Sunday, October 9, 2011

Movie Review: The Princess Comes Across

The Princess Comes Across (1936)
directed by William K. Howard, starring Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurrray

(Note: This is my entry for the Carole-tennial (+3) Blogathon, hosted by Vincent at Carole and Co.)

Every reporter, radio announcer, and columnist in town is talking about only one thing: the arrival of Princess Olga of Sweden (Carole Lombard). The princess is on board the prestigious ocean liner Mammoth, on her way to begin a lucrative Hollywood career. Everyone on the ship is instantly captivated by this elegant Swedish royal. And the most infatuated of them all is King Mantell (Fred MacMurray), a concertina-playing bandleader, who is determined to shake this princess down from her ivory tower. But Olga and Mantell aren't the only notable passengers. Five celebrated detectives are also on board, en route to an international police detectives' conference. But before these gentlemen can even finish introductions, they are informed that an escaped convict has stowed away on the ocean liner. He could be anywhere or anyone.

As if princesses, concertinas, and convicts weren't enough, a fourth complication arrives in the form of Robert Darcy (Porter Hall), a shifty-eyed blackmailer, who says he's got the goods on three people. He knows that Mantell did a stretch in jail. He also knows that Princess Olga is no princess at all--she's Wanda Nash from Brooklyn, trying to pass herself off as royalty in order to get a film career. He puts the squeeze on King and Wanda, but before he can reveal his third victim, Darcy ends up murdered.

Now, it's up to the quintet of detectives, as well as a concertina player and a fake princess, to solve the mystery and find out the killer. But can King and Wanda find the killer, keep their secrets, and manage to avoid falling in love? It's going to be quite a voyage.

To co-opt a line from The Sound of Music, how do you solve a problem like The Princess Comes Across? Here's a film that is mildly funny, mildly romantic, has a very mild murder mystery that takes over the second act, and ends on a note of mild abandon. Trying to review it is like fighting your way through a sea of tapioca. It's never bad and occasionally it's quite good, but that's about all that can be said for it. However, no self-respecting film critic ever let mediocrity stand in the way of verbosity, so I'm going to tackle it anyway.

The Princess Comes Across stands out from the rest of Carole Lombard's Paramount comedies by virtue of not being a pure comedy. It was a deliberate attempt at a genre mash-up: a cross between those giddy Paramount romances and the classics 30s whodunnits. The filmmakers opt for some jarring shifts in tone. The beginning of the film is pure screwball, with Lombard doing a killer Greta Garbo parody as the counterfeit Swedish princess. But halfway through the film, the murder mystery angle takes center stage and Lombard's antics quiet down (her discovery of the dead body is played dead serious, with the camera zooming in on her shadowed, horrified face). Compared to another comedy-mystery like The Thin Man, The Princess Comes Across is much more serious in tone. When Nick and Nora are threatened, they laugh it off. When Lombard and MacMurray are threatened, they are genuinely scared.

I have a weakness for films that combine different genres. When done right, they're exciting in their unpredictability. Unfortunately, The Princess Comes Across never manages to combine its disparate elements and so ultimately it feels like two different films that were hastily stitched together. It might have been a case of too many cooks; the film had at least six screenwriters on board. A strong director could have guided the film to consistency but The Princess Comes Across was left in the hands of William K. Howard, a dependable but hardly illustrious craftsman (his most significant directing credit was The Power and the Glory, often cited as an influence on Citizen Kane). A director like Raoul Walsh would have relished the tonal shifts, a screenwriter like Preston Sturges would have cranked up the screwball insanity, but as it is, the film never jells.

The main reason to see The Princess Comes Across is for Carole Lombard's performance. From the very first moment she appears, swathed in furs, her eyes glazed with her own importance, she owns the movie. The whole "pretend Swedish princess" plotline is merely an excuse for Lombard to parody Greta Garbo and she pulls it off brilliantly,  nailing every far-off stare and trilling laugh. In her first scene, a reporter asks her, "Princess, who is your favorite movie star?" Lombard gazes right through him and answers with regal dignity, "Ve tell you, Mickey Moosey."

The real glory of Carole Lombard's performance isn't the Garbodegook she keeps spouting, but the way she can snap back and forth from elegant Swedish princess to Brooklyn gal in a millisecond. In one scene, she barks at MacMurray to "scram." "What did you say?" he asks. "Oh," she fumbles, "scrom, it means, in Svedish, de interview is ended." In another scene, MacMurray asks her "what a princess fish would do if she ever ran into a concertina player fish" (it makes sense in context). "She would probably svim by him every other time," Lombard answers with a glint in her eye and even through the Swedish mannerisms, you can see her character's sarcasm peeking out.

It's Lombard's intelligence and humor that make Wanda Nash into anything close to a likable character because otherwise, she's a complete twit. Masquerading as a Swedish princess in order to land a Hollywood contract is a spectacularly ludicrous scheme even by romantic comedy standards. Even in the 1930s, it wouldn't have taken more than half an hour for someone to unmask her. In a pure screwball comedy, like the vastly superior Nothing Sacred, Wanda would have been trapped into the deception by a misunderstanding and the lunacy would have spiraled out of her control. Here, we're supposed to accept her as a street-smart gal who apparently never heard of things like "false identity," "lawsuits," or "criminal charges."

Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard had been paired before, in Mitchell Leisen's Hands Across the Table and they would be paired for a total of four films. When MacMurray first fell into Lombard's capable hands, he was a very, very green leading man, with no idea of how to play comedy. Both Leisen and Lombard had struggled with getting MacMurray to find his inner comic. According to one account, Lombard actually sat on MacMurray's chest at one point, pounding him with her fists and yelling, "Now Uncle Fred, you be funny or I'll pluck your eyebrows out!" Whatever Carole Lombard's methods were, she succeeded in carrying MacMurray along and for the rest of his life, he credited her with being his favorite leading lady.

In The Princess Comes Across, Fred MacMurray seems more comfortable than he did in Hands Across the Table; his reactions feel more natural and are timed better. As the concertina-playing bandleader King Mantell, MacMurray is anything but kingly. Here, he's a cocky, boyish smart aleck, who sees nothing wrong in trying to proposition a princess. Hell, he's young and she's blonde and they're on a boat together so why not?

Unfortunately, Lombard and MacMurray can't generate enough heat in The Princess Comes Across to offset the no-sugar, no-salt approach of William K. Howard's direction. He puts them into position and lets them banter--that's about it. Without those long, lustrous Mitchell Leisen closeups, the Lombard-MacMurray chemisty suffers. They're still cute together and the way Lombard openly sizes him up as a potential partner is delicious ("Did you notice those shoulders?" she muses to her horrified companion Lady Gertrude), but there's no urgency to their pairing up. It's a pigtail-pulling kind of romance.

Whenever the film switches focus from Lombard and MacMurray to the five famous detectives, my interest level dropped below freezing. Mainly because the five detectives don't do much to distinguish themselves beyond playing into a few national stereotypes (the Japanese one is very polite, the German is professorial etc.). The only one of real interest is Mischa Auer as the Russian detective, whose sardonic, gallows-humor delivery manages to steal scene after scene. In one such moment, Lombard (as Princess Olga) is telling the detectives about her "uncle" Rudolf. "Poor Uncle Rudy, somebody was always shooting at him," Lombard sighs and Auer tops it with, "In my country, they shoot at everybody's uncle." It's Auer's sheer pop-eyed relish of the line that makes it funny.

The only other character actor to note is Alison Skipworth as Lady Gertrude Allwyn, Lombard's worldly-wise partner in crime. She is pure delight as a woman who keeps up a public front as a grande dame (think Margaret Dumont on Casual Friday), but who, in private, shows her true con-artist colors. Whenever King gets within ten feet of her princess protege, she gives him a laser glare so fierce it could fry eggs. She gets nearly all the good lines, too.

"A concertina. And very vulgar. A definite symbol of the lower classes. Put the thing on the floor and it crawls."

 "You enjoyed the cocktails, didn't you?" (Lombard)
"Well the first five or six, but after that I was bored."

"I don't mind people stepping on my feet, but I do object to them lodging there."

Even with this talented cast, The Princess Comes Across is a slow steady slide from glamorous Paramount comedy to a C-grade murder mystery. Watching this movie is like drinking a glass of champagne only to realize, halfway through, that you were really drinking grape juice. And then as you're draining the bottom, you realize you weren't drinking grape juice, you were really drinking tap water. It's a real shame because there are so many moments where you can feel a better, sharper story bubbling under the surface. Or maybe that's just a mirage.

Carole Lombard is the main reason to see this film. It's her humor, her gestures, and her star power that really make The Princess Comes Across into something worth watching. She may not have been a Swedish princess, but she was truly a princess of comedy.  

Favorite Quote: 

"The story is from a novel entitled Lavender and Old Lace, but the name of the cinema has been changed to... um... She Done Him Plenty."

Favorite Scene:

The best moment, in my opinion, would have to be Carole Lombard dining with the five detectives. It's the last place she wants to be, of course, and you can see the wheels in her head turning as she tries to keep pace with her own deceptions. One of the detectives tells her proudly that he had the honor of meeting one of her grandfathers. "But I have two grandfathers!" Lombard says, trying to stall him. "The one I mean, has the beard," he replies. "Oh that one!" she cries out. "And such a looong beard, ven ve vere children, ve used to sving from it!" Somehow, Lombard delivers the line in a way that is both queenly and ridiculous at the same time. Even when she's cornered, she can't resist having a little fun.

Final Six Words:

Lombard floats, but the film fizzles

Here I acknowledge my profound debt to Dr. Macro and his trove of Lombard photos.


  1. Excellent review of a Lombard film that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle (and your explanations help show the reason why).

    Here's something you may not have known-- the movie was initially called "Concertina," and the leading man was to be George Raft. However, Raft walked out in a dispute with Paramount over cinematography (he refused to work with Ted Tetzlaff), and MacMurray was brought in to take his place:

  2. Vincent: George Raft sure was the "Also-Ran-Man" wasn't he? I was sort of thinking it had been meant for MacMurray since it follows on the heels of Hands Across the Table and the bandleader thing fits in with his musical background. But the whole ex-con background would have been more believable with Raft. Young MacMurray just doesn't read as a tough guy.

    Thanks for hosting this great blogathon!

  3. Interesting post, Rachel and a great summary. Agreed it's not a very compelling film, but that has nothing to do with Carole. She gives it 100%. The Garbo-take is especially funny, since, in her early portraits she was posed and lighted to look like the great Swede.

  4. FlickChick: I figured the lesser films should be spotlighted as well as the classics. And Lombard does look eerily Garbo-esque in certain shots.

  5. Rachel, Wonderful post to a Carole Lombard, film I have not seen. I will look for it.

  6. Dawn: Thanks. I think the "Lombard-does-Garbo" aspect makes it a must-see for Lombard fans.

  7. Great review. Haven't seen this one but Lombard doing Garbo sounds too delicious to pass up.


  8. Caroline: Agreed. Thanks for stopping by.

  9. Great post. It's a shame that, as you point out, this film doesn't jell. Nor does Lombard really go into her hilarious shrieky-mode here, as she does in 'Nothing Sacred' and 'My Man Godfrey,' though her Garbo impersonation is very funny. I think Lombard & MacMurray were at their funniest in 'True Confession,' a movie that deliberately uses MacMurray's stiffness to great comic effect (maybe the threatened eyebrow-plucking had results!).

  10. Grandoldmovies: Thanks for reviewing. I think you've zeroed in on one of this movie's problems: it just isn't zany enough. The whole fake princess angle is just crying out for a screwball approach. I haven't seen True Confession, but I'm intrigued.

  11. I'd watch it over and over, although I think the murder mystery adds nothing to the plot. She does a great Garbo imitation. Musically the film is a gem. And MacMurray singing, and playing, the concertina song is terrific. It's a glamorous romp. Far better than Fools For Scandal and Mr and Mrs Smith.