Sep 24, 2013

Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer Star in Mayerling (1957)

It really happened. Newlyweds Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer played doomed lovers in a lavish production of Mayerling (1957) for the Producer's Showcase anthology series on NBC. The film aired once, on February 4, 1957, and never again. Though it was broadcast in color, it has only been preserved on the black and white kinescopes that were once used for archival purposes. Now it is available on manufactured-on-demand DVD, and if you are a Hepburn fan, you are going to be pleased.

Mayerling is the name of a real Austrian village where the Viennese Archduke Rudolph and his teenaged love Countess Maria Vetsera apparently died in a murder/suicide at a hunting lodge in 1889. The film's story is of their doomed love affair.

The married archduke meets the countess by chance in an amusement park. They begin to see each other frequently, angering his father the Emperor, though his Empress mother is quietly glad that her son has found someone to make him happy. Under pressure from his father, who threatens to send Maria to a convent if he does not end their romance, Rudolph decides he cannot live without his love. She agrees to die with him, though she seems too heartbreakingly young to truly understand what she is doing.

It's a highly romanticized version of a story that in real life was made much more complicated with politics and the events that would eventually lead to World War I. Yes, the country is in turmoil, but there's plenty of time for dancing in the park and dressing for fancy balls.

This version of Mayerling comes between two film versions: a French production directed by Anatole Litvak in 1936 (he also produced and reportedly co-directed this production) and a gorgeous, if less stirring interpretation directed by Terence Young in 1968. The Hepburn/Ferrer production doesn't even come close to the scope of these movies, nor should it be expected to, but it is still surprisingly lush.

The picture quality was much better than I expected. While there are lots of little black spots and scratches, the overall condition of the print is good. The lighting was consistent and the sound mix good enough not to distract from the performances. It is clearly an old television film, but it looks and sounds remarkable given that limitation.

Costumes, set design and music were all executed with the same care and detail you would find in a feature film. This was clearly a pricy production. The main difference is that the camera doesn't move with the performers and it is always clear the actors are working in confined spaces. You think about these things when Hepburn isn't onscreen, even when there are fine supporting performances by Raymond Massey, Diana Wynard and Judith Evelyn to enjoy.

Whenever Hepburn appears though, she sucks up a lot of those details and grabs you into her orbit. In early television, could be difficult to be heard or seen. You needed a big personality to overcome the technical limitations of early television. With her warm charisma Hepburn conquers these hurdles easily.

Newly married and in her late twenties, Hepburn captures the forthright innocence of her seventeen-year-old character. She understands the way a young woman can be simultaneously deeply philosophical and dangerously careless. The actress is best when she is silent, working her eyes for all that devastating, overwhelmed Audreyness. Hepburn always knew how to play a woman in love.

If only she had had an equally passionate actor to play against. But instead there is Mel Ferrer, who says his lines as if he is reading them off a chalkboard. I was able to push aside the other versions of Mayerling well enough when I watched this one, but it was impossible not to be haunted by Charles Boyer in the 1936 Mayerling while watching Ferrer flop around. Where Boyer exploded with frustrated rage and passion, his 1957 counterpart stomps around like a spoiled schoolboy.

 Ferrer never fully commits to his performance. He holds back, as if he's in rehearsal. When Ms. Audrey appears so charmingly in love, you can't believe he's the guy she's fussing over.

Don't let Mel keep you away though. This is a lovely production, a must-see for Hepburn fans and worthy viewing for anyone fascinated by the history of television. A delightful discovery like this one makes me wonder what other interesting old TV movies are out there, waiting for another moment of glory. I know Producer's Showcase also staged a version of Dodsworth, starring Fredric March, Claire Trevor and Geraldine Fitzgerald. There was a version of Cyrano de Bergerac as well, in which José Ferrer recreated his Academy Award-winning performance with Claire Bloom and Christopher Plummer. I'd love to see these and other potential treasures from the early days of television.

Mayerling can be purchased here.

Many thanks to Films Around the World for providing a copy of the movie for review.

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