Stars Paul Lukas, Elissa Landi, Nils Asther, Esther Ralston, Luis Alberni, Warburton Gamble.
James Whale’s reputation in history books is generally confined to the chapters dealing with Universal horror. Released on the heels of Frankenstein, The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man, 1933’s By Candlelight was sold by studio flacks surprised to find the work of a “subtle, suave director with a delicious sense of comedy.” They must not have been paying attention to the aforementioned trio, all of which display rapturous bursts of comedic invention presumably aimed at providing much-needed nervous laughter to cushion the shocks. It would be a few years before Whale directed what remains one of horror cinema’s funniest haunts, Bride of Frankenstein. He couldn’t have done it without working By Candlelight.
The script by F. Hugh Herbert (Lights of New York, the first all-talking feature, Dark Command, The Moon is Blue) was based on Austrian playwright Siegfried Geyer’s continental romance Candle-Light and adapted for the screen by Hanns Kräly, Ernst Lubitsch’s collaborator on 30 films produced between 1915 and 1929. At first glance, Charles D. Hall sets are clearly not as dank and cobwebby as those that comprise Frankenstein Castle, but don’t let the sparkle fool you. Whale’s blocking and John Mescall’s fleet camera maneuvers through the Prince’s cavernous digs are equally as enthralling.
The crest on Josef’s (Paul Lucas) breast pocket is almost as big as the copy of The Memoirs of Casanova from which he reads, laughingly stopping from time to time to catch his breath. His snickers are so loud that he almost drowns out an incoming call alerting him to expect a late night visitor. The sex of his or her Highness on the other end of the line remains undetermined. For all we know, he could be on the receiving end of a royal booty call. The skilled motions he goes through straightening up the palace are neither bachelor-like nor regal. Prince Alfred von Rommer’s (Nils Asther) would never add a second pillow to the head of the bed. He employs a servant to do the fluffing. A knock on the door finds a maid on the other side with lips puckered, but she wasn’t the caller. The domestic’s function is to further confound audiences into thinking it’s Josef’s abode, particularly after Anna’s (Lois January) chewed out for showing up unannounced and at such a late hour. When it comes to royalty, Josef is the king of man servants.
The Prince’s arrival with his married paramour, Baroness von Ballin (Esther Ralston), is soon followed by a knock on the door from the jealous Baron (Warburton Gamble). A master at mimicking his philandering boss’ every move, Josef outthinks the Prince at every turn. He ingeniously convinces the Baron that his wife was at home to answer his call when in fact the Baroness was speaking from an extension phone in the Prince’s foyer. After the close scrape, Josef suggests a change of air will do them good. Prince Alfred agrees and decides to open his villa at Monte Carlo. Josef leaves a day early and it’s on the train ride that he meets Marie (Elissa Landi) seated opposite him in the dining car reading, you guessed it, The Memoirs of Casanova.
With the Prince out of sight, Josef can act like a king. As is the case in pre-Code Hollywood, romantic couples find themselves capable of keeping secrets from everyone but the audience. Marie’s as much a wealthy society dame as Josef is a blue blood. She spots the princely coat of arms on Josef’s luggage and quicker than musical director W. Franke Harling can add another note to his playful score, the locomotive craps out leaving Josef and Marie in the middle of a small town carnival complete with a horse-drawn merry-go-round and toddlers sporting genuinely unnerving face masks. Josef’s plot to purposely miss the train backfires when Marie up and vanishes.
Back home, Josef knew precisely when to interrupt one of the Prince’s liaisons simply by unscrewing a fuse so that the romance may continue by candlelight. Royalty imitates serfdom, and no sooner do Josef and Marie’s cigarettes smolder in the ashtray as the wine slowly drains from the bottle — a nifty special effect for 1934 — than the Prince seizes the opportunity to return the favor. It turns out that Josef wasn’t the only one paying attention to the other guy in the room. When it comes time to supply a pair of candlesticks so that the couple are not left fumbling in the dark, it’s Prince Alfred’s pleasure to do so. At its best, By Candlelight is a masterly proficient romantic charmer, a Cinderella story that finds its cast, crew and studio all working in peak form.
Kino’s Blu-ray includes an audio commentary by film historian Troy Howarth.