Saturday, August 23, 2014

Ambassador Bill (1931)

Director: Sam Taylor                                   Writers: Guy Bolton
Music: Arthur Kay                                       Cinematography: John J. Mescall
Starring: Will Rogers, Marguerite Churchill, Ray Milland and Greta Nissen

Before his untimely death in 1935, Will Rogers was a major figure in American popular culture. His writings and live appearances, as well as his silent films, made him one of the most popular humorists in the country. But his sound films gave him access to an even broader audience and his reputation grew still further. A comedy of diplomacy, Ambassador Bill was made two years before the Marx Brothers took on the same idea--in a radically different fashion--in Duck Soup, even going so far as to use the country of Sylvania from this vehicle. Will Rogers’ function in the film is to demonstrate how the folksy, American way of honesty and respect is so much more useful and practical than the Europe’s forced and mannered behavior. Director Sam Taylor was a silent film veteran who best known for working with Mary Pickford and Harold Lloyd, directing his most famous film Safety Last. He has a decent style here, using some moving camera shots where he can to add some interest, and in early thirties fashion there are also a huge number of gun blasts that make use of the new medium of sound.

The film begins in the peaceful Eastern European country of Sylvania, with the American secretary, Edwin Maxwell, going outside to be met by the sounds of gunfire and yet another revolution. As valet Frank Atkinson says, it’s the first one this week. Ray Milland, in only his seventh film after coming to the United States, plays the pilot who flies ambassador Will Rogers into Sylvania just as the army is driving out the revolutionaries from the capitol. That night Rogers meets the king, eight-year-old Tad Alexander, and his mother, Marguerite Churchill. But Rogers also learns that the true king was forced to abdicate by Gustav von Seyfftitz, the prime minister who has given orders not to negotiate with the U.S. It turns out, however, that Milland is the true king of Sylvania, and only abdicated because von Seyfftitz threatened to tell lies about Churchill saying she was unfaithful. When Milland shows up at her window and tells her the truth, he barely manages to get away and hides in the American Embassy. That’s when Rogers begins his real diplomatic mission: getting that royal family back together again. Unknown to Rogers, however, the biggest conflict is not going to be von Seyfftits but Maxwell, who wants to be the real force in the embassy.

There are the obligatory scenes of Rogers doing rope tricks, teaching poker to the dignitaries, and of course getting together a baseball game with kids from the village for Alexander to play with. One of the great--though incredibly corny--running gags is with the aged former ambassador, Tom Ricketts, who thinks the Sylvanians are out to kill him and comes unhinged whenever he sees a uniform or a gun. Ray Milland does a decent job, but it’s not much of a part, and he would toil in similar work until he appeared in his first memorable role, Bulldog Drummond Escapes, six years later. Marguerite Churchill is also good as the longsuffering queen, but she was actually much better in comedic roles, which she showed in Dracula’s Daughter for Universal. The other comic veteran who makes an appearance is the great Ben Turpin as a cross-eyed butcher. Finally, in another small role, is the beautiful Norwegian actress Greta Nissen as von Seyfftitz’s helper. Ambassador Bill is a fun little film. One of a number of such outings by the great humorist, it’s obvious and clichéd but is still full of entertainment from a simpler time.

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