Thursday, October 16, 2014

Grace Sings to Franchot

Grace Moore was a Broadway performer and Metropolitan Opera star long before she began to make films.  She has been credited with popularizing opera on screen, and was important enough to the film community that she was given equal billing to Maurice Chevalier (which he did NOT endorse.  In fact, it drove him from Hollywood), and was often given over-the-title billing as MISS Grace Moore.  Any film featuring Miss Moore is bound to contain many songs, and at least one operatic number.  Thus, The King Steps Out (1936) gives us Miss Moore (as Elizabeth/Cissy) singing her heart out to Franchot Tone (Emperor Franz Josef)

The plot is fairly simple.  Cissy, the daughter of Maximilian, Duke of Bavaria (Walter Connolly) is a free spirit who would rather be out in the woods than in the palace.  Her older sister Helena (Frieda Inescort) is in love with Captain Palfi (Victor Jory).  But with 6 daughters to marry off, the Duchess Louise (Nana Bryant) and her sister the Empress Sophia (Elisabeth Risdon) have agreed to a match between Helena and Sophia's son, Franz Josef, much to Cissy's disgust.  So, Cissy follows her mother and sister - with her father in tow - to try and stop the wedding.  Of course, given her predilection for peasant clothing, the Emperor mistakes her for a seamstress, and Cissy is not inclined to disoblige him of his error.

While this is not a great film, it is amusing.  It has a pleasant (though unsurprising script), with songs thrown in helter skelter to maximize Miss Moore's talents.  Loosely based on the the true story of Emperor Franz Joseph, who ended up marrying the younger sister of his intended, it feels like Pride and Prejudice meets The Merry Widow.  The film did well financially (though reviews were tepid) - this TCM article will give you more information about the film's history, and the director, Josef von Sternberg.

The biggest complaint we had about the film was that the scenes at the fair went on a little too long.  However, we were all quite taken with the gypsy woman (Eve Southern, an actress whose career extended back to the silent era), who is the smartest person in the film.  She is the only one who  recognizes the Emperor and who realizes that Cissy is in love with him.  Southern's breezy portrayal makes the character a memorable one, 

Grace Moore is approximately 38 in the film (she looks about 30) and is supposed to be playing a 20 year old.  She PLAYS it young, but you aren't deceived for a moment - she's actually several years older than her co-star, Tone.  She's not a bad actress, but she's here because of her magnificent soprano voice - it is that voice which sold the film.  It's interesting that the "ordinary" people, not the intellectuals, are the ones that would have brought in those film revenues.  (Today's producers would hide under a bed rather than risk money on an opera star.)  Miss Moore would only appear on the screen til 1939, but she continued to perform - for the USO during WWII, and for various opera companies.  She died in a plane crash in 1947.
Also in the cast, playing the older sister Helena, is Frieda Inescort.  While Helena at first seems the victim of much woe, she turns out to be quite the witch - she dumps her boyfriend because Franz Josef is cute, is quite nasty to her sister, and really is only interested in Franz Josef because he IS the emperor.  We rather hoped that Captain Palfi caught onto the fact that Helena was no great catch.  Of course, we've seen Ms. Inescort before - she spent much of her career as the second lead or the other woman in films - her aristocratic good looks played against her being a "regular" person.  She did not have an easy life, though. In the 1930's, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  After her husband's suicide in 1961 (they had been together since 1926), her condition worsened.  However, she used her fame to bring the illness to the public's attention, collecting money for the Multiple Sclerosis Society (from her wheelchair).  She died in 1976, at age 74.  
Quick nods to Franchot Tone, who is enjoyable as the Emperor, even if his curly wig is a bit off-putting (he wears a hat quite often, so that helped), and to Elisabeth Risdon as the mother-in-law from hell.  Even without talking, Risdon can give a look that would scare any perspective daughter-in-law.  Take a look for uncredited William Hopper as a soldier and young Gwen Verdon in the ballet troupe. 

 As we go, listen to Grace, as she sings to Franchot.



  1. Nice to see someone writing about a Grace Moore film. Ever since I first saw Grace in ONE NIGHT OF LOVE, I've been a fan. Wonder if you have seen her films with Cary Grant (When You're in Love) or Melvyn Douglas (I'll Take Romance).

    1. I was not at all familiar with Grace Moore, and would love to see her with both Cary Grant and Melvyn Douglas. Thanks for the titles. I'll be on the lookout.


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