Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Command Performance (James Cruze Productions/Tiffany Pictures, 1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched a rather interesting movie from 1931, billed on imdb.com as being made by “James Cruze Productions” (though, alas, Cruze, one of the most underrated directors of the silent era, didn’t direct this one — the young Walter Lang did) and released through Tiffany Pictures. The original title was Command Performance, and it was based on a short-lived (only 29 performances) Broadway play by Stafford Dickens (no relation, I presume) that shamelessly ripped off The Prisoner of Zenda (which when this movie was made had already been filmed twice as silents — including a 1922 version directed by Rex Ingram and starring Ramon Novarro — but which wouldn’t be made as a talkie until the superb David O. Selznick production from 1937, starring Ronald Colman). The play used the names of real Eastern European countries or provinces — the prince at the center of the action, Alexis (played in the movie by Neil Hamilton), is from Moldavia and his father, the Moldavian prince consort, wants him to marry Katerina (a surprisingly non-comic Una Merkel), princess of Wallachia, to cement an alliance against a well-armed foreign power who will conquer Moldavia if it can’t find an ally. (The real Wallachia is one of the three provinces, along with Moldavia and Transylvania, that make up modern-day Romania; Wallachia was also where the 15th century king and warlord Vlad Tepes Drakulya ruled and reportedly beheaded and impaled over 100,000 victims to keep himself in power; he was the historical character on which Bram Stoker based his vampire Dracula — the name a corruption of the Romanian “Drakulya,” meaning “Little Dragon,” since Vlad’s father had called himself “Drakul,” or “Dragon” — only he misread the historical sources and located Dracula’s origins in Transylvania, and many writers who’ve adapted the Dracula story have compounded the error by locating Transylvania in Hungary!) For the movie, however, screenwriters Maude Fulton and Gordon Rigby changed the names of the countries from the real Moldavia and Wallachia to “Serbland” (at least that’s what Charles and I thought we heard on the soundtrack on a download — from a reissue print that changed the title of the movie to He’s a Prince! — and Charles looked up “Serbland” on his smartphone’s Web connection and found it’s the name of a region in Montenegro, which made both of us chuckle at the thought that a country as small as Montenegro could have “regions”) and “Cordovia,” respectively.

Anyway, the plot is about an actor in Serbland (or whatever it’s called) named Peter Fedor (Neil Hamilton), who’s arrested by Serblandian police in full Ruritanian palace guard gear while rehearsing his latest production. It turns out the cops want him because on his way to the rehearsal he saw a man accosting his co-star and girlfriend Lydia (Thelma Todd, who is fine but regrettably disappears after the opening scene), and hit him. Alas for Peter, the man he hit was Prince Alexis, who’s a notorious skirt-chaser but for some reason finds Katerina, the woman his parents want him to marry, too repulsive to go through with the deal. So Queen Elinor has the Prince imprisoned, and her husband and his justice minister threaten Peter with a likely lethal term of imprisonment at hard labor in the salt mines. Then they notice the striking resemblance between Peter and Prince Alexis, so they decide to make Peter an offer he really can’t refuse: if he doesn’t want to go to the salt mines, he can go to Cordovia, make Katerina fall in love with him, and ready her to marry the prince. (One imdb.com reviewer lampooned this movie and its prototype, The Prisoner of Zenda, for basing their central premises on the idea that two people growing up miles away from each other and with no discernible family ties should be such exact doubles of each other that they can be played by the same actor, but there’s a bit of passing dialogue in Command Performance that suggests Peter is actually the illegitimate son of Queen Elinor and therefore the prince’s half-brother. Zenda too explained the resemblance between the royal and his impersonator through an illegitimate birth, but even though it took place generations earlier than the main action, Selznick’s 1937 version got the Production Code censors riled up in an era of tighter enforcement than prevailed when Command Performance was made in 1931.) When he gets to Cordovia Peter is greeted with open arms by King Nicholas (Albert Gran), a man whose sole hobby is cracking and eating nuts (which suggested to me he’d be more at home ruling Klopstokia, the mythical setting of the 1932 Million Dollar Legs — yes, Command Performance is the sort of mediocre movie that keeps reminding you of great ones), and his queen, Elizabeth (Vera Lewis) — but Katerina herself has his doubts about him and really doesn’t want to marry a man just to cement a political alliance.

As if that weren’t enough jeopardy for Our Hero, he also has to worry about the prime minister, Duke Charles (Mischa Auer in one of the marvelous slimy-villain performances he turned in during the early 1930’s before he got “typed” as a comic actor), who’s killed every previous suitor for Katerina’s hand and is out to kill the prince because he’s an isolationist who doesn’t believe Cordovia needs any entangling alliances that might get the country involved in other people’s wars. Of course, he also wants to marry Katerina himself and become king, or at least prince consort, of Cordovia and the real power behind the throne — and I couldn’t help but quote the lines from Lubitsch’s The Love Parade in which the courtiers complain that no one really wants to be the prince consort because “he has nothing to do” — to which Eugene Pallette, in his unmistakable gravelly voice, said, “Well, he does have something to do” (i.e., fuck the queen to produce an heir to the throne). You see what I told you about Command Performance being a mediocre movie that keeps reminding you of great ones? Indeed, at one point there was a grand scene in which the entire court of Cordovia is assembled to give the (supposed) prince a formal greeting, and all I could think of was Duck Soup; I said, “Where was Groucho Marx when this film needed him?” The story progresses doggedly along the Prisoner of Zenda plot template until the ending, when the formal wedding of Prince Alexis and Princess Katerina is about to take place — even though Peter has already “outed” himself to Katerina and she’s hopelessly in love with the actor and is willing to marry the prince and even have sex with him, but has no feeling for him whatsoever. Then Alexis disappears from the action, leaving his parents a note which says that he realizes the princess doesn’t love him and he doesn’t really want to be a king anyway, so he’s renouncing all rights to the Serblandian throne and leaving the country. There’s only one thing to do: the queen and her consort persuade Peter to take Alexis’s place permanently, marry Katerina and rule the combined kingdoms of Serbland and Cordovia once their currently existing monarchs croak.

This happy ending is hardly as moving as the bittersweet one of The Prisoner of Zenda, but it works for a film that’s surprisingly good for a 1931 indie even though Lang was still directing like it was 1929, allowing his actors to deliver their lines in a stage-bound manner and having them pause between their cue lines and their own lines. (Those maddening pauses were among the reasons a lot of critics in 1929 thought silent films were more naturalistic than talkies.) Though the budgets of James Cruze Productions and Tiffany Pictures didn’t allow for any shots showing both Neil Hamilton characters in the same frame (compare to the dazzling on-screen meetings between the two Ronald Colmans in the 1937 Zenda), remember that this was first done as a play and having Alexis and Peter meet onstage would have been impossible there, too. Producer Cruze and director Lang artfully use stock footage (most likely newsreels of actual weddings from the Austro-Hungarian Empire or some of the countries that derived from it after it was on the losing side in World War I) to make their movie look more impressively budgeted than it was, and they were also quite good at finding standing sets — including the veranda shown in the opening sequences (one of those frame-breakers in which it looks like Peter and Lydia are really Ruritanian royals, and then the camera pulls back and reveals they’re only rehearsing a play), which I’ve recognized from several Paramount films, including the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business (there, I’m doing it again! I’m citing an acknowledged classic Command Performance reminds me of). Even at just 1 hour and 11 minutes, Command Performance drags a little, and of course it wins no points for originality (one almost wishes they’d gone whole-hog with the resemblance and spoofed The Prisoner of Zenda instead of ripping it off “seriously”), and of course Neil Hamilton can’t hold a candle to either Ramon Novarro or Ronald Colman, but Command Performance is still a charming movie in its own right and the performances of Merkel and (briefly) Todd are especially treasurable in roles quite different from the ones we’re used to seeing them in.