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Thursday, August 11, 2011

MAYERLING (1936)


Charles Boyer helped Fritz Lang get to Hollywood starring in his Paris-based production of Ferenc Molnar’s LILIOM/’34. He did much the same two years later for another helmer-in-exile from Nazi Germany, Anatole Litvak, in this huge international success about the doomed love affair between Rudolph of Hapsburg and a young, beautiful Baroness, Maria Vetsera (Danielle Darrieux). Boyer may have been pushing forty, but he still had the bloom of youth in those big brown eyes (even in b&w) & the purring voice that Pepe Le Pew acquired. As his guileless lover, the 19 yr-old Darrieux is worth every pang. (She still is, an ageless beauty with two new film credits in 2010.) Together, they make a matchless romantic couple. But the whole film is a marvel, filmed with a fluid pace that rivals the great Max Ophüls, who brought similar Hapsburg atmosphere & fatalism to his LIEBELEI in ’32. But MAYERLING gets beyond the stunning balls & concerts, past the orgies of wine, women & song, because Rudolph, heir to the throne, was also one of the great What-Ifs of history. A student & writer, a liberal & anti-clerical radical; what course might The Great War have taken if Rudolph had been the leading voice of German-speaking culture rather than his militaristic cousin Wilhelm II? It’s as much a mystery as the events that took place at a royal hunting lodge in Mayerling, 1889.

DOUBLE-BILL: No wonder Boyer scored as a European exile trying to get out of Mexico and into California in the Billy Wilder scripted HOLD BACK THE DAWN/’41. He knew people who had lived the backstory. But since MAYERLING is a Boyer/Darrieux pic, let’s go with Max Ophül’s sublime THE EARRINGS OF MADAME D . . . /’55 to see them together again.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: And speaking of backstory . . . Frederic Morton’s classic survey of Viennese society in 1888/1889, A NERVOUS SPLENDOR, keyed to the Rudolph/Maria affair, remains tough to beat & highly readable.

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