>> Sunday, September 11, 2011
USA/B&W-75m./Dir: William Dieterle/Wr: Robert Lord & Arthur Caesar (based on a play by Rudolph Bernauer & Rudolph Oesterreicher)/Cast: Marilyn Miller (Lia Toerrek), Ben Lyon (Fred von Wellingen), W.C. Fields (Bela Toerrek), Leon Errol (Baron von Schwarzdorf), Ford Sterling (Otmar von Wellingen), Chester Conklin (Emil)
Around Hollywood in 1931, most people considered W.C. Fields’ movie career to be all but over. The popular stage comedian had made an attempt at big screen stardom during the mid-Twenties, but his silent features had failed to connect with audiences. While studio mishandling was partly to blame for Fields’ flicker flopperoo, the core of the problem was that silent film proved to be a poor medium for the Great Man’s style of comedy. Soundless cinema robbed W.C. of two of his greatest comedic gifts--his distinctive voice and his ability to improve upon scripted dialogue with copious verbal ad-libbing.
The advent of sound provided Fields with a chance to re-introduce himself to the viewing public, but studio heads were initially reluctant to hire an actor that had previously proved to be a box office dud. However, a chance meeting with Marilyn Miller, a Broadway actress with whom Fields had costarred in the Ziegfeld Follies, led to an offer to portray Miller’s father in her latest film, Her Majesty Love.
A remake of a German film produced the same year, Her Majesty Love retains the Berlin setting of the original. The film begins with champagne and cocktail-soaked revelry in the Berlin Café, where Lia Toerrek (Miller) is the bartender and the center of attention. A young businessman, Fred von Wellingen (Ben Lyon) offers Lia a wedding ring for a dance, and she accepts. Unfortunately, Fred’s nouveau riche family finds the idea of his coupling with a bartendress unacceptable, especially after her father (W.C. Fields) causes a disturbance at a family function with a display of drunken juggling. The family pays Fred off to dump Lia, and she responds by agreeing to marry a wealthy Baron (Leon Errol), who is a six-time divorcee. Of course, Fred eventually comes to his senses, but will he be able to win back Lia prior to her becoming the seventh baroness?
W.C. Fields’ first sound feature, Her Majesty Love, is a pretty anemic affair. It is a musical comedy that is thin on both music and comedy, with a nonsensical script and poor acting (with the exceptions of Fields and Errol). Viewed today, the film appears old-fashioned in the worst possible way. In short, it creaks.
However, once the Great Man appears--about a third of the way into the picture--he commands the screen and makes the most of every moment he is given. It is easy to see why Her Majesty Love jump-started Fields’ film career, while the rest of the cast drifted into bit parts or faded into obscurity. Fields’ talent for making music from scripted dialogue and his physical grace puts the rest of the cast to shame. Only fellow stage comedian Leon Errol holds his own in scenes opposite the Great Man.
For lovers of soused cinema, Her Majesty Love is an interesting museum piece. There is plentiful cocktail-swilling in this Prohibition-era picture (which is likely why Berlin was retained as the setting), and we are treated to one of Fields’ first filmed forays into utilizing alcohol-soaked humor. His juggling scene, while drunk on cognac, is a treasure for both his manual dexterity and the fact that it is one of the few times W.C. acted inebriated on film. Fields often drank in his movies, but he rarely displayed any ill effects. This scene is a notable exception.
Her Majesty Love is not a good film, and most modern audiences will understandably find it a chore to sit through. However, fans of W.C. Fields should seek out this antiquated curio for the hints of the Great Man’s comedic genius that are tantalizingly sprinkled throughout the second half of the film.
Drinks Consumed--Champagne, martinis (gin), Benedictine, cognac, wine, sherry with egg, and unnamed cocktails
Intoxicating Effects--Harmonizing, slurred speech, boasting, juggling, stumbling, public disturbance, and destruction of property
Potent Quotables--WAITER: A drink before dinner, sir?
BARON: Drink always. Before, with, and after… you teetotaler.
Video Availability--Her Majesty Love has never been released on video in any format. However, Turner Classic Movies does air the film from time to time.
Similarly Sauced Cinema--W.C. Fields reunited with his pal Leon Errol for his swan song, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941).
W.C. Fields: 6 Short Films [Criterion Collection] -