Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars in director Amma Asante's period drama, which is based on the true story of Georgian Britain's first mixed-race aristocrat, Dido Belle.
On Film4: 23 Jan 9:00PM
Otto Preminger and Ernst Lubitsch's adaptation of Melchior Lengyel's play about Catherine The Great, with Tallulah Bankhead as the Russian empress and Vincent Price as the French ambassador
After his critical and commercial success with Laura in 1944, Otto Preminger joined the top rank of major Hollywood directors and made several high-class noir thrillers throughout the rest of the decade. Before that, he shot this entertaining but rather slight trifle. Produced immediately after Laura, it was originally developed as a project for the experienced comic director Ernst Lubitsch, who took a production credit instead due to ill health. Preminger's somewhat Teutonic style of direction stifles much of the light-hearted humour that Lubitsch might have brought to the film, but his skill with actors ensures some memorable performances.
Set in a typically Hollywood version of the Russian dynasty, the story revolves around Catherine The Great (who, the arch titles note, "was not yet the Mother of Russia... but she was especially great!"), as played by Tallulah Bankhead, and her involvement with plotters attempting to annexe her throne, diplomatic intrigues with France and a burgeoning love affair with the handsome Alexei Chernoff (Eythe), which leads to the titular 'Royal Scandal', the details of which are left somewhat hazy due to censorship dictates.
The thin plot is overstretched even at a modest 90 minutes, with few characters other than Catherine, her wily Chancellor (an excellent Charles Coburn) and Chernoff having much development. It's never boring, exactly, but Edwin Justus Mayer and Bruno Frank's script is frequently leaden where it should be fleet of foot, and it's desperately in need of some really good lines to pep scenes up. (It's unclear as to what hand Lubitsch had in the writing.)
Much of the dialogue comes from the kind of Hollywood fantasy world in which characters can get away with things like, "Oh, that Louis! He's really ruining France", although there are better moments too, mainly courtesy of a hilariously camp Vincent Prince as the French Ambassador, unfazed by any amount of romantic shenanigans. At one point, observing Chernoff's unlikely entrance from a hidden bookcase, he shrugs and in his best faux-Gallic Franglais announces, "In Paris, only husbands and servants use regular doors."
Tallulah Bankhead is more subdued as Catherine than might be expected, despite an accent that seems to be channelling Russia by way of Brooklyn, and the romance between her and Eythe is decidedly flat, with the chemistry between the two of them failing to convince on any level.
Coburn is a lot more fun as the corrupt Chancellor, whose lack of personal integrity conceals a kind heart and sound acumen. While this is of course a fantastical view of the Russian court - Catherine was as fond of executing her ministers as she was bedding any halfway eligible man in sight - it works well enough on the generic level of a historical romance.
Evidently Preminger was given a generous budget, as the sets and costumes are consistently impressive, and Alfred Newman's grandiose score gives the whole affair a class that it doesn't really deserve. Arthur Miller's cinematography ensures that it at least looks like an epic, even if it hardly attempts to convey any sense of Russia, and the make-up department was presumably stretched to its limits in providing countless dodgy-looking beards and heavy eyebrows.
Not a bad way to spend an hour and a half, but a strange anti-climax for Preminger after the brilliance of Laura, and a sad mark of Lubitsch's declining powers.
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