Well, today was the big day for Their Royal Highnesses The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, so it seems appropriate to offer a few Royal romances as our Saturday movie date. The most directly relevant movie, Royal Wedding, made in 1947, was set in London against the background of Prince Harry's grandparents' nuptials and starred Fred Astaire and an actress whose dad was an actual guest at the actual real-life wedding - Sarah Churchill, daughter of Winston. But I'll say a few words about that tomorrow night in our Song of the Week department, and today cast our net a little further afield in search of celluloid romances between royals and commoners:
To be honest, when a Prince of the Blood Royal marries in the presence of Oprah Winfrey and George Clooney a half-black American actress who's dated a porn star and divorced her Jewish husband by mailing back the wedding ring and has a violent alcoholic brother who's held a gun to his girlfriend's head and sent his soon-to-be brother-in-law an open letter warning that this will be "the biggest mistake in royal wedding history"... to be honest, it makes even the racier royal romances of yesteryear seem a little tame. But let's do our best and go as far afield as the Hungarian box-office smash of 1941, Bob herceg - or, in English, Prince Bob. We're used to Mitteleuropean operettas featuring Mitteleuropean nobility: Princess Helene of Flausenthurn in Oscar Straus' Waltz Dream; Kálmán's Czardas Princess; Leo Fall's Dollar Princess (no relation to the Czardas Princess). It's easy to get this crowd mixed up: in the Népszinház-Vigopera production of A Nagymama, the part of Countess Szeremy was played by Baroness Ödön Splenyi - or was it the other way round? Oh, well, Ruritania is in the eye of the beholder, as you'll know if you caught the theme music I used for my serialization last year of The Prisoner of Zenda - a sly inside joke of mine for our Hungarian listeners.
In 1902 Jenö Huszka decided to write a Mitteleuropean operetta about British royalty: That was a Hungarian guy's idea of an unreal fantasy land - the United Kingdom. In Prince Bob, the eponymous Prince is actually called George, the son of the Queen of England. One night, he decides to sneak out on to the streets of London for some fun - or, as he sings, "Londonban, hej!" (which, in instrumental form, I used for my Zenda reading). To pass as a humble subject of the Crown rather than the heir to the throne, he adopts the name "Bob". In this guise, he meets and falls in love with a simple Cockney serving wench called Annie, the daughter of a baker who sells loaves on the curiously named thoroughfare Bowie Street. The Queen wants the Prince to marry the Countess Victoria of Clarence but "Bob" has other ideas and decides to follow his heart. The stage version opened at the Népszinház at the end of December 1902 and was the biggest hit Budapest had seen in twenty years. When a later Prince of Wales took up with a serving wench - or, anyway, an American divorcée - the Hungarians were quick to point out the plot had been lifted from a show they'd done 30 years earlier, and, in the wake of the abdication crisis, László Kalmár decided to make a film of Prince Bob, which eventually premiered in 1941. I saw it in Hungary a quarter century ago and enjoyed it immensely, almost as much as the splendidly vulgar state TV remake of 1972.
In Mitteleuropa, history is operetta and operetta is history: in The Merry Widow, Count Danilo's uniform was copied from that of the Crown Prince of Montenegro, though for the most part the show tends to highlight the quainter Balkan traditions rather than their more robust manifestations like genital severing. So, yes, in operetta, the cardboard counts are unbelievable and the plots are ridiculous. But, in this part of the world, real life is ridiculous and the characters in charge even more unbelievable. You want a king who marries a gypsy dancer? How about Carol II of Romania? The Austro-Hungarian Empire expanded by marriage rather than conquest, so those outlandish operetta romances have a sort of gritty neo-documentary street cred.
But operetta deals mainly in certainties. And, as the long reign of Franz Joseph wore on in Vienna, nothing was that certain anymore. In 1889, Crown Prince Rudolph and his mistress were found dead at the hunting lodge at Mayerling - either a double suicide or something even murkier. The "something" has remained a matter of speculation ever since. In Bermuda a couple of years back, I returned from dinner one night and switched on the TV intending to kill about 20 minutes before turning in. Instead, I found myself watching Terence Young's 1968 film Mayerling from beginning to end, ever more agog. Young directed three of the best Bond films - Dr No, From Russia With Love, Thunderball - and he'd assembled one of those all-star international cast the studios were very partial to back in the Sixties: James Mason played the Emperor Franz Joseph, Ava Gardner his Empress Elisabeth, Omar Sharif Crown Prince Rudolph, and Catherine Deneuve the Baroness Maria. The women have 1960s hairdos, and Ava doesn't look old enough to be Omar's mom, and Omar is entirely unconvincing as a prince driven by his love for the common man and his commitment to social reform in the Habsburg Empire - which is the film's apparent motivation for the double-suicide at Mayerling: Rudolph and his lover couldn't bear to live in a world without government welfare and universal health care.
Which, crazy as it sounds, is marginally less fanciful than the Broadway musical of Mayerling, Marinka. In Emmerich Kálmán's version, instead of being found dead at their hunting lodge, the star-crossed lovers emigrate to America and settle down on a farm in Pennsylvania. Hey, you can't beat a happy ending. The recent reconstruction of the live 1957 US TV production, with Mel Ferrer and Audrey Hepburn, isn't bad, but in the end I would have to account the 1936 French film version as the keeper. Charles Boyer can do the dissolute playboy prince, but also convey the sense of the world-historical tragedy of his appetites: Had Crown Prince Rudolph not died at his hunting lodge, the assassination at Sarajevo a quarter-century later would have been of no consequence. Incidentally, with the exception of Marinka, all variations of the tale nevertheless use the same one-word title: the word Mayerling resonates across the decades, at least in Central Europe.
Finally, let's spend a few moments with one of the sweetest royal romances of recent decades, and one highly appropriate for a regal union on Canada's Victoria Day weekend. Mrs Brown opened in 1997 a few days after the death of Prince Harry's mother, and seemed designed to invite parallels. John Madden's film even had the mid-19th century's equivalent of paparazzi - coarse men in loud check suits, pencils poised, secreted in the heather, in hopes of a long-distance glimpse of Queen Victoria and her alleged Highland fling, Mr John Brown. The brawny Scot, played by Billy Connolly, scatters the interlopers and gives one a kick in the thistles. The gossip, of course, continues.
Mrs Brown begins three years after the Prince Consort's death in 1861, with the Queen (played by Judi Dench, in the midst of her long reign as 007's M) still in deep mourning and everyone else at Court sunk in deep gloom. Our first sight of Victoria is the back of her head, the grey hair drawn into a bun. When the camera moves round to the front, her face is even greyer and more drawn; the eyes are dead. In these early scenes, her royal blues seem to have seeped into the very foundations of Osborne House.
At which point, like some Macbeth curse, a walking forest shows up at the palace. Connolly's Brown is essentially a thicket with a Scots accent: it's impossible, except in the nude scene, to tell where his facial hair ends and his sporran begins. By 'nude scene', I'm referring to Brown and his brother doing a little skinny-dipping off the Isle of Wight: the film is too discreet to speculate on whether the undoubted love of sovereign and servant found physical expression. As Sir Henry Ponsonby says to her doctor, after the Queen returns one night unusually flushed, "Don't even think it." (Surely a rather contemporary formulation?) On the other hand, Brown and Victoria quickly develop the kind of physical ease that today presupposes sexual knowledge. While everyone else is awed by the Queen-Empress, he is not: "Lift your foot, woman!" he barks, as he eases her into her stirrup.
Ostensibly, this is merely a kilted variation on The King and I or The Sound of Music: the breath of fresh air who liberates a stuffy household. Connolly himself evidently went to De Niroesque lengths for the part: after all, he spent much of the 1980s as gillie to Harry's uncle and aunt, the Duke and Duchess of York. His role here is as the big, expansive, emotional force in a Court of uptight ninnies. But, in its effort to transform the tale beyond a droll observation of a bizarre relationship, the film insists that Brown not only revitalized her home life but also persuaded the Queen to return to public duties: in one of the script's many curiosities, Victoria even starts referring to "my public", as if she were Marie Lloyd or Nellie Melba. Or George Clooney or Elton John.
The Queen's re-emergence marked the inauguration of the modern monarchy, as the physical, visible. embodiment of national identity - the start of the canny evolution which, in the Diana years, accelerated so disastrously out of control. But there's no evidence that it was anything to do with Brown. That's strictly a contemporary gloss - the assumption that a loosened-up royal leads to a liberated, loosened-up monarchy. In fact, if not in Madden's film, the real story of Victoria's long seclusion in the Highlands suggests the opposite: that personal fulfilment made it easier for her to ignore her public duties.
Still, there's a rueful charm to Connolly and Dench. In a scene both hilarious and tender, they go for dinner to a workers' cottage on the estate at Balmoral, and the Queen kindly offers to lay the table. She then stands helpless, the spoons hovering over the places, until Brown gives her a sly nod to indicate what goes where.
Any historical royal drama has its work cut out competing with more recent ones, and not just because contemporary royalty has offered up plot twists most self-respecting dramatists would shun. Mrs Brown has a tentativeness towards its royal characterizations which seems all the more amazing after the weeks of Harry'n'Meghan mega-hype in which the columns and airwaves have been filled with experts claiming to know the psychological impulses, sexual needs, marital intentions and parenting abilities of people they've never met and are never going to. Queen Victoria is a mystery, and, in the end, Madden's film is respectful enough to let her remain one. In doing so, it reminds those of who are subjects of the Crown that we were more mature back then: in the pre-celebrity era, we knew enough to know we didn't know them.
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