It’s the final Hollywood film by the legendary Ziegfeld star Marilyn Miller, and it’s also a terrific talkie feature debut for W.C. Fields — with one of his dazzling juggling bits. But the real star is director William Dieterle, whose moving camera and creative edits rescue the talkie musical from dreary operetta staging.
Her Majesty, Love
The Warner Archive Collection
1931 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 75 min. / Street Date January 19, 2016 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring Marilyn Miller, Ben Lyon, W.C. Fields, Leon Errol, Ford Sterling, Chester Conklin, Clarence Wilson, Ruth Hall, Virginia Sale, Oscar Apfel.
Cinematography Robert Kurrie
Film Editor Ralph Dawson
Songs Walter Jurmann, Al Dubin
Written by Robert Lord, Arthur Caesar from story by Rudolph Bernauer, Rudolf Österreicher
Directed by William Dieterle
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Warner Archive Collection has been kind to fans of early talkies. We’ve been able to discover dramatic actresses like Jeanne Eagels and Dorothy Mackaill in addition to Broadway musical stars that took a break to try out the silver screen. The major Florenz Ziegfeld attraction Marilyn Miller had bad luck in the early talkies, making only three pictures before retreating to a warmer reception back on the legit stage. The WAC has already given us DVDs of Miller’s 1929 Sally and 1930’s Sunny, both of which are bright musical comedy adaptations, and feature Ms. Miller singing and especially dancing.
Now the third and last Marilyn Miller musical vehicle is here, 1931’s Her Majesty, Love. It seem to have been a case of ‘let’s try something different,’ for instead of adapting one of Miller’s stage shows, it’s an instantaneous remake of a German movie, that was also shot in a French version. Her Majesty, Love is a romantic comedy with only four songs, and Miller only sings one of them solo. A radio singer named Donald Novis sings the other three. The surprise is that Marilyn has no featured dance numbers in this musical. Her character isn’t a performer and the only dance she does is a tango with the ever-smiling leading man, Ben Lyon.
The gorgeous Miller is a pleasing presence, but film fans are likely to spring for Her Majesty, Love to see its third-billed star, W.C. Fields. He had made some short subjects but this is his first character role in a talkie feature, which allowed him to finally start using his inimitable vocal skills. This is the picture that launched Fields’ long run of hits over at Paramount and then Universal. The film is also notable as a technical-directorial knockout for German émigré director William Dieterle. The historical credit for technical innovation in musicals goes mostly to the directors Rouben Mamoulian and Ernst Lubitsch, but Dieterle overcomes all the drawbacks that were dragging down early talkies. And it is only his second picture for Warners.
The story of Her Majesty, Love is a trifle enlivened by spirited performances. Berlin barmaid Lia Toerrek (Marilyn Miller) works in a racy all-night club and is constantly hit on by swells in tuxedos. But she’s a good girl who goes home to Father (W.C. Fields), a barber and ex-entertainer. Young Fred von Wellingen (Ben Lyon) tries to chat up Lia and at first gets nowhere. When he finally realizes he wants to marry her, he finds that his snobby family has other plans. Led by his brother Otmar (Ford Sterling) the von Wellingens demand that Fred drop Lia, and in return offer him the leadership role in their profitable ball bearing company. The confused Fred takes them up on the deal but has trouble breaking the news to Lia. Seeing an opportunity, the rather goofy Baron von Scharzdorf (Leon Errol) puts the moves on Lia, and in her disappointment, she accepts. Gee, do you think that true love will prevail?
Director Dieterle makes every minute of Her Majesty, Love a fast-moving, visually rewarding delight. The opening song in the Berlin nightclub is a flurry of perfectly timed camera moves and smartly edited bursts of balloons, as a quartet of sugar-daddy bachelors tries to get Lia’s attention. The design surprises and clever editing patterns continue into the dialogue scenes, with Fred and Otmar handing each other notes because they’re not on speaking terms.
Dieterle uses Fritz Lang- like audio associations to cue hard-cut scene transitions, a la “M“: a cut to a new scene is more than once motivated by the mention of a person in the new scene. Even the New York Times was dazzled in its review:
“…with Mr. Dieterle’s magic touch nothing is confused. He darts here and there, blends in flashes with quick dissolves and impresses one as being a producer who could make a poor story interesting and a good story a masterpiece.”
The Times enthusiastic reviewer even details a clever scene transition that takes Fred from Berlin to Venice, Italy. Fred tosses a bunch of papers on his desk into the air, which cues a hard cut to a flock of pigeons taking wing on a Venetian piazza. The cut is a lot like the Falcon-to-Spitfire time/space jump in Powell/Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale, which itself seems a precursor to the Tapir Bone-to-weapons satellite time/space jump in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sure, papers-to-pigeons isn’t as profound of a cut, but we’re talking formal structures here. Dieterle may have settled into mostly conventional Hollywood pictures, but he was definitely capable of refined cinematics when required, as in his later triumph The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Robert Wise gets the historical credit for the editing, but all those expressive shots were designed and filmed by the director.
Her Majesty, Love can’t have had a bad effect on William Dieterle’s career. His expressionistic storytelling style pretty much ignores the lifeless stage doldrums that had hurt the talkie musical in its first couple of years. The fact that it’s a film adaptation and not a stage original helps. It’s basically a comedy with four songs. I couldn’t verify that the first song heard is “You’re Baby-Minded Now” but I’ve heard it often as background music in later WB pictures.
W.C. Fields fans will see just enough of the great man to make his presence worthwhile. He wears one of those unlikely Fuller Brush mustaches that he wore in some silent films. Invited to a formal von Wellingen party, Fields’s schtick is very much like his later screen personality, as he shocks the society matrons with his cheerfully uncouth manners. He uses a spoon to lob chocolate éclairs down the length of a dining table. He loudly invites a waiter to drop by anytime for a free haircut. Fields then puts on a full juggling act to prove what a great entertainer he once was.
Unlike some other W.C. Fields movies, there are few or no sentimental father-daughter scenes. Marilyn Miller’s Lia is pretty much abandoned by the lazy screenplay and by the film as well. Lia is sweet but no fool; she doesn’t fall for the hot-to-trot Fred until she hears the right words. But then she’s willing to commit, as she finds him very attractive. That’s about all the depth the romance is given. Ben Lyon’s Fred (Hell’s Angels) is both a nice guy and a complete jerk — he not only neglects to tell Lia the truth, but lies about leaving town. She keeps her dignity by crashing another von Wellingen party and overturning a table as she makes her angry exit. It’s good that the film is so smartly constructed, because the boy-loses-girl, boy-atones finish isn’t all that compelling.
In addition to eccentric turns from Ford Sterling, Chester Conklin and Clarence Wilson, the show gives us more clowning by Leon Errol. His Baron is excited to score Lia as his seventh wife. The happy ending thumbs its nose at the Production Code — (spoiler) — Fred arrives too late to prevent Lia from marrying the Baron, yet she falls into Fred’s arms right in front of her new husband. They’ll have the marriage annulled or reversed or whatever… but now that Lia is a Baroness, she’ll be ‘good enough’ for Fred’s snooty family. So much for the sanctity of marriage. That’s what passes for social frivolity in German comedy romances.
Underused and out-shone by the production, Marilyn Miller wasn’t praised in the press and audiences didn’t flock to Her Majesty, Love. Deciding that this third flop would be her last, Miller pulled out of her film contract and was welcomed back on Broadway. Her later relations with Hollywood were so bad that she refused to be in MGM’s puff-piece biopic The Great Ziegfeld. She even refused that film the use of her name.
Her Majesty, Love was an immediate remake of a highly successful German film Ihre Majestät die Liebe, produced and directed by Joe May. It starred Käthy von Nagy, Francis Lederer, S.Z. Sakall, and Kurt Gerron. Lederer and Sakall made the jump to Hollywood, while the unfortunate Kurt Gerron lived out a genuine 20th century horror story. A French-language version of the German production starred the popular Annabella.
Joe May was one of the biggest names in German movies; Fritz Lang began his own career by writing films for him. May emigrated in 1933 but didn’t replicate his European success. He was already in his mid-’50s. Was he too set in his ways? Too German? He made few memorable films here, but is still revered for his silent German classics Asphalt, Mistress of the World, Heimkehr, and the twin silent features The Tiger of Eschnapur & The Indian Tomb.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Her Majesty, Love is a solid presentation in better than acceptable shape. The film is intact, consistent in quality, reasonably sharp and attractive. The audio is fine, although one or two dialogue lines are hard to hear, and possibly always were. Marilyn Miller looks great. If you’re after a fun show with her and not W.C. Fields, I recommend Sally, where she sings and dances with Joe E. Brown.
An original trailer is included. Most studio trailers I’ve seen from the year 1931 are… primitive.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Her Majesty, Love DVD-R rates:
Movie: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 13, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson