Tag Archives: Mischa Auer

The Princess Comes Across (1936, William K. Howard)

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.

2/4★★

CREDITS

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).



The Monster Walks (1932, Frank R. Strayer)

I went into The Monster Walks with what I consider reasonable expectations. I thought it would be bad. I thought it would be a bad, low budget, rainy night in a mansion with a killer ape loose movie.

It is all of those things, but it’s also awful. Director Strayer apparently had such a low budget he wasn’t even able to get shots of the mansion from outside. Inside, he’s going from one setup to another on a set. When he actually utilizes close-ups, it’s a big deal.

The editing, from Byron Robinson, is weak. He probably didn’t have much to work with, but he still cuts the shots poorly. It’s hard to explain; the characters seem paused between the angles.

The problem is Robert Ellis’s script. He doesn’t have any real drama. A girl, played by Vera Reynolds, travels home to the scary mansion for the reading of her father’s will. His body’s there too, which seems unsanitary. The other heirs have it in for her. Maybe.

None of these other heirs have much of anything going on for themselves. They want the money, sure, and they have some secrets, but none of them have anything going on. It’s not just a lack of subplots, it’s a lack of the characters having enough personality to have them.

A tepid performance from Rex Lease–as Reynolds’s beau–doesn’t help either.

Mischa Auer is exceeding creepy as the maid’s son, however. Great Nosferatu outfit on him.

It’s a dismal Walk.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Frank R. Strayer; written by Robert Ellis; director of photography, Jules Cronjager; edited by Byron Robinson; produced by Cliff P. Broughton; released by Action Pictures.

Starring Rex Lease (Dr. Ted Clayton), Vera Reynolds (Ruth Earlton), Sheldon Lewis (Robert Earlton), Mischa Auer (Hanns Krug), Martha Mattox (Mrs. Emma ‘Tanty’ Krug), Sidney Bracey (Herbert Wilkes) and Willie Best (Exodus).

The Benson Murder Case (1930, Frank Tuttle)

I wonder how Eugene Pallette felt–more, how his co-stars felt–about having the closest thing to a close-up in The Benson Murder Case. I’ve never been more acutely aware of shot distance than I was during the film. Tuttle has a standard pattern. Long shot–usually a lengthy long shot, sometimes an entire scene is one shot–followed by a medium shot for emphasis. At the end, Pallette gets the European medium shot (waist up) for one of his punch lines. Sadly, Pallette’s only got three or four jokes as his befuddled police detective in this Philo Vance entry. He and William Powell–who work well together–probably only have five scenes together.

What makes Benson Murder Case even more peculiar is its pacing. It’s a murder mystery where the murder doesn’t occur until almost a third of the way into the film–the film runs just under seventy-minutes and I don’t think Richard Tucker dies until after minute twenty. I wondered, as the film concentrated on Tucker’s dealings with his various co-stars, if there was supposed to be some confusion about who was going to die. Then I remember it was called The Benson Murder Case, which just made it stranger. While Tucker is supposed to be an unlikable jerk–he’s a stock broker who puts solvency ahead of his clients’ whims during the Crash of 1929–anticipating his death isn’t really all that interesting. After minute ten, I figured there was a chance he’d make it through most of the film. It would have been more interesting if he had.

The long first act introduces not just Tucker, but his antagonists–Natalie Moorhead, Paul Lukas, William ‘Stage’ Boyd and May Beatty–and then the second act refocuses on Powell and the investigation. There’s also district attorney E.H. Calvert’s re-election bid, which the film’s running time can’t make space. The result is the film’s initial characters disappearing for a while, only to reappear as subjects–Powell’s not even the protagonist until the latter half of the second act (remember, the film’s only seventy minutes), spending almost an entire interrogation off camera.

It’s a disjointed experience, bound together by some competent acting and a sufficiently mysterious mystery. Boyd is a fine villain, Moorhead and Lukas are good. Powell’s good, but Benson really shows how an actor needs close-ups to identify with the viewer. He’s got a character here, not a personality.

Tuttle’s quizzical direction also draws attention to the artifice. It’s obvious the film was shot on three-sided sets. They’re real high and well-decorated, so they’re interesting to look at (they have to be, given the length of the takes), but they’re empty of any meaningful content.

It’s an amiable seventy minutes, the kind of film good for passing time and nothing else.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Tuttle; screenplay by Barlett Cormack, based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine; director of photography, Archie Stout; edited by Doris Drought; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Powell (Philo Vance), Natalie Moorhead (Fanny Del Roy), Eugene Pallette (Sgt. Ernest Heath), Paul Lukas (Adolph Mohler), William ‘Stage’ Boyd (Harry Gray), E.H. Calvert (Dist. Atty. John F.X. Markham), Richard Tucker (Anthony Benson), May Beatty (Mrs. Paula Banning), Mischa Auer (Albert), Otto Yamaoka (Sam), Charles McMurphy (Burke) and Dick Rush (Welch).


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