The Emperor's Candlesticks
Reviewed in January 2012 / Click Here to Comment
Written on the occasion of Luise Rainer's 102nd birthday.
Director: George Fitzmaurice. Cast: William Powell, Luise Rainer, Robert Young, Bernadene Hayes, Henry Stephenson, Frank Morgan, Donald Kirke, Maureen O'Sullivan, Barnett Parker, Douglass Dumbrille, Charles Waldron, Ian Wolfe, Frank Conroy, Paul Porcasi, Bert Roach, Emma Dunn. Screenplay: Monckton Hoffe and Harold Goldman (based on the book by Baroness Emmuska Orczy).
Twitter Capsule: Stale relic from MGM peak period; groaning direction and odd-bird Rainer drag down even William Powell

Photo © 1937 Metro Goldwyn Mayer
Luise Rainer is a one-stop Gestalt for all kinds of good and bad things Oscar is often alleged to do. Her two consecutive trophies, reaped in 1936 and, to everyone's surprise, in 1937, simultaneously christened, promoted, oversold, euthanized, and immortalized for posterity an extremely short career. She won for an unremarkable, lachrymose performance in a biopic (the first Best Actress to win for impersonating a real woman) and for playing much more movingly an ethnically inappropriate role. She's also the reason Carole Lombard and Greta Garbo went to their graves without Oscars. Through no fault of her own, Rainer has a lot of explaining to do for a lot of AMPAS legacies we'd all love to forget. Her punishment, apparently, is that she herself has become an AMPAS legacy we often struggle to remember. David Thomson is characteristically pithy when he writes, "The Academy quickly flinched from its generosity, and the actress herself seemed overawed by the twin household gods. Her career crumbled so completely afterwards that they might have been voodoo dolls."

Rainer was in films about as long as Frances Farmer was and had an equally disastrous run-in (in her case, a marriage) with idol/destroyer Clifford Odets. As a European transplanted to California in the mid-30s, she harbored similar misgivings to those of American-born Farmer about the ostrich-in-the-sand ideological blindness of a community that shunned historical knowledge, trying its best to exist apart from it and to take the world along on the same ride. Rainer, like Farmer, had principled and prickly ideas about directors and parts. A quarter-century after fame abandoned her, an injustice she seemed eager to rectify, she turned Fellini down for La Dolce vita, because she disliked his script and had some changes to propose. Everything slipped through her fingers as decisively as it did from Farmer's, but without anything quite as sensational as jail-baiting misconduct, asylum stays, and a (rumored? confirmed?) lobotomy to stain and sentimentalize that downward slide. It's almost poignant that she appears as indestructible as a human being as she was non-sustainable as an actress. At age 102, she's had 75 years to ruminate on the small fraction of time in which she was famous. I'm not suggesting that's all she has done. By all accounts she's an intelligent and rather proud woman, deserving of respect for her great passages in The Good Earth, at least, though perhaps not un-Sally Kirkland-like in her impulse toward self-mythologization.

The kicker to all this, unkind to acknowledge but impossible not to, is that Rainer's evanescent screen celebrity and her peers' fleeting enthusiasm for her are much harder to understand than is the abrupt dissipation of both. Her brief but lavishly rewarded rise at a studio that had Garbo, Loy, Crawford, and Shearer at its disposal seems especially bizarre, as though someone thought Max Reinhardt-style theatricality would translate easily in saucily elegant comedies, lavish musical dioramas, and romantic, close-up-filled dramas. Or as though Garbo was famous not because she was galvanizing but simply because she was European, and thus a slightly ersatz substitute would do just fine.

I offer all this as preface to The Emperor's Candlesticks because there is little to say about the movie itself, a tonally-strained caper that's all corked wine and tarnished brass. The plot concerns a Polish baron, played by William Powell, who is asked to smuggle into Russia a ransom note written by some Polish radicals who have kidnapped a visiting Romanov duke (Robert Young). Stay with me. Rainer plays a Russian Countess and member of its secret police, commissioned to reach the Tsar before Powell does, and then to expose him as a spy and take him as collateral for the detained duke—whom she does not realize is himself a tit-for-tat hostage, apprehended in an effort to recover yet another Pole whom the Russians have incarcerated. This offscreen hostage is the father of Maria (Maureen O'Sullivan, unhappy), the beautiful ingénue who seduces the duke at a masked ball and serves him up to the straight-faced but rather inert Polish zealots. As Powell and Rainer prepare for one of those (very) light whose-train-will-get-there-first suspensers, they are each asked by an elderly mutual acquaintance to deliver a pair of highly ornamental candlesticks to a Russian princess whom this man is eager to seduce. He apparently thinks these gewgaws will appeal to her because each candlestick contains a secret compartment that opens like a drawbridge when you crank one of the golden stems—compartments just large enough to contain, say, a ransom note from some Polish insurrectionists or an affadavit swearing that a loyal friend is actually a spy. The movie is certainly infatuated with this device, demonstrating the hand-cranked apparatus at least 82 times. So, who knows, maybe "Princess Tania" would have loved them, too.

That's a lot of plot, and it entails exactly the sort of fuzzy, antiquarian, head-in-the-clouds notion of "Europe" that Rainer probably resented in so many areas of Hollywood life and work. The best thing to do with it is submerge it in charming performance and gently rib it for its own intricacies. Powell is an ideal actor by which to achieve this, but by the time he arrives, 15 minutes into the movie, the whole affair already feels top-heavy and oddly unembracing of comedy, though not inclined to suspense or to seriousness, either. One of the 1930s' most irresistible leading men looks thickish and saggy, disenchanted with the material, and director George Fitzmaurice comes off even worse. He kills a whole series of potential punchlines by filming them in long shot, even when there is nothing physical to play in them. It seems never to occur to him that the angry Poles could also be funny, as they surely would be in a Hawks or a Sturges picture; comic incompetence or fractiousness or overconfidence might also have explained the total lack of danger in which Young seems to exist, along with his constantly whingeing valet (played inevitably and unendurably by Frank Morgan). Fitzmaurice was ill at the time Candlesticks was being filmed, between two separate occasions when Dorothy Arzner had to be called in to finish movies he had started. But his technique feels logy in all the same ways even in earlier films like the undeservingly durable Garbo dud Mata Hari.

When the Candlesticks narrative furnishes something a director could reasonably have fun with, like the late-arriving montage by which one of the two secret documents gets passed across Europe inside a whole daisy-chain of coat sleeves and dinner napkins, we wonder why Fitzmaurice didn't dilate this episode to greater length and cut down some of the momentum-suppressed dialogues. The lauded largesse of MGM productions is only sporadically conjured, more through fussy clothes and peculiar headwear than in the sets, even when some sumptuous, mercifully distracting décor seems ripe for the filming. Rainer and Powell conduct a very long dinner conversation in the utterly monastic back room of a restaurant we're to understand as very ritzy. Why we aren't outside, in the magnificent main hall, is impossible to know, even though we walk through that resplendent space at the beginning and end of the scene (so it's not as though they didn't build it), and we continue to hear the string music wafting in to the private cell (the kind of patchy audio element that makes Emperor's Candlesticks seem five or seven years older than it actually is). And even so, Fitzmaurice incorporates a lot of wide shots inside this wood-paneled dungeon, so we can see just how dingily his two stars are cabined up.

The whole movie comprises a series of odd choices, then, coming to pleasurable life exactly once, when Powell and Rainer are stuck in a hotel they're both desperate to get out of. Each tries to suggest to the other through a very thin wall the alibi of staying in for the night, when in fact both are hustling out to intercept the last train to Budapest. Some light farce ensues with squeaky mattresses, stentorian yawns, and shoes loudly dropped in the hallway. But for comedy in The Emperor's Candlesticks, that's about it. I was most disconcerted by the final act, when a Russian heavy played by Frank Conroy shows up to threaten our main characters, but mostly to serve the same generic function as the reporters and moneybags who reabsorb Claudette Colbert into their mirthfully mirthless horde at the end of It Happened One Night, while she's still making up her mind whether she loves Clark Gable or hates him. Capra makes those scenes comic without sacrificing their tetchy impersonality. The journalists' crabby dryness makes you long for Gable, and I'm not usually one to long for Gable, even though you see completely why those two aren't currently getting along, and might never. Fitzmaurice, by admittedly imbalanced comparison, just traps his movie and his main actors inside a cold palace/prison where one or both of them might die, complete with the Russian characters' own blithe invocations of their own inability to love. (That's funny, but not intentionally.) The movie still ends "happily," of course, but even as its protagonists are riding off together on a winter sled, you can't quite tell if Powell is squinting because the fake snow is blowing in his eyes or if the whole project just smells bad to him.

Rainer, sad to say, is a hindrance to the movie at every step of the way, no matter how badly it needs whatever helping hands it can get. She purportedly found the script too confusing to understand, and one sympathizes to a point: I found it convoluted as well, but not in a way sensible direction wouldn't have rendered moot, and not in a way that I'd expect to still find baffling if I had it in hand to re-read. Rather than set the tortuous turns aside and try to inject some much-needed lightness through her playing, even in the overtly fatigued way that Powell attempts, Rainer is strenuous amidst her evident insecurity, overactive and insufficiently attractive, in every way suggesting some nightmare gene-splice of Aline MacMahon and Gale Sondergaard. She indulges a lot of her same mannerisms from Ziegfeld and from the following year's The Great Waltz, wringing her hands and rolling her eyes, looking to audiences in invisible balconies when she's not aiming her gaze with unnerving fixity at Powell, albeit not in any way that feels like personal connection. No matter how comfortable she did or did not feel working in English at that point, she often comes across as having learned her lines phonetically, especially the funny lines. They're the wrong phonetics. "I! read! my! noose! pay! per!" she blurts out, as a chain of spondees, twisting like a soggy dishtowel a simple, slinky rejoinder that Myrna Loy would would have tossed like a satin veil, without even realizing she was doing it. Rainer doesn't seem to hear the joke in a line like "Were you nice-looking, when you were young?" When she laughs, it has a detached, overcooked quality, reacting not to the dialogue or the scenario or her co-star but to the notation in the script that instructs her to laugh. "Has anyone ever told you you have a rather relentless smile?" Powell asks at one point, and it's the truest-sounding moment in the movie. "I come! fwom a lather euh-lent! less! fam-i-lee!" she, as it were, responds.

Rainer might have served MGM reasonably well as a fairy grandmother to Shelley Duvall, an odd, goose-shaped character actress unafraid (to say the least) of her own eccentricity but able to surprise you with real presence when you've stopped expecting it. The Great Ziegfeld even suggests MGM might have been carving this kind of niche for her. If Mayer hadn't promoted Rainer into the leading category at the Oscars—in the very year, bizarrely, when the supporting races were inaugurated to recognize this very type of performance—and then hadn't made such a push about her winning, she might have kept her happiness and her dignity in those spotlit supporting parts, at some profit to herself and maybe even to the studio, especially while she got her sea-legs in a business that maybe she never quite bought into. Certainly winning two Academy Awards as a leading actress discounted such a trajectory, and then no one seemed to know what to do with her, including Rainer herself. Her trophies were like the candlesticks in this misbegotten enterprise: the focus-pulling props in her career, but also the incongruous MacGuffins, hollow on the inside, entrusted to Rainer for a while on their way to being delivered to someone more deserving. When even the shamefully Oscarless William Powell is running at half-charisma in your movie, and even Frank Morgan is more irritating than usual, the vehicle in question may not be a fair one by which to assess anyone's overall value to the artform, or the business. But in Rainer's case, The Emperor's Candlesticks seems unusually revealing, doffing the dropcloth from exactly the sort of peculiar, temporarily arresting artifact she was, guaranteed to inspire buyer's remorse in anyone who paid too much for her, or in too many installments.

Maybe, though, the picture is a cold, weird comfort to her. If The Good Earth is a movie that the Luise Rainer in my head can look at and think, "I did very well by the best of what I was given," maybe the same Rainer can look at The Emperor's Candlesticks and think, "I cannot be blamed for quitting before I was basically fired, not if this was what they had for me to do." Meanwhile, any similarity to actual forms of entertainment, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Grade: D+

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