Friday 9 February 2024

A Royal Scandal (1945)

Director: Otto Preminger
Writer: Edwin Justus Mayer, adapted by Bruno Frank from the play Die Zarin by Lajos Biró and Melchior Lengyel
Stars: Tallulah Bankhead, Charles Coburn, Anne Baxter and William Eythe

Index: The First Thirty.

There are a few things to say about A Royal Scandal before I start. It’s a comedy more than it’s a historical drama, emphatically so. As in The Keys of the Kingdom, Vincent Price doesn’t have a large role but he’s welcome. It’s utterly and unashamedly ridiculous. It’s also a whole heck of a lot of fun. And all these things are obvious quickly.

It’s set in Russia during the 18th century, in a palace of Catherine the Great. In fact, for all that some details of national or international importance are mentioned, we never set foot outside that palace, whichever one we happen to be in. Historical detail is not important here in the slightest. It’s just stage dressing.

There’s also no attempt by anyone to sound remotely authentic. Not only do none of these British and American actors sound Russian but neither do the actual Russian-born actors, like Vladimir Sokoloff, Michael Visaroff and, most recognisably, Mischa Auer, who’s very happy manning the east gate. Nobody even tries and there’s a general’s nephew with such an out of place accent that I started to wonder if this was really a parody.

What saves it early and often is the writing, especially the dialogue, which is stellar. For a little while, it feels like it’s all given to Charles Coburn, who’s the man effectively in charge of Russia, Chancellor Nicolai Ilyitch. When Price arrives, as the only actor willing to attempt a foreign accent, even if it’s a stereotypical one, he gets great lines too. Fifteen minutes in, as we finally meet Catherine the Great, Empress of All Russia, and we realise she has plenty of great dialogue too, we accept that it’s going to be consistent and it is, throughout the film.

This began as a play, Die Zarin or The Czarina, written by two Hungarian writers with recent Oscar nods, Lajos Biró (for The Last Command) and Melchior Lengyel (for Ninotchka). That was adapted by a German called Bruno Frank, best known for writing The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1939, but the screenplay was penned by one of his countryman Ernst Lubitsch’s regulars, Edwin Justus Mayer, who was best known for writing To Be or Not to Be.

At least that’s what it all says, but Lubitsch had previously made this film in 1924, under the title of Forbidden Paradise, at which time it was based on a Broadway play, The Czarina, by Edward Sheldon, that was based on the novel by Biró and Lengyel and adapted to the screen by Agnes Christian Johnson and Hanns Kräly.

I’m not sure quite how this breaks down to who did what in either version, but I’ll have to assume that all of them bear some credit for the impeccable dialogue. The writers, however their share of the credit boils down, clearly deserve the bulk of it, but the actors do bring those lines to life with absolute panache.

Coburn is surely at the top of that list, with apparently no end of zingers to bring to bear, every one of them spoken with an utterly calm delivery because nothing whatsoever phases the Chancellor. My favourite has to advice he gives on etiquette to Price, who’s about to be presented to the Empress for the first time, namely to “do nothing, but not too early and not too late.” “You know what you are?” asks revolutionary Gen. Ronsky. “Yes,” he replies, “and I deny it.”

Price ought to know etiquette, because his character was born to it, being the Marquis de Fleury, Ambassador-Plenipotentiary of France, Vicomte de Bayeux, Comte de Bayonne Velez, Baron de Villau and Keeper of the King’s Seal. He’s equally as calm as the Chancellor; when a Russian soldier arrives through a wall, it’s not shocking at all. “In Paris,” he states, “nothing but secret entrances. Only husbands and servants use the regular doors. In the salon of Madame du Barry, you can see the best people coming out of the bookshelves.”

Just as trained in etiquette but not remotely as calm, Tallulah Bankhead has a field day as Catherine the Great, telling everyone and his dog to shut up and throwing no end of vases at them in the process. Fundamentally, this is all about her tempestuous lovelife, but there are no horses involved, just soldiers. She seems to have an abiding fondness for the Commanders of her Palace Guard, and that’s where William Eythe comes in, as the lead in any other film.

He’s the Russian soldier who rushes through a wall in front of Ilyitch and de Fleury. He has a connection to the palace, being engaged to a lady in waiting, Countess Anna Jaschikoff, but he’s just a lieutenant, Alexei Chernoff. At least, he’s just a lieutenant when he arrives. After he meets Catherine and she likes what she sees in his vehement loyalty and his youthful looks, she promotes him to captain and appoints him to be the new Commander of the Palace Guard. Next thing we know, he’s a major, a colonel, a general, and, eventually, a private, all tied to how Catherine feels about him in a particular moment, which uncertainty comprises the arc of the story.

None of this ought to have been surprising to audiences in 1945.

Bankhead was a sharp-tongued uninhibited actress, so it made total sense for her to play a sharp-tongued uninhibited empress. She knew power well too, as a grandfather and an uncle were U.S. senators and her father Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Coburn was massively experienced in this sort of role, but was also on top of his game in 1945, having been Oscar nominated for 1941’s The Devil and Miss Jones and 1943’s The More the Merrier (for which he won) and would be again for 1946’s The Green Years. He’s one of those actors who elevates any film with his presence and a pivotal role like this requires that.

As much as we might think of Price for his work in horror today, he had played a whole slew of historical characters and brought his elegance and sophistication to all of them. It’s easy to laugh at his French accent here, but it works in the context, being exotic compared to all the obviously American Russians.

Then there’s William Eythe and Anne Baxter as an engaged couple again, as they were only a year earlier in The Eve of St. Mark. This feels a lot like a redux of that, with the two separated in a different way, this time by a wily empress rather than a war and with both able to give their parts some real oomph this time.

And, at the end of the day, that’s what this is. It’s complete nonsense, but it’s eminently quotable nonsense given real oomph.

No comments: