Although undeservedly forgotten & overlooked for decades, this is a splendid example of the kind of quality MGM was able to lavish even on films destined for obscurity. The production values are perfect, with lush costumes & sets and crowd scenes that look absolutely natural. This all did not happen by accident. MGM had a tremendously talented & dedicated workforce which excelled in producing remarkable historical reproductions for the screen. The dramatic assassination sequence with which the film opens is particularly well conceived.
Kay Francis & Swedish-born Nils Asther play the innocent lovers, tenderly exploring their attraction while remaining true to moral standards. Walter Huston, oddly billed below the title, dominates his every scene as an emotional husband who trusts his wife & best friend until he feels betrayed. They make an unusual & compelling romantic triangle, although the final 10 minutes of the film puts them through quite a histrionic wringer.
Phillips Holmes has a small, vivid performance as a drunken, lovesick Hungarian officer. (As a member of the Canadian Air Force, this fine, forgotten actor would be the first Hollywood celebrity to die in World War Two, in 1942 at age 35.) C. Henry Gordon plays a nasty Serbian villain who stirs things up a bit at the climax.
The comic relief is handled most deftly by Eugene Pallette as an obese Hungarian soldier and the wonderful Louise Closser Hale as Huston's elderly sister. Their scenes together fan the spark they ignited at Paramount in SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932). Tragically, Mrs. Hale would die later in 1933 of heat prostration. She was only 60 years old.
Movie mavens will recognize Clarence Wilson as a sour-faced Hungarian officer; Mischa Auer as the Assassin; and Akim Tamiroff as an exuberant gypsy violinist - all in uncredited roles.
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Now for a little historical background. Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863-1914) became the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne following the suicide of his cousin Rudolf in 1889 & the death of his father, the Archduke Charles Louis, in 1896. He upset his uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph, and the rest of the royal family, by falling in love with one of the Czech ladies-in-waiting, Sophie, Countess von Chotek & Duchess von Hohenberg. Their morganatic marriage in 1900 meant any children from their union would never ascend the throne. The Archduke became very interested in political & military matters, often pestering the old Emperor with his ideas. One of his more radical notions was the reorganization of the Empire and the creation of a new Kingdom of Croatia. It was this which earned him the enmity of the Serb nationalists living in the Empire, although privately the Archduke was sympathetic to Serbian sensitivities. It was his official role as Inspector General of the Imperial Army that brought 50-year-old Franz Ferdinand & Sophie to Sarajevo, in Bosnia, on June 28, 1914.
Gavrilo Princip (1894-1918) was only 19 years of age on that fateful Summer day. Raised in a fiercely patriotic Serbian home, he had been trained as an assassin & terrorist by the dreaded Serbian secret society, the Black Hand. In order to gain his objectives, he believed his act of defiance should be notable; the murder of a Habsburg would be just the thing. During the Archduke's procession through Sarajevo, one of Princip's coconspirators threw a bomb which bounced off the royal car and exploded under another automobile, wounding an officer. A short time later, the Archduke and his consort headed to the hospital with intentions of visiting the man. It was during this trip, while riding in their open sedan, that young Princip ran up to the car and shot both Franz Ferdinand & Sophie, killing them instantly. (Princip always maintained that he hadn't been aiming for the Duchess, but rather for the nearby General Oskar Potiorek, the Military Governor of Bosnia.) The murders were used by Austria-Hungary as the pretext for declaring war on Serbia, and so the hideously destructive World War One began.
Gavrilo Princip was captured immediately, but could not be executed because of his youth. Instead, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Sickly, he developed a tubercular bone in one of his arms, necessitating its amputation. Complications arose from this, including full-fledged tuberculosis, and he died in 1918.
Seeing the Black Hand as a major rival to his power, Serbian Prince Alexander broke the secret society in 1917 with a series of executions & imprisonments.