Bessie Love is an American college girl who discovers that she is the heiress to a fortune in an obscure little kingdom. While enjoying a last fling in Paris before her inevitable arranged marriage, she runs in Joseph Schildkraut, who is also enjoying a last fling in Paris before his inevitable arranged marriage. I wonder what will come of this.
The Princess Diaries.
Rudolph Schildkraut was a legend of the Yiddish and German stage but it was his only son, Joseph, who first achieved fame on the American screen. Joseph Schildkraut had wowed critics and set hearts a-flutter in Orphans of the Storm (1921) while his father had left nary a dry eye in the house thanks to his sensitive performance in His People (1925). Young April was one of only two American films in which the famous father and son would appear together.
The second film was The King of Kings, in which director Cecil B. DeMille made the questionable decision of casting the most famous (and famously) Jewish performers in the ensemble as the principal villains, Judas Iscariot and High Priest Caiaphas. This was a huge problem due to the fact that the bulk of the good guy roles went to performers of decidedly non-Semitic origins.
Young April was one of many programmers DeMille produced while running his own independent operation and, as was typical, no expense was spared. In addition to the Schildkrauts, Young April also had Bessie Love as the leading lady and Donald Crisp as director. The scenario was co-written by Jeanie Macpherson, DeMille’s frequent collaborator, with art direction by Anton Grot and costumes by Adrian. As you can see, this film definitely has all the ingredients for success but will it be able to charm modern viewers?
The story opens with Vic (Bessie Love) being informed that she is the long-lost duchess of a teeny-tiny kingdom. It may be small but it’s rich as anything and poor little orphan Vic finds that she is now the wealthiest woman in Central Europe. The money comes a snag, however, and that is a loss of independence and an arranged marriage. Vic chooses old friends Maggie (Dot Farley) and Jerry (Alan Brooks) to accompany her as her maid and chauffeur and sails for Paris, where she will enjoy her last few weeks of freedom.
Meanwhile, in the kingdom of Belgravia, King Stefan (Rudolph Schildkraut) is breaking the news to Prince Caryl (Joseph Schildkraut) of his engagement to Grand Duchess Victoria. Caryl is a party animal in debt up to his eyeballs but King Stefan has sympathy for him because he was exactly the same way in his youth. In fact, he pawned jewels from the royal crown in order to shower a Parisian dancer with gifts.
Caryl really wants a last fling before marriage so he decides to carry on the family tradition and departs at once for Paris, taking the royal crown with him and pawning it for cash. The ploy works and his father sends him money to redeem the royal headgear. Unfortunately for Caryl, Vic wandered into the jewelry store and bought the crown on a whim before it could be taken out of hock.
Caryl shows up at Vic’s apartment in full regalia (though he does not give his name), which earns him the nickname “Buttons”. Vic doesn’t really care about the crown but she cares very much for her handsome visitor, who merely identifies himself as an officer of Belgravia. Vic figures out he is her fiancé when he accidentally drops his calling card but decides to keep her knowledge a secret so she can surprise him when the engagement is announced. The pair spend April billing and cooing through the streets of Paris.
However, something is rotten in Belgravia and the rotter behind it is Prince Boris (Bryant Washburn, a veteran of all things Ruritanian), King Stefan’s brother. Boris wants the throne and will do anything to get it. He has the army on his side but doesn’t dare act without an opening.
Caryl inadvertently gives him that opening. Because Vic has not told him that she is the duchess, Caryl assumes she is just an American girl on vacation and so he takes the same path that a certain Edward of England would take exactly ten years later and abdicates to be with the woman he loves. Of course, this means that Vic will now be obliged to marry Boris, the new heir to the throne. Good one, Caryl!
Our heroes are in a pickle. Will Vic escape her arranged marriage? Will Caryl regain his position? Will King Stefan ever find that Parisian dancer again? You’ll have to see Young April to find out!
Okay, it’s obviously filled to the brim with clichés but I liked this movie a lot better than I probably should have and the Schildkrauts are a big reason why. (In fact, I am placed in the very odd position of agreeing entirely with Mordaunt Hall, the notably dim New York Times film critic. Oh well, blind pigs, truffles, etc.)
Joseph and Rudolph were obviously very close and their mutual affection comes out in their characters. Stefan is an indulgent father who sees himself in his son and likes to see him enjoy himself with a little female companionship. If Joseph’s autobiography, My Father and I, is to be believed, this describes the real Schildkrauts to a T. In the film,father and son are full of mischief and don’t really want to rule anything, they just want to have fun. Unfortunately, the real world keeps interfering with their good time.
Bessie Love is more of a background character and her part is not as interesting because it is something we have all seen before but she does her best with what she is given. Love’s career never really took off (best friend Colleen Moore believed it was because she was too real for Hollywood) but she is always a pleasure to see.
There are also some cute running jokes in the film. For instance, Caryl and Vic keep trying to canoodle in twilight but inconsiderate people keep turning on the lights. The nerve! The heavier romantic scenes are not so successful. While Love and Schildkraut are perfectly delightful in the early, sillier scenes, neither one seems particularly comfortable with the love-through-the-tears stuff.
Rudolph Schildkraut, meanwhile, does his share of scene stealing, especially near the climax of the picture when he is forced to flee the castle but manages to make off with nearly every valuable furnishing that is not nailed down. According to Edward Sloman, who directed Schildkraut in His People, the veteran actor was a dream to work with and needed only the slightest instruction to either tone down or broaden his performance. Schildkraut plays it broadly here but the story really calls for it and it works very well.
In general, Young April is a delightful trifle. There’s not much groundbreaking about it but the leads know their business and the sumptuous production values, including costumes by Adrian, smooth things along. Like most of the films Cecil B. DeMille produced under his own banner, Young April boasted a hefty budget that the box office could simply not support. The picture ultimately showed a loss of approximately $13,000.
More than budgets may have been at play in Young April’s disappointing returns. Ruritanian romances have pretty much died out as grown-up entertainment these days and a major reason is that they simply do not reflect the modern world. The number of hereditary monarchs with real (as opposed to symbolic) power dropped enormously after the First World War and has only decreased since then, with the Second World War being the final nail in many a royal coffin. To make a European Ruritanian romance, one must either make a period piece or a children’s movie.
However, before the genre died out, there was a last flurry of activity and it seemed that every performer worth their salt had to star in one of these pictures. There was a glut on the market, in fact, which possibly contributed to Young April’s box office woes.
That being said, the film did enjoy one major advantage due to the time in which it was produced. Whether by accident or design, the writers of Young April seemed to understand that the world of kings and grand duchesses was slipping away. Heck, even the kings and grand duchesses don’t want the job! Without giving too much away, the film ends with a sort of reverse revolution in which the royalty declare their independence. There are some loose threads left hanging but they get points for originality.
Young April is not a perfect film but it is a fresh take on a genre that was already decaying in 1926. The story is also helped along by the natural chemistry and humor of Rudolph and Joseph Schildkraut. It’s not a forgotten masterpiece or anything but it is a funny little movie with enough charm to make it memorable.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★
Where can I see it?
Young April has been released on DVD by Grapevine. There is also a budget version released by Alpha that I have not seen but would caution against buying as Alpha releases tend to have cobbled-together scores and missing scenes and title cards.