The least known, and many say least important, of all of Josef von Sternberg's films, the frothy operetta The King Steps Out (1936) was a long way from the exotic classics he made with Marlene Dietrich only a few years earlier. The story was taken from the play Sissy's Brautfahrt by Ernst Decsey and Gustav Holm, which then became the operetta Cissy (aka Sissy or Sissi), by Hubert and Ernst Marischka, music by Kreisler, premiering in Vienna in 1932. The director likely knew what he was doing, but critics found it hard to see evidence in The King Steps Out that he much cared. He was criticized for the "lumbering" treatment of the comic bits and for capturing his star in some rather unflattering close-ups. Only during the bustle of Viennese crowd scenes, particularly the sequence when Emperor Franz Josef goes out in public incognito (hence the title), does von Sternberg show any glimmer of his visual and narrative flair. Nevertheless, the picture was one of the biggest hits of the year, thanks largely to Miss Moore's charm and accomplished soprano, some pleasant humor, and the Kreisler score, some of which was taken from his own 1919 Broadway musical Apple Blossoms, featuring Fred and Adele Astaire.
The story finds Moore as Princess Elizabeth, aka Cissy, who poses as a humble dressmaker to save her sister from an unwanted arranged marriage to the Emperor of Austria. As The New York Times put it in a review of the movie, "When we add that the Emperor Francis Joseph is none other than our old friend Franchot Tone, with his hair in curls and spotless white uniforms to wear, then you may not be altogether astonished to hear that Miss Moore eventually takes her sister's place after winning the Emperor's heart."
Von Sternberg said he had seen the musical in Vienna a few years before making the picture, and sources report that the rights to it were bought by Moore's husband, Spanish actor Valentin Parera, and sold to Columbia for a tidy profit. It was adapted for the screen by Sidney Buchman, the award-winning writer of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), as well as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Cleopatra (1963), and The Group (1966).
Several of Kreisler's songs were given new lyrics, and new titles, by Dorothy Fields, who never met the composer. Ms. Fields, daughter of half of the famous vaudeville team of Weber and Fields and the most successful female songwriter of Tin Pan Alley, is best known for her work with composers Jimmy McHugh ("I'm in the Mood for Love," "On the Sunny Side of the Street"), Jerome Kern (the Oscar®-winning "The Way You Look Tonight" from the Astaire-Rogers picture Swing Time, 1936), and Cy Coleman (the Broadway musical Sweet Charity).
The plot is loosely based on the true story of Empress Elizabeth of Austria. The second daughter of the Duke of Bavaria, Elizabeth accompanied her mother and older sister Helene to Austria. Her mother hoped to match the 18-year-old Helene with her 23-year-old cousin, Emperor Franz Josef, but he chose the 15-year-old Elizabeth instead. As Empress, she became known as a great beauty, world traveler, and fashion plate. In 1889, her son, Crown Prince Rudolf, and his young lover, Baroness Marie Vetsera, were found dead of a murder-suicide in Rudolf's hunting lodge, Mayerling. In 1898, Elizabeth was stabbed in the heart by a young anarchist while walking along the promenade of Lake Geneva preparing to board a steamship. Unaware of the severity of her condition, she boarded the ship and died a short time later of the profuse bleeding that had been contained by the strong pressure of her tight corset.
The most notable fact about The King Steps Out, one that even von Sternberg pointed out in his book, is that the picture and sound in the musical numbers were recorded simultaneously. Almost all musical films, before and after, required the performers to record their numbers first, then lip-sync to the playback when the picture was shot.