powered by AFI
When director Ernst Lubitsch was preparing to make A Royal Scandal (1945), based on Lajos Biro and Melchior Lengyel's play Czarina (which he had filmed in Berlin as the silent Forbidden Paradise in 1924), Tallulah Bankhead was his first choice to play Catherine the Great. Although Bankhead was better known as a stage, rather than film actress, she was riding high on the success of Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944). As she wrote in her autobiography, A Royal Scandal "was to be a satiric treatment of the promiscuous Empress, pointing up her flirtations, her adulteries, the havoc wrought on her retainers. [...] From Lubitsch I wrenched the stipulation that my salary would start the day I set foot in Hollywood. They might fiddle while Tallulah burned, but it would be expensive fiddling." She later admitted that her $125,000 salary was mostly eaten up by taxes, just leaving her enough to pay her artesian and swimming pool bills.
In the cast with Bankhead were two of Hollywood's finest character actors, Charles Coburn and Vincent Price, as well as a very young Anne Baxter and William Eythe, and Lubitsch veterans Sig Ruman and Henry Victor. Eva Gabor can be seen in the role of Countess Demidow, and Feodor Chaliapin, Jr., best known for playing Cher's grandfather in Moonstruck (1987), appears, uncredited, as a lackey.
A Royal Scandal was supposed to be a sex comedy, but there was a lot of drama going on behind the scenes. Ernst Lubitsch, the master of the sophisticated romantic comedy was to have directed, but he suffered a heart attack and turned the film over to Otto Preminger, staying on as producer, instead. Lubitsch is often cited as uncredited co-director with Preminger, but it is unclear whether he directed anything more than the rehearsals.
The star brought her share of drama to the set as well. Although Bankhead had been signed to play Catherine, Greta Garbo, who had been off the screen for several years, decided that she wanted to play the part. Lubitsch was thrilled by the news and went to Preminger to get Bankhead off the film, but he refused. Not only did Preminger want Bankhead to star, but his entire family had been saved from Nazi Germany through Bankhead's influence in Washington (her father had been a senator). Lubitsch was furious and went to 20th Century-Fox studio chef, Darryl F. Zanuck, who likewise refused; not for sentimental reasons, but practical: Garbo's last picture, Two-Faced Woman (1941) had been such a flop, she'd left the screen, whereas Lifeboat had been a hit. Bankhead stayed on the picture and Lubitsch treated her with contempt throughout shooting. They often had arguments which once left Bankhead sobbing on the floor of her dressing room.
Anne Baxter, playing Bankhead's love rival and lady-in-waiting, was the granddaughter of legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who visited her on the set and watched a rehearsal in April 1944. As Wright wrote to his daughter, he thought that Baxter was a nice girl who had been miscast, as the film was "very dressy and sexy and elaborate." Bankhead, who detested Wright because of his right-wing politics, ordered Preminger to "get that monster out of here." Instead, Preminger had them rehearse the same scene over and over again until Wright got tired and left. Then, they shot it. Not everyone fought with Tallulah. William Eythe told his good friend, actor Lon McCallister, that "she was a wonderful, brilliant, giving actress to play opposite. He loved the whole experience of working with her."
Shooting finished in fifteen weeks, followed by a sneak preview out of Los Angeles. The audience enjoyed the film and Lubitsch and Zanuck were pleased, but Preminger wasn't. He thought that the audience "hated themselves for laughing." He didn't think it would be successful and he was right. A Royal Scandal had cost $1.75 million and only brought in $1.5 million at the box office, despite Variety calling it "a highly hilarious comedy with superb performances by Tallulah Bankhead and Charles Coburn." Preminger understood what Lubitsch and Zanuck didn't - that the day of the "Lubitsch touch" was nearing its end. There was a war on and audiences' tastes had changed. Vincent Price later told his daughter that the blame lay with Preminger, "who had the sense of humor of a guillotine."
The days of Ernst Lubitsch and Tallulah Bankhead were also nearing their end. Lubitsch was felled by another heart attack in 1947, and Bankhead would never have another chance to play a leading lady role on the screen, even though she was only 43 when A Royal Scandal was released.
By Lorraine LoBianco
SOURCES:Bankhead, Tallulah Tallulah: My Autobiography
Erickson, Hal All Movie Guide
Eyman, Scott Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise
Fujiwara, Chris The World and its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger
Johnson, Donald Leslie The Fountainheads: Wright, Rand, the FBI and Hollywood
Lobenthal, Joel Tallulah!
Price, Victoria Vincent Price: A Daughter's Biography
"A Royal Scandal" Variety 31 Dec 44