[6 June 2014]
The Czech-born Francis Lederer was a talented and popular European star whose Hollywood career never quite got over his accent. It was necessary always to cast him as some vaguely European gentleman, which was never quite as useful as a vaguely British gentleman. You can always see that he’s good, however, even (or especially) in a trivial throwaway like The Gay Deception, now available on demand from Fox Cinema Archives.
After winning five thousand dollars in a contest, Mirabel Miller (Frances Dee) quits her secretarial job in a big assembly-line room and decides to blow it all in a month at a fancy New York hotel they keep calling the Walsdorf. The hotel folks think she’s the Casava Queen, since she comes from the town of Casava, known for its melons, and in fact she won a melon contest. From the beginning, she’s badgered and annoyed by bellboy Number 14 (Lederer), one of those 1930s romantic heroes who charms his way into a woman’s affections by making himself continually obnoxious.
Lederer’s talent is needed to pull it off, but you can get away with anything if you have a handsome smile and look good in uniform, and in this case, the bellboy’s sense of entitlement comes with secretly being the prince of a mythical country who’s scouting out hotel techniques for some improbable reason known only to Hollywood pictures of this sort. Stephen Avery and Don Hartman’s story was even nominated for an Oscar, proving that people really dug this kind of feathery far-fetchery.
If you can overlook the contrivance and annoyance, as you’re fully expected to, this Depression-era fairy tale moves swiftly and comes populated with many character comics, including Akim Tamiroff and Lionel Stander as a couple of lower-class snobs on the make; Benita Hume and Alan Mowbray as wealthy snobs who need to be taken down a peg or two (trumped by irresponsible royalty); Ferdinand Gottschalk and Richard Carle as the fuddy-duddy hotel managers; and fluffy-haired Pooh-bear Lennox Pawle, who’s like S.Z. Sakall with a toff accent, as the prince’s beleaguered consul. He’d be better remembered today but he died in 1936.
I kept being reminded of a similar, later, better fairy tale called Her Highness and the Bellboy, in which the bellboy is really poor and the hotel guest is really a queen. It was no more credible, but in every way more charming and delicate, while this film settles for being smooth in its brash ‘30s way. That isn’t nothing, of course, especially when directed by William Wyler, but it remains inconsequential.
Leonard Maltin’s book informs us that the song “Paris in the Evening” was written by Preston Sturges, but I didn’t hear any song, unless it’s the one they waltz to. The early scene introducing Lederer in the line of bellboys is cut suspiciously short as the film abruptly jumps to the managers discussing the arrival of Miss Miller, but it seems doubtful a song could have been shoehorned in. Anyway, a decent print is now available; please don’t confuse this movie with a comedy called The Gay Deceivers, which is another thing entirely.