Friday, 9 October 2015

Film Friday: "Her Highness and the Bellboy" (1945)

For this week's "Film Friday," I have decided to celebrate both June Allyson's 98th birthday (which was on Wednesday) and Robert Walker's 97th birthday (which is next Tuesday) and tell you a little bit about the first of two films they made together. This is also happens to be one of my personal favorites of theirs films.

Original release poster
Directed by Richard Thorpe, Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945) follows the beautiful Princess Veronica (Hedy Lamarr) in her visit to New York City to rekindle an old romance with newspaper columnist Paul MacMillan (Warner Anderson). After checking into the elegant Eaton Hotel, Veronica wanders into the employee offices and is mistaken for a new maid by a kind-hearted bellboy named Jimmy Dobson (Robert Walker). Charmed by his confusion, Veronica accepts his invitation for an afternoon stroll through Central Park and later asks him to be her personal assistant during her stay in America. Over the next days, Jimmy falls hopelessly in love with Veronica and miscontrues her every kindness as a sign that the feeling is mutual.

When not with Veronica, Jimmy spends his time with his slow-witted co-worker, Albert Weever (Rags Ragland), and their bedridden friend and neighbor Leslie Odell (June Allyson), who is secretly in love with the bellboy. Meanwhile, Veronica's aunt and lady-in-waiting, Countess Zoe (Agnes Moorehead), urges her to marry the dull Baron Zoltan Faludi (Carl Esmond), but the princess ignores her and instead asks Jimmy to take her to Paul's favorite bar in hopes of seeing him. Unfortunately, the club gets raided and Veronica ends up in jail. After Paul bails her out, she receives the news that her uncle has died, which means that she has succeeded to the throne. Veronica decided to invite Jimmy to accompany her back to Hungary and he eagerly accepts, believing that she wants to share the thone with him. Jimmy then stops by Leslie's apartment to say goodbye and she attempts to walk across the room for him, to show that she is recovering from her disability. Just as Leslie falls, Jimmy catches her in his arms, finally realizing that she is the right girl for him. Returning to the hotel, Jimmy tells Veronica that he cannot go with her because he is in love with someone else. Inspired by Jimmy's ability to give up what he believed to be his crown to be with the woman he loves, Veronica relinquishes her throne and returns to Paul. Leslie makes a full recovery and dances with Jimmy at a nightclub, where they are joined by Veronica and Paul.

Leslie Odell: They'll see how good and kind and handsome you are. And they'll see how you're always doing things for people to make them happy, even if they can't do anything for you. And they'll see how everybody loves you and... Goodbye, Jimmy. Thank you and God bless you. 

When the United States entered World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Hollywood witnessed the departure of a contingent of established male stars for military service, both at home and overseas. The studios tried to compensate for this "manpower shortage" by emphasizing other production values Technicolor and music, for instance and some in the industry welcomed the opportunity to develop less star-oriented pictures. As a result, a new generation of wartime stars emerged, although the so-called "male replacements," such as Alan Ladd, Van Johnson and Gregory Peck, were overshadowed by a group of rising leading ladies, including Betty Grable, Greer Garson, Rita Hayworth, Veronica Lake, Ingrid Bergman and "the world's most beautiful woman," Hedy Lamarr.

An Austrian native, Lamarr had caused a sensation as a teenager by appearing in brief nude scenes in Gustav Machatý's controversial drama Ecstasy (1933). In 1937, she was signed to an MGM contract by Louis B. Mayer, who loaned her out to producer Walter Wanger for her American film debut, John Cromwell's Algiers (1938), in which she was presented as the screen's newest "love goddess." Sadly, Metro didn't know what to do with her next and kept using her as "little more than set decoration" in a series of films that, although successful, barely challenged her acting abilities. By the mid-1940s, the "exotically mysterious" image that Lamarr represented seemed to be outdated in motion pictures and Mayer lost interest in her when her films began to lose money at the box-office. After she completed Jacques Tourneur's melodrama Experiment Perilous (1944), made on loan-out to RKO, producer Joe Pasternak convinced her that she needed to follow that film with a comedy, so she agreed to do Her Highness and the Bellboy, a property MGM had held in hock for her for the past three years.

Hedy Lamarr as Princess Veronica
When Her Highness and the Bellboy went before the cameras starting December 11, 1944, Lamarr was pregnant with her daughter Denise, her first child with her third husband, actor John Loder. Consequently, director Richard Thorpe had to film her carefully in order to conceal her body, which explains the several close-ups featuring her face and the large number of shots in which she is seen sitting down. Lamarr was so uncomfortable during the making of Her Highness and the Bellboy that she was indifferent to the fate of the picture and even regretted being a part of it, saying, "Though I had star billing, the June Allyson role was really better."

At the age of 28, Allyson was one of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's many rising young stars during the war years. She had started her career in the late 1930s, interspersing chorus jobs in Broadway shows with acting roles in a series of Vitaphone shorts produced in New York and distributed by Warner Bros. In 1943, she signed a contract with MGM and moved to Hollywood to appear in a small role in Edward Buzzell's musical Best Foot Forward (1943), an adaptation of the 1941 Broadway hit in which she had starred. She rose to fame the following year when Thorpe cast her in Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), the first of five films she made with Van Johnson and the one that introduced her lovable "girl-next-door" screen persona. A clear newcomer to the film industry, Allyson was terrified at the idea of appearing alongside Hedy Lamarr, whom she considered to be "the greatest competition of that era."

I would just stare entranced at [Lamarr's] profile. No doubt about it, she was stunning and she knew how to look at a man with an intimate little smiles that turned him on. Every time I tried to copy that kind of look, it was viewed as comedy — Junie, the clown. Junie trying to look cute. I resigned myself — it would never be June the sexpot.
(June Allyson) 

Robert Walker and June Allyson in
a publicity still
Originally conceived for Mickey Rooney, the role of the bellboy was ultimately given to another one of MGM's rising stars, Robert Walker. Despite his portrayal of the cheerful and optimistic Jimmy Dobson, Walker was himself "intense and moody" during production of Her Highness and the Bellboy and would disappear for hours. At the time, he was involved in divorce proceedings with his estranged wife, Jennifer Jones, who had left Walker and their two infants sons for producer David O. Selznick. The situation left a lasting impression on Walker, who never recovered from the turmoil and battled depression and alcoholism for the rest of his short life.

Working with [Robert Walker] was a strange and exhilarating experience [...] No other actor I've worked with could make a scene more true. Bob could make you feel the scene with him as something urgent and surging with life [...] Whenever I look back at my career and all my co-stars, I think of Robert Walker and I almost cry. I wish I could have helped him.
(June Allyson)

Also appearing in Her Highness and the Bellboy was Agnes Moorehead, a sough-after radio actress who made her film debut playing Orson Welles' mother in Citizen Kane (1941). Countess Zoe was one of a handful of aristocratic/royal roles that Moorehead portrayed throughout her movie career. The others were Baroness Aspasia Conti in Mrs. Parkington (1944), for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, Countess Fosco in The Woman in White (1948), Queen Maria Dominika in The Swan (1956) and Queen Elizabeth I in The Story of Mankind (1957). Reportedly, she was cast as Countess Zoe because of her convincing portrayal of a sophiscated, titled woman of the world in Mrs. Parkington.

Robert Walker and Hedy Lamarr in
a publicity still
Filmed in the same main set as Week-End at the Waldorf (1945), Her Highness and the Bellboy finished principal photography in late January 1945, with a few re-shoots taking place in mid-February of that same year. Even though Lamarr was unhappy with the film, she demanded that MGM give her top billing in the production. After a heated argument, the studio consented, but her inflexibility in the matter likely contributed to Mayer's unwillingness to renew her contract. As a result, Her Highness and the Bellboy became the last motion picture Lamarr made for MGM.  

Designed as escapist entertainment for weary wartime audiences, Her Highness and the Bellboy opened in July 1945 to generally poor reviews from critics. Newsweek, for instance, described it as "escapist froth whipped up in a cement mixer and ladled out with a scoop shovel." In contrast, renowned critic James Agee commented that the film was "sporadically enjoyable through the friendliness of Robert Walker and Rags Ragland, the beauty of Hedy Lamarr, the sincerity of June Allyson." Variety was also favorable in their assessment, calling Walker's performance "terrif" and rating the film "a diverting romantic item with pleasing comedy relief." Despite the scathing reviews, Her Highness and the Bellboy proved very popular among audiences and it managed to turn in a solid profit for MGM.

Her Highness and the Bellboy is hardly the greatest film ever made. It is clichéd, highly implausible in regards to Leslie's illness and it will obviously never win any awards. It also happens to be one of the cutest, most endearing films I have ever seen, in great part due to the adorable Robert Walker. He is so sweet and joyful as Jimmy that you cannot believe he was going through the toughest period of his life while making the film. That only comes to show how good of an actor he actually was. In conclusion, this is one of those films you will want to watch on a cold Sunday afternoon, accompanied by a hot cup of tea and a generous slice of cake (preferably chocolate). It will most definitely put a big smile on your face from beginning to end.

Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr by Stephen Michael Shearer (2013) | Boom and Dust: American Cinema in the 1940s by Thomas Schatz (1997) | Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film by Ruth Barton (2010) | The Films of Agnes Moorehead by Axel Nissen (2013) | IMDb | TCMDb (Article)

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