Beverly of Graustark (1926) A Silent Film Review

Marion Davies plays the cousin of a royal heir who saves the day by taking his place when he is injured. Romantic chaos ensues when she falls for her bodyguard and there is, naturally, malice in the palace. One of Davies’ big successes.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD and Bluray.

Nobody thought to ask for ID?

Until this year, Beverly of Graustark had been something of a mythical silent film for me. I love Marion Davis, I love trouser roles and I love Ruritanian pictures, so I am naturally the prime target for a film that has all three. Unfortunately, with the film firmly locked in MGM-renewed copyrights and the only grey market version a nausea-inducing mess of flickers, I had never seen it properly.

This is what we want to see!

Ben Model’s Undercrank Productions launched a release as soon as the copyright ran out, one of the many fruits of the expanded public domain. I would have been happy with a so-so unrestored transfer but a sparkling 4K restoration from the Library of Congress? Be still my heart. (Disclosure: I was a backer.)

However, the quality of the release is one thing and the quality of the film is something else entirely. Was Beverly of Graustark worth the wait?

And Technicolor never hurts either.

The original novel involved an American woman being mistaken for a princess in and around the fictional kingdom of Graustark. Pretty typical stuff for the genre and certainly a common plot device.

But what if the subject of the American woman’s royal masquerade is not a princess… but a prince?

Ah, now we’re cooking with gas.

Beverly eavesdrops

Marion Davies plays Beverly Calhoun, who leaves finishing school unfinished in her excitement about her cousin’s new situation. Oscar (Creighton Hale) is the heir to the throne of Graustark but has been living in exile in the USA since he was a baby. He’s just received the call to return home and claim his birthright and he wants to take his favorite cousin with him as a companion.

While waiting for their military escort in Switzerland, Oscar is injured in a skiing accident. His claim to the throne relies on him arriving at the capital in time for (mumble, mumble, movie reasons, mumble) but his injuries are severe and he cannot be moved. A solution presents itself when the military escort arrives and mistakes the blond, petite Beverly, with her short bob and unisex ski suit, for the blond, petite Oscar.

Meet the new Prince Oscar!

Meanwhile, General Marlanax (Roy D’Arcy) is plotting the imminent doom of Oscar so that he can claim the throne of Graustark. The plot is a good one, unfortunately, as the military escort is made up of traitors who are planning to shoot Prince Oscar/Beverly on the road to the capital.

But Marlanax didn’t count on Dantan (Antonio Moreno)! Disguised as a shepherd, he manages to overpower the sniper sent to kill the prince and captures the rest of the escort. After stripping the traitors of their rank and trousers (much to the horror and delight of Beverly), Dantan accompanies his prince to the capital.

Beverly gets a good look at Paris, France, everybody’s underpants.

At this point, the story comes to a screeching halt in order to give Marion Davies a chance to deal with all the farcical elements one could expect from a young lady in her situation. This was the correct decision, of course, because the plot was hoary in 1903, let alone 1926, and stop-everything-to-let-Davies-be-funny scenes are generally the highlight of her pictures.

Beverly must deal with valets and butlers trying to dress, undress and bathe her. Dantan wants to sleep beside her bed. Her demands to be attended by a woman are met with a hearty WHAHOO! She must drink gigantic toasts with Marlanax. She must fend off the advances of Carlotta (Paulette Duval), the mistress of Marlanax who hopes to entrap the naïve young prince in her web. And all the time, Beverly just wants Dantan to notice her.

Nothing like a sheer mask to render you unrecognizable.

Her change arrives when she lures Carlotta to enjoy a moonlight swim and then steals her gown. Dressed to kill, she makes a beeline for Dantan to see if she can get her attention in a frock. Dantan, displaying Lois Lane levels of obliviousness, has absolutely no idea who this lovely young lady in the tiny, transparent mask might be. (The Finnish crossdressing/swashbuckling/rom-com film Sysmäläinen dealt with this issue by simply stating openly that the hero was a bit thick. It’s a delightful picture, by the way, and highly recommended.)

The palace intrigue and the question of who would inherit the throne of Graustark are all secondary to the saucy antics Davies gets up to in men’s clothing. As it should be.

Bath time is awkward.

Will Oscar keep his throne? Will Dantan figure out why his prince is so very pretty? Will Beverly’s double life pay off? See Beverly of Graustark to find out!

Well, it’s pretty obvious that Davies was 100% in her element here. Any film that let her get into mischief was the better for it and Beverly of Graustark has its heroine leaping from one madcap situation to another. Davies’ game performance strikes just the right note—you want to play things a bit broad in a bedroom farce, after all—and I also really enjoyed her chemistry with experienced supporting player Creighton Hale.

Hale and Davies in a zany predicament.

In fact, I preferred Hale’s male Davies counterpart to the straitlaced, straight man Antonio Moreno. Moreno could do comedy, he was an experienced romantic lead and he was on the cusp of It Boy immortality (deemed a possessor of “IT” by Elinor Glyn, alongside Clara Bow and Rex the Wonder Horse) but his character is simply given fewer interesting things to do. I kind of wish Hale and Davies had been rewritten as BFFs instead of cousins and let the chemistry take its course.

As for the supporting cast, Roy D’Arcy considered acting and showing his molars to be one and the same but his overacting works in the context of the film’s farcical tone. I enjoyed Paulette Duval’s vampish turn as the scheming Carlotta—who can handle any man but fails to realize with whom she has the pleasure. Albert Gran cuts a paternal figure as Beverly’s Graustarkian mentor and confidante.

I’ll bet his dentist loved him.

However, the most significant aspect of this film was the work done before any of the actors got to work. I refer to the scenario.

George Barr McCutcheon penned the Graustark series in the early 1900s and they owe quite a bit to Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda. The Graustark series was quite a popular motion picture subject with a 1914 adaptation of Beverly of Graustark starring Linda Arvidson, a version of Graustark (the first novel in the series) released as a Francis X. Bushman/Beverly Bayne vehicle in 1915, The Prince of Graustark starring Bryant Washburn in 1916, John Gilbert starring in Truxton King in 1923 and Norma Talmadge making another just plain Graustark in 1925.

More Graustarks than you can shake a stick at.

Graustark has been absent from the big screen for nearly a century and McCutcheon is best remembered today for his much-loved and oft-filmed novel, Brewster’s Millions. Its timeless plot has assured it near-immortality and another remake is long overdue. The Graustark series, on the other hand, is the very essence of dated. It lacks the polish of Hope’s Zenda novels and Beverly is a somewhat overbuttered affair with passages like this:

“Oh, oh, oh! The cowards!” sobbed Beverly in rage and despair. “I must go on! Is it possible that even such men would leave—”

I like the comedy approach a lot more.

I am a devotee of blood and thunder boys own adventure swashbuckling ha-ha-ha chandelier swinging malice in the palace and that guy is the exact doppelganger of the king stories, I live for Robert Louis Stevenson, Baroness Orczy and Rafael Sabatini. I am part of the small club who thinks Arthur Conan Doyle’s swashbuckler fiction deserves more love. Zenda is my postal code. I am absolutely the target audience and my opinion of McCutcheon’s stuff in this field is… meh?

Further, the novel Beverly of Graustark displays much of the embarrassing royal bootlicking that some Americans easily fall into. In the very first chapter, McCutcheon assures the reader that the Calhouns may be elected to Congress but they pass the seat from generation to generation, so it’s practically an aristocratic title and, further, they were staunch Confederates, knights of the gallant south. To steal a line from Dorothy Parker, tonstant weader fwowed up.

In short, this thing was gonna need a professional.

A bit of zaniness with our Technicolor.

Agnes Christine Johnston’s place in the pantheon of screenwriting greats would have been assured with her scenario for Show People alone but let’s award her some additional laurels for her splendid job in whipping Beverly of Graustark into shape for the modern world of the twenties. (I imagine her experience adapting Forbidden Paradise for Ernst Lubitsch was a great help.)

The first order of business was the gender swap, followed by jettisoning most of the book in favor of as many bedroom farce elements as could get past Will Hayes. As I was watching, once the plot got going, I thought to myself that I would be very disappointed if nobody hid behind a decorative screen at some point. Lo and behold, Roy D’Arcy obliged.

It hides his teeth but shows his monocle.

After all, farces are a lot like murder mysteries: there are a lot of formal elements that fans want to see, whether it’s various points in a love triangle trying to hide from one another or a detective saying that everyone is probably wondering why he gathered them all together. The venerable decorative screen (or maybe a wardrobe) is a time-honored bedroom farce essential.

One a more practical level, the girls will be boys plot echoed Little Old New York, Davies’ smash hit of a few years before. Costume picture with Davies spending most of her screentime in trousers? Check! However, Beverly of Graustark’s seven-reel runtime means a far zippier pace than Little Old New York‘s elephantine eleven reels.

If you can’t dress as a hussar every once in a while, what is even the point?

Plus, Beverly of Graustark‘s director, Sidney Franklin, was an old hand at the rom-com as a regular collaborator with the Talmadge sisters, whereas Little Old New York‘s Sidney Olcott never met a scene he couldn’t pad. (I would say that being named Sidney was a prerequisite for directing Davies in trouser parts but When Knighthood Was in Flower’s Robert Vignola ruined that pattern. Or maybe he didn’t. After all, Davies wore Tudor trunk hose.)

The picture looks expensive because it was expensive but the spectacle and budget were kept to a reasonable level with every set piece propelling the plot forward or tangling the characters in yet another flirtatious and/or embarrassing situation. There’s never any danger of the cast drowning in gold braid and plumage. The biggest splurge in the picture is probably the Technicolor closing scene, the better to show off everyone’s finery.

Beverly in peril.

Beverly of Graustark looks great, with the very American scenery enhanced by matte shots and some clever cinematography, especially near the beginning of the picture. A shot of a sniper’s rifle in the foreground overlooking the oblivious protagonist has always been exciting and I enjoyed the camera mounted on Beverly’s car as it pulls away from the conspiring peasants.

I’m not sure if it was due to the influence of Erich von Stroheim and the success of The Merry Widow (the presence of D’Arcy would suggest so) but the film is more Germanic in the book. The exact location of Graustark seems to have been fluid but from the description in the novel, I rather had the impression it was somewhere Moldova-ish or perhaps Latvia-esque.

Who is this masked woman?

With the border moved to Switzerland (the better to eliminate Oscar in an alpine skiing accident!) it has become more Teutonic and Liechtenstein-ish. It doesn’t make a real difference as the culture of the Graustark series was a kitchen sink affair and don’t even get me started on the hodgepodge of names, both people and locations. When McCutcheon was in doubt, he would just throw in an X.

Beverly of Graustark’s success can pretty much be chalked up to everyone’s commitment to keeping things light. The cast kept the nudge-nudge-wink-wink cranked up to levels that would have had Billy Wilder panting with envy, the brief runtime meant that the picture never had a chance to wear out its welcome and the screenplay went all in on cheekiness rather than spectacle. My admiration for Agnes Christine Johnston only continues to grow.

And of course, one more look at that Technicolor.

This is a strong Marion Davies vehicle and easily one of her most fun. It’s an ideal introduction to her as an actress, along with Zander the Great, Show People and The Patsy. Long live Beverly!

Where can I see it?

Released on Bluray and DVD by Undercrank Productions with an organ score by Ben Model.

☙❦❧

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