Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! After months of watching Pre-Code films and rejecting them for discussion here, I’ve finally found one that’s not just noteworthy, but an Essential, too! Here’s our updated list.
Reunion In Vienna (1933)
A woman is tempted to betray her husband with an old flame. Starring John Barrymore, Diana Wynyard, Frank Morgan, Henry Travers, and May Robson. Written by Ernest Vajda and Claudine West. Based on the play by Robert E. Sherwood. Directed by Sidney Franklin. Produced and distributed by M-G-M.
“Elena Krug (Diana Wynyard), the wife of noted Viennese psychoanalyst Dr. Anton Krug (Frank Morgan), spends an afternoon reliving old memories in the Schoenbrunn Palace, the former residence of the Imperial family, where as a young woman she was romanced by the notorious playboy, Archduke Rudolf Maximilian von Hapsburg (John Barrymore). When she returns home, Elena learns that the exiled Rudolf is crossing the Austrian border to participate in a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Emperor’s birth. Although she maintains to Anton, who has just broadcast a speech decrying the Hapsburg legacy, that she no longer is interested in the old days,’ Anton insists that she attend the hotel party and ‘let herself go’ as a way of purging herself of her past. As the party begins, a disguised Rudolf, who has been working as a taxi driver in Paris, sneaks into the Lucher Hotel and questions its owner, Frau Lucher (May Robson), about Elena. Frau Lucher tries to discourage the persistent Rudolf from seeing Elena, but Elena arrives too soon to be warned. In the face of Rudolf’s rough advances, Elena calmly tells her former flame that she truly loves her husband. Undaunted, Rudolf pockets Elena’s wedding ring and tries a variety of methods to get her into his bed.
“After Elena gayly slips away from his bedroom, Rudolf follows her home, not intimidated by the local policemen who are searching for him. Although Anton is at first unflappable and civil, the archduke’s self-centered and brazen behavior toward Elena forces him to challenge Rudolf to a fistfight. Before the first blow is struck, however, Anton collects his reason and expresses his dismay that Rudolf has succeeded in provoking him into a jealous rage. At that moment, Rudolf learns that the police are in the building and, at Elena’s urging, agrees to hide while Anton talks with them. Soon after, Anton returns and informs Elena that, in order to save Rudolf, he must leave to see the prefect of police that night. Once aware of Anton’s sacrifice, Rudolf, whose sense of honor prevents him from seducing the wife of a benefactor, bemoans his rival’s cleverness. Elena consoles Rudolf, who finally admits that, while she is thriving as a wife, his days as a privileged rogue are finished. The next morning, Rudolf entertains Elena and her father-in-law (Henry Travers) over breakfast, then after Anton — who has arranged for the archduke’s safe passage — returns, slips Elena’s wedding ring into Anton’s hand and graciously says farewell.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Following an unplanned summer hiatus from Pre-Code features — because I watched a half-a-dozen and found them all unsuitable for full coverage here — I’m thrilled to return with Reunion In Vienna, an opulent John Barrymore vehicle from M-G-M that is, surprisingly, hard to find. Rights issues have apparently kept it from being seen in a while on TCM (the last verified showing of the film was in 1995!), and it’s not yet commercially available on home video. As a great showcase for its leading man, who, in 1933, was probably at the peak of his film career, Vienna‘s current predicament is a particular shame, for his performance as the archduke of Hapsburg — a role for which his past credits reveal that he is perfectly cast — is a lot of quintessential Barrymore fun. Who better to play a charming reprobate whose good breeding and life of noble privilege are contrasted against the rowdy, violent, and base urges of this duke-turned-cabbie? It is the Barrymore screen persona, and although he doesn’t appear until after the 30-minute mark (1/3 of the way through), it’s really his picture all the way. Oh, yes, Frank Morgan gives a stoic performance as Barrymore’s clinical romantic rival, and the action is really centered around the decision-making of the woman in the center, played well by Diana Wynyard, who is on-target if not sensational — Norma Shearer with less drive — but it’s the Barrymore vitality that imbues the film with its active, hungering sex appeal…
And that’s crucial, for Reunion In Vienna is ALL about sex — as any good drama with an analyst’s wife should be — and indeed, if you’re wondering why I’ve selected this film for coverage here after several months of rejected efforts, it’s because Vienna is so predicated on subject matter that would be taboo during a time when the Production Code was more strictly enforced that its very existence is a triumph of Pre-Code moviemaking. Based on a 1931 play by Robert E. Sherwood (The Petrified Forest, Idiot’s Delight, Abe Lincoln In Illinois) that originally starred Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in the Barrymore and Wynyard roles, Reunion In Vienna is very much like other showings for the power couple — primarily their only starring effort in Hollywood, The Guardsman (1931), which we discussed here. Coming two years later, Reunion In Vienna, aside from being a stagey affair (truly, you can tell where the two act breaks are), deals with many similar themes, and the entire second act, in particular, where the old flames are reunited at the party, feels very much in the spirit of The Guardsman — playful, but dangerous, with Freudian impulses, both repressed and rekindled, at the fore. (Incidentally, one of the more memorable aspects of their interaction is the fine line between violence and sex, as both partners slap each other around a little bit before succumbing to each other’s lips.) Again, sex is the basis of the picture’s drama — Wynyard longs for “the old days,” which apparently means, “more exciting love-making with a more exciting man.”
To that point, I was surprised to read a review from Variety — excerpted on the TCM website — that chided the film for robbing the play of its sex, claiming that the archduke and his old love do NOT have a tryst… Well, I don’t know if that critic was either not paying attention or perhaps saw a state-censored print, but the film as I’ve seen it makes it pretty clear that the two do have one more night together. It’s after the husband has gone off to arrange for the archduke’s safe passage out of the country; Wynyard and Barrymore have a conversation in which he essentially refuses to seduce her now. She goes to his door, ready to leave, but clearly not wanting to, as the camera pans away to a window curtain that’s being blown by the wind. Then there’s a fade to a wide shot; the curtain is still blowing, but the bedroom door is closed… Okay, maybe it’s not explicit, but the implication is there — and actually, having glanced at Sherwood’s original text, that’s exactly what happens in the play, too. So, I make this rebuttal to the Variety article to provide even more tangible proof of Reunion In Vienna‘s Pre-Codian merits, for this is the story of a woman who takes her shrink husband’s advice of indulging the past one more time in order to let it go — and that means sex with an ex. And that, my friends, is a story of the Pre-Code era — good enough, and specific enough for the times, that it’s an Essential.
Come back next week for another Wildcard post! And tune in Tuesday for more sitcom fun!