Royal Family of Broadway (1930): Cukor’s Comedy, Starring Ina Claire and Fredric March in Oscar Nominated Performance

the_royal_family_of_broadway_posterThe Royal Family of Broadway, which George Cukor was assigned to co-direct, again with Cyril Gardner, was by far the most important film he had made in 1930.

The division of labor between the two was clearly delineated: Cukor set-up the scenes and Gardner photographed them. In many ways, this was an extension of the way he worked with Milestone on All Quiet, except that now he was responsible for the actual staging of all the scenes–and he got credit for his work.

Herman Mankiewicz and Gertrude Purcell, who co-wrote the script, actually improved on George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s play.  The gossipy, thinly disguised satire of the Barrymore-Drew acting dynasty was a Broadway hit in 1927.

the_royal_family_of_broadway_3Paramount bought the screen rights for Fredric March, who recreated his stage role as the flamboyant matinee idol–clearly a caricature of John Barrymore. Though his role is small (he is offscreen most of the time), March completely dominates the picture.

The zany plot outlines the wild fortunes of the Cavendishes, i.e. the Barrymores, Broadway’s First Family. The hectic homelife of the incurably theatrical family provides riotous fun. March plays Tony Cavendish, who returns in a whirlwind to the Cavendish house, with reporters at his heels, after breaking the family faith and going Hollywood. Now “America’s Greatest Lover,” he is fending off an angry director he struck in a moment of anger, and ducking legions of marriage-hungry females. Tony dazzles his family with his colorful dramatics and outlandish conduct.

Fredric March, who had met John Barrymore, carefully studied his model.  In his clever impersonation, every lifted eyebrow, gesture, and mannerism of the noted star was imitated. For an actor who generally lacked humor, March’s inventive lampoon of Barrymore was quite remarkable. His bravura performance, which critics at the time described with such adjectives as “glamorous, lunatic, vital, spirited, boisterous,” garnered March his first Oscar nomination.

the_royal_family_of_broadway_2Ethel Barrymore, a good friend of Cukor’s, was initially livid about the gossipy material, regarding anything written about the Barrymores as “treason,” or at the very least an “invasion of privacy.”  Between the plays many clues, and March’s exacting impersonation, there was little doubt as to who the characters were.  Ethel’s anger, however, was short lived: After seeing the film she “forgave” Cukor.

Ina Claire

Though the film hosted a topflight cast, for Cukor the major reward was working with his friend, Ina Claire, an actress whose elegance he admired. Claire was cast in the Ethel Barrymore role, as Julie Cavendish, a woman who has long spurned marriage to her millionaire beau. “Her whole career was dedicated to perfecting herself,” Cukor once said of Claire, “She learned that most difficult of arts, high comedy.” A sophisticated stage comedienne, Claire never blossomed onscreen.

The Royal Family of Broadway was shot at Paramount’s Astoria studio in Long Island. Edward Dmytryk, who was assigned to cut the film, remembered making a poor impression on the young Cukor.  Cutters were known for being supercritical, examining every facet of a scene with a microscopic eye. They often overlooked clever staging or effective acting to nitpick at some bit of mismatched action.

The_Royal_Family_of_Broadway_1“Cutters had a tendency to act tough,” Dmytryk told me in an interview for my bio of Cukor, “and I was intent on playing the cutter.” Dmytryk would first look at the dailies, then go down to the set. Cukor would anxiously inquire about the rushes, but Dmytryk’s terse answers often left Cukor standing in stony silence. Gardner, who had been a cutter, understood Dmytryk: “Gardner knew he had only to wait a little, and I’d soon be telling him everything he wanted to know.” It would be years before Dmytryk realized that, regardless of stature, no director was secure enough that he didn’t welcome a reassuring word about his work.

According to Dmytryk, film directors were insecure with the dialogue, and stage directors were insecure with the camera. Initially, Cukor felt uncomfortable in a medium where a look or a gesture could mean more than a spoken phrase, where upstage and downstage were replaced by camera right and camera left. Using co-directors was meant to solve this problem: The film person placed the camera and staged the scene physically; the stage man was in charge of playing the scene and the dialogue.

Static and stagebound, The Royal Family shows all the signs of an early talkie. In one important scene, however, where March invites the whole family upstairs while he takes a bath, Cukor’s evolving cinematic eye is evident. Cukor suggested that the camera follow March all the way up the staircase, tracking the actor and his entourage as they made their way upstairs and cutting as they followed him to the bathroom. Huge, manually operated cranes were needed to execute this shot, but the mobility and fluidity of the camera in this scene was the beginning of a breakthrough for Cukor as a filmmaker.

Coming from the theater himself, Cukor got a special kick from one funny moment that reflected a fashionable attitude toward movies at that time. Ina Claire and her mother are returning home from the theater in a taxi cab. Passing through Times Square, the old matriarch glances out the window at a movie marquee and comments: “All singing, all dancing, all terrible!”

A Christmas release, The Royal Family opened to excellent reviews. The NY Mirror singled out the “witty dialogue, brisk action, and eloquent direction which give the comedy a brilliant polish,” much of which was shaped by Cukor.
In the 1960s, when Cukor saw the picture again, he was struck by its conventional ideas. Showing the charming, childish side of actors, the film represented what people wanted to believe about the theater at the time. “The smell of the greasepaint isn’t real,” Cukor told Lambert, “it’s plastic.”

Even in 1930, the film was dated and cliched, but it was a success d’estime and enjoyed a long successful run.

The picture perpetuated the myth of the Barrymores as a crazy family, to whom nothing outside of the theater matters. At the end, the aging matriarch (Henrietta Crosman) decides to embark on a tour to keep the family name alive, but the thrill of applause brings on her fatal attack. In the spirit of the show must go on, Julie decides to continue the tour in her mother’s place.

For Cukor, The Royal Family of Broadway was the first of many movies in which he would celebrate the magic quality of the theater and its performers. Thematically, this notion would become the most prevalent in his work, as evidenced in What Price Hollywood Sylvia Scarlett, A Star Is Born, Heller in Pink Tights, Let’s Make Love, and other films. Coming from the stage and surrounded with actors as best friends, Cukor’s admiration for the theater was life-long.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Actor: Fredric March

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Best Actor was Lionel Barrymore for “A Free Soul.”  Ironically, Lionel was the only Barrymore actor who was not parodied in Cuokor’s comedy, which was based on the Barrymores clan.  March later won two Best Actor Oscars.