In 1957, celebrity newlyweds Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer made their live television debut, both as a couple and individually, starring together in a staging of Mayerling for the anthology series "Producer's Showcase." The near 90-minute event was helmed by the esteemed director Anatole Litvak, who had actually filmed Mayerling two decades prior as a full-length motion picture, and co-directed by Kirk Browning.
Mayerling is named for a hunting lodge that belonged to Austrian royalty. It's where, in 1889, the Crown Prince took his 17-year-old girlfriend for a winter getaway, and where it's believed he may have orchestrated a murder/suicide rather than give her up. (Now some historians believe there were maybe other forces at work in this tragedy.)
The famous story was, of course, ripe for dramatic interpretation. Young love coming to an end for a prince and his paramour? It's like a real-life Romeo & Juliet! In this production, Ferrer stars as Prince Rudolph, and Hepburn as Marie, the innocent seduced by the philandering heir to the throne. Though he truly loved her, Rudolph was already married, and had earned himself a name as a party boy. His father ordering the Prince to give the girl up was meant to calm a scandal that the Royal Family could not afford. At the time, revolution was fomenting in outlying territories.
The politics of the time are barely touched on in this particular version of Mayerling, which is otherwise trimmed down to make it fit within the constraints of live television. The plot largely follows the courtship between Rudolph and Marie, their clandestine romance, and the unraveling of the same.
Mayerling only aired the one time, and it has long been thought to be lost. TV studios didn't have easy means to record their broadcasts. At best, we have what is called Kinetoscopes of the shows. In the simplest terms, these are versions filmed using an old process and taken directly off the in-studio monitor or a television. No known Kinetoscope existed for the 1957 Mayerling. The idea that there might be some kind of recording of it out there somewhere has always been a sort of Holy Grail for Audrey Hepburn fans, being the one major onscreen performance for the actress that had been lost to the ages.
That is, until a couple of years ago when materials for Mayerling were found. This manufacture-on-demand release is its first commercial airing in over half a century.
Which puts a lot of pressure on what was a one-off television broadcast. Does it live up to expectations? Yes, and no. Audrey's performance is delightful. Her natural charm comes through, even when playing someone as prim and proper as Marie. Mayerling doesn't provide her with much to do, this version of the story offers no real character growth. Only Rudolph is given much of an arc, which is wasted on Ferrer. He has always been a bit of a stiff, and his Rudolph exhibits no real passion.
Which could pretty much be said for the whole production. It's kind of Mayerling by numbers. It hits all the points, but it's lacking in desire and despair in equal measure. Rather, it just kind of ambles along until the tale runs its course. The closing image is haunting and beautiful, but it could have been even moreso had it inspired a greater investment from the viewer.
These complaints, of course, shouldn't dissuade the die-hard Audrey devotees, but unless you're otherwise an aficionado of vintage TV, there's not much else to warrant a casual viewing.
The presentation on this DVD could have maybe used with further explanation somewhere on the packaging to give consumers a little background on what state and format Mayerling was found in (the press release I received said there was a Kinetoscope hiding amongst a large archive in New York). The picture is shown in full-frame black-and-white in the original television aspect ratio. There are some marks and dirt on the print, though nothing that obscures the image. Occassionally, as in the screengrab above, it gets a little dark, but it's not consistent or prolonged.
The DVD's main problem is pixilation. The picture is jagged throughout and could have used some further tinkering in the mastering stage.
The audio is mixed here in stereo, but it's pretty much a mono soundtrack masquerading as a two-channel mix. No surprises here, and no complaints really. There is some hiss and some noise, but overall, it's a clear, albeit quiet, presentation.
There are two ways to watch Mayerling: with or without the original commercials. There are nearly 10 minutes of ads, including some pretty great live pitches for color televisions.
Recommended, though mainly just for the dedicated Audrey Hepburn fans. This manufacture-on-demand release of the long-lost live television production of Mayerling that Hepburn starred in with her husband Mel Ferrer is not an instant classic being returned to the Audrey canon. Rather, it's a pleasant, if dispassionate, one-off that features a swell performance from the icon but is otherwise a little bit of a snooze. Still, I don't know a Hepburn addict who isn't going to want this in their collection at long last.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.