Sunday, August 3, 2014

Royal Bed, The (RKO, 1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I showed Charles The Royal Bed, an RKO movie filmed in 1930 and released in January 1931 recently shown on Turner Classic Movies as part of a “Star of the Month” tribute to Mary Astor. I hadn’t anticipated much from this movie — it was an RKO production from the studio’s first three years, when William LeBaron was production chief, and most of the RKO films in those early days were overstuffed soap operas. But the film turned out to be unexpectedly stylish, partly because it had a distinguished literary source — a play by Robert E. Sherwood called The Queen’s Husband (apparently it was remade under its original title in 1946 as an early-TV production by the BBC), which was premiered in 1926 and (like The Road to Rome, premiered a year later but not filmed until MGM used it as the loose basis for an Esther Williams musical called Jupiter’s Darling in 1955) showing Sherwood the political satirist, an odd twist for him as a writer. Sherwood’s play was adapted for film by future RKO director J. Walter Ruben into a vehicle for Lowell Sherman, whom I’d been aware of as both actor and director, but I’d never before seen him do both in the same movie. As an actor he was best known as the seducer in D. W. Griffith’s melodrama Way Down East — S. J. Perelman joked that in that role “they had to spray him with fungicide between takes to keep the mushrooms from forming on him” — and as the alcoholic director who discovers Constance Bennett and makes her into a star in the 1932 RKO film What Price Hollywood?, essentially the first version of A Star Is Born. As a director his best-known credits were from 1933, She Done Him Wrong and Morning Glory — but both of those films were vehicles for strong-willed female stars, Mae West and Katharine Hepburn respectively, and it’s still always struck me as unjust that Hepburn should have won her first Academy Award for Morning Glory and not for the two films she made on either side of it, Dorothy Arzner’s Christopher Strong and George Cukor’s Little Women, whose stronger directors got far better, subtler and more nuanced performances out of her. I was rather expecting The Royal Bed, given the title, to be a Lubitsch-esque farce about royals, nobles and commoners popping in and out of each other’s beds — in fact no bed, royal or otherwise, appears in the film, and all the romantic/marital/sexual relationships depicted are purely proper ones that would have passed muster even under the stricter Production Code enforcement that came in in 1934.

Lowell Sherman both directs and stars as King Eric VIII — exactly what country he’s king of is carefully unspecified, though it’s clear it is in continental Europe — who’s supposedly an absolute monarch (though there is a Parliament and there are elections) but is really a well-meaning but ineffectual oaf. The real powers behind the throne are Eric’s queen, Martha (a marvelous Margaret Dumont-esque performance by Nance O’Neil) and the prime minister, General Northrup (Robert Warwick), who’s using the threat of a republican revolution to conduct a reign of terror, executing political prisoners, shelling the people and ultimately assuming absolute dictatorial powers. (One reviewer suggests that the film might have been inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution, but Mussolini’s March on Rome that initiated Italian fascism in 1922 seems a closer parallel to me.) The revolution is led by Dr. Fellman (Frederick Burk) and his assistant Laker (J. Carrol Naish — though the first initial is left off his credit — who’s made up to look more than a bit like Trotsky). The other main intrigue concerns the king’s daughter, Princess Anne (Mary Astor, dressed in a masculine-looking suit and tie 47 years before Diane Keaton created a fashion trend by wearing a man’s necktie in Annie Hall), who is about to be subjected to an arranged marriage (arranged by the Queen and Northrup, natch) to Prince William of Grec (Hugh Trevor) — the name of his country is pronounced “Grecque,” like the French name for Greece — even though the man she’s really in love with is the king’s secretary, Freddie Granton (Anthony Bushell). But the status-conscious Queen doesn’t think it’s appropriate for Granton to marry her daughter because his dad is a plumber (“a wholesale plumber,” he keeps stressing in the dialogue, and one who’s done well enough he’s actually a major contributor to Northrup’s election campaigns). King Eric passes his time playing checkers with his assistant Phipps (Gilbert Emery) while his wife goes to America to get a loan for their country. When she returns the revolution is in full swing, and Eric offers to sneak his daughter and Freddie out of the country so they can be married and she won’t have to wed the stuck-up Prince William (established as a rotter with a “thing” for chorus girls) — but with the palace literally under attack she refuses to leave. Realizing that Northrup is the real danger, the King refuses to sign the execution orders, performs the wedding ceremony between his daughter and Freddie himself, sends them out of the country on a tramp steamer to South America, fires Northrup and settles the revolution by appointing Fellman his new prime minister.

 The Royal Bed is an appealing farce with satirical elements, and it’s a measure of Sherwood’s (and Ruben’s) creativity that even hardened movie-watchers aren’t sure how it’s going to turn out. It’s also well acted — as I’ve noted in these pages before, films directed by actors tend to have quiet, understated performances even if the actor-directors were unmitigated hams as actors (like Erich von Stroheim and Orson Welles) — with Sherman getting a quite fine comic performance out of himself and a gutsy one out of Mary Astor, even if she does come in speaking so breathlessly we can’t help but think she’s about to tell us she’s been a bad woman, worse than we could know. The Royal Bed is a genuine surprise, a little gem hidden in the dreck of most of RKO’s early output, and one gets the impression it influenced the creators of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup — also a satire about a mittel-Europan country featuring revolutionaries and pointless wars: among the gags from The Royal Bed that turn up in Duck Soup are the revelation that General Northrup has his troops firing on each other instead of the enemy, the bomb from the opposing side that pokes a hole in the palace wall even though it otherwise does little damage, and even a lingering shot of the Queen staring in a mirror (though it’s a real mirror with a real reflection, not an empty frame with someone on the other end impersonating her). It’s the sort of nice movie from the days of the studio system that makes exploring Hollywood’s lesser-known output worthwhile and makes one grateful for the existence of TCM.