The Princess Comes Across (1936)
Lombard and MacMurray had been a big hit as gold-digging manicurist and gold-digging former millionaire, respectively, in Hands Across The Table, so when George Raft refused the male lead in this movie, Fred got the part.
Raft was a dancer and actor whom you might know as Spats Columbo in Some Like it Hot (1959), or as one of the many gangsters he played throughout his film career. You might also know him as having absolutely terrible taste in film roles.
The Princess Comes Across is rarely (if ever) mentioned as one of the gems that Raft turned down…but he famously refused the leading roles in The Maltese Falcon (1941), and High Sierra (1941). Humphrey Bogart got both roles, so thank you, George Raft, for helping Bogart become a star.
This would have been the third pairing for Raft and Lombard. They had worked together on Bolero (1934) and Rumba (1935). Raft was upset when he saw Rumba because he thought that the film’s cinematographer, Ted Tetzlaff, made Lombard look much better than he did. (To me it’s kind of a given that gorgeous Lombard is going to look more beautiful than her male costars, but sure, George.) Tetzlaff was the cinematographer on ten of Lombard’s movies, including My Man Godfrey, Love Before Breakfast, and Hands Across The Table, as well as Easy Living, The More the Merrier, and Notorious.
So when Tetzlaff was assigned to Princess, Raft refused the part. He would have brought a convincing gangster flavor to the role of King Mantell, the famous concertina player who spent some time in prison as a youth, but I do enjoy Fred MacMurray, especially with Carole Lombard.
What’s a concertina? It’s similar to an accordion. This movie makes it seem as though being a famous concertina player is a really big deal, so just go with it. Fun fact: the original title for this movie was Concertina. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
This is the second of four movies that Lombard and MacMurray would make together, all in a span of three years. They started with Hands Across the Table (1935), then The Princess Comes Across (1936), Swing High, Swing Low (1937), in which MacMurray plays a musician again (saxophone), and finally their last film together, True Confession (1937).
It all takes place on an ocean liner. We begin when Princess Olga of Sweden (Carole Lombard) boards the ship heading for New York.
She’s on her way to Hollywood to act in her first film. She tells a reporter that she’ll star in a movie called “She Done Him Plenty” based on the novel “Lavender and Old Lace.” Comedy! You can watch this amusing scene here.
The Princess is gorgeous, glamorous, and aloof with a thick Swedish accent and an incredible fur coat and chapeau. Are those tails hanging from her shoulder?
Lombard’s Princess Olga is a (loving) imitation of Greta Garbo. She’s got the Garbo accent, the deep voice, and the cool, distant expression. People found it very funny, and Lombard said she had a great time doing it because it reminded her of being a kid in Indiana and mimicking her favorite stars.
Here she is in that confusing fur coat and terribly chic hat on the set. I adore drinking coffee out of teacups. It makes me feel like Carole Lombard in a 1930s screwball comedy:
The Princess is fawned over and flattered, but when she arrives at the ship’s Royal Suite she finds a king already in residence. It’s King Mantell (Fred MacMurray), who is on his way to twelve weeks at Radio City Music Hall with his concertina and his band. He paid for the Royal Suite, and damn it, he’s going to have it!
But then he sees the Princess:
And he gives her the suite. And his heart…later he tells his friend, “Say did you see that hair? That wasn’t bleach, that’s what you call a royal blonde.” What a great line! He’s smitten, though he goes about wooing her in an odd, overly-familiar, and over-confident way.
He makes some long joke about the bathtub but finally the Princess gets him to leave her suite. And then, in a very American accent, she says, ” I’d like to smack that guy right in the kisser.”
Surprise! Princess Olga is actually a Brooklyn girl named Wanda Nash. Wanda wants to be a star, but she wasn’t getting anyplace in the movies, until she met a showbiz veteran named Gertie, (Alison Skipworth). Together they concocted a plan to make Wanda into a movie star.
Wanda, with the assistance of Gertie, or “Lady Gertrude,” the Princess’s “lady-in-waiting,” pretends to be a Swedish princess, gets loads of publicity, and gets invited to Hollywood. (I guess no one thought to check the Swedish royal family to see if there was a Princess Olga?) Everything is going according to plan Wanda and Gertie’s plan, and they’re having a swell time conning the world.
One of the pleasures of this movie is watching Carole Lombard alternate between Greta-Garbo-esque, stiff, formal Swedish princess struggling with colloquial English, and tough Brooklyn broad spouting slang.
Another pleasure is the art deco set design.
Notice the hemstitched panels on the walls, the spare, light-colored furniture, and that weird angular man in the mural.
The ballroom is pretty great, too:
That’s Gertie with King Mantell’s buddy Benton (William Frawley) enjoying an evening in the ship’s ballroom. I particularly like the white ruched curtain behind the band, the white molded table, and the crawling vine above Lady Gertrude. Not to mention the deco chandelier. Go 1930s!
Here’s King playing the concertina, but what’s really odd are the large faux curtains draped through massive rings and decorated with giant sprigs of greenery. It’s a bit Barbie Dreamhouse with injection molded plastic, right?
Another pleasure of this movie is the costume design.
Lombard’s gowns were designed by Travis Banton, Paramount’s costume designer, who was known for luxe fabrics cut on the bias and opulent decoration (feathers, fur, beads).
He dressed Lombard’s slender figure in super-glamorous, shimmery getups in many of her movies, including We’re Not Dressing, Love Before Breakfast, My Man Godfrey, and Hands Across the Table. Lombard wears bias-cut satin and lamé better than most.
This black gown and fur coat is very sophisticated, and everything is better with a spray of orchids attached to one’s belt.
Here’s the same dress but without the fur wrap. This photo makes it look as though Lombard has a tattoo on her left bicep, but it’s just a shadow…She’s also not wearing an elbow brace.
Here are some more stunners:
This patterned lounging dress looks awfully comfortable.
And this allover-beaded moonlight dress is very Travis Banton and very Carole Lombard and very 1930s. You can see how dressing Lombard in shimmering white makes her really shine in a black and white movie. She’s dazzling.
The movie could have focused solely on Wanda’s impersonation of a princess, her romance with King Mantell, and Gertie’s displeasure at her protege being courted by a “concertina squeezer.” That would have been enough, especially because Lombard and MacMurray are so good together, and since Skipworth is wonderful as Gertie.
Gertie is pleasantly blunt and immoral, and she really hates the concertina. She thinks it’s a vulgar instrument and “a definite symbol of the lower classes.” When King attempts to serenade Wanda, Gertie quickly puts a stop to it, and says, her voice dripping with disdain, “Put the thing on the floor and it crawls.” She thinks that Wanda is much too good for a simple bandleader and concertina whiz! You can watch it here.
But instead of focusing on Wanda’s impersonation of a princess and her romance with King, everything gets complicated because a ruthless blackmailer is on board. He knows that King spent some time in prison in his youth, and he somehow knows that the Princess is really Wanda. He’s a nasty little man, played by Porter Hall.
So now there is romance, screwball, and blackmail. But that’s not all! There are several detectives and policemen, (including Mischa Auer who played Carlo in My Man Godfrey) from various countries on board on their way to a convention. Naturally.
Oh, and a dangerous murderer escaped from a European prison and somehow boarded the ship, too. The movie becomes a murder mystery soon, too. But for a while the King and the princess have a nice time flirting. He steals her purse and then returns it to her. Then he drops it in a fish tank. Adorable. You can watch it here.
In a nice bit of scripting, this wet purse becomes a clue in the murder mystery…
King and princess dance and he tells her she can call on him for anything:
I love dance scenes like this. It’s a lovely way to show one character’s face and then the other, or both, or to show how their feelings for each other are developing. And it seems terribly sophisticated, too, and nicer than a dinner-table conversation.
After their flirting and dancing, it’s no surprise that when Wanda finds a dead body in her suite, she makes a beeline for King’s room. After giving some excellent shocked faces, all beautifully lit by Tetzlaff.
Fortunately, King is just hanging out playing his concertina when she arrives asking for help. And I guess since he spent some time in prison, he knows what to do.
And suddenly we’re not in screwball comedy mode anymore. It’s full on murder mystery with plenty of mysterious shadow lighting to set the mood.
King and Benton remove the body. But it’s soon found by that group of detectives. They use their charmingly un-CSI techniques to pore over the scene. Look at this detective putting his ungloved hands all over the victim, and practically licking him. Some of the other detectives steal things from the room as evidence. No plastic baggies nor chain of evidence here.
We catch glimpses of a mustachioed man in a trench coat and fedora sneaking around the ship, and there is another attack. Wanda is afraid her true identity will be discovered if the detectives keep digging, and everything is dark and shadowy.
One of the detectives is a take-off on Sherlock Holmes; he keeps talking about being observant and finding tiny clues that lead him to impressive deductions.
Then we have the Agatha Christie-style contained murder onboard ship, and lots of deadlines and promises to reveal the truth.
But there’s still time for a concertina concert!
MacMurray sang and played the saxophone before making it in movies, and he actually plays the concertina himself and sings the aptly titled song “My Concertina” in this movie.
To add to the stress of performing, King is expecting to be knocked off at any moment because he promised to reveal the name of the murderer that evening after the concert.
It’s a weird movie. But for those times when you can’t decide if you want a comedy, murder mystery, or concertina concert, this is the film for you. Enjoy!
But first, enjoy some behind the scenes images.
How gorgeous is the fake Princess?