Her Highness and the Bellboy quietly casts a spell. Opening like a storybook with words and narration, the opening shot is a beautifully unreal fairy-tale castle that allows us a brief glimpse of a glittering Hedy Lamarr. Then the story shifts to New York (cue the overview of skyscrapers) and a look at a bunch of good-natured characters. Jimmy (Robert Walker) is a bellboy who looks out for his friend Albert (Rags Ragland), a grinning, big-eared lug one step above Lenny in Of Mice and Men.
We’re actually told that Albert will drift into a life of crime unless Jimmy watches over him. Ragland was a character actor who here plays his defining character: a charming tough-softie awash in malapropisms. (He was only in films a few years and died of alcoholism in 1946.) Albert rashly greets every woman with “Hi, babe!” and it doesn’t seem to get him anywhere. His childlike nature is revealed in his happiest moments, when he gets to throw punches or when he listens to fairy tales with rapt attention. In the end, he strikes you as one thin line away from pathetic loneliness.
Someone who crosses that line in this movie is Leslie (June Allyson), Jimmy’s friend or girlfriend or something. She doesn’t have the use of her legs for some mysterious reaon having to do with an unhappy childhood. The doc says she’ll be fine as long as somebody loves her enough. How’s that for an invented Hollywood malady? Although she’s billed third, Allyson almost dominates the movie. Every other fade-out is a close-up of her laughing or crying or smiling through tears.
The fairy-tale motif, introduced early, has an extraordinary early apotheosis when the trio is relaxing on the roof of their apartment building and Albert persuades Jimmy to read an obviously frequently-heard story out of a book of Grimm’s Tales. In an almost astounding gesture for any Hollywood movie, Jimmy simply reads the entire story aloud from beginning to end. It’s a good story and Jimmy reads it well, and a heart-warming feeling of narrative is generated not only by the story but the growing audience of spellbound listeners. It’s a small, complete world at peace. What a vision of courage and sweetness, and the movie’s hardly started.
In fact, there are two stories read aloud in the movie, and one of them triggers the movie’s other astonishing setpiece, a musical dream sequence! This movie isn’t technically a musical, although there are several scenes where people sing. It’s part of the delicate blend of genres, but what is the movie’s primary genre? Is it a comedy? Yes, in the Aristotelian sense; it’s funny with many comic touches, but it’s basically serious, even though the whole thing is featherweight. Is it a romance? With a title like Her Highness and the Bellboy, you’d think it must be, and you’d think you know how the story’s got to go, especially with its poster of Walker and Lamarr in classic pose—“A Royal Command to Love!”.
Oh yeah, the princess. Just when you think the movie’s forgotten her, she steps out of a limosine accompanied by the great Agnes Moorhead, who’s function in the film is to be Agnes Moorhead. Why is the princess of this fictitious country, whatever it is, in New York? Princess Veronica is seeking a certain commoner she knew years ago, before she was married and widowed. (She’s wonderfully placid about the fact that somebody shot her husband.) Jimmy is assigned to her service while she stays at the hotel, and he’s so struck by her beauty and charm and naturalness, as anyone would be, that he falls in love.
There are several more complicated steps to the story with several other characters and situations and a few misunderstandings and cross-purposes, but the main point is that Jimmy believes she’s in love with him, and the audience is liable to believe it too. That has the potential to confuse us, because the other strand in the story is that lonely Leslie is becomingly increasingly despondent over Jimmy’s obvious feelings for the princess. Usually, there’s an “other woman” (or man) who’s obviously unlikeable and wrong for the main character, but we like all these people and they all deserve each other.
The plot may be horsefeathers, or rather the fairy-tale it advertises itself to be, but some fairy tales don’t quite go as you expect them, and this film’s story is just off-center and unusual enough that something rare happens. We’re not sure where it’s going, and we care about these people, so we’re turned into the rapt children who want to know how it’s all going to end.
Though released in 1945, the story announces itself as taking place in 1938 so that we’re not distracted by the notion that there’s a war in Europe or anything. As produced for MGM by Joe Pasternak, this is as glossy as you’d expect. Within that glossiness, veteran director Richard Thorpe manages the illusion of making these characters and their world seem down to earth and familiar.
The script by Richard Connell and Gladys Lehman, in addition to the felicities mentioned, makes merry with hep slang in a variety of settings. Connell is one of those writers famous for a single short story, the oft-filmed “The Most Dangerous Game”. Lehman was most active in the ‘30s, when she wrote several Shirley Temples and Death Takes a Holiday. She and Connell teamed on several 1’0s trifles, even sharing an Oscar for Two Girls and a Sailor, a big hit of the previous year that also starred Allyson and was directed by Thorpe.
This is one of several titles released through Warner Archives made-on-demand website in time for Valentine’s Day. Another is My Love Came Back, directed by Curtis Bernhardt from a script by Ivan Goff, George Bruckner and Earl Baldwin. The trailer advertises it in a revealing manner. A doctor diagnoses a patient as having the 1940 blues and prescribes a trip to the theatre to watch this movie and “relax with Olivia and Jeff”. Then a woman turns off the radio and tells her presumed husband that they’ve had enough bad news making them jittery, let’s go relax with Olivia and Jeff. Described as “the gayest movie of the year” and Olivia De Havilland’s first movie since Gone with the Wind, this film supposedly performs the service of lightening the national mood from gloomy news of the war in Europe, in which the U.S. wasn’t yet directly involved. This patriotic injunction to “relax” is a mission Hollywood still undertakes.
The film is certainly light, and like the bellboy movie, it’s not quite predictable (and unlike it, not quite memorable). That’s because the supposed romantic couple, De Havilland and Jeffrey Lynn (a now-forgotten leading man who was almost hot for a year or two), don’t even meet until more than 30-minutes have passed. Then it’s all the plot can do to keep them (un)convincingly separated through a series of misunderstandings. You see, he thinks she’s the kept woman of his employer, a supposedly endearing old duffer (Charles Winninger) who behaves in bad faith throughout the story and causes everyone’s problems.
It has a lot of music because she’s a classical violinist, and with her chums (Eddie Albert and an unrecognizably sprightly Jane Wyman), they form a swing band that merges classical and jazz; their riff on a Hungarian Rhapsody is solid, Jackson. Alas, this doesn’t take up as much of the story as it might, because there’s all that stuff with the various other supporting players, including the millionaire’s two grown children and his wife (Spring Byington). The thing is packed with fuddy-duddies, including Grant Mitchell and S.Z. Sakall. There’s so much going on, in fact, that the complicated story is ready to collapse, and it takes all the attention and intelligence of De Havilland, bristling with mystification at why her life is going so strangely, to keep us watching. Watching, not laughing.
One wonders if all this seemed strange to director Curtis Bernhardt, here making his Hollywood debut under his original name Kurt Bernhardt. An experienced director in Germany, he was one of the wave who came to Hollywood in the ‘30s. He did well with postwar women’s films.
Another Valentine’s release is The Bachelor Father (1931), a Marion Davis Production directed by MGM stalwart Robert Z. Leonard and written by Laurence E. Johnson from Edward Childs Carpenter’s play. The cross Davies’ reputation must forever bear is that she was in movies because she was the girlfriend of William Randolph Hearst, and he preferred to see her in dramas while she preferred vehicles that showed off her comic vivacity. This project is mostly an example of the latter.
The titular father is a rich English baronet (C. Aubrey Smith) who suddenly decides to corral the three adult children he’s never seen. A bit of dialogue near the end clarifies that he was actually married in quick succession to all their mothers, so until that point the viewer tends to assume these are all from the wrong side of the blanket. His son is played by an eggshell-young Ray Milland as an awfully spiffing funboy who doesn’t look like he’s having all that much fun.
Davies plays hotsie-totsie American daughter Tony, who breezes in with her slang (this movie proves that people said “hep” in 1931) and her flapper shuffles and her charmingly declassé manners to shake up the joint. Only she’s not wise to what we already know, see, that she’s really not the old bird’s offspring. Meanwhile she charms the pants off everyone and sets her cap for young Oxbridge chappie Ralph Forbes. Will the truth queer this sweet set-up so she’s got to amscray? Say, don’t take any wooden nickels.
We learn that it’s good to have young folks around the old homestead, especially when it’s a sprawling old homestead with stables and butlers (“It looks like Madison Square Garden!” cries Tony), and that American youngsters are the freshest of all. The most surprising thing about this slice of ham, besides an ending that’s exciting and ludicrous at the same time, is a moment at the 35-minute mark when we see a crew member on camera. Not just a shadow, not just a hand, and not hiding in the corner. He’s the only living thing front and center for a full second and calmly ducks out before Davies makes her entrance. Either he’s with the crew or the mansion has ghosts. Surely the movie can’t have been released with that in it?