The Emperor’s Candlesticks starts with an exceptional display of chemistry from Robert Young and Maureen O’Sullivan. They’re at the opera, it’s the late nineteenth century, it’s a masked costume ball, Young is a Grand Duke dressed as Romeo, and O’Sullivan is the sun.
Then it turns out O’Sullivan is working with a bunch of Polish nationalists who want to kidnap Young and ransom him for a political prisoner getting a pardon from the Czar (Young’s dad). Young and O’Sullivan aren’t the leads of the picture, the leads of the picture are William Powell and Luise Rainer. Powell’s an ostensibly apolitical Polish noble who’s more interested in philandering than revolting, Rainer’s a Russian noble who’s a professional spy. So Powell gets the mission to bring Young’s letter to the Czar and get the prisoner freed. Simultaneously, Rainer’s compatriots have discovered Powell’s actually a spy too. So she’s charged with bringing evidence of his treachery to St. Petersburg.
They both have a mutual acquaintance in Henry Stephenson, who wants Powell to take a pair of candlesticks to a Russian princess Stephenson is courting. The candlesticks have this awesome hidden compartment and Powell’s more than happy to do Stephenson the favor, since the hidden compartment is perfect for the letter he’s got to transport.
Powell gets ahead of himself and puts the note in before taking possession of the candlesticks, which Stephenson wants to have delivered to Powell at the train station. Seems like everything’s going to be fine, until—just missing Powell—Rainer pays Stephenson a visit and he can’t resist showing her the hidden compartment either. Powell’s worried about getting his document into Russia, Rainer’s worried about getting her documents out of Poland. It doesn’t take much for Rainer to charm Stephenson into letting her deliver the candlesticks to his lady friend. Rainer puts her documents in the other candlestick; they’re distinguished by some slight damage.
So there’s already the trouble—for Powell—of catching up to Rainer and getting at the candlesticks. But then there’s Bernadine Hayes, Rainer’s maid, who’s let thief Donald Kirke talk her into robbing her mistress of her jewelry… and her candlesticks. So then there’s going to be trouble for everyone, leading to a sometimes joint effort from Powell and Rainer, sometimes separate, across the continent. Powell’s mission has a timeline (the prisoner’s execution is set and, therefore, Young’s is as well).
Powell and Rainer falling in love doesn’t help things, especially for her, since she knows about her mission and its repercussions for Powell (he’ll be arrested, then shot by firing squad), while Powell is just trying to make sure neither the prisoner or the Grand Duke run out of time.
Powell and Rainer falling for each other pretty early, which works out well because they’ve got to bring enough chemistry to overshadow the memory of Young and O’Sullivan’s at the beginning. They do, with Rainer doing the heavier lifting as she’s falling for a man she’s condemning, but the film’s got to keep that angle pretty light—Powell’s whole persona in the picture is based on him not acting at all like a secret agent, but a playboy, including when he’s hustling to get the candlesticks. He’s doing it—he tells Rainer—because as a gentleman he should be aiding a lady in distress. Little does he know he’s causing Rainer a great deal more distress than she anticipated.
With the exception of Frank Morgan’s out-of-place introduction (he’s Young’s sidekick, in and out of captivity), Candlesticks is a joyous. Powell and Rainer are wonderful, O’Sullivan and Young are great, Stephenson’s fun. Morgan’s a little much but not enough to hurt the experience. And Morgan’s fine, he just takes up time Young could be spending with O’Sullivan.
Fitzmaurice’s direction is good. Every once in a while Candlesticks will go to second unit exteriors, which gives it a nice scale. With the exception of a (second unit-fueled) montage sequence, Conrad A. Nervig’s editing is poor. Lots of harsh cuts, a handful of severe jump cuts. Some of it is lack of coverage, but Nervig doesn’t have a good rhythm. Luckily the actors are so good and the Harold Goldman and Monckton Hoffe script is so strong, Nervig’s rough editing doesn’t do much damage. It’s occasionally grating.
Otherwise, the film’s technically solid.
Thanks to Powell and Rainer (and Young and O’Sullivan), The Emperor’s Candlesticks is a constant delight.