There’s not a more elegant film playing in Manhattan than James Whale’s BY CANDLELIGHT, at Film Forum on December 7. With this splendidly frothy Continental boudoir farce, Whale proves indubitably that he was a master of all movie genres, not just the FRANKENSTEIN-engendered horror for which he is best remembered. Whale did war movies (JOURNEY’S END, THE ROAD BACK), murder mysteries (A KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR), swashbucklers (THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK) and musicals (SHOW BOAT), everything but Westerns, which I am willing to bet would have been bang-up, maybe some kind of MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER before its time. Although BY CANDLELIGHT’s spirit and pacing is somewhat brisker, more British-clipped than Lubitsch’s, one could almost mistake this for the work of the German master of romantic farce.
Being an unabashed lover of romantic comedy, I had long wanted to see this film, if only for Whale, its swoony, evocative title, intriguing cast and release year, that all-triumphant pre-Code annum, 1932. Based on a play by Siegfried Geyer, which Gertrude Lawrence and Leslie Howard brought to Broadway in 1929, the premise is that chestnut of a maid and butler, Marie (Elissa Landi) and Josef (Paul Lukas), who fall in love while impersonating their aristocratic employers. In Josef’s case, Prince Alfred von Rommer (Nils Asther) is not only his boss but his absolute role model, being the most devastatingly suave of ladykillers. Josef commits to memory the Prince’s every gesture and epigram – “Women are like cigars – once they go out, they’re never as good,” “A woman’s smile is like a bath tap: turn it on and you’re in hot water” – and uses them to entrance Marie when he encounters her on a train en route from Vienna to Monte Carlo. The sexy ruse plays itself out in various luxurious hotel rooms and casinos, until the truth comes out, with comic results as well for Marie’s swanky employers, Count and Countess von Rischenheim (amusingly blustery Lawrence Grant and luscious, blonde Dorothy Revier).
To all of this, Whale brings his formidable, omniscient sophistication and gay man’s laser-like attention to telling details of glamour and sensuality. The film must have ben an absolute joy to film, with everyone on the same wittily embossed page, and this joy positively spills out all over the screen. The comic pacing is impeccable, even when it veers into lower laugh effects, like the fluty sounds which accompany the delightfully numerous drinking scenes which often fuel the action. Which brings up W. Franke Harling’s quite astonishing through-composed music score, with its apropos echoes of Strauss’ DER ROSENKAVALIER. Nearly every moment of the film is musically underlines, but the work of Harling (British, like Whale, and a co-composer of the song “Beyond the Blue Horizon”) is a far, superior cry from the often bludgeoning scores of Max Steiner, music that enhances the romantic delirium, and subtly comments on the action rather than numbing you with obviousness. In perfect timing with Harling, the cinematography of John Mescall, Whale’s favored, superb cameraman fluidly tracks these lovers through Charles D. Hall’s splendid white-walled sets, which show that when called for, Universal Studio could easily rival the more prestigious Paramount for high style Euro environmental elan.
Lukas has an immensely likable underdog appeal as this servile but horny wannabe; Josef’s sensual opportunism and funny, avid obsequiousness in his scenes with the Prince, is a far cry from the noble, too-good-to-be-true characters he so often played, like his Oscar-winning WATCH ON THE RHINE. The knowing, very Hungarian humor he brings reminded me of his real-life comment about the Gabor sisters, whom he dubbed “the whores of Budapest.” In the Prince, he has an eminently worthy idol, as plummy-voiced Nils Asther, the most glamorous actor in movie history, plays him with unparalleled grace and savoire-faire. He has a dressing up to go out scene here which is an absolute manual for sartorial elegance and plies his patricianly seductive trade with an irresistible joie-de-vivre.
Elissa Landi, mostly known today for her thrown-to-the-lions Christian virgin Mercia in DeMille’s 1932 THE SIGN OF THE CROSS, has her best screen role. Born in Italy, raised in Vienna, with bloodlines rumored to be traceable to Empress Elisabeth of Austria, she had, of course, the perfect background for this, and, additionally, brings her angelic looks, cello voice and ravishing womanliness. She makes Marie an entrancing creature of impulse, whether stealing her mistress’ best gown (and it’s a beauty, designed by talented Vera West, who comitted suicide in 1947, a final note claiming she was the victim of some mysterious blackmailer) to go on a surreptitious rendezvous with Josef, or jumping like a kid at the sight of a country fair. Neither she nor Lukas were ever particularly noted for their sensuality, but, under Whale’s warmly attentive direction, given a good script (by no less than four screenwriters), and such infectiously seductive, brilliantly studio-created ambiance, the two of them strike some memorably sexy sparks.
Other Whale rarities in the Film Forum retrospective include IMPATIENT MAIDEN (1932), which features Mae Clarke, so poignant in his WATERLOO BRIDGE, wonderfully smart and unsentimental as a working girl secretary, cynical about the idea of marriage, who momentarily foresakes her struggling doctor boyfriend (Lew Ayres, attractive and youthfully upright) for the posh attentions of her oh-so wordly boss, John Halliday. The film proves that Whale, as British as he was, but such an inescapable humanist, could be just as attuned to the comic, claustrophobic rhythm and sassy slang of Manhattan life, especially in scenes revolving around Clarke’s humble, privacy-strapped apartment building, where her neighbors function as eternal Greek chorus for the comings and goings of any single white female. As the secondary romantic couple, Una Merkel and a very young but nonetheless rasp-voiced Andy Devine entertainingly provide savvy comic relief.
SINNERS IN PARADISE (1938) feels like a bread-and-butter contractual assignment, a GRAND HOTEL compendium of variegated souls stranded from a plane crash on a tropic isle, with certain, telling Whale touches of cynicism and sensuality.
THE ROAD BACK (1937) is a seminal film for its disastrous effect, as a critical and commercial failure, on his subsequent career, which never regained the eminence it had previously enjoyed. The film was recut and reshot from Whale’s original conception and it is, indeed, a rocky affair, veering from stark anti-war drama to disconcerting buffa comedy and a wavering moral thrust, resulting in an obviously diluted, would-be powerful vision. After such a low point, it probably was more than easy for Hollywood to turn its back on this talented but resolutely independent soul who refused to kowtow to the prevailing, conventional status quo, living his life openly and courageously as a completely out homosexual. This film, which plays like a civilian sequel to ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, although undeniably disjointed, like all Whale films has its fascinations, particularly its casting of young male beauties like Maurice Murphy, a cherubic George Cukor favorite, and Richard Cromwell, a popular 1930s juvenile who would later marry a young Angela Lansbury who would later confess that she was practically the only one in Hollywood who didn’t know he was gay. Apart from acting, Cromwell was into decorative arts, designing architectural tiles and masks like those of George Benda or Oliver Messel. He was rumored to have been involved with Howard Hughes and the late costume designer Earl Luick told me that he and Gary Cooper had definitely had an affair on location while filming LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER (1935).
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