Margin for Error & A Royal Scandal Review
Think of these two films as stale and crusty slices of sourdough placed just before and after a tender, juicy painting of Gene Tierney. After letting his Austrian temper get the best of him in a disagreement with 20th Century Fox head Daryl F. Zanuck, Otto Preminger was essentially exiled from Hollywood after a short stint at the studio in the late 1930's. He responded by going back to New York City and returning to theatre direction, as he'd done in Vienna. Following a couple of modestly successful plays, Preminger chose Claire Boothe's Margin for Error, a melodrama-comedy about a Nazi consul in New York and the Jewish policeman assigned to his detail, to direct on Broadway. This was 1939. The actor lined up to play the German consul dropped out unexpectedly and, unable to find a suitable replacement at such short notice, thespian-turned-director Preminger assumed the role to wildly positive reviews. Otto was a perfect Nazi.
This, Hollywood noticed, and Preminger was called back to a now Zanuck-free Fox lot to play a similar character in the film The Pied Piper. Meanwhile, Fox had also purchased the rights to Margin for Error and Ernst Lubitsch was eyed to direct. The studio, still without Zanuck who'd joined the Army following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, understandably wanted Preminger to reprise his role, but Otto was afraid of being typecast and/or losing out on what he really wanted to do - direct. After Lubitsch backed out, Preminger pleaded for the opportunity to make the picture, but Zanuck's absentee wishes were followed until the director finally talked William Goetz, who was temporarily in charge at Fox, into giving him another chance provided he also play the Nazi. Otto won and won and won. His insistence on being able to direct proved remarkably fortuitous, even if Margin for Error remains a middling and dated entry in the filmmaker's career.
The film has one of the oddest trio of lead actors I can recall in a major motion picture - Milton Berle, Joan Bennett, and, of course, Preminger. Berle is Moe Finkelstein, a proud Jewish police officer assigned to guard the German consulate office in Manhattan. Not surprisingly, his scenes are tinted towards comedy and, truthfully, Berle's presence indicates a different film entirely than what's seen otherwise. The plot, what little there is of it, sticks Uncle Miltie beside big bad Nazi Preminger as the consul and Joan Bennett as his American citizen wife, a reluctant spouse if ever there was one. Carl Esmond (billed as "Charles") plays Max, the German baron at the consulate who is informed that his Austrian grandmother is actually Jewish, immediately causing him to shamefully denounce Nazism at the risk of being ostracised, or worse, by his fellow Germans.
There's a lot of that here. The non-Nazi German Americans are portrayed as innocent victims of the prejudice caused by their homeland's dictatorship. Moe invites Max out to meet his melting pot friends once he's been outed as one-quarter Jewish. German Americans even picket the consulate during a Hitler radio address. The propaganda is extremely thick throughout. It makes for an okay message of American acceptance, but that translates as a somewhat stilted movie. The Austrian actress Poldy Dur plays beautiful maid Frieda and Moe sort of wins her over despite a language barrier. The message that a cherry cola, pinball, and some lipstick can capture the hearts and minds of the Germans is glaringly awkward. As a film, Margin for Error probably works better as a play, and a pre-World War II one at that.
Despite the limitations of the source material, which was actually punched up by a young Samuel Fuller while on leave from the Army, Preminger's film is never less than watchable and always interesting when the director is on the screen. Aside from the then-rare instance of a director also acting in his movie, Preminger is commanding in his role. Every other Nazi in the film gets a pass for incompetence or ignorance, but Otto's character bleeds unsympathetic fascism. It's a truly remarkable performance, both in dedication and ambivalence. Whether what we see on screen is Lillie Hayward's credited screenplay or, more likely, Fuller's work, it's ridiculously uneven and as subtle as a jackhammer, and Preminger's acting deserved a better movie (Stalag 17, perhaps). Regardless, Margin for Error provides for adequate entertainment with a specific angle and its PAL-shortened 71 minutes are spiced up by Joan Bennett's eternally icy eyes. The ending is abrupt and unsatisfying, and you know you're getting preached to, but, all in all, it's not half-bad.
Afterwards, Preminger landed yet another Nazi role in They Got Me Covered and directed the forgettable In the Meantime, Darling before inheriting Laura from Rouben Mamoulian. Obviously, that's the film, along with Anatomy of a Murder, he's most known for and it's frequently regarded as his finest. After its success, Preminger expected his pick of the litter at Fox, but was disappointed with an assignment from Zanuck, now returned from the war, to once again take over for Ernst Lubitsch, who'd suffered a heart attack just before making A Royal Scandal. Anyone familiar with the two men's work will understand that their styles couldn't be much further apart, and their personalities were equally distant. There was no "Preminger Touch." Otto was notoriously insolent and Lubitsch's feather-light approach was entirely foreign to Preminger. Thus, with A Royal Scandal, the result is the expected outcome of what you get when you replace a director who could turn this kind of aristocratic fluff into high art with a man far more at home with unsubtle and much weightier characters and plots.
Put another way, A Royal Scandal is a Lubitsch picture coated in lead. Watching the film, it's unclear how successful Lubitsch could have made a story about Catherine the Great seducing a young private into treason, but their disparate histories suggest the original director would have fared significantly better. Obviously, this is Lubitsch material. Preminger's result is roughly at the same level as a Lubitsch-directed version of Angel Face would have been. Worse even. As an ardent admirer of both filmmakers, it's incredibly disappointing to watch A Royal Scandal because of how thuddingly awful the movie turned out. The initial scenes are played very much in the Lubitsch style of quick, witty dialogue that shakily clings to Production Code decency. Preminger lays everything out as delicately as a shot put, but it's clear Lubitsch had polished the script and his style remains evident initially.
The Russian soldier Alexei Chernoff, played by William Eythe, dutifully tries to warn Catherine the Great (Tallulah Bankhead) of an impending revolt. Chernoff also happens to be romantically involved with Countess Anna (Anne Baxter), but Catherine claims the younger man for herself. By accepting her majesty's advances, Chernoff very quickly rises from captain to major to corporal, etc., until he's attempted a revolution and sentenced to death. About 25 minutes in, Preminger seems to forget he's supposed to be making a comedy and the film turns into a turgid mess. This results in painfully long sequences, especially an epic exchange between Eythe and Bankhead, that stop the movie in its rut-filled tracks. Aside from Otto's complete mishandling of the material, a big part of the problem comes from how much screen time Eythe occupies.
William Eythe had a short life and an even shorter career as a rising star at Fox, one effectively ended after photos were published of the actor with his male companion Lon McAllister. Though he's far from terrible in A Royal Scandal, Eythe is a boring performer who's unable to match Bankhead's forceful turn. The popular thing to mention about Tallulah seems to be how few films she made, but the public disinterest in A Royal Scandal was surely a defining reason in her absence from the big screen. At the film's release, the only other picture she'd made since 1932 was Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, released a year earlier. She was to make only one more film appearance, in Die! Die! My Darling! twenty years later. Nevertheless, her effortless command of the often ribald comedy is the most persuasive reason to see A Royal Scandal. Her reactions seem to indicate that she got what Lubitsch was originally trying to do far more than Preminger or Eythe.
The aggressive come-ons from Catherine are simply perfect and Bankhead excels at playing a woman caught between trying to prove she's still alluring and maintaining her rule over Russia. There's a scene where she literally grovels on her knees to beg for her own well-being, and it's followed by another bit that has Catherine commanding Chernoff lower himself in the same manner. Preminger flattens it all out, but you can see in Bankhead's performance where Lubitsch might have taken the film. It's a perfect example of an actress rising above her direction. Similarly, Charles Coburn as the Chancellor does a fine job of eking out the remnants of Lubitsch's involvement. Baxter hardly registers, but it's doubtful she could have competed with Bankhead. Tallulah is simultaneously dominant, sexy, and devious. There's little room for the comparatively lightweight Baxter to wiggle around.
In truth, A Royal Scandal is perhaps the best evidence of Ernst Lubitsch's tremendous acumen for making unrivaled examples of the classic romantic comedy, and deceptively having it seem like an easy task to accomplish. The movie was completely prepared by Lubitsch and all Preminger had to do was not screw it up. Otto wasn't up to the task, apparently approaching the picture arrogantly and with the wrongheaded idea of making it his own. Preminger's failure illustrates the extent of Lubitsch's genius, by having a ready made movie all wrapped up in a bow and still being unable to reproduce even a shred of that signature wit and sophistication. Preminger and cinematographer Arthur C. Miller may have brought some of their own touches to the picture, but anything Otto did pales in comparison to what Lubitsch most likely could have done better. Preminger hardly suffered, moving on to the excellent noir Fallen Angel, but it's a shame that Bankhead, who had nightmarish troubles with film acting that never show in the finished product, was unable to continue in movies. Lubitsch managed to complete only one more film, the moderately successful Cluny Brown, which is scheduled for a DVD release soon, also from BFI. His final project, That Lady in Ermine, was once again finished by Preminger, following Lubitsch's premature death at the age of 55 in 1947.
The BFI label brings these Preminger films to R2 DVD in a two-disc set, reserving one single-layered disc for each film. Both transfers are progressive and presented in original 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratios. Margin for Error looks noticeably the better of the two. Despite some prominent edge enhancement, a decent amount of grain, and print damage, the image is mostly satisfactory. Judging from their R1 releases, I suspect Fox might have done a better job had they released the film, at least in R1, but it's certainly watchable. A Royal Scandal is a notch below due to obvious brightness boosting, often making the whites blindingly bright. Damage is relatively minor in the print, but there's an overall softness that's somewhat disappointing. There's some inconsistency, also, in the brightness from scene to scene. Again, it's never too distracting to prevent getting lost in the film, but contrast is certainly weak and the quality on both is nothing to get excited over. Running times on the back of the case fail to allow for PAL speed-up, and give slightly longer times than what's actually on the discs.
A two-channel English mono track is provided for both films. Despite a minor hiss, I didn't hear anything problematic. The audio is consistent and free of significant pops or crackles. Volume level on both films is considerably strong, and dialogue comes through quite clearly. Minor audio synchronisation anomalies are noticeable, especially on portions of Margin for Error, though these are fairly brief. English subtitles for the hearing impaired, white in colour, are also provided.
There are no extra features on either disc. A 14-page booklet is included inside the case, as is an illustrated BFI catalog. A brief, two-page biography on Otto Preminger written by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and equally short essays by Philip Kemp on each film highlight the booklet content. Kemp's defenses are a little weak for my taste, possibly due to his appreciation for A Royal Scandal over the innocuous, but also more lively Margin for Error, but both are informative and given a pro-Preminger slant. Photographs and cast credits fill out the remainder of the booklet.
The BFI have once again chosen to celebrate their favoured Hollywood auteur Otto Preminger with a two-disc, two-film release. I found Margin for Error, with Preminger dominating the film as an unapologetic Nazi, to be the superior movie because of its easy familiarity and the admirable acting by Otto. A Royal Scandal is an Ernst Lubitsch film ruined by Preminger's lacklustre direction of the material, but Tallulah Bankhead's great performance and the Lubitsch artifacts make it watchable. Both films have been given essentially adequate transfers from BFI that are passable, but leave room for improvement. The set should be a welcome purchase for the Preminger fanatics out there, but perhaps a wait-and-see for those who suspect Fox might improve on this release in R1.