After long nights of hard contemplation in my garret, I’ve finally decided to come out in support of King Ralph. This John Goodman vehicle from 1991 seems to be buried in a wave of critical obloquy, treated with distain for its portrait of a vulgar American showing the Brits a thing or two. You might have the same impression, even if you’ve never seen it. But they’re wrong, and that’s no reason for you to be; King Ralph is a funny, good-hearted romp, probably better appreciated from 2020 than at the time.
Sydney Pollack was one of the major Hollywood talents, a producer and director who made great thrillers like Three Days of the Condor, but could also stretch to strong comedy like Tootsie. King Ralph was a project that would have re-united him with Tootsie’s break-out star, Bill Murray, a star-vehicle that doubled-down on Murray’s sloth-like charm. But Murray didn’t want to star, and while remaining as producer, Pollack passed the duties on to Oscar-winner David S Ward, with a CV that includes The Sting, Major League and co-writing Sleepless in Seattle. Without Murray’s considerable wages to pay, Ward and Pollack spent wisely on the support; Peter O’Toole, John Hurt, Leslie Phillips, Richard Griffith, a roll-call of class British talent make up a distinguished supporting cast. Goodman, a rising character actor, gets a rare above-the-title starring role here, giving him the opportunity to show the comic talents, a well that the Coen brothers regularly returned to.
Perhaps it’s the premise that offends. As with the novel it’s loosely based on (Headlong by Emlyn Williams), King Ralph opens with the British Royal family wiped out in a fatal accident. The closest heir to the throne is a washed-up Vegas entertainer, Ralph Jones (Goodman), who is swiftly installed in Buckingham Palace to receive on-the-job training from Sir Cedric (O’Toole). But Lord Percival (John Hurt) believes that one transgression by Ralph will lead to an abdication, and give him the chance to claim the throne for the House of Stuart, so arranges a tabloid sting involving the shy girl Miranda (Camille Coduri) that Ralph is smitten with.
Pollack had a sophisticated view of comedy, and he’d probably have made quite a different film with Murray, and yet the elements here have weathered well; Americans marrying into royalty, conniving political forces bending the will of innocents for their own gain. It’s genuinely funny for Ralph to finish his list of diplomatic protocols by saying ‘enjoy your flight’; he feels constrained by the language and politeness of the palace as much as any humble flight-attendant who had to force a smile. Similarly, when offered the chance to raise his standards, he replies defiantly ‘I like my standards the way they are.’. Ralph defends his own personal cultural imperatives, even when forced to adopt those of others, and his tale of an everyman who outsmarts the forces that lurk in the dark shadows of Merrie England is likeable enough.
‘So…I’m getting hosed over here?’ is Ralph’s comment when he finds out that he’s been set up; in can-do fashion, Ralph soon outsmarts the crusty politicos and wins the day, singing a few good rock & roll songs along the way. This is an amusing B movie with flashes of A-movie wit; Goodman has since established himself as an American treasure, and he makes something loveable about King Ralph’s culture clash. So renounce your false idols, and let’s all hail King Ralph!