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"The Baroness and the Butler" is a 1938 film starring William Powell
and the French star signed by 20th Century Fox, Annabella, who got the
big star buildup from Fox. Little did Darryl F. Zanuck know that she
was more interested in matters of the heart than career. When she met
and fell in love with Tyrone Power on her next film, "Suez," Zanuck
tried to get rid of her by offering her films in Europe. She refused to
leave Power (and who could blame her) and the two married, becoming the
Brangelina of their era. Zanuck blacklisted her, and there went the
star buildup and the big film career.
This is a charming film set in Hungary, about a butler, Johann Porok (Powell) who works for the Prime Minister (Henry Stephenson). The prime minister and his family, particularly his daughter Katrina (Annabella) are shocked when Johann is elected to Parliament - by the opposition party. What's more, he wants to stay on as butler. Meanwhile, Katrina's philandering husband (Josef Schildkraut) has a few political ambitions of his own.
Powell does a smooth job in this film as the elegant butler who is known for his brilliant speeches in Parliament. Stephenson is great as his amused boss, and Schildkraut, who played so many slimeballs, is terrific as usual. Annabella was a wonderful actress, and when her film career took a nosedive thanks to Zanuck, she and Power did radio shows together. Annabella also had a great success on Broadway, did "Liliom" with her husband in Westport Connecticut, and worked tirelessly for the war effort before returning to France when she and Power divorced.
"The Baroness and the Butler" isn't a great film, but it has good performances and a breeziness about it. Enjoyable if predictable.
A charming movie, in particular for those whose film tastes are simple, requiring clean, wholesome entertainment, certainly something rare on the screen in the 21st Century. Powell was Powell, articulate, debonair, and likable. But this was my first view of Annabella; what a lovely creature; more accurately, stunningly beautiful, at least to me. The cast did well depicting the almost unbelievable etiquette that those of us born in or after WW II just do not understand. I guess this was the objective in the simplistic plots of the time--to bring only a sense of peace and pleasure to audiences in a time (WW II) when such peace and pleasures were thought to probably never exist again. I cannot find a lot of information on Annabella, but she apparently had a long and distinguished film career. Too bad I didn't know about her in my youth. The film is certainly another 'feather in the hat' of a time in films that many of us remember and enjoyed.
To introduce French film star Annabella to American audiences, 20th
Century Fox got a European type product as a fitting vehicle for her.
And to play the butler who goes to Parliament, Darryl Zanuck obtained
the services of William Powell from MGM.
Like that other favorite butler role that Powell essayed in My Man Godfrey, Powell is a butler with a social conscience, a fact he keeps hidden from his employers Henry Stephenson, Helen Westley and their daughter Annabella. How he kept secret the fact that his left wing party has nominated him for a seat in the Hungarian Parliament is beyond me. Nevertheless on election eve the family learns that Stephenson will be returned as Prime Minister and Powell will be occupying a seat on the back bench.
The Baroness And The Butler is the kind of film that would have been made in any number of European countries, a delightful bit of Frou-Frou that definitely did not have any relation to Hungary in 1938 with Admiral Miklos Horthy running things as a fascist learning military dictator. Those parliamentary elections have about as much relevance as those that were still going on in Nazi Germany where Reichstag elections were dutifully held with only one party being allowed to participate.
Still Powell and Annabella are nothing less than charming and capable players and they pull this film through and you can actually enjoy it if you'll completely suspend disbelief. Of course Powell and Annabella are in love, but she's unhappily married to a philandering Joseph Schildkraut. And Schildkraut like Captain O'Shea in Ireland is going to make the scandal make his career. As usual Schildkraut is letter perfect playing the part of an unscrupulous schemer, characteristics he patented at the height of his career.
If you're a fan of the stars you'll enjoy The Baroness And The Butler.
An amusing little story that probably worked better on the stage and
appear to have been much of a challenge for any of the cast. Powell fans
will enjoy it nonetheless and Anabella is quite stunning, despite her
accent. More of Nigel Bruce in comedy relief might have helped the film
Although 20th Century Fox touted this as a debut film for French star Anabella, her filmography includes two earlier American films for the same studio. A note on the Fox Movie Channel stated that production on The Baroness and the Butler was delayed while Powell mourned for Jean Harlow, who was engaged to him at the time of her death.
William Powell was always suave and charming. He starred in numerous
fine and well-known movies. I have a fondness for "I Love You Again"
and surely everyone is fond of the Thing Man series.
Here he is challenged by a very peculiar mix in his costars. Annabella's French accent is a little hard to penetrate and strangely not very appealing (to me.) She's pretty, though those board shoulders and muscular arms should not have been showcased in sleeveless gowns. And why is this woman with a French accent Hungarian? And if she is Hungarian, why are her parents an American (Helen Westley) and a Brit? (Her father is played with great charm by Henry Stephenson.) The plot is intriguing -- potentially. Powell is the family butler. Yet he runs for office in opposition to his (slightly improbably approving) master. I didn't notice the opening credits and thought it must be based on a Molnar play. It's not.
The movie is easy to watch. It's far from the worst of its romantic comedy ilk in the 1930s. But it's far from good, as well.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Regarding a previous review concerning Joseph Schildkraut as a schemer.
This film came out in 1938, the year before Schildkraut was the winner
of the best supporting actor award for the Oscar-winning "The Life of
Emile Zola." He played Dreyfus in that film and he was anything but a
schemer. Ditto 22 years later when he played the memorable father in
"The Diary of Anne Frank."
This picture is comical in nature. It takes place in Hungary and we hear the Blue Danube Waltz played at the beginning. Why? Hungary was part of Austria-Hungary until the end of World War 1.
Now that our history lesson is finished, let's get on to the film. It's filled with political satire. William Powell, who made this film in an attempt to get back to work several months later following Jean Harlow's untimely death, plays a butler who is elected to the Hungarian Parliament for the opposing party of the Prime Minister he works for.
Annabella is the married daughter of the P.M. and the two fall in love. Husband Joseph Schildkraut finds out and tries to use this affair to create for himself an important governmental position so that he will not say anything, quietly divorce Annabella and avoid scandal.
Politics is a nasty business. This picture is silly, it could have used the nastiness. Schildkraut could provide fireworks in previous films such as "Marie Antoinette." He doesn't do that here and the film suffers for it.
Henry Stephenson is good as the Prime Minister. He is the definition of the old politician staying in office by saying little. As his wife, Helen Westley is comical.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This 1938 film, set in an area soon to come under the sway of the Nazi
blitzkrieg, perpetuates a dangerous myth which threatens the survival
of humanity even today: that the working class can get along with (and
even marry into!) the castle owning ilk. Maybe in some alternate
universe Adolf Hitler could have settled down with a nice Jewish girl
and raised 8 kids; maybe there Donald Trump would hire more people than
he fired; maybe there Michigan would have double the number of auto
builders today compared to 35 years ago (in reality, there are 90%
fewer people on the line now); maybe there the wealthy officers would
perform the trench warfare as peasants looked on from distant bunkers
with binoculars; maybe there guys in neck ties would not be sitting at
desks scheming so hard to "privatize" the streets we travel, the water
we drink, and the air we breathe; maybe there the top 1% who owned
one-third of everything would not be so envied by the next 9% who had
to split another third of everything among themselves that these bitter
greed-heads would not feel so compelled to take away more of the final
third from the 90% of us who make up the working class, but WE have to
live in the universe of here and now.
Go ahead, watch THE BARONESS AND THE BUTLER as pure entertainment, rather than as the actual subversive opiate for the masses that Hollywood has churned out for more than a century. (If movies were "green lit" by real Americans from the working folk, flicks such as THE BARONESS AND THE BUTLER or PRETTY WOMAN would never be made!) Why won't Hollywood tell the truth about the likelihood of a working class lamb lying down peacefully with a top 1% lion? Well, to quote Jack Nicholson, it's because YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH.
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