Thursday, March 20, 2014

Queen Tallulah the Semi-Great

The sexual appetites of Catherine the Great are the subject of A Royal Scandal (1945), starring Tallulah Bankhead as Catherine.  The action opens as Catherine has had a spat with her most recent favorite.  Enter Alexei Chernoff  (William Eythe), who sneaks into the palace to warn Catherine of a plot against her.  Catherine however, is far more interested in Alexei than any plot.  Alexai becomes the new favorite, much to the annoyance of Chancellor Nicolai Iiyitch (Charles Coburn), who was hoping that the French ambassador Marquis de Fleury (Vincent Price) could fill the vacant position, and thus create a closer relationship with France.  But once Catherine sees Alexai, she does everything but lick her lips.  She wants him, and his engagement to her ladies' maid Countess Anna Jaschikoff (Anne Baxter) is no barrier to  the Queen lust. 

A Royal Scandal is remake of the silent film Forbidden Paradise (1924), which Lubitsch did direct, and in which Poli Negri played Catherine and Adolphe Menjou played the Chancellor.  Though this version is a farce, the dialog is a bit stilted.  There are some really funny lines, and some quite humorous performances, but all in all, A Royal Scandal leaves a lot to be desired.  Produced by Ernst Lubitsch, directed by Otto Preminger, the film feels like neither is involved.  Lubitsch had intended to direct A Royal Scandal, but he became ill, and Preminger stepped in.  (Interestingly, when Lubitsch died in 1948, Preminger again took over the direction and  completed That Lady in Ermine.  For that film however, Lubitsch received sole director credit.)  Another problem is that A Royal Scandal takes place entirely indoors, giving it a stagey and claustrophobic feel.
On the plus side is the presence of Charles Coburn, who steals the movie.  He gets the best lines and his character is the both the most likeable and the most intelligent.  The Chancellor knows his Queen, and for the most part, knows how to handle her.  You can watch the twinkle in Coburn's eye, and waits for him to return when he is not on screen.  We also get a brief time with Vincent Price.  Always a delight, we wished he had more screen time.  The same cannot be said for William Eythe. His Alexei is dull.  What Catherine sees in him is beyond our ken.  Sure, he is attractive enough, but really, listening to him is torture.  One roll in the hay should have been enough for her.  

While Tallulah Bankhead is certainly right for the role of Catherine, one wonders what Greta Garbo would have been like in the part.  It seems Lubitsch actually wanted Greta Garbo, however when he took over, Preminger decided to stick with Bankhead, who had already been signed. Some of the casting issues are described in this TCM article.  We also learned from Robert Osborne's introduction that Alexei was meant for Tyrone Power, but Power turned it down.  Charles Boyer was also considered.  Both actors are far too intelligent to play the buffoon Alexei, but a more dynamic actor would have a least made us understand Catherine's desire to keep him around.  Anne Baxter is totally miscast here.  She tries hard, but hasn't much to work with.  And in scenes with Bankhead, Baxter is blown out of the water.

For a look at the contemporary opinion on the film, we direct you to this  New York Times Overview and link to a review.  They weren't keen on it either.

Before we say goodbye, here are some clips from the film, with Bankhead, Baxter, Price, and Eythe, and the film's magnificent costuming by Rene Hubert: