Celebrity power couple Francis X. Bushman and Beverly Bayne play a pair of lovers caught in royal intrigue in this Ruritanian romance. He’s a nice American fellow who offers to take his friend’s place in an arranged marriage. What could possibly go wrong?
Long live the king (of the movies)
We’re in for a treat today! Like his contemporary Theda Bara, most of the films that made Francis X. Bushman a superstar are either lost or locked in vaults. As a result, we judge him from his comeback performance in Ben-Hur, which was made a decade after his biggest hits. Under Royal Patronage is one of very few films from Bushman’s prime that is available to the general public and it is the only film of Beverly Bayne (Bushman’s onscreen partner and future wife) that is currently on DVD.
I don’t know about you but I am dying of curiosity about this. Bushman really inspired lasting loyalty in his fans. It’s extremely fascinating to see 1950s footage of respectable, mature ladies squealing like One Direction fans when their idol enters the room. What made them love him so? Is his screen appeal understandable to the modern viewer?
And then there is Beverly Bayne. Her marriage to Bushman was scandalous due to his first wife and five children. It didn’t last and Bayne retired from the screen soon after it dissolved. She has been reduced to a footnote in her husband’s career but she was also an acclaimed film star in her day. Does she deserve reexamination?
So much to see! Let’s get started.
Prince Philip of Hofgarten (Bryant Washburn) receives word that his allowance will be cut off if he does not return home and marry Stella, the princess of neighboring Strelitzburg. This is very awkward as Philip has fallen for another woman and is willing to give up his title to be with her but not (and this is the key problem) his allowance. I mean, if he lost his allowance he would have to get a job or something.
Fortunately, Philip’s American pal Richard Savage (Francis X. Bushman) is present. Philip, Richard and Count Karl von Blumm (E.H. Calvert, who also directed) hatch a plan. Richard will take Philip’s identity and return to Hofgarten with Karl while Philip continues to woo his lady fair. Richard will then marry the princess under Philip’s name (the marriage being a sham, of course) and then let Philip return and resume his identity, his income assured.
Wait, how does that help anything? First of all, monarchs have a long history of proxy marriages so wouldn’t Philip be just as married to Stella with or without being physically present? (This was a major plot device in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1919 comedy The Oyster Princess.) Second, what would stop Philip’s guardians from cutting off his income anyway? Third, this is a really shabby way to treat Princess Stella. Talk about humiliating!
No one else seems even slightly concerned about these matters, though, and so off Richard and Karl go to Hofgarten. Meanwhile, it seems that Stella (Beverly Bayne) is having the same reservations as Philip. This arranged marriage thing is soooo last century. This is 1914, for Pete’s sake!
There are also a bunch of guys conspiring against Philip because of reasons. They are Baron Spitzhausen, Pierre de la Marche and Humphrey, a spy. However, none of them have any discernible personality and we are never told why they are conspiring or what they hope to gain (other than wanting Philip’s allowance to be spent on national interests, which is a legitimate opinion). So, I shall collectively refer to them as the Bad Guys and you will know who I mean.
Anyway, everyone totally believes that Richard is Philip since photographs are apparently unknown in this part of the world. (eyeroll) Richard meets Stella and both are swept off their feet. Well, this makes things rather awkward as Richard is supposed to throw her over but the movie seems to forget that and they immediately start to canoodle.
(Spoilers for this paragraph) So there’s some Bad Guys conspiracy stuff but it’s boring and Richard ends up at the church with Stella. Just then, Philip shows up with his girlfriend and it turns out that “Stella” is actually plain Helen Churchill, zero royal blood. Philip has been dating the real princess all along! D’oh! Richard and Helen seem to find it charming that each planned to dump the other and a double wedding takes place.
Under Royal Patronage is a real clunker of a film. Only two reels long, its grasp exceeds its reach on several occasions. The Stella/Helen plot is particularly badly handled as the title cards kind of giveaway that the “princess” is an imposter right away but the movie acts as if her real identity is a big reveal.
In general, the plot is overstuffed and not terribly interesting. The cast is simply too big for the short runtime and most of the minor characters get lost in the shuffle. The story is confusing and the early plot exposition is badly handled. I still can’t tell you how the Philip/Richard swap was supposed to solve any of the problems presented.
Further, the film wastes precious footage by having characters flash back and replay a scene that was just shown a few minutes before. Um, we saw it the first time, thanks. Thanks. Thank you! Please stop. They’re not stopping. (Twiddles thumbs.)
But we didn’t come for the plot, we came for the leading couple. How did they do?
It’s no use pretending that Bushman wasn’t a ham. He was a honey-cured ham studded with cloves. He mugs outrageously and breaks the fourth wall with impunity. However, there is something appealing about his shamelessness. We’re talking about a man who drove a lavender luxury automobile and smoked monogrammed lavender cigarettes. He lived large and acted large and his appeal is still discernible over a century after his prime. There’s something refreshing about his unabashed ego on the screen, almost a performance within a performance. However, I believe I would probably tire of him very quickly in person.
Bayne, meanwhile, does not fare so well. She is guilty of the sort of arm-flailing performance that ignorant people believe was the hallmark of the entire silent era. And she slouches. Terrible posture is a deal-breaker as far as performers are concerned, at least in my book. (This partially explains why I find Greta Garbo so annoying.) It’s very unusual to find bad posture in the silent era as the performers would act with their entire body and were usually aware of every movement. In any case, Bushman is a ruthless upstager and blasts Bayne off the screen every time they share a scene.
In all fairness, neither Bayne nor Bushman had much to work with. Their characters can be summed up as follows: You were going to dump me? I was going to dump you! Ha!
So, what’s the verdict? Under Royal Patronage dies of a plot overdose. There are too many characters and too much story for two little reels. In the plus column, Francis X. Bushman is definitely an appealing leading man, even if he does carry on a bit. Alas, the same cannot be said of Beverly Bayne. I wanted to like her but I just couldn’t find the secret of her appeal. (I must emphasize, though, that I will be very happy to reexamine my opinion if more of her films become available.)
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★½
Where can I see it?
The only home media release of Under Royal Patronage is from Alpha and the print is pretty bad, as you can see from my screen caps.