10 March 2011 | Bunuel1976
THE KING STEPS OUT (Josef von Sternberg, 1936) ***
A really unique opportunity to watch a Sternberg musical comedy: the style is very much in the Lubitsch mold (the two directors were basically rivals on the Paramount lot, though this was actually made at Columbia) – but the former shows little interest in the plot complications and innuendos which are more or less mandated by this type of sophisticated light fare! Leading man Franchot Tone was not the obvious choice for the genre either, yet he acquits himself quite well under the circumstances. Incidentally, this is one of 3 films I own – but actually the first I have watched – that were designed as vehicles for operetta star Grace Moore (her billing preceded here with the epithet "Miss"); while she handles the romantic comedy angle adequately enough, ironically, the numerous songs she is made to deliver prove utterly forgettable (and the sound bafflingly fades in and out during each one of them)!
Anyway, the plot involves a royal marriage within the same family(!), except that the girl concerned (who has never met her husband-to-be) is in love with someone else (who happens to be the adjutant of her intended, atypically played by Victor Jory)! The heroine is one of her sisters who decides to take action to thwart their domineering mother's plans – little did she know, however, that she would fall for the Emperor herself (before whom she appears as a commoner!) and that he repays the sentiment (interestingly, she is both berated by her sister for wanting to usurp the title and, before her identity is properly established, imprisoned for compromising the nuptials!). Other interested parties are Moore's father Walter Connolly (who similarly does not flaunt his rank and is also very fond of beer), typically befuddled Colonel Raymond Walburn, Major Thurston Hall (given to exaggerated facial expressions), Chief Of The Secret Police Johnny Arthur (his face was vaguely familiar until I realized he had been the hero of the Roland West/Lon Chaney 'old dark house' spoof THE MONSTER !) and, most hilariously, flustered hotelier Herman Bing (especially by way of his vocal inflection and the assorted guttural sounds he emanates).
In the end, even if the director's uneasiness with the material is palpable throughout (reportedly, he even asked for it not to be included in retrospectives of his work!), this is good-looking (one expects no less from a Sternberg picture, and the Ruritanian setting is certainly congenial to his pictorial sense) and surprisingly enjoyable. For the record, the copy I viewed was culled from an old TV broadcast complete with stops for publicity spots!