Posted by David Kalat on July 11, 2015
William Powell the unflappable. That was his screen persona—memorialized in the likes of The Thin Man. He had a voice like single malt Scotch and a suave manner somehow equal parts immensely cultured and rough. In the glory days of 1930s romantic comedies, he was a king. William Powell was the 1930s equivalent of Fonzie. He was untouchably cool.
On screen, that is. No man is ever really so unmoved. And in 1938, the off-screen William Powell was in personal and professional turmoil. The love of his life, Jean Harlow, died tragically of renal failure at the age of 26. Still reeling from grief at this loss, Powell found his contract at MGM, the studio that practically made him a star, over. He was adrift, in more ways than one—but he would be called on to put on a happy face for the cameras to play opposite French actress Annabella in her American debut for a one-off romantic comedy made at 20th Century Fox. Almost immediately after completing the film, Powell would be diagnosed with cancer, and spend most of the next two years fighting for his life. That The Baroness and the Butler is even watchable is a testament to Powell’s professionalism. (Watch it tonight on TCM, or use the spiffy new TCM app to stream it at your leisure)
It was an adaptation of the 1936 Viennese play Jean (I remain consistently surprised at how many of Hollywood’s romantic comedies in that period came from Austrian and Hungarian theatre. Was Austrio-Hungarian theater of the 1930s really such a hotbed of great farce? Or was it that a bunch of Austrian and Hungarian exiles were hiding out in Hollywood from the Nazis and going for what they knew?). The play had already migrated to Broadway in 1937, where it took the title The Lady Has a Heart and accommodated Vincent Price in the role now destined to be Powell’s.
That role was Jean, the title character. A note appended to the first screenplay treatment in the studio files indicates that the Fox writing staff were already eyeing another title change: “Jean is a rather Frenchy name and is interchangeably masculine and feminine.” Studio chief Darryl Zanuck decided the new title: The Baroness and the Butler.
The play had obviously been selected on the basis of its thematic similarity to Powell’s Oscar-nominated blockbuster hit My Man Godfrey. Again, Powell is cast as a butler in a situation that turns on the Depression-era gap between the Haves and the Have Nots, although this time the action was relocated to a fantasy vision of Hungary, full of faux-European opulence.
Mixing class-warfare and progressive rabble-rousing with romantic comedies sounds like a dangerous concoction, and one cannot easily imagine the studio moguls in the late 1930s taking such stuff lightly. But the more audiences responded positively to these socially-minded farces, the more Hollywood would keep making them—and William Powell’s brilliance in Godfrey, one of the most prominent of the sub-genre, made him an obvious go-to choice for anyone seeking to replicate that formula. He was even in contention to play the male lead in Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka, a role that went to Melvyn Douglas when Powell’s cancer-related troubles sidelined him for a few years.
Director Walter Lang had worked his way up the ranks during the silent era. By 1926 he was directing movies—and then he decided to give it up. Lang took a brief hiatus from that career to try his hand at being an expatriate painter in Paris. He soon slunk back to Hollywood with his tail between his legs to resume making comedies, such as the superlative Carole Lombard vehicle Hands Across the Table. By the 1940s and 50s he settled into making lavish Technicolor musicals, of which his last was the mildly unfortunate swan song Snow White and the Three Stooges (not an unbearably bad movie, but likely not how the director of The King and I and Desk Set would like to be remembered).
The production supervisor on the film was another old hand at comedy, Raymond Griffith. In case that name isn’t ringing any bells, Griffith was a silent screen clown whose comedies confidently bore comparison to those of Buster Keaton and Charley Chase. However, his acting career had effectively ended by 1927. Any thoughts he may have harbored about trying for a comeback ended as sound rolled in, his weak raspy voice being unfit for talking pictures. He started anew, as a production supervisor, and served in that administrative capacity for many happy years.
The Baroness and the Butler opens by introducing not its characters but its settings—three places, each as significant to the plot as any of the humans who live there.
The first is the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest, where the rulers rule. Second is the town of Tura, where the ruled live in poverty. Last is Castle Sandor, where the rulers live in prosperity. Then, and only then, is it time to introduce William Powell as Jean, now renamed Johann, the butler to the Prime Minister, Count Sandor (Henry Stephenson).
Theirs is a warm relationship: Sandor is a generous old man with a big heart, and his servant seems to genuinely love him. But it is a professional relationship, demarcated by clear class boundaries and strict rules. It may appear to be a form of friendship, but it is a friendship in which one man is forbidden to sit in the presence of the other, all but banned from speaking at all.
(to see the exact opposite relationship between master and servant, feel free to revist the superlative Ruggles of Red Gap)
So, when it comes to pass that Johann has been elected to serve as a Senator representing the socially progressive opposition party, this relationship is put to the test.
The odd thing about this movie, the thing that keeps it from being great while at the same time providing its main source of interest, is that the improbable central premise is only a loony high-concept on top of which the filmmakers stretch out an even nuttier and less plausible set of additional circumstances.
At Parliament, Johann is a sharp-tongued activist with a take-no-prisoners opposition to Sandor; but he retains his position as butler(!) The tensions multiply in every direction: these two men admire and respect each other, yet are political foes. And even that respect between them is a source of tension—Sandor’s gentle demeanor makes him a beloved public figure, yet he advances regressive and selfish policies for the moneyed set. Johann needs to destroy his master’s public image to make any social change. Meanwhile, Sandor agrees with Johann’s policies, yet does nothing to help him, and rankles that his butler’s public responsibilities are distracting him from his private duties. The Sandor family practically explode with fury at the betrayal, and are horrified to have to think of their butler now as something of a social equal . . . and did I mention this is a romantic comedy?
The romance angle comes from Annabella, as the PM’s daughter Katrina. As long as Johann was unambiguously her servant, she flirted with him constantly. Now that he has all these uppity ideas above his station, she sets out to ruin him—but this being a 1930s rom-com, her surface hostility masks a hidden tenderness. In the age of the screwball, combat is courtship.
It doesn’t really work, certainly not the way its makers probably intended. It’s hard to swallow a serious political message from something so scattershot and farcical, yet it’s equally hard to lose yourself in the comic complications when everyone keeps making political speeches. Throughout it all, Powell gives a terrific performance. Whatever was burning away inside him, he appears to be his usual imperturbable self, adroitly juggling the conflicting moods of the crazy plot. Annabella fares less well—her thick French accent and haughty demeanor are appropriate for her character but get in the way of the necessary sexual chemistry she’s supposed to be kindling with Powell. One is cool as a cucumber, one is ice-cold, and the combination isn’t entirely inviting.
The relationship between Powell and Stephenson is another matter entirely. Here is genuine warmth and humanity, and more rare, a willingness to agree to disagree. In an age where contemporary American political discourse has become alarmingly ugly and vindictive, it is refreshing to spend 82 minutes in the company of two opponents who won’t let their political beliefs obscure their friendship.
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