James Whale is best remembered today for his groundbreaking horror films, including Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and perhaps also for the 1936 film version of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Showboat. In fact, he did quite a bit more than that: before getting out of the film directing business in 1941, Whale directed at least 21 films, and while it’s true that some of the later films were not good (one version of the story is that after the Laemmle family left the studio, Universal assigned Whale nothing but dreck in order to get him to quit), there are some marvelously entertaining comedies among his catalogue as well.
One such film is By Candlelight, a charming pre-Code (1933) romantic comedy based on P.G. Wodehouse’s adaptation of a Siegfried Geyer play. Prince Alfred von Romer (Nils Asther) has a taste for bedding married ladies (that he’s not punished is clue #1 that this is a pre-Code film), and his butler Josef (Paul Lukas) lends able assistance to the prince’s little amusements. At the same time, Josef is taking notes so he can put the prince’s techniques to work on his own behalf (the title references one of these tricks: pretending that the electricity has gone out, thus providing an excuse to shift to the far more romantic candlelight). Soon the opportunity arises: while traveling by train, Josef is mistaken for his boss by the beautiful countess Marie (Elissa Landi). One good deception deserves another, however, because Marie is no more what he takes her for than he is what she takes him for.
It’s unlikely that even 1933 audiences were fooled by either deception. Instead, watching people perform roles that don’t match theirs in reality is fun in the same way that it’s fun to watch Julie Andrews shift gender presentations in Victor, Victoria: the point is not whether or not you find her convincing as a man, but that the gendered behaviors displayed by the various characters are performances dictated by societal expectations. Just as “acting like a man” doesn’t require Y chromosomes, nor does it necessarily come naturally to those born with the expected set of chromosomes, so behaving as a member of the upper crust, or as one of those destined to be servants to the upper crust, is a matter of performing expected roles rather than expressing something innate about oneself.
Depression-era audience probably took particular delight in seeing the pretensions of the rich mocked, and in the film’s insistence that the differences between rich and poor are not innate but more a question of make-believe dictated by circumstances. At the same time, good old-fashioned Hollywood movie magic meant that for the mere price of a ticket anyone could experience vicariously a life far beyond the means of nearly everyone. The technical elements of By Candlelight are up to the usual Hollywood Golden Age standards, including cinematography by John J. Mescall, art direction by Charles D. Hall, soundtrack by W. Franke Harling, and film editing Ted J. Kent and David Berg (the costumes are also great, but no one is credited for them). The cast is consistently excellent as well, and Lukas and Landi make such a great pairing that I’m actually glad that the intended casting of Adolphe Menjou and Joan Bennett didn’t work out. | Sarah Boslaugh
By Candlelight is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, in a 4K digital restoration from 35mm original film elements. The main extra is an audio commentary by film historian Troy Howarth, and trailers for five films are also included on the disc.