The Grand Duchess and the Waiter (1926) - DVD Review

The Grand Duchess and the Waiter (1926) is based on a play by Alfred Savoir which ran on Broadway for a mere 31 performances. The Broadway play starred Elsie Ferguson and Basil Rathbone as the Duchess and Waiter, respectively. The plot was scripted in 3 acts, and according to this brief synopsis from The Best Plays of 1925, one wonders how it was stretched into 3 acts.

Basil Rathbone and Elsie Ferguson
(Museum of the City of NY)

The Grand Duchess Xenia, run out of Russia by the Bolshevists, is staying at a Swiss hotel with a small but loyal band of royal relatives, living on her pawned jewels. Albert, the waiter, falls hopelessly in love with her and she undertakes to cure his passion by making him a sort of valet de chambre and submitting him to the most humiliating of intimacies. Then she confesses her love and learns that he is the son of the president of the Swiss republic learning the hotel business from the rugs up. She hates and dismisses him for being a republican, but he follows her to Deauville, where she opens a Russian cabaret. There she finds use for him.”

The film was adapted by John Lynch with Pierre Collings credited with the scenario and is a perfect bit of fluff that one imagines Ernst Lubitsch whipping up to perfection. This is not to diss Malcolm St. Clair one iota; this film is light and fluffy from the start. It goes down like a luxe French bon-bon. 

Starring the eternal bon vivant Adolphe Menjou as Albert Belfort, wealthy man about town and Florence Vidor (my favorite discovery from 2019) as the impoverished Grand Duchess Xenia. Regardless of her financial state, Grand Duchess Xenia and her retinue (Dot Farley, Lawrence Grant and Andre Beranger) attend the theater and it is from across the theater that Albert spies her and is instantly smitten. He sends his card over via an usher to her box, unimpressed she sniffs the air and tears it up. Undeterred, after the performance he leaves his own party and hails a cab to follow them to their hotel. He rents the suite directly below the Royal Suite intent on making her acquaintance. Calling his valet, he orders him to bring their belongings and move in since it is true love this time.

Rebuffed in an attempt to reach the Grand Duchess by telephone, he disguises himself as a waiter employed by the hotel and arrives in her suite to serve tea, most disastrously by spilling a jug of milk all over Xenia. The Grand Duchess is forced to sell her last pieces of jewelry to pay their overdue hotel bill and expenses. Albert is witness to this sacrifice.

He continues his attempts as a waiter and suitor by sheer impudence not disturbed in the slightest by the differences in their rank. Xenia, you can see is thawing slightly by this charming roué. He is, however, continually thwarted by his own ineptitude in his chosen role and by the fact that Xenia’s lady’s maid has taken a shine to him. Xenia runs hot and cold and assigns him more and still more menial tasks to try and humiliate him. Albert, quietly, has doubled the amount of money in the Grand Duchess’ purse, that of her Ducal cousins, as well. 

Xenia orders Albert to be her guardian in the night by sleeping across the threshold of her bedroom door. He returns in a silk dressing gown with a small pillow to rest his head. She warns him that she is a light sleeper and has a pistol with 6 shots, none of which will miss their target if fired. She closes her door an he kisses it goodnight, still undeterred in his quest. Just as he settles in, she reopens the door ordering him to get her something to drink. He returns with a bottle of champagne and two glasses; in a fury she breaks the first glass he hands her insulted that he thinks he can drink with her. 

It does not take more than a moment for the pair to confess to one another it was love at first sight, all fury spent. She melts into his kiss and she surrenders to her passion only to be discovered by her cousins. Quickly, disguising her true feelings she makes light of and fun of the humiliation of being discovered in the arms of a servant. She orders Albert to leave. Her cousin then shows her an article from a magazine identifying Albert as a rich heir and breeder of racehorses. 

Albert, meanwhile, has purchased back her jewels and intends to return them to her as a token of his love. Intending to reveal the truth of who he is the next morning he arrives in her suite to discover it empty and a note advising she has left Paris. He searches in vain for her without luck. Some months later Albert’s champion horse is racing and he and his party stop at an inn for refreshment. He elects to remain in the car and unbeknownst to him this inn is run by none other than Xenia with the elder Grand Duke Paul cooking and Peter serving food and drink. His friends tell their waiter Peter to go give a glass of wine to their friend out in the car. When the former Grand Duke Peter opens the door with the wine, he and Albert recognize one another gleefully. Albert enters the inn and sees Xenia; she flees through the kitchen to the back gardens, overcome. Albert follows and they reconcile with a passionate kiss for a happy ending.  

This is the kind of role Menjou had been playing a variant for most of the 1920’s with great success. In this he is as much the roué with a wink in his eye and a devil-may-care attitude that would be as much  trademark of Maurice Chevalier after sound arrived. Menjou is delightfully perfect. Florence Vidor played the Grand Duchess with a lightness you’d not expect. She has a charming manner and was just as wonderful in this film as she was in Husbands and Lovers (1924) and You Never Know Women (also 1926). The plot is stage bound for the most part inside the hotel with the main exterior of Albert out walking the dogs, 4 Russian wolfhounds and 2 poodles and yet there is no confinement at all. The story is handled breezily and Mal St. Clair’s touch is light. Vidor has many gorgeous changes of clothes befitting an impoverished Grand Duchess. She and Menjou play off one another well and now I am going to have to order Are Parents People? (1925) in which they also co-star.

 Motion Picture Magazine reviewed the film thusly and I say they're not wrong:

We haven't a bit of doubt about Mal St. Clair's having gone Lubitsch after witnessing his directorial efforts with T.G.D. and the W. The Paramount playboy has cut a leaf from Herr Ernst's scrap-book which contained "Kiss Me Again." This new tidbit of humor is almost as thin as vapor. But while it "vapes," it manages to warm you with its steam.

The title tells it. The Russian revolution having thrown a lovely grand duchess out of a job, she comes to Paris as Florence Vidor and the suave Adolphe Menjou proceeds to dance attention upon her as a waiter. The fun of the piece is in watching the duchess fall for the tea hound.

There are times when it becomes quite silly and inane, and if you judge it too closely, it has its faults. Really it is nothing but a series of episodes joined together -- episodes touched with satire and caprice. It is cleverly picturized and played adroitly by the Menjou and Miss Vidor. It scores heavily with its ginger and spice and speaks volumes for St. Clair who knows how to season a dish after the Lubitsch manner.

The film is available from Grapevine Video with an excellent organ score by David Knudtson. Video looks to be from a 16mm source that is blown up. Not much in the way of decomposition, but, lots of scratches and the image is soft, though a pleasing sepia tone throughout.


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