Friday, July 10, 2009

Blame the Director?

TCM, which has been getting access to more Fox films lately (a good thing for me, since I don't get the Fox movie channel), showed A Royal Scandal a couple of times recently, though both times I missed out on recording it. (But it's on YouTube as of this writing.) This comedy is a remake of one of Ernst Lubitsch's best silent films, Forbidden Paradise, a historical travesty about Catherine the Great.

Lubitsch chose to remake it as his second project after signing with Fox, and he hired Edwin Justus Mayer, writer of To Be Or Not To Be, to work on the script. Lubitsch and Mayer finalized the script, and Lubitsch chose the cast from Fox contract players (including stage superstar Tallulah Bankhead, who had finally made her movie breakthrough in Fox's Lifeboat the year before), and he rehearsed the cast, which explains why some of the cast members use the vocal inflections familiar from all Lubitsch talkies. (He liked to coach actors in line readings and gestures.) But his already-declining health left him unable to direct the film. Though his name remained on it as producer, most of the picture was directed by Otto Preminger.

Royal Scandal is not considered a classic, and it shouldn't be, but it's really, frustratingly close. The cast is mostly excellent, and the script is pretty consistently hilarious. Mayer was the perfect choice for the script because his Broadway play, The Affairs of Cellini, took a similar approach to historical figures. (That same year he, Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin turned the play into a flop musical, The Firebrand of Florence.) It's quite a "modern" comedy script in that almost everybody is a comic character. Normally, when Old Hollywood did a comedy with a historical setting, most of the characters act exactly as they would in a serious treatment of the same subject. (If Bob Hope makes a film like Monsieur Beaucaire, it's Bob Hope being silly while everybody else thinks it's a normal historical epic.) But Lubitsch and Mayer created the ancestor of a Life of Brian type of movie: the characters don't quite step out of character and wink at the audience, but they're all supposed to be funny, and every scene is a send-up of the historical movie genre.

But the movie doesn't quite work, or it doesn't quite hold the interest -- it's the sort of movie where you can find something amusing in almost every scene, but not a great urge to keep watching or the sense that each scene is building to something. My temptation is to blame Preminger, who probably wasn't a great choice for this picture and seems to have been hired mostly because he was Fox's other Germanic director. Preminger admired Lubitsch, but apparently felt that Lubitsch was too superficial and brittle -- a common complaint, and not always inaccurate, but it's absolutely deadly to approach a movie like this without absolute, whole-hearted commitment to the style. This kind of story is on the thin line between parody and sincerity, almost like Blazing Saddles (a genre parody but with a story and characters who sort of exist as people).

The finished film seems to be a little slow and careful, like Preminger was worried that we wouldn't accept the characters if he didn't play down the parody elements. The timing is sometimes off, with insufficient pauses to let the jokes sink in. As someone pointed out on Twitter, Tallulah actually underplays her character some of the time, which is a weird choice both for the actress and for the character. Lubitsch is often mistakenly seen as a sophisticated, suave director, but he was often at his best when he was at his most vulgar, and as To Be Or Not To Be proved, he was probably the most vulgar, tasteless, over-the-top comedy director in Hollywood. Royal Scandal has a script that calls for the same approach, and it mostly doesn't get it.

And yet I'm not sure that I'm right to blame Preminger; this is where you get into the question of what exactly a director does and does not do. Many of the key functions of a filmmaker had already been carried out by Lubitsch before production started. He commissioned, supervised and finalized the script, chose the cast, rehearsed the cast, supervised the building of the sets and the production schedule, etc. Coming in when he did, all Preminger did was get the scenes on film. I'm still tempted to believe that if Lubitsch had been on the set, he would have executed the script better, but I'm reluctant to say for sure that he would have. Trying to figure out what exactly a director does on the set is almost like trying to figure out what a conductor does in front of an orchestra. And because it's hard to figure out, it's easy to overstate, particularly with directors like Lubitsch or Hitchcock who believed in having the movie pretty well planned out before they started. It could be that Preminger screwed up the movie or it could be that there was a fundamental flaw in the plan Lubitsch had for it. Hard to know if you weren't there, and probably hard to know even if you were.

No comments: