Judge Gordon Sullivan didn't see a single cadaver in this Vincent Price film.
A story of the Mother of all the Russias!
Ernst Lubitsch has the distinction of having an entire kind of filmmaking named after him. The so-called "Lubitsch touch" referred to Lubitsch ability to get the naughtiest material past censors with his sly wit and subtle sophistication. Otto Preminger by contrast is known for the passionate, some might say overwrought, style he brought to films like Anatomy of a Murder or Carmen Jones. These sultry, overheated films were the opposite of Lubitsch's subtle sophistication, wearing their obsessions on their sleeves. Viewers will notice Lubitsch's name prominently displayed above the title of A Royal Scandal, while Otto Preminger is listed as the film's director. Perhaps it is the clash of these two titanic directors that makes A Royal Scandal such a disappointing film.
In the court of a young Catherine the Great (Tallulah Bankhead, Lifeboat), there are plots aplenty, whether from her Chancellor (Charles Coburn, The Lady Eve) or her many generals. Into this vipers' nest comes the idealist (and handsome) young officer Chernoff (William Eythe, The Song of Bernadette) who, though engaged to one of Catherine's ladies in waiting (Anne Baxter, All About Eve), catches the eye of the Czarina. Things go badly when he might not be who he seems.
The life of Catherine the Great is of course perfect material for both Lubitsch and Preminger. Famous for her many lovers (and infamous for a great many more apparent proclivities), Catherine offers opportunities for many stories. For Lubitsch, her life provides the background for a sophisticated story of courtly intrigue, rife with subtle suggestions of sexual impropriety, while Preminger no doubt saw a woman whose appetites were as grand as any in his other scenarios.
The problem with A Royal Scandal is that it doesn't play to either man's strengths. The dialogue and scenario lack any of the sophisticated worldliness we've come to expect from Lubitsch; there are no dropped hints about affairs with horses, or even references to the numerous lovers that Catherine took. On the other side, we don't really see the passions of a woman who ruled a large country (and largely successfully we might add). Instead, we get a bunch of thinly drawn caricatures running around a semi-farcical court setting beset with intrigues. It's tiresome and tedious.
Tallulah Bankhead doesn't help anything with her portrayal of the Czarina. She's playing a low-rent Bette Davis (or perhaps Marlene Dietrich) version of the Russian monarch. It's a riff on the rapacious Queen Elizabeth stereotype but with a few attempts at a "Russian" accent. Charles Coburn is his usual teddy bear self, playing a parody of the scheming advisor role so common to this era's historical films. William Eythe doesn't even try to fake anything Slavic, instead playing Chernoff like a genuine American Boy Scout, all puffed up chest and wide-eyed naiveté. Though much of the blame for this film lies with the script, these performances do little justice to the thin material.
As a manufactured-on-demand disc, this DVD of A Royal Scandal is indifferent at best. Not subject to any kind of re-mastering, expect a fair amount of print damage in this 1.33:1 transfer. It's a totally watchable version of the film, but the image jumps a bit, black levels and contrast aren't always consistent, and grain gets a bit heavy in a few places. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track is surprisingly robust given the lack of re-mastering; dialogue is clean and clear with little hiss or distortion to distract. There are no extras on this disc.
There are two highlights to A Royal Scandal. The first is the always dependable Anne Baxter. Though she's playing a variation on the virginal innocent role she would often be stuck with, she's so good at being guileless that I found her heartwarming compared to the fake "ruthlessness" of Bankhead as the Czarina and the eager puppy posturing of Chernoff. Without a doubt, though, the highlight of the film is Vincent Price as the visiting French ambassador, the Marquis de Fleury. He's a totally ridiculous stereotype, all overwrought accent, powered wig, and obsession with "romance," but, man, he is fun to watch. It's especially amusing in light of the fright master that he would later become, but this campy performance almost makes it worth sitting through the whole film.
This is a film for completists only. Many of those involved—Preminger, Lubitsch, Bankhead, Coburn, Price—have large and devoted followings, and this made-on-demand disc fills a hole in their collections. Sadly, the film itself isn't really worth recommending; it's not as sophisticated as Lubitsch's best productions, nor is it as overwrought as the best of Preminger's.
Guilty of not being scandalous enough.
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