Almost twenty years before they enacted such splendid suffocation in Max Ophuls’s swoony masterpiece The Earrings of Madame de . . . , the agelessly glamorous Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux first starred together in another tear-jerking big-screen romance. Giving them each one of their most radiant roles, Mayerling was a star-crossed-lovers tale based on a true story, one that’s unimaginably tragic and, even more than a century later, debated. From a novelization by Claude Anet of the events surrounding the apparent 1889 suicide pact of Archduke Rudolf, heir to the Austrian throne, and his lover, Maria Vetsera, a baron’s daughter he was forbidden to see, Mayerling spins vivid, evocative melodrama.
Despite the delicate material, Mayerling avoids outright sensationalism thanks to the sensitive direction by Anatole Litvak. Though little remembered today, Litvak has a formidable biography: A Jew born in Kiev, he studied philosophy in Saint Petersburg before moving to Germany in the late twenties to work in the movies (including editing for G. W. Pabst). Upon the Nazis’ rise to power, he fled, hatching a successful directing career in both England and France with Gaumont, and then proceeding to Hollywood, where he became an acclaimed, Oscar-nominated director, husband to Miriam Hopkins, and collaborator on Frank Capra’s Why We Fight films during World War II. He even served in the U.S. Army, heading up the photography division that documented the D-day landing in Normandy. Once in Los Angeles, Litvak was, according to David Thomson, “a great womanizer, a Hollywood socialite, and a dashing figure.” None of this would have been possible if not for Mayerling, the success that got him noticed in America and led to his first studio contract, at Warner Bros.
It was not only Mayerling’s flamboyant central tragedy (which occurred at the royal hunting lodge that gives the film its title) that attracted the leftist Litvak to the material, but also the story’s politics: more than just a Romeo and Juliet–like romance, the film also touches on the repression of liberal activism in nineteenth-century Vienna by reigning emperor Francis Joseph. The emperor’s only son, Boyer’s Rudolf, is introduced being accidentally rounded up along with a group of student protesters, which also includes his friend the left-wing journalist Szeps, the monarchy’s public enemy number one.
Further outraging the authorities and alienating him from his father and his livelihood (Rudolf states at one point that the crown and his happiness are “unfortunately irreconcilable”) is his adulterous affair with the seventeen-year-old Maria, whom he meets one night at the Prater, and who initially doesn’t recognize him as the crown prince. Their love, of course, is the central concern of the film, and Litvak portrays it as an impossible romantic ideal, cloaked in doubt and shadows, leading inexorably to a sad conclusion—the events of which are still disputed by some, who suspect Rudolf and Maria were victims of political conspiracy.
The real-life aftermath is well-known and even more tragic: in Rudolf’s absence, the crown was inherited by his cousin Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination incited World War I. But Litvak stays focused on the beautiful lovers—their wordless glances, their surreptitious meetings. The truth about their demise may never be known, but Litvak’s Mayerling remains a stirring dramatization and a lovely reminder of the beauty of two screen legends.