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I saw this movie over 30 years ago on late night television. I was
expecting a dry costume drama, but ended up laughing my head off at one
of the classiest comedies I have ever seen. And unfortunately that was
it. I have never seen it again, on TV or on video. In fact I don't
think it has ever been released on video. Talullah's film appearances
were few, and this showed her at her forte, comedy.
Granted, she was also one of the great dramatic actresses of her day (her performance in The Little Foxes on Broadway is considered to be one of the finest of the 20th century), but more marketable actresses always won out over her in Hollywood (she never forgave Bette Davis for stealing the Foxes role from her).
When can a larger audience expect to see this comic gem? (and when can I find out if my childhood memories can stand up to my adult tastes?)
...but, oh, so much more. This film is, as other posts have already indicated, a buried treasure. Produced and prepared by Lubitsch, its source is the same as that of the Lubitsch-directed silent "Forbidden Paradise" (1924, starring Pola Negri, Adolphe Menjou and Rod La Rocque), considered by critic Paul Rotha to be Lubitsch's most brilliant film. "A Royal Scandal," surprisingly, has taken a critical drubbing over the years, and director Preminger professed not to like it. (It should be remembered, though, that Preminger, when interviewed, was often vague about his films.) Seems that Otto, though a great admirer of Lubitsch (and who was not?) did not feel comfortable with "the Lubitsch touch," which, he says, too often sacrificed character for easy laughs -- and, in this case, required an empress to act unlike an empress. Perhaps -- but on the other hand, on the evidence of this film, Preminger's mastery of the Lubitsch touch was thorough. The film is brilliantly paced (rapid fire and crackling dialogue throughout), superbly acted, magnificently designed and photographed, and scored very creatively by Alfred Newman. One sees the seeds for Tallulah's famous (though by now, sadly, near forgotten) offstage character in her shameless cruising of the young soldier (William Eythe) who wants no greater glory than to be close to the throne. And at this point, she is young enough to pull it off gracefully, veering just to the edge of camp without crossing the line. Eythe is a more-than-promising comedian: his two brief blinks as the empress Catherine tells him that she can see in his eyes that he is "good and true" are alone worth the price of admission. (Scenes between the two of them comprise a good half of the film.) Charles Coburn is very wisely used -- a consummate reactor, he is often seen in the background tellingly reacting to two characters' interaction in the foreground. Which is not to say that he doesn't have his own very bright moments. (Catherine's chancellor, he is the character who makes all the wheels turn.) Anne Baxter brings fire and music to her role as Eythe's fiancée, and Vincent Price brings a great deal of wit to what is little more than a cameo as the French ambassador. Mischa Auer, too, is particularly good in this film (as he is not always). For once he is not required to pull out his heavy accent and -- surprise! -- he speaks perfectly excellent English! A thoroughly entertaining film, and perhaps if its director hadn't expressed his reservations it would have a better reputation today. In my opinion, it's really stronger and more of a "Lubitsch picture" than most any of the (in my heretical opinion) somewhat overrated Ernst's later efforts, "Heaven Can Wait" and "Cluny Brown", lovely as they are, notwithstanding: this one's a gem. Just released (March 2006) on a Columbia DVD in France. Not the most perfect print, but probably better than any seen in a theater for many, many years. (The French subtitles, on the other hand, can't be turned off, which is fairly inexcusable.) By the way, I watched this movie twice within a span of 24 hours and it was even better the second time. (Since this was written, there has been released in the U.K. a double bill DVD of this with "Margin for Error," Preminger's first film, which makes it something of a bargain, though "Margin" is hardly essential.)
The history of this film has been documented well,and its failure, at the time, has taken its toll on its reputation. Perhaps, it was made at the wrong time; perhaps Tallulah Bankhead was not the 'darling' of the film critics as she had been by theater critics; perhaps it was an easy target because Lubitsch had been ill and Peminger substituted - a simple target to call a film 'not of a piece'. I do have a copy of it, though, and, today, it stands as a comedy of wit, charm, and delicious mischief. Bankhead is 'mahvelous' playing it to the hilt and offering superb takes on all of her lines. Her reaction shots are among the funniest yet capture on film. No, it is not Catherine -- it is Tallulah--but this is a satirical romp and not meant to be faithful to Russian history. William Eythe, forever underrated, is perfection.A stellar comedic force (he was equally fine in more serious roles e.g. TheHouse on 92nd Street). Coburn is in the right frame of mind and action; Anne Baxter does not quite capture the spirit of the madness, but she is not bad. It is probably insane to think that 'A Royal Scandal' finally can get the credit it deserved. But it is a tasty and wonderful cinematic morsel to enjoy again and again.
"A Royal Scandal" from 1945 smacks of its original director, Ernst
Lubitsch, and not much of the director who took over for him when he
became ill, Otto Preminger. Since Lubitsch had rehearsed the actors and
prepared the script, I assume they retained much of what Lubitsch had
in mind for this film. At any rate, it's a wonderfully funny film.
Tallulah Bankhead plays Catherine the Great, who was notorious for taking lovers and elevating them to great heights while they were in favor. They did all right when they fell out of favor, too, because apparently she pensioned them off and they lived quite handsomely. In this film, she takes a fancy to the Countess Anna's (Anne Baxter) fiancée, Alexei Chernoff (William Eythe), so much so that she puts off a Marquis from France (Vincent Price). The Countess Anna is devastated, and Alexei is thrilled as he becomes in charge of the palace guards. Meanwhile, Chancellor Nikolai (Charles Coburn) has to tolerate him.
Some of this film is laugh out loud funny, particularly the scene where Catherine, fearing she has lost Alexei, collapses on the floor and Alexei tries to pick her up. Hilarious. Tallulah's line delivery is great, and she and Coburn have wonderful chemistry as they spar. Anne Baxter was only 22 when she made this film, and she's lovely. The handsome Eythe was a type that 20th Century Fox loved, but for a variety of reasons, he never hit stardom. Darryl Zanuck, who was so furious with Tyrone Power for marrying Annabella that he quashed her career and gave Power a bad film, Daytime Wife, as punishment, pushed Eythe into a marriage to quell rumors about him, but it didn't help, and Zanuck lost interest in him. (I mention Power because supposedly he refused to do this movie - it seems unlikely, because he wasn't back from the war when this film was made; also, Zanuck would never have put him in a film where he wasn't the main star.) Eythe was a charming actor, but to my mind, anyway, not really star material.
Bankhead's costumes and jewelry are to die for. Very good movie, and, as others have pointed out, a real buried treasure.
After seeing a couple of serious dramas concerning the ascension to the
throne of Russia of Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst who has come down
in history as Catherine the Great, it was an interesting change to
watch A Royal Scandal and see what Tallulah Bankhead did with the
Mother of all the Russias.
The two films that I refer to are the ones done in the Thirties that starred Elizabeth Bergner and Marlene Dietrich. Both of those dealt with young Catherine and how in a palace coup she dethroned her husband and as the consort Empress was recognized as the actual ruler. What happens in those two films play very much into what happens in A Royal Scandal.
What a coup accomplishes, another coup can reverse. Catherine is not all that secure on her throne. She's in the midst of a power struggle between her military leaders personified by Sig Ruman and her Chancellor who wants a peace policy capped off with an alliance with France. Chancellor Charles Coburn has even got an ambassador from Louis XV in the person of Vincent Price to seal the deal.
In all this blunders William Eythe an earnest but not terribly bright young guardsman, the kind Catherine the Great was known to fancy. She fancies him a lot, but as she says one must be wary not to put too much trust in handsome men in uniforms.
So we've got a nice little Russian court comedy going with Ruman and Coburn both trying to use Eythe for their own purposes and Bankhead who when Eythe says his sword is at her disposal, she wants to make sure she gets the most use out of it. While all this is going on, Eythe is engaged to Anne Baxter one of Tallulah's ladies in waiting. And she doesn't want a castoff when Bankhead's through with the merchandise.
Coburn comes off really well as the foxy old chancellor who's survived many a palace intrigue by using his wits. Ruman's not bad either and I do love Grady Sutton's brief role as Ruman's idiot son who just wants to go back to the Urals. Sutton's southern accent actually works here as he makes the Urals sound like the Ozarks. Definitely a touch of Ernest Lubitsch.
A Royal Scandal together with Lifeboat, both released in 1945 marked the height of Tallulah Bankhead's all too brief film career. Too few film parts for this stage legend, only the Lunts are worse in that regard. For that reason this bright and witty comedy should be seen and treasured.
NO film with Charles Coburn can really miss, and A ROYAL SCANDAL has so
much more going for it on top of Coburn and top billed Tallulah, you
want it to be as delicious a Lubitsch confection as it promises to be.
It is for at least the first ten minutes while the pacing remains
frantically break-neck (and some necks are nearly broken). Even when it
inevitably slows down, it remains lightly enjoyable for most of its 94
minutes, but Otto Preminger was decidedly the wrong director to
shepherd the Lubitsch project to fruition, and too much of the blithe
banter, even in the hands of such reliable clowns as Sig Ruman just
misses the mark as Tallulah alternately rages at and romps with
alternating 'favorites' while senior minister Coburn protects her and
her country (and keeps French Ambassador Vincent Price frustratingly
off screen waiting his turn with the Empress).
Coburn's scenes all sparkle with his amused knowing looks and quite conspiring, and "Guard of the East Gate" Misha Auer makes his few scenes comic gems, but neither handsome William Eythe (a Tyrone Power hopeful who never quite caught on - bad roles hurting more than rumors about his private life) nor the raging Tallulah (taking a slight wrong turn into costume farce after a dazzling contemporary outing for Hitchcock in LIFEBOAT) are given enough substance or variety in their frustrated - intended to be comic - dance of seduction to deliver either the hilarity or the sexual tension intended. With the exception of PORGY AND BESS, did a Preminger film *ever* understand the comic aspect of sex? His closest approach to subversive comedy may be in inexplicably showing COBURN more fond of Anne Baxter (William Eythe's on screen fiancé) than Eythe appears to be - but it would be easy to miss her entirely in an underwritten role but for Coburn's concern.
Other than the polished LIFEBOAT, the great Tallulah's dozen or so movies (Bette Davis kept getting to make Bankhead's greatest stage roles in film - from DARK VICTORY to the LITTLE FOXES) show up so seldom these days, and so few of them preserve the comic touch which Bankhead was known for on stage (her Broadway revival of Noel Coward's PRIVATE LIVES is still the longest running production of that great comedy and her Sabina in Thorton Wilder's THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH is justly renowned) that no one should miss a chance to see A ROYAL SCANDAL, but the great misfortune the film originally suffered of opening the day before President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died (can you think of a WORSE time for a farce/comedy to open?!) was not the only reason the film is not ranked among Lubitsch's masterpieces.
Still, a Lubitsch near miss is as good as many another film maker's milestone. 'Well worth a look - and if it adds to our enjoyment to think of Ann Baxter's later role in ALL ABOUT EVE as a love letter from Tallulah to Bette, well, it isn't such a bad idea either.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I just saw this gem of a movie as I was channel-surfing and came across
it tonight on Turner Classic Movies. I knew nothing about the film,
even less about the luminaries who made it except that one of the stars
was Tallulah Bankhead. An enigma wrapped in a legend, I had heard about
her since forever, but never had the opportunity to see her in her
prime. What a surprise! I can't remember the last time I laughed so
hard during a movie. I am SO tired of stupidity and over-the-top
absurdity masquerading as comedy! I don't understand what's so funny
about either. Give me wit, subtlety, irony, and understated comedic
acting any day.
Perhaps this movie came out at the wrong time. The published date of 1946 must have been a time when tensions were building between the US and the Soviet Union, so I wonder how open the American audience would have been to the antics of pre-revolution Russia. And it doesn't sound as if Bankhead and the Hollywood press were the best of friends. But from this vantage point, this is one TIMELESS classic that will be enjoyed for what it's worth long after the silliness of today's comedies are seen as witless goofballs.
What a shame Bankhead made so few movies, and William Eythe was taken from us so young! They both gave masterful performances and one totally underrated gem of a movie!
It took A ROYAL SCANDAL for me to realize that Tallulah Bankhead must
have been wonderful on Broadway in THE LITTLE FOXES. Here, under Otto
Preminger's direction, she gives a wonderfully restrained (for her)
performance as Russia's Catherine the Great, shamelessly flaunting her
loneliness in front of a man betrothed to another (ANNE BAXTER) but
deciding that he looks fabulous in a white uniform (WILLIAM EYTHE).
Bankhead and Eythe are reason enough to watch this one. For once, he had a role that showed he had talent that should have been nurtured into full fledged stardom, but never was. He bears a strong resemblance to Tyrone Power and handles his role with authority and ease.
Bankhead seems on the verge of doing her Diva act at any given moment, but restricts herself to a few "Shut up!" remarks or slyly commenting on the fact that she'd like to do a lot for the peasants. She never misses an opportunity to give any slightly risqué line a clearer meaning, just from the way she glances or moves. It's a wonderfully entertaining performance.
CHARLES COBURN, ANNE BAXTER, SIG RUMAN and others do their parts in fine form, but VINCENT PRICE is wasted in the role of the French ambassador who ends up becoming the new apple of Bankhead's eye. Baxter is particularly good at demonstrating that she could show flashes of temperament beneath the sweetness and charm.
Best of all, the dialog is full of innocently delivered one-liners that make it one of the most enjoyable farces I've seen in years. And WILLIAM EYTHE shows that he had a talent for farce that should have landed him more such roles.
Well worth watching for the performances alone.
Tallulah Bankhead as Catherine the Great playing Tallulah Bankhead. A deliciously paced farce with some very witty dialogue. Well directed, lit and edited by a team of pros, this is a nice change of pace from the Tallulah of "Life Boat" or "Die, Die My Darling."
Caught this on TV last evening. Wonderful, amusing and funny. Tells the "story" of Catherine the Great, or as Mae West said, "Catherine WAS Great." A clone of Tyrone Power plays one of her lovers, and too bad this actor, William Eythe, did not appear in more movies. Who can say why? In any case, Tallulah shines, looks great, there's that word again, and you can tell she is having fun with the part. I really recommend this movie. It is very seldom on TV, but do catch it. A side note, Eythe was gay, but so was Tyrone, a coincidence, isn't it, and then, Tallulah also fooled around with both sexes, fitting for Catherine the Great.
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