17 February 2011 | Bunuel1976
BY CANDLELIGHT (James Whale, 1933) ***
This is a well-regarded minor Whale effort which, like REMEMBER LAST NIGHT? (1935) finds him in fine form tackling sophisticated comedy – though it eschews the zaniness which would mark that film; indeed, this is very much in the Lubitsch style and class!
That said, it was criticized for Paul Lukas' central miscasting but I felt he acquitted himself reasonably well under the circumstances. He plays butler to Nils Asther's suave Prince: asked to precede him on a journey, he is mistaken for the real thing when running into charming Elissa Landi (also traveling incognito above her station!) on a train. The two start a hesitant romance, since each is wary of being exposed; the situation is further complicated when the womanizing Asther catches Lukas at his game in his own house. He is willing to play along and assumes the butler's responsibilities, only he has his eyes on Landi too, who in turn is naturally insulted by his impudence! Incidentally, the title is a reference to Asther's recurring trick for seducing the ladies – pretending that the electricity has gone out and having Lukas set up a romantic candle-lit mood (the Prince, then, is happy to oblige his butler during the latter's own affair)!
The mistaken identity ruse (obviously smoothed by the end) has been a staple in the romantic comedy genre, but Whale handles it with tremendous flair and dexterity. Getting back to Lubitsch and his renowned 'touch', we get an ingenious example of it here: Asther is entertaining the opera singer wife of an aristocrat who, breaking into his house, believes he can hear her voice in the next room
but when he steps inside is met with a gramophone playing one of her arias!; still not satisfied, he asks the Prince if he can call her at their home and Asther offers to do it himself – proceeding to connect the phone to a secondary line elsewhere in the house! By the way, what I said about the re-use of sets (and, for that matter, succinctness – since this runs for just 68 minutes) from one film to the other in my review of Whale's THE KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR (1933) applies here as well: both Asther's house and that of Landi's masters were already seen in that very picture (with the all-important mirror, also featured in the director's FRANKENSTEIN , intact)!
Again, though, the print I acquired is far from optimal – being exceedingly soft and once more (briefly) boasting fluctuating audio. With this in mind, a DVD set through Criterion's sister label Eclipse – compiling Whale's most notable non-horror work (given that the company is on good terms with Universal anyway) – would be a veritable treat, especially for somebody not yet familiar with gems such as this one...