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The Royal Bed

Mary Astor costarred in the 1931 comedy The Royal Bed during a difficult time in her life. She had professional difficulties because a failed sound test had rendered her unemployable. A role in a prominent play helped to resurrect her career only to have her personal life shattered when her husband, director Kenneth Hawks, was killed in a plane crash during the production of a film. Grief and exhaustion caused her to become seriously ill with a kind of tuberculosis complicated by malnutrition. When she returned to work, she free-lanced for Paramount and Warner Bros. before signing a contract with RKO. During the early 1930s, she appeared in a rapid succession of films that she dubbed the "dreary 18," mostly because she lacked motivation for her career during this time. While The Royal Bed--one of the "dreary 18"--is not a stellar example of Hollywood filmmaking, it does reflect the work of a prominent playwright of the era, Robert E. Sherwood.

Based on Sherwood's play The Queen's Husband, The Royal Bed tells the story of a royal family from a fictional country that is facing personal and public difficulties. Actor-director Lowell Sherman directs himself in the role of affable King Eric VIII. Astor costars as his rebellious daughter, Princess Anne, and Nance O'Neil plays no-nonsense Queen Martha, who places duty above all else, including love. King Eric faces political difficulties because a revolution is bubbling under the surface of his otherwise peaceful country. Premier General Northrup tries to take advantage of the situation to usurp the throne from the king. Northrup also conspires with the Marquis of Birten to marry off Princess Anne to Crown Prince William because it will make a good political match. In the meantime, Anne plans to run away with her father's secretary, a commoner named Freddie Granton, despite her mother's admonitions regarding duty and honor>.

The title "The Royal Bed" conjures up images of risqué situations, dialogue with double entendres, and flirtatious characters, but viewers expecting a pre-Code romp will be sorely disappointed. RKO may have retitled Sherwood's work to entice viewers, but the playwright's original title is more accurate. The queen dictates the actions of her family members, while keeping General Northrup and the Marquis under her thumb. She barks orders with gruffness and authority, while the benevolent King is content to play checkers with the servants during the work day. However, the King learns the consequences of his "quiet, detached life" after the respected Dr. Fellman admonishes him for living in isolation from his troubled people. With his eyes opened, the King quells the revolution and brings permanent peace to his country, orders new elections, encourages his daughter to escape the restrictions of palace life by marrying Freddie, and puts Northrup in his place. The officious Queen Martha may appear to control the members of the court, but it is the "Queen's husband" who makes the right decisions for his family and his country>.

Throughout the 1920s, Sherwood composed plays, edited Life magazine, wrote film reviews, and ate lunch at the Algonquin Round Table with Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and the era's other influential writers. The Queen's Husband opened in New York City in January 1928, and The Royal Bed was faithfully adapted for the big screen three years later by J. Walter Ruben. Sherwood's work from this period reflected the pacifist perspective he had adopted after his experiences in World War I. For example, King Eric advocates peaceful methods for resolving problems, which he demonstrates when he subdues the revolution by appealing to the people rather than using military force as demanded by General Northrup. Sherwood also warned against the rising tide of dictatorships and fascism through the character of Northrup. The self-serving general declares himself a dictator during the revolution and tries to oust King Eric, who rebukes the despot with a telling remark: "I'm fed up with your oratory, and your bombast, and your flag-waving patriotism." Sherwood represented a clear antiwar voice at this time through such plays as The Queen's Husband, The Road to Rome (1927) and Reunion in Vienna (1931). As a play, The Queen's Husband received mixed reviews, running for 125 performances before going on tour. As a film, The Royal Bed proved quite popular with the public and became a box-office success.

Sherwood's antiwar sentiments would eventually change. During the Depression, the playwright was still critical of war but focused more on its impact on the personal lives of those who had experienced it as well as broader issues regarding war, peace, and the preservation of democracy. By the time World War II was on the horizon, he had joined an anti-Hitler campaign, which was a prelude to his support for America's involvement in World War II. The success of the play Abe Lincoln in Illinois led to an introduction to Eleanor Roosevelt, which ultimately resulted in his employment by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a speechwriter and adviser. Sherwood also continued to write plays and scripts, earning an Academy Award for The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) >.

The strength of The Royal Bed is its dialogue, particularly King Eric's light-hearted asides and witticisms, which contrast with Queen Martha's harsh tongue. Unfortunately, the interaction among the characters is depicted in tedious long takes in long shot, which approximates the look of a stage play. In addition, the scenes of war and the Queen's visit to America take place off-screen, accentuating the staginess. Despite the weaknesses of the visual style, The Royal Bed as a version of The Queen's Husband represents an interesting juncture in an important playwright's career.

By Susan Doll

Producers: William LeBaron with Henry Hobart
Director: Lowell Sherman
Screenplay: J. Walter Ruben based on the play The Queen's Husband by Robert E. Sherwood
Cinematography: Leo Tover
Editor: Arthur Roberts
Scenery and Costumes: Max Ree
Cast: King Eric VIII (Lowell Sherman), Princess Anne (Mary Astor), Queen Martha (Nance O'Neil), Premier General Northrup (Robert Warwick), Freddie Granton (Anthony Bushell), Crown Prince William (Hugh Trevor), Phipps (Gilbert Emery), Marquis of Birten (Alan Roscoe), Dr. Fellman (Frederick Burt), Laker (Carrol Naish), Major Blent (Desmond Roberts)
1931 B&W 73 mins.

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