8 July 2009 | eschetic-2
Great as long as the pacing holds up
NO film with Charles Coburn can really miss, and A ROYAL SCANDAL has so much more going for it on top of Coburn and top billed Tallulah, you want it to be as delicious a Lubitsch confection as it promises to be. It is for at least the first ten minutes while the pacing remains frantically break-neck (and some necks are nearly broken). Even when it inevitably slows down, it remains lightly enjoyable for most of its 94 minutes, but Otto Preminger was decidedly the wrong director to shepherd the Lubitsch project to fruition, and too much of the blithe banter, even in the hands of such reliable clowns as Sig Ruman just misses the mark as Tallulah alternately rages at and romps with alternating 'favorites' while senior minister Coburn protects her and her country (and keeps French Ambassador Vincent Price frustratingly off screen waiting his turn with the Empress).
Coburn's scenes all sparkle with his amused knowing looks and quite conspiring, and "Guard of the East Gate" Misha Auer makes his few scenes comic gems, but neither handsome William Eythe (a Tyrone Power hopeful who never quite caught on - bad roles hurting more than rumors about his private life) nor the raging Tallulah (taking a slight wrong turn into costume farce after a dazzling contemporary outing for Hitchcock in LIFEBOAT) are given enough substance or variety in their frustrated - intended to be comic - dance of seduction to deliver either the hilarity or the sexual tension intended. With the exception of PORGY AND BESS, did a Preminger film *ever* understand the comic aspect of sex? His closest approach to subversive comedy may be in inexplicably showing COBURN more fond of Anne Baxter (William Eythe's on screen fiancé) than Eythe appears to be - but it would be easy to miss her entirely in an underwritten role but for Coburn's concern.
Other than the polished LIFEBOAT, the great Tallulah's dozen or so movies (Bette Davis kept getting to make Bankhead's greatest stage roles in film - from DARK VICTORY to the LITTLE FOXES) show up so seldom these days, and so few of them preserve the comic touch which Bankhead was known for on stage (her Broadway revival of Noel Coward's PRIVATE LIVES is still the longest running production of that great comedy and her Sabina in Thorton Wilder's THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH is justly renowned) that no one should miss a chance to see A ROYAL SCANDAL, but the great misfortune the film originally suffered of opening the day before President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died (can you think of a WORSE time for a farce/comedy to open?!) was not the only reason the film is not ranked among Lubitsch's masterpieces.
Still, a Lubitsch near miss is as good as many another film maker's milestone. 'Well worth a look - and if it adds to our enjoyment to think of Ann Baxter's later role in ALL ABOUT EVE as a love letter from Tallulah to Bette, well, it isn't such a bad idea either.