Director William Dieterle fled the political situation of his native Germany in 1930, finding a home at First National Pictures remaking German films, including Ihre Majestat die Liebe, a comedy about a barmaid engaged to marry a very wealthy man whose family turns their noses up at her.
W.C. Fields, great star juggler and comedian of vaudeville and the Ziegfeld Follies emigrated west permanently at about the same time (the political situation had less to do with it than did the flop of his last show, Ballyoo) and announced himself a 'movie star' -- then went looking for a movie to star in. Alas, the best he could dig up was a two-reel short with RKO immortalizing the 'golf routine' that had been a big hit on stage.
His free time (not working gives one a great deal of free time) created a chance run-in with Marilyn Miller, Broadway star and former W.C. Fields stage co-star; she was about to make a film called Her Majesty, Love and needed an actor to play her father, an obnoxious ex-circus juggler who likes to drink. Was Fields a good enough actor to assay the role? She was fairly certain he could handle it.
The result has long remained an oddity in film history; the last of only three films made by Miss Miller (she was an alcoholic with a wild personal life, and didn't live to enjoy her 38th birthday) and the only Warner Bros. film made by Fields, so it never rated inclusion in any of the previous Fields collections. Now available through the Warner Archive and ClassicFlix, it turns out to be, if not a Fields masterpiece, at least a quite worthwhile picture indeed.
Ben Lyon (Hell's Angels, Indiscreet) is the heir to a ball bearing fortune, and expected to marry a snobby and insufferable heiress. Instead, he impulsively proposes to Miller, the pretty barmaid at a swank local Berlin cabaret. She accepts, but when Lyon sobers up and succumbs to family pressure to break off the engagement, she has her own impulse, and accepts an offer to become the seventh wife of Lord Leon Errol. Won't these two crazy love-struck kids ever get together?
Unlike the splashier, Busby Berkley style musicals for which Warner Bros. would be famous, this First National offering seems closer in spirit to the bouncier, naughtier Paramount musicals of Ernst Lubitsch. In addition to Ziegfeld stars Fields and Errol, the comic cast includes former Keystone Kops Chester Conklin and Ford Sterling, so it lacks no comic touches, even though the focus is on music and romance. Still, anyone watching this film is waiting for the juggling to commence.
On to Mr. Fields, who appears about halfway into the proceedings to bless the upcoming nuptials of his daughter. Introduced at the party that announces their engagement, Fields proceeds to drink too much, talk too loudly, wrestle with the plates of food, and -- best of all -- demonstrate his former circus skills to the stuffed shirts in the room by juggling fruit and plates. Fields, in his fifties by the time his talkies were made, rarely juggled (The Old Fashioned Way is another exception) so it's a rare treat here, easily the highlight of the picture.
Thankfully, it's also rare for him to wear the ugly clip-on mustache in his films; he insisted on it for his stage appearances and silent films, but it makes its first and last talking feature appearance, and remains silent throughout. Fields, unlike his mustache, has a few funny lines to say to go along with his feats of hand skill.
Million Dollar Dialogue:
Fields giving his daughter a pep talk: 'I'm very happy to think that you're going to get such a fine husband and marry into such a swell family. After you're married and I come to visit you, I can just hear him say to me, 'Dad, how much do you need?''
Still, when Miss Miller contemplates marriage to Leon Errol, Fields supports THAT, too: 'He's rich and old. What more do you want? You can look forward to a happy widowhood!'
To go along with the six existing sound and silent short subjects starring Fields issued on DVD by Criterion, Fields' triumphant Micawber in MGM's 1935 classic David Copperfield, and the numerous Paramount and Universal comedy classics currently on DVD, Her Majesty, Love fills one of the gaping holes in the Fields canon. (His final films, all-star efforts during the war, aren't yet on DVD, at least not in the U.S.)
If it's not the best Fields -- that would be It's a Gift, Man on the Flying Trapeze, and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break -- it's still a pretty charming period musical with attractive songs (no hits, but 'Never Be Blue' will get stuck in your head) and the added bonus of one of the screen's legendary funnymen plying his trade. If you like Miller, her only other films, Sally (1929) and Sunny (1930) are also available from ClassicFlix.
Her Majesty, Love is a swell print from Warners, and includes the original trailer.
Clifford Weimer is a writer and film historian in Sacramento, CA. He can usually be found lurking about the dark corners of a movie theatre at inthebalcony.com.