In 1936, Paramount Pictures released a mystery/comedy film titled The Princess Comes Across that featured a concertina. 1 Now, although the concertina has appeared in American and British movies—in front of and behind the camera—for at least 90 years, 2 this film gives the concertina an outsized role. The lead male character (a band leader) plays the instrument; it is the subject of a song written for him and the butt of some memorably derisive remarks; it serves as evidence in a murder investigation; and the band leader uses it to romance the leading lady.
The Princess Comes Across began with the working title Concertina and was intended to pair Carole Lombard with George Raft for the third time. A Texas newspaper reported that for his role Raft had to “learn to play the accordion [my emphasis].” 3 Yet owing to a rift with cameraman Ted Tetzlaff, Raft walked away from the role, and thus forced Paramount to select a new leading man: Fred MacMurray. 4 According to several newspaper accounts, concertinist Raphael Alexandrovitch Sonnenberg (known professionally as Raphael, 1886-1942) was signed for the film, but, whether it was a coincidence or not, this fell through when Raft was replaced and the title changed. 5
The film revolves around a Brooklyn actress named Wanda Nash (played by Lombard) who masquerades as one Princess Olga of Sweden in order to land a film contract with a Hollywood studio. The story plays out on board the ocean liner Mammoth (bound from Le Havre to New York), on which she encounters King Mantell (MacMurray), a concertina-playing band leader with a criminal record. They bicker for the ship’s royal suite and the romance is on. As it happens, both of them are blackmailed for different reasons by the petty crook Robert Darcy (Porter Hall), and after Darcy is murdered, they become prime suspects for the crime. Further, one of Mantell’s concertinas is found in the princess’s cabin, thus fueling suspicion of their complicity in the deed; and so they must find the real killer before the five police detectives traveling on the ship can pin the crime on them. In the end, the bandleader and the princess are found innocent; they fall in love, and she “comes across” in another sense: she confesses to her deception.
In an early scene, the princess’s companion, Lady Gertrude Allwyn (Alison Skipworth), also part of the ruse, notices the attraction between Nash and Mantell and is afraid that the charade will be ruined if the two hook up. Allwyn quips to Nash and a ship’s steward: (1) “It [the concertina] is vulgar, a definite symbol of the lower classes,” (2) “Put the thing on the floor and it crawls,” (3) “The princess cannot endure the concertina,” and (4) “Never, never have I known any good to come out of a concertina.” Later in the film, after the two women and bandleader have drinks together, Lady Gertrude privately tells Nash, “There are plenty of proper gentlemen onboard without you drinking cocktails with a concertina squeezer.”
During a heated exchange with the blackmailer, King Mantell reveals that he learned to play the concertina while in prison as a youthful offender. He then “plays” the concertina three times in the film: first there is a tango in his cabin on an Anglo concertina with tassels on the wrist straps; on another occasion, he knocks off a portion of Dark Eyes in his cabin; and for the ship’s concert, he performs Rimsky Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee and My Concertina (while singing). 6 The princess gazes lovingly at him during the song. MacMurray can be seen barely moving his fingers on the instrument while pushing and pulling the elongated bellows. It is also obvious from the soundtrack that an accordion is dubbing for the concertina.
My Concertina was written by Phil Boutelje (music) and Jack Scholl (lyrics) for the film. Here is one section of the lyrics:
My concertina helps me express the song of happiness that love has brought me;
The song you taught me;
A melody that only you inspire;
Telling me that you’re my one desire;
My concertina gives me a way;
It knows that while I play I’m thinking of you;
It says “I love you”;
So to convey my love I play my concertina.
The cover of the sheet music for the song depicts a crew member covering his ears in a painful expression as Mantell serenades the princess with his concertina.
The few comments in the newspapers about the song were generally positive. It was characterized as “a new song hit,” 7 “a clever little novelty bit,” 8 and “a new tune that promises to be a hit.” 9 The song, though, is not included in the American Film Institute’s (AFI) “100 Greatest Songs in American Movies.” 10
There are differing published accounts about who played (or would play) the concertina in the film. Some accounts suggest that MacMurray was taking lessons and would perform on the concertina; some state that he did in fact play in the film; while others indicate that the playing was contracted out. Lloyd Pantages wrote in The San Francisco Examiner that “George Raft’s stepping out of the Lombard picture ‘Concertina’ is giving Fred MacMurray a little night work. He has to play a concertina in the picture, so he’s taking lessons from Rafael [sic], who nightly concertinas to everyone’s delight at the Trocadero.” 11 In 1936, Raphael was apparently performing at Café Trocadero, an upscale nightclub on Los Angeles’s famous Sunset Strip.
Another account, this one from a Pennsylvania newspaper, states: “Before entering films, MacMurray was leader of the ‘California Collegians’ [a cooperative traveling orchestra]. He plays a score of instruments with facility, but was baffled by the tiny push-and-pull squeeze box. Before filming could get under way, Paramount executives engaged two experts, Jerry Shelton and Johnny Kiata, to teach him.” 12
Shelton was a prominent accordionist who appeared with the orchestras of Xavier Cugat, Eddie Duchin, and Shep Fields. He was also the musical director for Veloz and Yolanda, the “World’s Greatest Dancing Couple.” 13 A journalist for the Salt Lake Tribune declared that Shelton “is one of the foremost young masters of the instrument in the entertainment world today.” 14 I could find no information about Johnny Kiata.
The chief film reviewer and motion picture editor of New York’s Daily News wrote that MacMurray “who was, before he went into the movies, an orchestra leader, gives a good performance as Mantell. He plays the concertina expertly.” 15 Another film reviewer declared that “Fred MacMurray displays his musical talents to the best advantage on a concertina in the film. His rendition of the ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ is amazing.” 16 Even an accordion association and the Toronto Film Society determined that MacMurray actually played the concertina in the movie. 17
On the other hand, Walter Winchell revealed in his widely syndicated “On Broadway” gossip column that “the musical solos you’ll hear [from MacMurray] were sound-tracked by Jerry Shelton of the Shep Fields crew at the Hotel Pierre.” 18 Several other articles concurred. 19 Twenty-four years later, Winchell revealed another concertina-related musician/actor substitution when Boris Matusewitch played the concertina music behind the stage curtain for actor George C. Scott, who “faked” playing the instrument during performances of the Broadway show The Wall. 20
In general, the film received positive reviews. The Boston Globe, for example, found that “mystery, comedy and romance plus a little concertina music combine most excellently to make ‘The Princess Come Across’ really gay entertainment.” 21 Similarly, an Iowa newspaper wrote that the film “Is one of the finest romantic comedy pictures of the year.” 22 The film critic for The New York Times, though, called the movie “a mild-to-boresome comedy.” 23
Six years after The Princess was released, newspapers reported that Columbia Pictures was making a film titled Concertina. It was to be based on an original story by Lt. John Huston, the prominent director who was then serving in the army during World War II, and Frederick Kohner, the Austrian-born novelist and screenwriter. The story “begins in 1842 and is carried through an average American family who, in succession, inherited the concertina. It’s played by a member of each succeeding family, using popular tunes of the day.” 24 Cary Grant was signed for the lead role. 25 A Canadian theater even advertised that Concertina would be playing “in the near future.” 26 The studio, however, never released the film. 27
- The film is based on a 1935 novel by Louis Rogger and directed by William K. Howard. It appears online at YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=695YxbcXH7M. The resolution, however, is clumsy, and a better source is a two-DVD set titled Carole Lombard: The Glamour Collection, issued by Universal Studios Home Entertainment, DVD 20126 (2006).
An American newspaper reported that Howard used a concertina on his movie sets “to aid emoting. ‘There is something about the full, throbby wail of a concertina that gets to the heart,’ opines Bill.” Quoted in W.I.D., “Behind the Screen in Hollywood,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 3, 1925, p. 35. I accessed this and all subsequent newspaper citations at www.newspapers.com, which has an extensive archive of North American and British newspapers dating back to the nineteenth century.
- Maggie Martin, “Squeezeboxes on the Silver Screen,” http://www.mediarare.com/MRFilmSq.html (lists and briefly annotates any film “in which a piano accordion, bandoneon, concertina, button box or melodeon is seen, heard or both.”). On the role of concertinas in American and British films, see Eric Matusewitch, “The Concertina Goes to the Movies,” Concertina World: Magazine of the International Concertina Association, No. 477 (March 2019) pp. 7-22.
- Unsigned, “Raft Learns Music,” Valley Morning Star (Harlingen, TX), February 16, 1936, p. 19.
- Unsigned, “Hollywood Round-Up,” The Daily Herald (Provo, UT), February 14, 1936, p. 10.
- Mollie Merrick, “Hollywood in Person!” The Tampa Times, January 9, 1936, p. 4; Unsigned, “Noted Musician Gets Paramount Film Work,” The Salt Lake Tribune, January 26, 1936, p. 19 (referring to Raphael as “the Kreisler of the Concertina”); see also the entry for the film’s “Full Cast & Crew,” at the IMDB website, www.imdb.com/title/tt0028138/fullcredits?ref_=tt_cl_sm#cast (no listing for Raphael in the cast.) Merrick also mentioned that Raphael had appeared in a 1930 French film directed by Rene Clair, Sous Les Toits de Paris. At that time, the concertinist was living in Paris, where he was a fixture at the Maisonette des Comediens Russes on the rue Vivienne. On Raphael, see my forthcoming article, “Raphael Alexandrovitch Sonnenberg: Concertina Virtuoso, 1886-1942,” to appear in Concertina World (ICA).
- This was the first time MacMurray’s singing voice was heard on screen. Unsigned, “Screen Lovers Together Again: MacMurray and Lombard in Rivoli Feature,” Star Press (Muncie, IN), May 31, 1936, p. 14.
- Unsigned, “Popular Team Joined Again at Paramount,” Salt Lake Tribune, Mary 24, 1936, p. 100.
- Unsigned, “The Princess Comes Across: Mystery and Fun in Lovely Picture Reuniting Stars,” Medford Mail Tribune (Medford, OR), July 12, 1936, p. 9.
- Betty Kern, “Movie Reviews,” Dayton Herald (Dayton, OH), June 13, 1936, p. 9.
- AFI, “100 Greatest Songs in American Movies,” www.filmsite.org/afi100songs.html.
- Lloyd Pantages, “British Capital, Providing Half Purchase Price of Universal, to Be Given Large Foreign Interest,” The San Francisco Examiner, February 18, 1936, p. 20; note the use of “concertinas” is a verb.
- Unsigned, “ ‘Princess Comes Across’ Shea’s Now,” Bradford Evening Star and The Bradford Daily Record (Bradford, PA), June 12, 1936, p. 9; see also, Unsigned, “MacMurray, Lombard Team,” Honolulu Advertiser, July 26, 1936, p. 32. While MacMurray did play a variety of musical instruments, the one “that he would become most famous for playing and for a time earn his living with [was] the saxophone.” Charles Tranberg, Fred MacMurray: A Biography (Albany, GA: Bear Manor Media, 2007), p. 19.
- Unsigned, “Town and Country Club Announces New Year’s Plans,” The Dispatch (Moline, IL), December 14, 1940, p. 5; Maplewood Theatre ad for Veloz & Yolanda performance assisted by Jerry Shelton, Courier-News (Bridgewater, NJ), January 16, 1942, p. 14.
- Len L. Simpson, “Veloz and Yolanda Delight Salt Lake Audience With Celebrated Dance Routines,” Salt Lake Tribune, April 23, 1942, p. 12.
- Kate Cameron, “Paramount Presents Snappy New Comedy,” Daily News, June 4, 1936, p. 239.
- Betty Kern, “Movie Reviews.” Still another newspaper, unable to distinguish between the bellows instruments, wrote that “Fred plays a mean accordion.” Unsigned, “Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray Unveil Romance.” The Courier (Waterloo, IA), May 31, 1936, p. 6.
- Western New York Accordion Club, “Fred MacMurray” (in “Noted Accordion Players” section), www.wnyaccordions.org ; Toronto Film Society, “The Princess Comes Across (1936),” February 13, 2017, http://torontofilmsociety.com/film-notes/princess-comes-across-1936.
- “Walter Winchell on Broadway,” Courier-Post (Camden, NJ), May 20, 1936, p. 12. Shelton was, in fact, performing with the Shep Fields orchestra in 1936. See Unsigned, “Leader of Popular Chicago Orchestra Here Next Tuesday,” Daily Times (Davenport, Iowa), January 25, 1936, p. 9.
- “Town and Country Announces New Year’s Plans,” and Unsigned, “Questions and Answers from Washington [Q & A. No. 7],” Kingsport Times (Kingsport, TN), March 10, 1937, p. 6. It is common for accordions to serve as substitutes for concertinas in American film scores. Some examples include Paleface (Paramount 1948), Forever, Darling (MGM 1956), and High Society (MGM 1956). See Eric Matusewitch, “The Concertina Goes to the Movies.”
- Walter Winchell, “Broadway and Elsewhere,” Indianapolis Star, November 13, 1960, p. 23. (“An important part of ‘The Wall’ is the concertina music, beautiful, haunting. The musician doesn’t get program credit. He is talented Boris Matusewitch.”)
- Unsigned, “Metropolitan: ‘The Princess Comes Across,’ ” Boston Globe, May 30, 1936, p. 12.
- Unsigned, “Capitol Review: ‘The Princess Comes Across,’ ” Daily Times (Davenport, IA), July 11, 1936, p. 5. See also, John B. Peck, “Seen & Heard at the Theaters,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 30, 1936, p. 57: “bright, sparkling entertainment of the romantic comedy order.”
- Frank S. Nugent, “The Screen: The Unfortunate Cases of ‘the Princess Comes Across,’ at the Paramount, and ‘Nobody’s Fool,’ ” The New York Times, June 4, 1936, p. 27.
- Hedda Hopper, “Hollywood,” Daily News, October 2, 1942, p. 259; Louella Parsons, “Gary Cooper ‘Dr. Wassells’ Role,” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 20, 1943, p. 17.
- Unsigned, “Cary Grant to Play Lead in ‘Concertina,’ ” Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY), February 27, 1943, p. 7; Unsigned, “Cole Porter in L.A.,” The Gazette (Montreal, Canada), January 21, 1943, p. 3. Noting there was a war on, a newspaper columnist suggested, “It might not be a bad idea for him [Grant] to visit an army camp [before filming] and do some entertaining for the boys.” Harold Heffernan, “Hollywood: ‘G.W.T.W.’ Earnings Set Record,” Calgary Herald (Calgary, Canada), February 6, 1943, p. 7.
- “Proudly We Announce,” Grand Theatre in Calgary advertisement, Calgary Herald, February 12, 1943, p. 12.
- There is no entry for the film in “List of Columbia Pictures Films,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Columbia_Pictures_films.