The Emperor’s Candlesticks started life on the page in 1899. Baroness Orczy (born in Hungary in 1865), then an artist and translator, set about writing her first novel shortly after the birth of her first son, John Montague Orczy-Barstow. The novel was a commercial failure, but she continued to write and had some success with a series of detective stories and later with her play, and novels, featuring Sir Percy Blakeney aka The Scarlet Pimpernel. Despite the initial failure of The Emperor’s Candlesticks, her subsequent success saw film producers revisiting her earlier work. The novel was first filmed in Austria as Die Leuchter des Kaisers (1936), directed by Karl Hartl with a script by Friedrich Schreyvogel and the director.
During the 1930s there was a leaning towards Europe as the breeding ground for high art and sophistication and the film studios were buying up the rights to successful European features with glamourous, globe-trotting characters to entice a depression-era audience back into the cinema. The gestation of The Emperor’s Candlesticks is similar to that of Luise Rainer’s first American feature Escapade, itself based on a successful European film set in a cultivated Vienna at the turn of the century.
This was Luise’s fourth film made at MGM, and was released four months after she collected her first Academy Award for her performance in The Great Ziegfeld (1936). Her follow-up, The Good Earth (1937), had also been released a few months earlier and was already garnering plaudits from audiences and critics alike. At the time of The Emperor’s Candlesticks Luise was at the peak of her stardom in Hollywood and on her way towards her second Oscar win.
Hoping to replicate her earlier successes MGM brought her back together with the co-star of her first two pictures, William Powell. This time they play rival spies who both secrete sensitive documents inside a pair of elaborate candlesticks winging their way across Europe. The involved plot sees Baron Wolensky (Powell) and Countess Olga Mironova (Rainer) chasing the pair of titular ornaments across Europe, both with their own secret agendas. Needless to say, the candlesticks don’t have an easy ride to St. Petersburg. Stolen en route from Vienna, and followed by both the Countess and the Baron, both unaware of the other’s special interest in them, they both set off on a journey through the capitals of Europe and a race against time….along the way, of course, the pair, both secret spies and sworn enemies, fall in love. The supporting cast includes Robert Young as Grand Duke Peter, held hostage and relying on his message reaching the Tsar, and Maureen O’Sullivan, Frank Morgan and Henry Stephenson.
This is a light romantic comedy, with a jaunty score by Franz Waxman, and some good support from a cast of stalwart MGM character actors. Whilst it isn’t a stretch for either of the leads, both Powell and Rainer give sincere performances, and Luise, once again, proves her mettle as an actress with an ear and eye for comedy. MGM records show the the film was a box office success with a profit of $259,000 from North American receipts. Luise’s next film, Big City (1937), was released two months later and is a distinct change of pace and the first indication of MGM’s confusion about what type of roles they considered right for their new star; the yo-yo of MGM fluff to high drama was beginning to have an effect on Luise’s attraction to cinema-goers too…
The Emperor’s Candlesticks remained unreleased on home video for years but is now available on Warner Archive’s three-film Luise Rainer Signature Collection DVD, alongside Big City (1937) and The Toy Wife (1938).
William Powell as Baron Stephan Wolensky
Luise Rainer as Countess Olga Mironova
Robert Young as Grand Duke Peter
Maureen O’Sullivan as Maria
Frank Morgan as Colonel Baron Suroff
Henry Sephenson as Prince Johann
Bernadene Hayes as Mitzi
Donald Kirke as Anton
Douglas Dumbrille as Korum
Charles Waldron as Dr. Malchor
Ien Wulf as Leno
Barnett Parker as Albert
Frank Reicher as Pavloff
Bert Roach as Porter
Paul Porcari as Santuzzi
E.E. Clive as the Auctioneer
Emma Dunn as the Housekeeper
Frank Conroy as Colonel Radoff
Directed by George Fitzmaurice
Produced by John W. Considine, Jr.
Screen Play by Monckton Hoffe and Harold Goldman
From the book by Baroness Orczy
Musical Score by Franz Waxman
Recording Director: Douglas Shearer
Art Director: Cedric Gibbons
Associates: Daniel Cathcart, Edwin B. Willis
Gowns by Adrian
Photographed by Harold Rosson, A.S.C.
Montage effects by Slavko Vorkapich
Film Editor: Conrad A. Nervig
Review by Delight Evans (1937)