Sunday, August 2, 2015

Anatole Litvak | Mayerling

mad about love
By Douglas Messerli

Joseph Kessel and Irma von Cube (screenplay, based on the book by Claude Anet),  Anatole Litvak (director) Mayerling  1936

What do you do with a naughty prince (in this case, the Archduke Rudolph of Austria, played by Charles Boyer) who spends his nights carousing in gypsy-singing soldier bar, hangs out with leftist newspaper writers, and is addicted to women and wine? You marry him off quickly to a dour royal Princess like Stéphanie of Belgium (Yolande Laffron), and allow the sinister Count Taafe to order his men to follow the scoundrel wherever he goes.

    Even then, Rudolf still gets arrested along with a group of student demonstrators and continues meeting with his leftist editor friend, Szeps (René Bergeron). Even more importantly, an accidental encounter with a beautiful young woman, Marie Vetsera (Danielle Darrieux), in the Prather leads to an intense and, this film would have you believe, chaste love affair that ends, after Rudolf’s father Emperor Franz Joseph (Jean Dax) threatens to send the 17-year old girl to a convent, with a double suicide.

Then how do you extend this well-known tragic love affair into an hour and a half movie? Call in Russian-born German and Paris-based director Anatole Litvak and provide him with a large enough budget that he can twist the simple story around grand palace balls, an abridged two-act ballet, an astounding athletic gypsy dance, that’s what you do. Litvak brilliantly dollies and cranes his camera up and down grand staircases, and follows the stories’ secret spies throughout Vienna with all the pomp and music of the day. 
      When Litvak’s camera is done with moving around in the grand sweeps of the costume drama, he scurries about with gossipy facilitation of the affair by Countess Larisch (Suzy Prim), Marie’s Nanny, and Rudolph’s loyal valet, Loschek (Andre Dubosc). And finally, for long periods of time he simply lets his hero and heroine to sorrowfully stare into the camera focusing on their beautifully expressive eyes.
      No matter how corny these scenes might be on the surface, given the wonderful costumes, music, and credible acting by both Boyer and Darrieux, it all works quite gloriously, even if there’s no “there” there in terms of story or even significance, and ultimately, after a few grimaces and, if you’re very sentimental, a tear-drop or two, Mayerling leaves the viewer with very little remember except some pretty images and the excellent dancing.
     If Litvak weighs in with any political commentary about the couple’s doomed love, it is in the film’s muted criticism of the Hapsburg dynasty’s inflexibility with regard to its notions of power and familial responsibility. Rudolf’s mother, the unhappy Elisabeth, was later assassinated in Greece, and Rudolf’s death resulted in the crowning of his cousin, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose own assassination in 1914 resulted in World War I and the fall of the Hapsburg empire..

     The success of Mayerling brought Litvak, Boyer, and Darrieux to Hollywood, where Litvak specialized in what one might describe as movies wherein women faced deep psychological problems, often relating to affairs of the heart. Boyer became one of Hollywood’s major lovers and, on occasion, villains. Darrieux became a noted romantic and sophisticated woman in both American and foreign films, most notably in La Ronde and Madame de…., where she starred, once again, with Boyer.

Los Angeles, August 2, 2015

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