January 26, 2016 by smumcounty
At first glance, Turner Classic Movies may seem like a godsend for classic film fanatics, and, indeed, it is, with its access to hundreds of classic films. But when you’ve gotten to a certain age and you’ve seen most of the standard classics dozens of times, you start to yearn to discover something you’ve never seen before and finding a new favorite, or you yearn to see that small gem of a film you saw one Sunday afternoon when you were a kid. That’s when you realize that TCM has hundreds of classics but they don’t have all the classics and occasionally when you’re searching for a specific film, you’ll be out of luck. One such gem of a film is “Tovarich” (1937).
“Tovarich” opens with a Bastille Day celebration in Paris. Our protagonists don’t know why everyone is celebrating and neither does anyone else it seems. The trombone player they ask replies that it’s July 14th. But why do you celebrate July 14th? He doesn’t know, but he’ll find out. Word finally comes back that it is because of La Bastille. The woman is delighted that everyone should be celebrating a subway stop but the man knows what’s up. He explains that the Bastille was an infamous prison before the French revolution and the celebration is in honor of the revolution. The thought that they have been celebrating a revolution that overthrew the aristocracy appalls them. We then learn that our protagonists are the Grand Duchess Tatiana Petrovna and Prince Mikail Ouratieff, white Russian refugees from the Russian revolution.
They escaped the horrors of the revolution only to wind up living in penury in a ramshackle Paris flat and times are getting desperate. Tatiana has been cutting the tails off Mikail’s shirts to make handkerchiefs, they live in constant fear of running into their landlord the Prince of Plutava (another refugee) to whom they owe eighty francs, and Tatiana has resorted to stealing food from the local grocers in order to make ends meet. Thankfully she has not yet been caught and she attributes this fact to the intervention of the saints. “And the saints are Russian,” she says.
The Governor of the Bank of France (Morris Carnovsky) calls upon Mikail bringing with him the representative of a pretender to the Russian throne (Gregory Gaye). What could they want from Mikail? The governor explains to the pretender’s representative (and to us) that the Czar placed into Mikail’s hands the bulk of his wealth in gold and told him to deposit it in his own name in the Bank of France for safekeeping. At this time, with compound interest, the amount has reached almost 40 billion francs. Mikail and Tatiana live in poverty because he has taken his duty to the Czar very seriously and has refused to withdraw even a portion of the money for his own needs. “Not a million, not a billion, not a thousand, not a sou.” The Governor asks him to convert the 40 billion francs to French government bonds which will then be used to finance a counter revolution in order to take back Russia from the Soviets. Mikail refuses. He is willing to give them the 20 francs he will have left over after paying the Prince of Plutava but will not give them the 40 billions. “I see no reason to squander them in the financing of a counter revolution which will be doomed to grotesque and horrible failure.”
But Mikail and Tatiana are in no real danger of starving. The Governor explains to them that the bureaucracy of the French government has been keeping tabs on their petty thefts, watching what they take from the grocers and reimbursing the grocers for their losses. Mikail is horrified. “I never thought these people could be guilty of such dishonesty.” Tatiana agrees. “We must never again submit to their treacherous charity.” They think it fine to support themselves by stealing but they can never submit to charity. Tatiana suggests to Mikail that he go to bed to relieve his hunger but he refuses. “If we had as much as 50 francs as you know very well I would be in bed. If we had 10 francs I would be in bed.” But without a sou to their names, Mikail determines that there is only one thing left for him to do; he must go to work. “Work? Even for fun you must not say things like that,” Tatiana pleads. Fortunately, at this point a neighbor (Fritz Feld at his Fritz Feldiest) pays a visit requesting a donation for a new mother in the building. He explains to them that if they are looking for work, they should go into domestic service like him and his wife. Having had experience serving members of the royal family in Russia and realizing they can get room and board for doing a little housework, they decide to give it a try. They write their own references and go out to respond to an ad in the local paper, taking the imperial sword with them which Mikail stuffs down his pant leg so that the Prince of Plutava won’t realize they are absconding without paying the rent.
The household whose ad they respond to is that of a wealthy banker, Mr. Dupont (Melville Cooper), and when they arrive it is in a state of chaos from a lack of servants. Mrs. Dupont (Isabel Jeans) needs to have her hair done and the hairdresser has walked out. Mr. Dupont has a splitting headache and can’t find his shoe. The dog is missing, a tie needs to be pressed, and a dress mended. They are given 5 minutes to put everything right and then they can have the positions, if not, they’ll have to go. Miraculously, the dog and shoe are found, one carrying the other. The dress is mended and the tie is pressed. Everything is put right and they are allowed to stay.
Mikail and Tatiana settle in very quickly. That first night, while Mr. and Mrs. Dupont are eating out, Mikail gives a fencing lesson to the son Georges (Maurice Murphy) and the daughter Helene (Anita Louise) brings in her guitar which needs tuning. Tatiana expertly tunes the guitar, and then plays it while singing a Russian folk song. In the next few weeks it becomes obvious that the entire household has fallen under the spell of these Russians. Mrs. Dupont has bought herself a Russian wolfhound, the siblings are toasting the health of the Czar with vodka and, of course, the father and son have fallen in love with Tatiana and the mother and daughter have fallen for Mikhail. How could it be otherwise? Tatiana and Mikhail can even see the cross of the Russian Orthodox Church from the window of the servants’ quarters. But it is not to last.
Mr. Dupont gives a dinner party where the guest of honor is Soviet Commissar Gorotchenko (Basil Rathbone) whose motto is “four walls for punishment are three too many.” Mikail and Tatiana reveal to their employers that they have had some experience with Gorotchenko. Their ‘former employers’ the Grand Duchess Tatiana Pudrovna and her consort were tortured by Gorotchenko. By torture here we mean burning their hands with a lit cigarette, but for 1937 that was shocking enough. During the dinner party some of the guests recognize Mikail and Tatiana for who they really are. Tatiana is recognized by Lady Kartegann, who knew the Grand Duchess in better times. The governor of the Bank of France is also invited and greets Mikail as “Your Excellency”. “You’re dining here with us, hmm?” he asks Mikail. “Oh yes, I am dining here, Governor, but not at the same time.” Mr. and Mrs. Dupont soon learn that instead of having worked for the Grand Duchess Tatiana Pudrovna and her consort, their servants are the Grand Duchess and her consort. Their relationship to Gorotchenko also comes out during a very tense dinner scene where Mr. and Mrs. Dupont realize that Gorotchenko is the man who tortured Mikail and Tatina. Gorotchenko explains that “those were desperate days when a certain amount of torture and even butchery were justified”. He was in search of the not inconsiderable sum of 40 billion francs to which Mikail had access. So now Mr. and Mrs. Dupont realize their butler is a billionaire.
After the dinner, Gorotchenko appears in the kitchen to speak with Mikail and Tatiana. He requests that Mikail give him the 40 billion francs for the benefit of Russia. He explains to Tatiana and Mikail that otherwise he will have to sign over the rights to certain Russian oil fields in order to get money for tractors and agriculture equipment. “Without it some 5 million wretched peasants will starve to death not to mention those we will have to shoot so they don’t make a fuss about it.” Gorotchenko preys on their patriotism, saying that if he signs over the rights to the oil fields, foreigners will take that which rightly belongs to the Russian people. He reasons that the money belongs to the Czar and the Czar was the embodiment of Russia so the money rightly belongs to Russia. Reluctantly, Mikail and Tatiana agree and Mikail writes Gorotchenko a check for 40 billion francs. Gorotchenko shows his respect for the couple by taking his leave of Tatiana using her imperial title. “Goodbye, Imperial Highness,” he says. Tatiana returns the compliment. “Goodbye, Tovarich,” she replies.
After the party, there’s some concern that Mikail and Tatiana will be required to give up their positions since Mr. and Mrs. Dupont couldn’t possibly have royalty serving them. “Oh, why did you have to be born a Grand Duchess and a Prince when good servants are so hard to get,” Mrs. Dupont laments. But the issue is resolved with Mikail and Tatiana agreeing to stay until servants just as good as they can be found to replace them, with the tacit understanding that this may never occur. The film ends happily with Mikail and Tatiana going off to a Russian New Year’s Eve party with Georges and Helene. Mikail takes out the trash and Tatiana puts the empty milk bottles on the back step as they leave.
“Tovarich” began life as a 1933 French play by Jacques Deval. The play was then adapted into English in 1935 by Robert E. Sherwood and opened in London that same year. Melville Cooper played the part of Mr. Dupont in that London production for which he reprised his role in the film. From there, Warner Brothers obtained the rights and placed the film in the hands of director Anatole Litvak. Litvak was a Russian director who left Russia for Germany shortly after the Bolsheviks nationalized the theaters in the 20’s and left Germany for Paris when the Nazis came to power so he knew something about being a Russian refugee. At the time he made this film he was under contract to Warner Brothers.
I have to admit, I love this movie. It was first introduced to me by Mrs. Smum County when she showed me a VHS copy she had taped from the TV when she was a kid. She used to watch it often with her father so it is near and dear to her. It definitely has elements of the screwball comedy, especially when it moves to the Dupont home but it’s not filled with the screams of hilarity you find in “Bringing Up Baby” or “His Girl Friday”. Rather it is a quietly comic film with wonderfully clever lines like “Even beds are collapsing under the weight of Russian misery” and “If I misrepresented the facts in any way, my penalty would be a ghastly, lingering death” spoken by Boyer in his wonderful deep, heavily accented voice. Boyer’s performance is one of the great surprises of this film. If you’re familiar with him only from “Gaslight” and “Love Affair” his Mikail will be a revelation. This was one of the first comedies Boyer made but he shows that he can hold his own against Colbert who is a much more experienced comedienne. Here he demonstrates great timing and a wonderful deadpan delivery.
As I stated at the start, this is one of those films that is hard to find at this point. If it were in the public domain, you could probably view it on YouTube but currently Warner Classic Archives owns the rights to the film and they haven’t released it on DVD apparently because of some issue with underlying rights. I really don’t know how those things work but hopefully they can get them worked out in the near future. I believe TCM has showed this film in the past but I’m not certain. Certainly it hasn’t been aired on TCM in the last few years. Fortunately, Mrs. Smum County discovered this web site you can currently use to stream the movie which is how I was able to view it in order to make this post. That VHS copy has been long gone.
- “Tovarich” is the American film debut of Curt Bois who is probably best known as the pickpocket in Casablanca. “Vultures. Vultures everywhere.”
- “Tovarich” was also made into a Broadway musical in 1963 starring Vivian Leigh for which she won the Tony Award for Best Actress.
- Colbert believed that her face was very difficult to light properly in order to show her at her best. During the filming of “Tovarich”, a favorite cameraman of Colbert’s was dismissed by director Litvak. After she saw the rushes shot by the replacement she was so upset with how she had been filmed that she insisted on hiring her own cameraman, offering to waive her salary if the film went over budget as a result.