Saturday, July 01, 2017

By Candlelight (1933) (2017 Universal restoration)

By Candlelight (1933). Paul Lukas (Josef), Elissa Landi (Marie).

Kynttilän valossa / Resan till Monte Carlo / A lume di candela.
    Director: James Whale. Year: 1933. Country: USA.
    Section: Universal Pictures: the Laemmle Junior Years (Part Two).
    Sog.: dalla pièce Kleine Komödie di Siegfried Geyer. Scen.: F. Hugh Herbert, Ruth Cummings, Karen De Wolf, Hans Kraly. F.: John J. Mescall. M.: Ted Kent, David Berg. Scgf.: Charles D. Hall. Mus.: W. Franke Harling.
    Int.: Elissa Landi (Marie), Paul Lukas (Josef), Nils Asther (principe Alfred von Rommer), Esther Ralston (baronessa Louise von Ballin), Lawrence Grant (conte von Rischenheim), Dorothy Revier (contessa von Rischenheim), Warburton Gamble (barone von Ballin), Lois January (Ann).
    Prod.: Carl Laemmle Jr. per Universal Pictures Corp. 35mm. D.: 70’. Bn.
    From: Universal. A Comcast Company.
    Restored in 2017 by Universal from the original camera negative.
    Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna.
    Screened with e-subtitles in Italian by Sub-Ti at Cinema Jolly, 1 July 2017.

Dave Kehr (Il Cinema Ritrovato): "Based on an Austrian play that became a Broadway hit in an adaptation by P. G. Wodehouse, By Candlelight is a sly comedy of class distinctions that seems European to the core – set in Paris and Monte Carlo, starring a Hungarian (Paul Lukas), an Anglo-Italian (Elissa Landi) and a Dane (Nils Asther) and directed by an Englishman (James Whale, who replaced first-time director Robert Wyler after a few days of shooting)."

"Lukas is convincingly servile as Josef, the devoted butler of a womanizing prince (Asther), who has learned to play his supporting role in the prince’s carefully choreographed ritual of seduction – staging a power failure and rushing in with a candelabra just as the prince moves in on his lady of the evening (a parade that includes the ravishing Esther Ralston). Sent to Monte Carlo to prepare the prince’s villa for the season, Josef naturally assumes the prince’s aristocratic bearing when he meets an elegant young woman, Marie (Landi), on the train, assuming her to be a great lady just as he allows her to assume that he is a nobleman of the highest rank."

"As in his masterpiece The Kiss Before the Mirror, filmed earlier in 1933 and also featuring Lukas, Whale underlines the fateful repetition of events, as Josef prepares to seduce Marie, using the prince’s time-tested scenario. Of course, nothing goes according to Josef’s plan, as identities and social ranks begin to shift and spin with dizzying speed."
Dave Kehr (Il Cinema Ritrovato)

AA: As an exercise in sophistication By Candlelight is not a dark and unsettling piece like The Kiss Before the Mirror which James Whale had directed earlier during the same year. By Candlelight is a comedy: a sophisticated comedy, a romantic comedy, a comedy of manners, a comedy of misunderstandings, a comedy of mistaken identities, an erotic comedy.

The butler Josef (Paul Lukas) posing as a prince seduces the maid Marie (Elissa Landi) posing as countess. While the prince Alfred von Rommer (Nils Asther) is away the butler adopts the prince's seduction routine but is startled when von Rommer appears posing as his butler. Later Marie is surprised to meet her countess as the lover of the prince. Beyond the masquerade Josef and Marie fall in love.

The funny turning-point is the moment when Josef starts to play the piano for Marie and von Rommer takes over the butler's role turning off the lights, letting the lovers take advantage of the darkness, and bringing a candelabra in order to let the love-making continue in a romantic lighting.

James Whale handles the comedy very well. Especially Nils Asther, Elissa Landi, and Esther Ralston seem to be enjoying themselves.

Henri Bergson (Le Rire) found the secret of comedy in imposing something mechanical on the human. By Candlelight belongs to the category of "the mechanism of seduction". In such comedies the joke is on a guidebook or patented routine which presumably guarantees success in seduction. In By Candlelight we have both a guidebook (a volume on Casanova) and a proven routine (the Prince's candlelight technique). (Amusingly, not only Josef but also Marie is introduced as a reader of Casanova).

There is even a bigger satirical angle. The story is based on pretense: pretending to be of a different social standing than one's own. We are made to laugh not only at this but also at the very concept of status and the pretense implicit in the social order.

There is even a wider implication on the human condition in a Shakespearean sense of "all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players". By Candlelight has been compared with Lubitsch. There are other witty sophisticated comedies, but because of his profound sense of humour Whale does merit the comparison with "the sultan of satire".

A brilliant print of the brand new restoration.


Josef, the butler to Prince Alfred von Rommer, aids the prince in his seductions and studies his techniques carefully, along with the memoirs of Casanova. One of the prince's favorite tactics is for Josef to turn off the lights, pretending the electricity has failed, in order to allow lovemaking to continue in the softer light of candles.

The prince's affair with another man's wife sends the prince from Vienna to Monte Carlo. Josef precedes him to open the villa there. On the train, he meets Marie, who has every appearance of being a lady, except occasionally when her speech reveals a certain casualness if she is not careful. Marie mistakes Josef for the prince because of the royal crest on his luggage. They flirt on the train, but Marie runs away before Josef can discover where she lives.

One night, when the prince announces that he will be out for the evening, Josef telephones everywhere until he finds Marie and she agrees to meet him at the villa. Josef is just about to practice some of the prince's lines on her when unexpectedly the prince returns. Playing along with the masquerade, the prince pretends to be the butler, much to Josef's consternation. The prince realizes that Marie is not the lady she pretends to be, but before Josef, whom she believes to be the prince, discovers her secret, she runs away, leaving behind a high-heeled shoe.

Marie is actually a maid at the house of the Count and Countess von Rischenheim. By accident, she has walked off with the prince's cigarette case in her bag, which actually belongs to the countess. When he finds it, the count immediately suspects his wife of having an affair with the prince.

Marie returns to the villa to find the missing shoe. While she is there, Josef asks her to return the cigarette case, and Marie admits that it is gone. Then the count arrives with the case in hand, demanding to see the prince, and Marie's disguise is penetrated. Joseph confesses that he is only the butler. When the prince and the countess arrive at the villa, Marie runs away again, but she soon returns and promises to marry Josef.

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