In the early 20th Century, it was common for members of the aristocracy and their servants to switch places and masquerade as each other. This class-switching led to merry mix-ups as they fell in love with strangers who, it always turned out, were also class-switching. We know this is true from about a million novels, plays, and films, and they couldn’t all be making that up. Could they?
In a certain percentage of shopgirl romances, the chauffeur turns out to be a slumming millionaire who doesn’t mind marrying a shopgirl. What self-respecting proletarian wanted to marry a nasty old duke or duchess when you could get hitched to the help? Most of these tales are less democratic. The common solution was to discover that both lovers secretly belonged to the same class after the masquerades were over, so proper divisions were maintained, to everyone’s relief.
If you don’t believe me, check the home video debut of James Whale’s By Candlelight (1933), a charming, elegant comedy based on a European play, as many of them were. Digitally restored to spotless perfection in 4K by Universal Pictures, this pre-Code obscurity arrives as a Kino Lorber Blu-ray some 90 years after production, looking like it was shot last week.
The opening scene introduces Josef (Paul Lukas) curling up on a sofa with the memoirs of Casanova. He answers the phone, stands at attention, speaks to his boss, and understands that it’s time to go through a well-rehearsed routine. He sets the scene efficiently, including bringing a second pillow for the bed. That’s the kind of suggestive yet discreet gesture that critics call a “Lubitsch touch” because Ernst Lubitsch was the master of this kind of film. Whale is being an excellent pseudo-Lubitsch.
Josef’s employer, Prince Alfred von Romer (Nils Asther), arrives with Baroness Louise von Ballin (Esther Ralston). Both are played by once-famous, ultra-chic stars of silent cinema, a detail underlining their old-fashioned glamor. Asther of the pencil mustache was often associated with Greta Garbo. Ralston played, for example, the Fairy Godmother in A Kiss for Cinderella (Herbert Brenon, 1925). At one point, Prince Alfred will refer to a “Cinderella complex”. These droll sophisticates are up to date on their tropes.
The Prince and the Baroness go through a routine that, as the audience understands, is well-rehearsed. Josef checks his watch to know exactly when to enter the room, and he goes through a charade that explains the film’s title. At a precise point, he shuts off the electric fuse for the main room and arrives with lighted candelabra for the proper atmosphere.
Alas, there’s a Baron in the ointment. The lady’s husband (Warburton Gamble) has arrived from a trip one day early, caught wind of his wife meeting the Prince at a roulette table, and is charging over to confront them. Some clever footwork is employed to dupe the old fool, and we rather fancy this sort of thing has happened before too.
All this is a mere preamble. These events establish the atmosphere of expected and unpunished adultery that would be verboten by the newly reinforced Production Code in a year. When reviewing some of the Prince’s recent affairs, he says of one, “I thought she was going to drown herself.” Josef replies, “She’s waiting for warmer weather.”
As By Candelight‘s main story gets underway, Josef is on the train to Monte Carlo when he meets Marie (Elissa Landi), an extravagantly beautiful and spirited young woman of the Carole Lombard or Jean Arthur school. She particularly attracts his eye because she’s also reading Casanova. She mistakes him for the Prince because of his luggage, and he mistakes her for royalty because she tells him so. We understand by certain vulgar slips that she’s putting on the dog, so now we wait for Josef to catch up.
More frolics and masquerades will occur before By Candlelight wraps up at a brisk 70 minutes, as it should in order not to become tiresome or more far-fetched than it already is. There’s much business with a shoe left behind (like Cinderella) and a silver cigarette case. Social realism, this ain’t. By Candlelight is a perfect example of Depression-era escapism into Art Deco consumer porn, shot with polish by John J. Mescall and designed out of the wazoo by Charles D. Hall. Dorothy Revier, Lawrence Grant, and Lois January round out the small cast.
The German-language play by Karl Farkas and Siegfried Geyer was adapted for the screen by Hans Kraly, a frequent Lubitsch collaborator, and Karen DeWolf, whose many screenplays include – wait for it – Adventures of Casanova (Roberto Gavaldón, 1948). The final screenplay for By Candlelight was co-written by Ruth Cummings, who also wrote for Lubitsch and Garbo, and by F. Hugh Herbert, an Austrian import best known for creating the All-American teenage girl Corliss Archer on radio and television. We’re not surprised that P.G. Wodehouse adapted the play for Broadway, for these romantic masquerades are up his alley.
The lively, well-informed commentary by film historian Troy Howarth emphasizes Whale’s career. Although he’s best known for pioneering Universal’s horror films, this bit of dainty pastry matches Whale’s cultured Old World tastes, which include sophisticated comic melodramas like The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933). Howarth discusses that By Candlelight was set to be directed by Robert Wyler. When Universal needed a last-minute replacement, it made sense to think Whale could handle it because he could. Here’s the proof.