A Royal Scandal
Cast & Crew
In the mid-eighteenth century, the Russian court is thrown into upheaval when outspoken, lusty Catherine the Great quarrels with her latest companion, Variatinsky. Although the scheming Gen. Michael Nicolai Vladimirovich Ronsky wants to install his dimwitted nephew Boris in Variatinsky's post as commander of the palace guard, and thereby gain the ability to overthrow Catherine, the czarina's crafty chancellor, Nicolai Illytch, tries to thwart Ronsky by keeping any newcomers from meeting Catherine until he can introduce her to a French ambassador, Marquis de Fleury. Nicolai hopes the marquis will convince Catherine to make an alliance with France, but his attempt to introduce the marquis to Catherine is forestalled by the sudden appearance of Alexei Chernoff, a lieutenant in the horse guards. The dishevelled Alexei describes how his fealty to his sovereign prompted him to sneak into the palace to tell her about a plot against her life, but Catherine, who already knew of the unsuccessful scheme, is more interested in Alexei's abundant physical appeal. Unaware that Alexei is engaged to her favorite lady-in-waiting, Countess Anna Jaschikoff, Catherine has Alexei installed in Variatinsky's now-empty quarters. Catherine then promotes Alexei to captain and gives him a tight, white uniform, which pleases her when he comes to her chamber that evening to report on the army. Catherine attempts to seduce the lovely but naïve Alexei, who is thrilled by the opportunity to kiss "Mother Russia." When Catherine learns that Nicolai had suggested to Alexei that he return to his camp, she is determined to have Alexei stay, and continues to promote him as the days pass. Realizing what Catherine's plans are for Alexei, Anna coldly congratulates him when he is made the new commander of the palace guards, and chastises him for being a plaything instead of a real soldier. Alexei becomes frustrated by his affair with Catherine, for although he welcomes the opportunity to be with her, he longs to be of more use to his country. While Catherine placates Alexei by allowing him to investigate the status of the country's serfs, Ronsky and his cronies try to win Alexei to their revolutionary cause. One day, Catherine learns about Alexei and Anna's engagement, and when she commands Anna to return home, Anna lashes out and tells the czarina that she is making a fool of herself with the much younger Alexei. Without revealing Anna's name, Catherine tells Alexei about Anna's harsh criticisms and he replies that such a traitor cannot be dealt with leniently. Crushed when Alexei refuses to support her after learning the whole truth, Anna agrees to leave the palace. Alexei then gets drunk with Ronsky, who has arranged for Variatinsky to return and inform the still ignorant Alexei that he is merely one in a string of Catherine's lovers. Feeling used, Alexei confronts the czarina and is heartbroken when she refuses to refute Variatinsky's charges for fear of scandal. Alexei also learns that Catherine does not even read his carefully written edicts, and so decides to cooperate with Ronsky. The chancellor, who eavesdrops on Ronsky and Alexei's conversation, pretends to ally with them, and that night, Alexei enables Ronsky's forces to take over the palace. Alexei assures the terrified Catherine that he made Ronsky promise not to kill her and instead give her to him as his share of the "loot." Catherine pleads with Alexei, promising to make him czar, but he does not capitulate. Her pleas are interrupted by the arrival of Nicolai, who engineered a counter-coup. The chancellor escorts in Ronsky, who has been arrested, and Alexei is also jailed for his part in the failed revolution. Claiming Ronsky as his share of the "loot," Nicolai makes the disgraced general act as his servant while Alexei languishes in captivity because he refuses to apologize to Catherine. Hoping to reunite Anna and Alexei, the chancellor arranges for Catherine finally to meet the smooth-talking Marquis de Fleury. While Fleury heaps praise upon the czarina, Nicolai secures a guarantee of freedom for Alexei from her, then leaves the marquis and Catherine to their new romance.
Gen. Sam Savitsky
William H. O'brien
Paul S. Fox
R. A. Klune
Edwin Justus Mayer
Frances C. Richardson
Louis Van Den Ecker
A Royal Scandal
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
A Royal Scandal
The working titles of this film were Czarina and The Czarina. An October 1944 New York Times news item reported that the studio was going to change the title Czarina, "as it is feared too few movie patrons these days will know what a Czarina is-or was." The following written prologue appears onscreen after the opening titles: "This picture is about Catherine of Russia. Her people called her the 'Mother of all the Russias.' Her biographers called her 'The Great.' Our story takes place at the time of her life when she was not so much of a mother-But when she was especially great." The film is very loosely based on the life of Catherine the Great (1729-1796), a tempestuous, saavy monarch whose favorites sometimes obtained a significant amount of political power. According to an October 11, 1944 Hollywood Citizen-News article, the studio emphasized the "historical inaccuracy" of the picture in order to highlight its comedic nature.
A October 1944 New York Times news item noted that producer Ernst Lubitsch, who was recovering from heart problems, supervised the actors' rehearsals, while director Otto Preminger oversaw the actual filming. According to a studio press release, Lubitsch had originally wanted to direct the film as well as produce it, but was ordered by his doctors to limit his activities. According to a March 6, 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item, Joseph Mankiewicz was scheduled to write the picture's screenplay. Some modern sources note that Lubitsch wanted Greta Garbo to play Catherine, even though Tallulah Bankhead had already been signed for the part. Preminger insisted that Bankhead be retained, however. One modern source asserts that Lubitsch originally offered the role of "Alexei Chernoff" to Charles Boyer. Although a October 25, 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that Gregory Ratoff had been signed to play "a stooge" to the "chancellor," he does not appear in the completed film. John Emery was announced for the role of "Catherine's ex-lover" by a October 30, 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item, but that part is played in the finished film by Don Douglas. Evelyn Mulhall, Martha Montgomery, Ellen Hall, Elaine Langan and Betty Boyd are included in the cast by a September 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item, but their appearance in the completed picture has not been confirmed.
According to a August 9, 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item, "background scenes" for the picture were shot on location at Cedar City, UT. A August 20, 1944 New York Times article noted that Columbia had sought an injunction against Twentieth Century-Fox to delay the start of production of A Royal Scandal, as Charles Coburn was already working in a production for Columbia, and that studio did not want him to be working on two pictures at once. Columbia dropped the threatened legal action, however, when Twentieth Century-Fox agreed to postpone its starting date, which originally had been set for July 31, 1944, and then 15 August 1944.
Information in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library indicates that the PCA rejected the initial draft of the picture's screenplay. On August 8, 1944, Lubitsch sent a rewritten draft to the PCA and asked for a prompt response, as he had had "to postpone the starting date of the picture on account of these rewrites." The PCA approved the rewritten screenplay, although PCA head Joseph I. Breen noted that "great care must be taken to avoid any offensive suggestiveness."
After completing A Royal Scandal, Bankhead did not appear in another film until the 1953 Lester Cowan production Main Street to Broadway. The Hungarian version of Lajos Biro and Melchior Lengyel's play, A carno, was copyrighted in Budapest on November 22, 1912, and presumably opened in Budapest shortly thereafter. The English-language adaptation, entitled The Czarina opened in New York on January 31, 1922. An operetta based on the play was written by Alfred Gruenwald, Oscar Straus and Julius Brammer. Entitled The Pearls of Cleopatra, the operetta opened in Vienna on November 17, 1923. The play has been filmed two other times. The first picture, Forbidden Paradise, was released in 1924 by Paramount and was directed by Lubitsch and starred Pola Negri and Rod La Rocque (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30; F2.1906). The second filmed version, Catherine the Great, was released by United Artists in 1934 and was directed by Paul Czinner and starred Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Elisabeth Bergner (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.5298).