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The likeable and carefree Grand Duke of Abacco is in dire straits. There is no money left to service the State's debt; the main creditor is looking forward to expropriating the entire Duchy. The marriage with Olga, Grand Duchess of Russia, would solve everything, but a crucial letter of hers about the engagement has been stolen. Besides, a bunch of revolutionaries and a dubious businessman have other plans regarding the Grand Duke. With the intrusion of adventurer Philipp Collins into the Grand Duke's affairs, a series of frantic chases, plots and counter-plots begins... Written by
Eduardo Casais <email@example.com>
Any film directed by F.W. Murnau merits serious attention, but "The Grand Duke's Finances" is especially noteworthy because it's one of Murnau's rare attempts at comedy. Based on this one film (the only Murnau comedy I've seen to date), Murnau's comedic skills were far less developed than his flair for drama and melodrama. However, there are some good points throughout this film.
The plot is not especially credible nor especially funny, and each chapter of the story is prefaced with an introductory title which (except for the climactic one) features a long, long description of who these people are and what they mean to accomplish.
The best performance in the film is given by Alfred Abel. I've seen Abel in a few other comedies, and I usually find him stolid and stiff. Here, surprisingly, he's quite funny as a wealthy eccentric who resorts to various scams and false identities to enrich himself even more. Wearing long sideburns and an unusual makeup, in this film Abel looks remarkably like Eddie Foy Junior! Abel also gets the funniest dialogue in the film, courtesy of the silent intertitles. When beautiful Mady Christians wants to evade her pursuers, Abel deftly makes her look extremely unattractive and then he remarks: "This is how I expect my wife to look." When she faints at Abel's table in a bistro, he suavely asks the waiter for a glass of cognac, apparently to revive her ... and then Abel drinks it himself. I anticipated as much, but then Abel uses the cognac's lingering fumes to revive her.
Although long stretches of this comedy are unfunny, nevertheless "The Grand Duke's Finances" contains the earliest example I've ever encountered of a perennial sight gag that I call "the punctuated stampede". We've all seen this gag in dozens of cartoons: a mob of figures rush across the screen, followed by a pause, and then one last little straggler brings up the rear. In this film, for no discernible reason, a top-hatted Abel contrives to send a pack of wolfhounds racing through his own mansion ... with a little dachshund bringing up the rear to punctuate the stampede.
In the central role of Don Ramon the Twenty-Second, Grand Duke of the Mediterranean nation of Abacco, Harry Liedtke is only vaguely amusing. Fans of "Nosferatu" will be intrigued to see Max Schreck's name in the cast list here. Schreck plays one of a quartet of political agitators. He wears a long straggly beard and looks impressively gaunt but has almost nothing to do, except for one amusing bit of physical business when a maidservant chases him out of the Grand Duke's castle. A far more impressive (and much more physical) performance is given by Hans Schaufuss as Schreck's hunchbacked co-conspirator. Schaufuss leaps, capers, goggles at the camera, swings from a rope, and gives a performance even more athletic than Lon Chaney's Quasimodo.
The exterior photography is excellent, and I felt a nostalgic twinge during a shot of a tram moving through a city's streets at night. Several sequences were shot on shipboard, and I was pleased to see the horizon heaving up and down realistically, unlike in so many Hollywood films which feature stationary cameras in "shipboard" sequences. Near the end, there's a funny shot of a woman chasing a man into the distance ... but Leo McCarey would have done it better. Murnau was a great director of dramas, but his comedic efforts fall very far short of Ernst Lubitsch's comedies. I'll rate "The Grand Duke's Finances" 6 out of 10.
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