Chief audience interest in Richard Thorpe/Curtis Bernhardt's The Student Prince (1954) lay in singing sensation Mario Lanza (who wasn't in it). Lanza had pre-recorded all of the memorable Sigmund Romberg/Dorothy Donnelly score before a contractual dispute effectively terminated his association with MGM. Although the tenor's screen persona could be amiable and engaging, behind closed doors he proved something of a prima donna. In MGM's heyday the powers that be might have tolerated such outbursts and worked them into the production schedule. But this was the cost-cutting 1950s under the auspices of Dore Schary and no such nonsense would be tolerated. In the wake of Lanza's exit MGM cast Edmund Purdon, an attractive leading man with definite screen appeal to lip sync the vocals. And it is saying much of Purdon's prowess and charisma that despite their differences in girth one can almost accept Lanza's supreme voice emanating from Purdon's diminutive body.
Like Rose Marie, The Student Prince is a stage bound operetta from another time. Unlike Rose Marie, however, The Student Prince has held up remarkably well, even under the breathtaking vistas of Cinemascope and AnscoColor. Kudos for the film's success chiefly go to director Richard Thorpe, hired to replace Curtis Bernhardt and doing a fine job of it too, taking the schmaltz out of the beer garden badinage. The screenplay from Sonya Levien and William Ludwig retains the very best elements from the stage show. Director Thorpe, together with producer Joe Pasternak deliver a wholly cinematic experience, incorporating just about every European back lot set and prop that MGM's illustrious art department had on tap for decades.
The story concerns Prince Karl Franz, a martinet schooled by the military who lacks a romantic streak or even diplomacy towards others for that matter. His father, King Ferdinand of Karlsberg (Louis Calhern) has betrothed the Prince to Princess Johanna (Betta St. John) from a neighbouring kingdom with a lot more money. Although Johanna's mother, Queen Mathilda (Evelyn Varden) approves of the marriage, the Princess sees through Karl quite clearly. Theirs is to be a marriage of state rather than love. To improve the boy's prospects with the Princess the King decides to send Karl along with his tutor, Professor Jutner (Edmund Gwenn) and valet, Lutz (John Williams) on a little holiday to Heidelberg where it is hoped the Prince will acquire a more lax attitude toward friendship, love and life by mingling with the commoners.
Masquerading as just another student, Karl soon meets barmaid Kathie Ruder (Ann Blyth). Kathie's uncle, Joseph (S.Z. Sakall) is the owner of the bar and inn that Karl is staying at. And although both know that Karl is really a prince his identity is kept a secret from his fellow students. Karl pledges to the lower class fraternity and comes in conflict with the upper class men's captain, Count Von Asterburg (John Ericson). The men duel and Karl wounds the Count but gains his respect.
Karl attempts a romance with Kathie. She flees her uncle's inn but he pursues her and eventually wins her heart. In love for the very first time Karl vows to run away with Kathie after the artist's ball. Regrettably, Prime Minister Von Mark (John Hoyt) arrives with news that the King is dying. Karl must return immediately to the capital. After the King's death Karl prepares for his marriage. But his heart is drawn to Heidelberg. He orders his royal train to make an unscheduled stop and briefly reunites with Kathie. They renew their love and vow that it will endure even as they are bound by duty and go their separate ways.
Professor Jutner, who has made the journey with Karl, encourages him to remember the 'glorious times' they've share and Karl reluctantly rides away from Heidelberg into an uncertain future as the new monarch of the realm. This unrequited love and bittersweet ending of The Student Prince make it palpably relevant under today's scrutiny. Edmund Purdon may not have Mario Lanza's voice, but his lip sync is convincing enough and his acting ability more than to sustain the role. He and Ann Blyth have genuine chemistry. The supporting cast is top drawer. S.Z. Sakall is one of the true gems in this production. He and John Williams have great good fun verbally sparing.
Randall Duell's art direction is superb down to the last detail. The company may not have left Culver City to shoot this film but the sets resurrect that quaintly European flavor so essential to sustain the production - shot mostly indoors on sound stages. Helen Rose and Walter Plunkett's costumes are also gorgeous. And last but certainly not least is the score. With such immortal songs as 'Drink Drink Drink', 'Serenade', 'Golden Days', 'I'll Walk With God' and 'Beloved' The Student Prince is a cornucopia of treasured musical memories ably assisted by the melodic voices of Mario Lanza and Ann Blyth - doing her own singing, thank you very much! I'm not a big fan of screen operetta but must admit that this one tugged at my heart and sustained my attentions. Fondly remembered for many years to come and sincerely recommended to you and yours for a joyous MGM musical experience. The Student Prince is a keeper!
Regrettably, The Student Prince is also a Warner Archive release. Although advertised as 'remastered' the film suffers from all the shortcomings of Cinemascope and AnscoColor. Transitions between scenes are grainy. A few reels are already suffering from severe vinegar syndrome, resulting in a ruddy palette of orangey brown. Age related artifacts have not been cleaned up but on the whole do not distract – although they are particularly thick during the main title sequence. The audio is stereo surround. Given that the film was Lanza's last important screen effort it would have been gracious of Warner to produce a new 5.1 audio mix. The only extra is the film's theatrical trailer. I really do wish Warner had taken the time to give this movie a restored and properly minted DVD release. It deserves one. Otherwise, The Student Prince comes highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)