Well, I guess it just goes to show, you're never as smart as you think. Here's what I knew about Mayerling: that it showed up regularly on lists of Audrey Hepburn movies as a 1957 television production the actress starred in opposite her then husband, Mel Ferrer. I had always hoped this show would one day surface, being pretty much the only significant television appearance Hepburn made in the first half of her career. I didn't know anything about the story, much less that it was based on a true event and that there were a bunch of other film versions of the tale. All were based on what is known as the "The Mayerling Incident," an 1889 scandal involving the murder-suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and his lover, Baroness Maria Vetsera. Live and learn.
Anatole Litvak directed that Hepburn performance, twenty years after he helmed the story for the first time in this French production, realeased here as part of Criterion's Essential Art House line and which also happens to be the first dramatization of the affair. Made in 1936, Mayerling stars Charles Boyer as Rudolf and Danielle Darrieux as Maria. The two would also reunite later as the stars of Max Ophuls' The Earrings of Madame de..., a far more successful coupling as far as I'm concerned. There is nothing wrong with Litvak's Mayerling, per se, it's just that this arch costume drama is the product of a different time. A somewhat dispassionate, reserved time.
The story follows the outline of many a tragedy. The young Archduke Rudolf first goes astray by entertaining rogue political ideas. He is friends with Szeps (Rene Bergeron), a rabble-rousing newspaper editor known to be part of anti-monarchy protests. Rudolf is quickly put into line and pushed into an arranged, loveless marriage. The years pass, and Rudolf lets most of them go by drinking and partying with his buddies and loose-moraled gypsies. The party boy image is a front, however, and Rudolf yearns for an anonymous life and true love. He finds both when he runs into Maria Vetsera, who at first doesn't realize who this handsome soldier is. When they find each other again, they begin a secret affair, one that eventually becomes public. When the pope turns down Rudolf's request for a marriage annulment so he can be with Maria, the prince reaches the end of the line. Told by his father (Jean Dax), to get rid of Maria, Rudolf resorts to drastic measures. They go on an overnight trip to Mayerling, never to return.
The screenplay for Mayerling was adapted by Joseph Kessel (the novel Belle de jour) and Irma Von Cube (Johnny Belinda) from a novel by Claude Anet. The spicy historical details, and I am sure more than a few embellishments are all there, though I imagine the 1930s production code kept the filmmakers from going too far with what really went on. References to whores and lewd carryings on make it slightly more risqué than had it been a Hollywood production, but the folks in California also knew clever ways of getting more scandalous points across without saying everything outright. There are moments when I thought maybe I was supposed to infer more than what was being shown--like, were Rudolf and Szeps gay lovers, in addition to political radicals?--but also thought that could have been my modern eye spying things that weren't really there.
Litvak stages Mayerling as a grand spectacle, including nights out at the ballet and fancy-dress balls. The evening at the theatre, when Rudolf and Maria see each other for the first time after their chance meeting, is put together wonderfully. Litvak moves up and down and in and out of the various boxes, using a modified upstairs-downstairs technique to indicate the levels of the class structure in the royal court. His camera flies on the wings of gossip, mostly lead by the Archduke's cousin, and the whispered plans for future rendezvous provides Mayerling with its only real heat. Except for their final outing together--and we know how that one ends--most of the lovers' meetings look to be ridiculously chaste. Though, one has to wonder why army officers weren't more careful back in the day when they took their mistresses out for drinks. Rudolf getting caught out by his men, as well as Maria's brother, is remarkably similar to Lord Nelson being discovered boozing with Lady Hamilton in Alexander Korda's That Hamilton Woman.
Though we are apparently to believe that Maria Vetsera is a ripe seventeen, Danielle Darrieux and, indeed, the whole movie comes off as much older than that. Mayerling is really too mature. It needs a touch of Romeo & Juliet adolescent angst to give this star-crossed love affair a little more oomph. Even Rudolf's quickly jettisoned political rebellion could have been cranked higher. For a guy doing his best to piss off his father, he cordially stays out of the old man's face. There is little to signal that these two are passionate or dramatic enough to want to take their own lives. It's a development that comes out of nowhere, and seeing Boyer's shaky determination in the final scenes made me wonder where this kind of emotion had been in the preceding 90 minutes. Even the atmosphere out at Mayerling is different--more desolate and remote, with the lovers playing hide and seek on a late foggy night.
Anatole Litvak would eventually leave France and enjoy a fairly successful career in Hollywood, including directing the jazz film Blues in the Night, the desperate noir The Long Night, and another historical drama, Anastasia with Ingrid Bergman. Mayerling definitely shows a style in development. He understands that a costume piece like Mayerling has alternating demands, with wide shots needing to be employed to show the big set pieces and extreme close-ups necessary for the extreme emotions. He also finds ways to get his camera moving, regularly starting tight on a specific thing and moving back to reveal the whole scene. There is a particularly memorable use of this technique in the middle of the movie, when Rudolf has been drowning his sorrows during Maria's absence. We have heard that the Prince has been out carousing, and Litvak takes us into the decadence by starting on a champagne bottle and then zooming out as it's poured, showing the drunk royal in his cups amongst his courtesans. So, despite some slowness in the overall narrative, it's clear that this filmmaker is just starting to get warmed up.
This does make me wonder, though, is there a more definitive version of Mayerling out there? There are multiple films of the story, including one with Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve, and even interpretations off the screen--a ballet, a German opera, a Japanese musical, and a manga, of all thngs. What say you readers? What do you recommend?
By the way, in researching this article, I discovered that a 9-minute clip of the Audrey Hepburn/Mel Ferrer production is now online and that we may actually see this surface in the future. Info here, and the clip itself: