Friday, June 3, 2016

The King Steps Out (1936)

Franchot Tone and Grace Moore. Source:
When I read that The Flapper Dame would be hosting a Royalty on Film blogathon, I knew that The King Steps Out would make a perfect post. The King Steps Out is a 1936 musical comedy directed by Josef von Sternberg, the man responsible for introducing Marlene Dietrich to American audiences and enhancing the Dietrich legend with his lighting techniques. The King Steps Out, a hard-to-find and rarely-referenced film today, stars Franchot Tone, fresh from his Oscar-nominated performance in Mutiny on the Bounty, and popular operatic soprano star of the 1934 hit One Night of Love, Grace Moore.

The film is set in Austria where Princess Elizabeth a.k.a. Sisi (Grace Moore) is scampering outside instead of attending her mandatory music lessons. An atypical princess, Sisi is an impetuous adventurer who makes light of every situation. While her sisters are being dutiful, Sisi receives word that the emperor's mother (and her own aunt) has sent for Sisi's sister Helena to marry Emperor Francis. Helena (Frieda Inescort) has no interest in marrying the emperor, because she happens to be in love with Captain Palfi. With a sister devastated by her forced nuptials and a mother  (Elisabeth Risdon) intent on them, Sisi knows she must intercede.

Without her mother's knowledge, Sisi poses as a deliverer of Helena's royal dress and scores a pass onto the palace grounds. Sisi's father, Duke Maximillian Joseph, is flawlessly played by Walter Connelly. As the hilarious Max, Connelly is too lazy and devoted to his beer to contest his ambitious wife's demands. Although he is supposed to be helping Sisi break up the wedding, Max spends most of his time in The Golden Ox drinking. Sisi is arrested for picking roses when an amused Emperor Francis Joseph (Franchot Tone) witnesses the crime. The emperor likes Sisi as soon as he realizes she is not affected in the slightest by his position of power. It is clear that Emperor Francis is a sheltered, good-natured man who is bored by the daily obligations that are dominated by his mother. Sisi ribs him about his mother's control before breaking out in song. 

Now, there are three things you should be prepared for when you watch The King Steps Out.
  1. Even though it was totally normal for the time period and for royal marriages, the fact that Sisi and the emperor are cousins may cool your response to their romance. Francis does not know Sisi's identity until after he's attracted to her, because they have not seen each other since they were children. Still, I couldn't help remembering that their domineering mothers were sisters whenever the couple's attraction was evident in scenes.
  2. Grace Moore breaks into song constantly. Sometimes it fits into the scene, sometimes it is completely out of left field. Many times it is very pleasant, but a few times it was so distracting from the story that it frustrated me. Despite the unnecessary songs, Grace Moore is so bubbly and expressive that you can't help but like her.
  3. Franchot Tone does not break into song (even though he was taking operatic singing lessons at the time). However, Franchot does sport a different look here: a full head of curly hair and gorgeous royal clothing that bring out his boyish good looks. He makes an extremely handsome emperor and delivers a remarkable performance in the part.

When he sneaks out in soldier's clothing to see Sisi,  Francis becomes aware of all the arbitrary social rules citizens have to abide by and sees his name associated with his mother's enforced laws. Sisi and a disguised Francis have a night out at the village fair held in the emperor's honor. As they spend more time together, the emperor forgets all about his arranged marriage to Helena. Francis is completely smitten with Sisi and tells her so, and aims to break free of his mother and become a respected leader in his own right. It's a sweet, lively romance and Grace Moore and Franchot make a good team in their scenes together. 

It wasn't until researching the movie for the blogathon that I discovered that the characters in this fictional story were based on real Austrian royalty.  Emperor Franz Joseph (also known as Francis) was born in 1830 and died in 1916 and was noted for his glowing and youthful looks.

The actual Franz & Elizabeth. Source:
Franz married Elizabeth (also known as Sisi) after he fell deeply in love with her and she ended up having a great deal of influence on his decisions. According to Britannica Online, the emperor was "respected but not really popular" at first, but in his later years, "became a universally revered man." Franz was known for being a "gentleman of irresistible charm in personal contact" and "devoted to his wife."

Sadly, the true story of Franz and Elizabeth turned out quite tragic. The couple's only son Rudolf committed suicide in 1889 and Elizabeth was assassinated by an Italian anarchist in 1898.

The film is occasionally shown on television, but its showings are few and far between. Unfortunately, it is not available on DVD at this time. It's regrettable that The King Steps Out is not showcased in a Josef von Sternberg DVD set, because it is a fine film with his notable touches and would receive a wider audience if paired with The Blue Angel.

Frank S. Nugent, reviewing for The New York Times, said the story was tenuous but:
its humor is pleasant and its score includes a charming group of Fritz Kreisler's more melodious compositions...[Grace Moore]breaks into song with or without provocation all during the picture as she rescues her sister from an unwanted marriage with the Emperor Francis Joseph...none other than our old friend Franchot Tone, with his hair in curls and spotless white uniforms to wear, then you may not be altogether astonished to hear that Miss Moore eventually takes her sister's place...Perhaps the nicest thing about the picture is Miss Moore's obvious anxiety to key her voice and her performance to the featherweight quality of the operetta. She overdoes it occasionally...She yet may become an accomplished comedienne. Mr. Tone, Victor Jory and the others contribute pleasantly, if less importantly, to the romance.

I hope you will sit down and watch The King Steps Out if you get the chance sometime! To check out more instances of royalty captured on film, visit the roster of blogs over at The Flapper Dame's site.


  • "Elizabeth". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 03 Jun. 2016
  • "Franz Joseph". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 03 Jun. 2016
  • Nugent, Frank S. "Grace Moore's First Operetta, 'The King Steps Out,' Opens at the Music Hall -- 'Florida Special' at the Rialto." The New York Times. 29 May 1936.

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