The Princess Comes Across is an uneven mix of comedy and mystery. Too much mystery, too little comedy, noticeable lack of romance. The romance is an awkward afterthought in Walter DeLeon, Francis Martin, Don Hartman, and Frank Butler’s script (four screenwriters is probably too much even in 1936; definitely for this kind of picture), which is weird since it’s the initial setup.
The film takes place on a passenger liner going from England to the United States. Starts with the passengers boarding, ends with them getting off. The script’s very hands off with the trip. When band leader Fred MacMurray says he and the band aren’t just rehearsing (in his room, which ought to be a comic bit but isn’t because the film’s never inventive, in script or direction), but getting ready to play for the ship, you wonder why it was never mentioned before. It’s not even clear the rest of the band’s onboard until that moment. Not for sure; you could assume it, but you could also not, it wouldn’t matter for how the film played. Princess is creatively sparse; its logic is fine (even, possibly, with the romance stuff), but the film never seems to be enjoying itself.
Maybe because MacMurray and top-billed Carole Lombard never get to be funny together. They get their not really cute cute meeting. MacMurray and sidekick William Frawley, who was already bald in 1936, booked the royal suite and are getting booted because Swedish princess Lombard is on board. MacMurray’s initially a jerk about it, then gets a look at Lombard and immediately changes his tune. So while Lombard and attendant Alison Skipworth (who gives the film’s most entertaining performance by far) try to get situated, MacMurray keeps annoying them. And it’s not cute. Especially since MacMurray plays more off Skipworth than Lombard; there’s a reason for it, as the punchline reveals, but… it could’ve been done better. Director Howard doesn’t seem to know how to showcase Lombard even when she’s not running a scene. Ted Tetzlaff’s photography doesn’t help. Tetzlaff’s lighting a thriller and even when Princess is full-on mystery, it’s never a thriller. It’s not just too much mystery in a comedy, it’s also way too light of mystery in a comedy.
The film sets up the mystery not to kick off a suspense thriller, but some kind of screwball gag. There are five police detectives onboard, all from different countries, headed to a conference. The captain (a somewhat underused George Barbier) complains about them in exposition, which seems like it’s going to lead somewhere with ex-con MacMurray or secretive royal Lombard, but instead has the five detectives chasing a stowaway Bradley Page. Sure, Page’s a convicted multiple murderer on the lamb but… even when the detectives are talking about dire outcomes, it’s all light. Howard’s just can’t bring any gravitas.
Maybe because all five detectives are basically played as comic relief. The straightest edge is Tetsu Komai as the Japanese detective but only because the movie’s othering him to create suspicion. Douglass Dumbrille’s the French guy; he’s a bit stuck-up but all right. Lumsden Hare’s the British one. He’s not memorable even though he’s got a lot to do third act. But Sig Ruman (as the German) and Mischa Auer (as the Russian)? They’re awesome. It’s like, Ruman and Auer make it seem like Princess knows what its got possibility-wise so it can’t possibly waste it.
Then it wastes all the possibility.
Notice I haven’t mentioned top-billed Lombard and MacMurray in a while? It’s because all they end up doing is reacting to the mystery with Page. And then scuz blackmailer Porter Hall bothering MacMurray and trying to get a pay-off, which ends up involving Lombard too because they’re cabins are next to each other… Sure, Lombard and MacMurray don’t really have story arcs of their own (he’s a successful band leader, she’s about to be successful as a movie star, they don’t get anything else but… vague ambition); they just react when the mystery spills over to their screen time.
They’re both fine. Absolutely no heavy lifting for either. They do have fun in the far too infrequent wordplay scenes. Frawley’s fine. He gets a beret arc, which is more than Lombard or MacMurray get. And more than Skipworth, who doesn’t even get a beret. Again, she’s awesome. Hall’s great too. Ruman, Auer. The cast is good, the film just doesn’t have anything for them to do.
Princess is cute. Ish.
Directed by William K. Howard; screenplay by Walter DeLeon, Francis Martin, Don Hartman, and Frank Butlerz, based on a story by Philip MacDonald and a novel by Louis Lucien Rogger; director of photography, Ted Tetzlaff; edited by Paul Weatherwax; costume designer, Travis Banton; produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr.; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Carole Lombard (Princess Olga), Fred MacMurray (King Mantell), Alison Skipworth (Lady Gertrude), William Frawley (Benton), Porter Hall (Darcy), Douglass Dumbrille (Lorel), Lumsden Hare (Cragg), Sig Ruman (Steindorf), Mischa Auer (Morevitch), Bradley Page (Merko), Tetsu Komai (Kawati), and George Barbier (Captain Nicholls).