The Affairs of Cellini (1934)

Genres - Adventure, Comedy  |   Sub-Genres - Biopic [feature], Farce, Romantic Adventure, Screwball Comedy  |   Run Time - 79 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Nathan Southern

This door-slamming bedroom farce of high comedy lacks substance but is so light, breezy, and gentle -- and is performed with such gusto and bravura by its four leads -- that one hardly notices; watching it is like feasting on a perfect soufflé. There exists a great delicacy in the patter between the resplendent Constance Bennett (as the Duchess of Florence) and Frank Morgan, who plays her husband, Alessandro "Bumpy" de Medici, the Duke of Florence. Morgan reads the character as a doddering and witless old fool; his stuttering and stammering, philandering, and tactless observations provide many of the film's biggest laughs. In fact, Morgan justifiably received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for this role, and even outshines the usually peerless Fredric March (who plays the eponymous title character) -- surely a first in Hollywood history. Kudos to director Gregory La Cava (My Man Godfrey), scripter Bess Meredyth, and March for rethinking the "homicidal rakishness" of Benvenuto Cellini and turning him into a nice guy; Cellini never once comes across as a less than sympathetic protagonist -- merely a hot-blooded fighter and romantic who adores braggadocio and self-promotion. In fact, tonally, La Cava has his finger on the audience's pulse when it comes to the entire ensemble. The picture wraps with a perfect concluding fate for every character; we laud the snaky guard Ottaviano's (Louis Calhern) poisoning and feel delighted to see Cellini and the duchess parade off to the "winter palace" together, where they will begin a steamy assignation. Much of this picture's humor is surprisingly off-beat -- as in the first few minutes, when Alessandro doles out a punishment by declaring, "We can't hang a Borgia...So put hot eggs under his armpits, then soak his feet in saltwater and allow the goats to lick them; after that, his ears must be severed." (Or later in the same scene, when a lady-in-waiting informs her father with an anachronistic bit of slang, "I can do as I like, so boo!") The picture suffers just a hair or two under the weight of early Hays Code censorship restrictions; it might have benefited from a more explicit depiction of the two extramarital affairs. But, again: the film's comic edge glimmers so brightly that it scarcely matters.