon ten million francs for Punta Hermosa, a grotto-like part of the island on which he has discovered sulphur deposits. Fearing that his subjects will suffer working for this man, the Grand Duke literally throws him out.

Fortunately another option literally falls out of the sky, a second deliberate convenience to be played up for comedic effort. This is a letter from Olga, Crown Princess of Russia, who is all for becoming the Grand Duchess of Abacco. It doesn’t matter to her that he’s broke, because she’s absolutely rolling in dough.

And here’s where the intrigue begins, which is plentiful enough to fill a movie twice as long as the mere eighty minutes this one runs. We definitely need to pay attention to keep up, as new characters are introduced and, in the true tradition of screwball comedy, everyone gets shuffled around, bumping into everyone else and often while incognito or in disguise.

The most prominent new character still to arrive is Philipp Collin, “a gentleman of ever-changing names and professions”. He’s played by Alfred Abel, big in 1924 after strong roles in Phantom for Murnau, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler for Lang and The Flame for Lubitsch, and he’s a joy to watch here too. We first meet him running a dog race through his mansion and he’s never flustered by anything, always gloriously alive in the moment, even if he’s climbing out of a chimney in order to steal letters back from a blackmailer for a job.

Collin arrives in chapter two of six and Olga, in the lovely form of Mady Christians, in three, though he calls himself Professor Pelotard for much of the movie and she remains unnamed until the finalé. The key is that we know who they are, even if those around them don’t.

Almost everything here is impeccably done, from the very outset. Freund was on top form, throwing light skilfully, the impressionism we expect from the Germans far more realistic in this film but just as effective.

There’s a great shot on the beach of the first of a group of conspirators whistling to the rest who pop up magically from behind a boat. One is Max Schreck, who had played Nosferatu two years earlier for Murnau, even though rumour at the time suggested that he didn’t exist and it was actually Alfred Abel in that make-up.

There’s a great shot of Punta Hermosa with the ocean visible only through an eye of rock. And there’s a great shot of Ramon imagining boys before and after exploitation of sulphur from it, which reminds of attempts fifty years later by Ridley Scott to make cinema look like paintings by old masters. I tend to judge every magnificent shot in a silent movie now by how Freund would have done it at the time.

I don’t know if the quirky humour is due to the original novel, to von Harbou’s adaptation or Murnau’s vision, but there are wonderful moments that made me laugh aloud. Most are left for Philipp Collin but not all, one gem with a blackmailer being grabbed into a building by a gorilla and threatened by a lion, only for us to learn that he’s inside Boston & Klix, Animal Impersonators.

There’s so much to praise, I can’t even begin to cram it all into two pages, from the physical agility of Hans Hermann as a hunchback to an impressive entrance by Olga, who jumps out of a moving car and, a few steps later, collapses into a chair at Philipp Collin’s café table.

There’s much less to call out on the flipside, the conspicuous lack of extras in many scenes pretty much it. Who else lives in Abacco? We only get to see the skeleton staff at the palace and a handful of boys who dive off the cliffs to swim in the Mediterranean. Some city scenes feel exquisitely empty too, but that’s about it.

And all I can say to wrap up is that everyone gets fooled by someone but everything turns out well. It’s a shame this is the only comedy that Murnau made, but he died so young, in 1931 at only 42 after his valet swerved to avoid a truck on the Pacific Coast Highway. Maybe, had he lived, he’d have made more.

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