Monday, October 27, 2008

Actress Profiles: Talullah Bankhead in A Royal Scandal (1945)

As the figurehead of any imperialist nation the monarch is supposed to be the person you live for, fight for, and die for. The role of the monarch, an increasingly less productive and passive one if you consider history, has seen its fair share of victims. Talullah Bankhead, as Russian Czarina Catherine the Great, is indeed one of those people worth living, fighting, and dying for, but is certainly no less ambivalent than your average Kaiser, Emperor, Queen, or otherwise and a great deal more honest in articulating just how little she does know (or really care) about her empire and the people in it. A Royal Scandal depicts an often trashy and frivolous comedy within the confines of an adorned part of Russian heritage, and refuses to show what life is like outside of this campy madcap palace. What it does do, however, is introduce an outsider, soldier Alexei, who proceeds to really shake things up, both through his strong political beliefs and his devilishly good looks, which make more than an impact upon the restless monarch.

It's twenty minutes before Bankhead makes an appearance in A Royal Scandal, the first portion of the film dedicated to Charles Coburn's absorbing, charismatic Chancellor, William Eythe's plucky and eager Liutenant, and Vincent Price's hilarious scene-stealing performance as a French ambassador. It's a smart move, because without these early exchanges there simply wouldn't be the sense of politics or cohesive network within the palace that is vital to the film's final act, and it would diminish the anticipation and subsequent satisfaction of being introduced to a woman that makes such a lasting impression with every flail and quip that it's almost a punishment when she's not on-screen.

If you've seen Lifeboat it's easy to guage that Talullah has a real gift for rattling off one-liners and being deliciously dismissive of people in bitchy diva-esque fashion. As a morally-questionable Russian leader she gets the opportunity to be this diva, and as in Hitchcock's wartime tale, not an infallible one. It's interesting though that A Royal Scandal flourishes so well as a piece of political satire despite exhibiting many of the hallmarks of the screwball style. Love triangles, sexual innuendo and a lot of farce litter this film, and if made ten years earlier the master of the screwball idiot, Ralph Bellamy, would surely have made a beeline for the role of Alexei. For Bankhead, however, it's something to think about.

The very nature of A Royal Scandal's approach to Catherine the Great -- portraying her as a rather willing damsel, swallowed by her own power and inability to utilise it effectively -- gives Bankhead a lot to work with, and she doesn't disappoint. The nature of her Catherine is strong, stubborn, charismatic, but rather insecure in herself (something contradictory of a true screwball heroine) and seemingly entrenched in a behind-closed-doors existence. She wants so desperately to perch herself on an incomparable pedastal but doesn't put this into practice, getting involved in silly trivialities in her court, unable to tear herself away from what she's supposed to be better than. It's rather sad in a way but Bankhead makes the Czarina such a flexible character; a very component of the rasping infrastructure that makes her position vulnerable in the first place, and someone whose bark and bite seem separated by a wave of intrigue. It works.

Rating: ****

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