The swashbuckler is perhaps the most challenging of all sub-genre actioners to pull off successfully. After all, not every man can wear a flouncy shirt, tights and a codpiece and still come across as the embodiment of strapping masculinity. The illusion is even more of a hurdle – impediment – when one considers the daring doer must also speak in a pseudo-old English or colloquial Shakespeare-ease to accommodate the undisclosed period, buttress its fanciful romanticism and mask its uber-modernization, making it palpable to contemporary audiences. In point of fact, Ronald Colman was not at all certain he wanted the part in John Cromwell’s The Prisoner of Zenda (1937); one of the undisputed classy swashbucklers from Hollywood’s golden age, and, a ravishing crossed-swords adventure yarn besides, based on the popular 1894 novel by Anthony Hope.
The book was a perennial favorite and in Hollywood, it would remain so for decades to come. Thus, when producer, David O. Selznick undertook to make his movie adaptation he was already working from the vantage that any movie of Hope’s novel would already be an immediate success. But Colman was a reluctant star, not entirely because the part involved a certain flair and flamboyance, but also owing to the fact he had to play two roles for the price of one; English commoner on holiday, Major Rudolf Rassendyll and his distant cousin, King Rudolf – supreme monarch of the fictional European principality of Zenda. Filmed stories set in imaginary Ruritanian conclaves had a certain appeal with movie audiences then – particularly in America where royalty was regarded as something mysterious and grand. Moreover, they provided the studios with an obvious opportunity to show off.
Like all movies Selznick had produced to date, but perhaps even more so as an independent, The Prisoner of Zenda was approached with great verve and very high expectations. After reading John L. Balderston’s screenplay, itself a masterful patchwork tweaked by Donald Ogden Stewart, Ben Hecht and Sidney Howard, Ronald Colman agreed to star in the picture. Ironically, the last time he had played dual roles in a single picture also had been for Selznick on A Tale of Two Cities (1935) over at MGM. Left to his own accord, Selznick could be a most fastidious taskmaster. However, cast and crew were generally spared his more interminable meddling as Selznick had become embroiled in pre-production on his magnum opus, Gone With The Wind (1939). Selznick cast ‘Zenda’ from a top-flight roster of established talent. He wanted – and signed – Raymond Massey for the role of Prince Michael, the king’s black-hearted brother, plotting to overthrow the kingdom by drugging Rudolf with some laced wine. Massey may not have been a very physically attractive man, raising a few eyebrows as to why the pure-heart, though undeniably sexy Antoinette de Mauban (Mary Astor) should so passionately have affixed her star to Prince Michael as her only ideal. But Massey was a formidable talent; Teutonic, penetrating and wicked to the core; able to exude unadulterated villainy on cue. Astor, it seems, was working against type – if convincingly – as the sweet innocent widow. In real life, matters were decidedly different. A bitter divorce from her husband resulted in Astor’s private diary leaked to the press, littered with tawdry details about her blue escapades.
For counterbalance to Massey’s gargoyle-ish malevolence, Selznick made the fortuitous decision to cast Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the pivotal role as Michael’s right hand; the despicable womanizer and unrepentant cutthroat, Rupert of Henzau. Fairbanks Jr.’s early foray in the movies had been overshadowed by the silent screen legacy of his own father. Early attempts to mold junior into a carbon-copied knockoff were harshly judged by the critics, despite the fact Fairbanks had held his own and was, for a time, considered a matinee idol male ‘beauty’ in the industry, who worked steadily – if in mostly forgettable films – but would distinguish himself herein and later, hold his own splendidly opposite Cary Grant in 1939’s Gunga Din. In truth, there is little if any similarity between father and son on which to draw or even erroneously base such a parallel. Fairbanks Sr.’s robust physicality had rivaled Valentino’s sexual appeal during the silent era. Fairbanks Jr., although handsome, was not of this strapping, dark-haired Lothario ilk that could make ladies swoon at a glance. Mercifully, Selznick was not casting Fairbanks Jr. for his sex appeal, but rather, acting prowess.
Even more ironic, Fairbanks would find a way to exude a sort of sinful and corrupted sensuality – barbaric, yet attractive. Viewing Fairbanks’ Henzau today, one is immediately struck by his captivating streak of genuine cruelty. Fairbanks plays Henzau with delicious venom; the rapscallion, superficially amused while out on his sprees, but whose loyalties can turn on a dime. He is a ladies man – just not the one you might want to bring home to mother for fear he would have his non-discriminate way with her too. Of all the actors cast in The Prisoner of Zenda, Fairbanks’ remains the most intriguing, particularly in his verbal sparring with Colman during their climactic duel. This has a decidedly homo-erotic persuasion and undercurrent lurking beneath its surface sheen of contemptible jealousy; Henzau goading ‘the play actor’ with unabashed testosterone overdrive, perfectly counterbalanced by Colman’s unimpeachable sophistication; the boy vs. the man – youth narrowly murdering its ‘father figure’, before escaping to terrorize another kingdom/another day.
Ronald Colman plays what he always did – nobler masculinity - exceptionally well herein – genuine and unfettered by personal ambitions; except perhaps where the Princess Flavia is concerned. Casting Flavia proved something of a minor quandary for Selznick at first. It was not a great part, per say, sandwiched between the royal espionage and predominantly male-preoccupied exploits of exhilarating swordplay and chases on horseback. But the actress assigned to it needed to convey an amalgam of virginal beauty, regal deportment, but also a sense of inner warmth. Only in hindsight, does Madeleine Carroll prove an ideal choice for the part, possessing all the intangibles Selznick had hoped for in a fairy tale princess; plush with a sparkle of playfulness and stately air of duty. This bode well with Colman during their love scenes; particularly, the one and only moment alone in the garden; Colman, as Rassendyll, playing the King, drawn nearer by her beauty; Carroll’s glacial façade as a proper aristocrat, oft spurned in her own romantic daydreams by the real king, suddenly thawed by his intonated affections; Rassendyll’s moment of revelation, “Flavia…if I were not the king…” thwarted by a perfectly timed interruption from Colonel Zapt (C. Aubrey Smith).
Initially, Selznick allowed director, John Cromwell to ‘find’ his subject matter. Indeed, it had been Cromwell who had petitioned Selznick to make The Prisoner of Zenda and to partake of the exercise. Mildly distracted by pre-production fiascos/delays on GWTW, Selznick agreed. He liked the book, but moreover knew Cromwell’s workhorse attitude would get the job done without delays. But almost immediately, Selznick replaced Cromwell’s choice of cameraman, Bert Glennon with James Wong Howe after only two weeks of shooting, after he became dissatisfied by rushes illustrating a pro- and epilogue; Colman appropriately aged by Universal’s makeup wizard, Jack Dawn and seated in an over-sized easy chair, regaling the audience with exploits that had occurred some forty years earlier. After some consternation, these bookends to the movie were discarded by Selznick. For one reason or another, Hollywood of this vintage favored the flashback as a technique to launch into literary adaptations; the story usually beginning with a shot of the book about to be immortalized, pages magically turning to its preface before dissolving into the plot. In scrapping such a device for The Prisoner of Zenda Selznick lost a scant six minutes. But he also firmly grounded the movie’s action in the immediate – if not the present – after a regiment of Zenda’s proud military are seen beneath the titles, trumpets heralding the start of the picture.
Composer, Alfred Newman had been freelancing around Hollywood throughout the 1930's. Of all the composers working in Hollywood then, Newman (closely matched by Max Steiner) is perhaps the most prolific. Certainly, he was one of the busiest; scoring more than 200 features as well as overseeing the daily management of composers, Bernard Hermann and Hugo Friedhofer over at 2oth Century-Fox by the mid-1940s as that studio’s resident composer/conductor. While many today remember Alfred Newman primarily for his iconic Fox fanfare, heard with a Cinemascope extension ever-since the mid-1950s, as many have forgotten Newman also penned the iconic Selznick International fanfare, with its bell chimes backed by a full orchestral underlay. Newman’s compositions for The Prisoner of Zenda are undeniably among his greatest contributions to film underscoring. Tragically, none of his original cues have survived in isolated recording sessions. From his bombastic main title overture to the eloquently integrated cues that imperceptibly lead from central ‘Prisoner of Zenda’ theme in and out of George Frideric Handel’s ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes’ from Judas Maccabaeus (heard during Rassendyll’s coronation), or Johann Strauss II’s Artist’s Life Waltz (sumptuously presented in a magnificently stylized and thoroughly palatial ballroom), Newman establishes, then models and captivates us with the royal patina and energetic verve of the piece; his orchestrations, lusty personifications of the North American sentimentality for lost and imaginary pseudo-European landscapes, re-envisioning their gemütlich and wiener schnitzel charm.
The Prisoner of Zenda begins with a steam locomotive barreling through an undisclosed Tyrolean countryside. As passengers disembark to have their passports checked – presumably due to heightened security measures imposed for the King’s coronation in Zenda’s capital, Strelsau, Major Rudolf Rassendyll, a courtly Englishman sporting a Svengali-esque goatee and toting his hunting rifle is seen being interrogated. Almost immediately he incurs paralytic stares from the local gentry; quite unable to fathom what has sent everyone into their collective state of shock. After customs passes him on, the camera tilts to a nearby poster advertising the King’s coronation – the portrait bearing and uncanny resemblance to the traveler we have just met. We regress to a picturesque forest. Asleep under a tall pine, Rudolf is discovered by Colonel Zapt and his second in command, Fritz von Tarlenheim (David Niven); loyalists to and protectors of the crown. Their amazement is matched by Rudolf’s own; also by the King’s, the physical similarities between the two men (both played by Colman convincingly in a single split/screen shot) are suddenly brought to light. Rudolf confesses they share a blood connection dating all the way back to their great, great, great grandfather and Cousin Amelia. Delighted, the King invites Rudolf to spend the evening at his hunting lodge, also to accompany him to his coronation in Strelsau the following afternoon.
Regrettably, the King indulges in too much wine the night before, as do Rassendyll and Fritz. Col. Zapt encourages his sovereign to tread lightly on their revelries; a suggestion that momentarily incurs the King’s wrath. Losing his head, Rudolf strikes Zapt in the face. The old gentleman, devoted since the King’s father’s time, takes his leave. Ashamed of his actions, the King gets quietly drunk on a new bottle of wine. Unfortunately, this vintage has been deliberately tainted by the King’s elder jealous half-brother, Michael (Raymond Massey), the King falling into a paralytic slumber from which he will not awaken for at least twenty-four hours; long enough to miss his own coronation and have Michael declared regent with the aid of a forged letter. The next morning, Zapt awakens Rassendyll with a cold pitcher of water. At first insulted, Rassendyll soon learns of the King’s fate; also, his own. Now he must go to Strelsau in the King’s stead, to pull off the ultimate masquerade and be crowned King in order to preserve Zenda’s fragile monarchy. After some initial reluctance, Rassendyll agrees and the coronation takes place inside a resplendent cathedral. Naturally, Michael and his henchman, Rupert of Henzau are both perplexed by his arrival. Michael orders Henzau to the hunting lodge to find out what went wrong. But the coronation proceeds without pause. Rassendyll meets the Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll) – soon to be Queen. At first, she is curt and unreceptive. It seems the King was never particularly engaging; their arranged marriage resulting in several awkward and unremarkable meetings in their youth – one, in particular that made the then teenage Flavia weep and despise her lot own in life…until now.
Only ‘this’ King seems an entirely new man; one unimpeded by drink, carousing or any other vices Flavia can recall from childhood. In fact, the more she becomes reacquainted with the King, the more she begins to realize her appointment to the crown will not be as much of an internment as she had at first envisioned. Rassendyll is taken with Flavia; a flawed indulgence that can only end in disappointment. For later that same night, Zapt escorts him back to the hunting lodge where, so it is presumed, the real King and Rudolf will make the switch back. Unfortunately for Zapt, Henzau has been to the lodge first, kidnapped the King and pinned an ominous note on the bloody body of the lodge’s butler, Josef (Howard Lang). Henzau now knows the truth. But he cannot expose it without giving away his own as well as Michael’s treason. Zapt and Rassendyll contemplate their next move, eventually deciding Rassendyll must continue as Zenda’s monarch until Zapt and Fritz can learn the whereabouts of the real King.
Realizing Michael would not take any chances having an imposter rule for the rest of his days, Rassendyll reluctantly agrees to maintain their charade. The next evening at a lavish ball, he is reunited with Flavia; their burgeoning romance momentarily thwarted by Zapt, then cooling entirely after Rassendyll suggests to his eminence, the Cardinal (Ian MacLaren) that a postponement of their marriage by six months is in order. Later in the garden, Rassendyll implores Flavia’s forgiveness and indulgence – prompting her concern for his safety because of a suspected plot afoot to oust him from the throne. Henzau tells Michael about the switch and the two imprison the real King in the dungeon of one of Michael’s castles. The King, who has been wounded by Henzau, lies helpless and enfeebled, constantly threatened by Henzau with certain death by being weighted and dropped into the moat. Later, Henzau arrives at the King’s hunting lodge where Zapt and Fritz have taken Rassendyll. Henzau jovially refers to him as ‘the play actor’ before making an attempt on his life with a dagger. Henzau narrowly escapes being shot at by Zapt and Fritz.
The tone has been set for a pending palace coup. It is imperative someone rescue the real King and soon. Antoinette, who believes Michael’s obsession with the throne will end once the real King is rightfully restored, offers her complicity in Zapt and Fritz’s rescue plan, but only if the promise is made Michael will not be killed or imprisoned, rather exiled abroad. Zapt agrees and Antoinette explains how the trio can break into the castle after the midnight changing of the guard. Unfortunately, Henzau gets wind of this plot. He murders Antoinette’s loyal manservant, Johann (Byron Folger) and then inadvertently kills Michael after he, having presumed an affair between Antoinette and Henzau, barges into her room only to meet with his fate at the point of Henzau’s sword. Rassendyll engages Henzau in a spirited duel, superbly crafted in half-light and shadow. In the ensuing clash of swords, Rassendyll risks being wounded to release the drawbridge, thereby affording Zapt, Fritz and their armed militia the opportunity to storm the fortress and rescue the wounded King.
The next day, Rassendyll is summoned to the King’s bedchamber. The King merciful and grateful explains the secret of Rassendyll’s coronation must never be known. Both men agree. Still, Rassendyll cannot go without one last clandestine meeting with Flavia. Alas, the Princess in her antechamber is not the winsome girl of his dreams. Although the couple professes their love for one another, Flavia reminds Rassendyll that duty binds her now to a higher authority than his love for her. She must marry the King. In the final moments, Rassendyll is seen atop his noble steed, escorted to the borders of the Province of Zenda. The parting is bittersweet for Fritz who declares “Fate doesn’t always make the right men kings.” Seemingly contented to return to England, Rassendyll dashes up the hillside, pausing a moment to wave goodbye to Fritz and Zapt. They have run a good course together, but their adventurisms have decidedly come to an end.
The Prisoner of Zenda was, and remains, an extraordinary entertainment – by far one of the most stirring and introspective swashbucklers in screen history. At a cost of $1.3 million, ‘Zenda’s’ $2.8 million box office ought to have made it one of Selznick’s most successful ventures. Regrettably, the profit margin was a scant $665,000 – the rest of the film’s revenue eaten away by Selznick’s pursuit of perfection. For a little over the decade, Selznick continued to retain the rights to this story. But in 1950, he had gambled once too often and lost too many times. The movies made by Selznick International after Gone With The Wind continued to be handcrafted like a Rolls-Royce, but their dwindling profits had by 1949 toppled Selznick from his perch. Like most everything else, Selznick was forced to sell off the rights to ‘Zenda’ to MGM who had relentlessly pursued the property for their own Technicolor remake for some time. In 1952, this became a reality – a very sad one at that.
The 1952 version of The Prisoner of Zenda is a woefully undernourished affair, garish and awkwardly miscast; its featherweight Ruritanian plot imploding under the heft of its top-heavy accoutrements. Despite its sumptuous use of Technicolor, the remake is a pale ghost of the original; lacking the intuitive craftsmanship to make it excel as a truly memorable entertainment. The remake cast Stewart Granger in the dual role. Granger, then making a name for himself as a valiant successor to the likes of Colman and possibly even Errol Flynn with the resplendent Technicolor remake of Scaramouche (also in 1952) is very ill at ease in The Prisoner of Zenda – his Rassendyll and King Rudolf far too similar and thus exposing the ruse of the split/screen process. Colman’s strength in the original is he manages to convey subtle differences between the King and Rassendyll – differences not only in mannerisms but also distinct character traits that convince us of a plausible duality. Worse, is the incalculable misfire of casting James Mason as Rupert of Henzau. Where Douglas Fairbanks Jr. had been a wily and soulless creature of spurious ambitions and sexual appetites, Mason’s incarnation merely plays off the actor’s well-established asexual appeal as a diminished - if tragic – and careworn figure of flawed and thwarted ambitions. Deborah Kerr’s Flavia manages to capture the stateliness, but none of the warmth of Madeleine Carroll's fairy tale goddess, while Robert Douglas, as Prince Michael, barely registers as anything except an insipid and sulking/skulking baddie.
On this occasion, Cedric Gibbons’ immaculate art direction seems to have succumbed to a chronic bout of bad taste. The kingdom of Zenda, while timelessly captured in glorious B&W in Selznick’s original, now appears as a fanciful fashion parade, steeped in obvious props and gaudy costumes, the sets culled from Metro’s acquisitions for Thalberg’s production of Marie Antoinette (1938), yet somehow more at home as a Vaudevillian operetta than ageless and magical kingdom. The final nail in the coffin is MGM’s insistence on reusing Alfred Newman’s original music cues, herein re-orchestrated by Conrad Salinger with embellishments made and tempos altered that neither improve upon Newman’s originals nor augment the new visual material in any sort of meaningful way. Evidently, the public agreed. The remake of The Prisoner of Zenda was not a success. In the final analysis, it is Selznick’s original movie that endures as a model of exquisite good taste and supremely stylish action/adventure. In the intervening decades, other imitators have come and gone, even an atrociously bungled – and rarely seen 1979 remake with Peter Sellers that attempted to make a comedy of the careworn palace intrigues. But in the end, 1937’s The Prisoner Of Zenda is the movie with all the magic still intact nearly 80 years later. Viewed today, it is as much a time capsule of that ancient flower once known as Hollywood as a thoroughly faithful adaptation of Anthony Hope’s exhilarating novel.
But now everyone can judge for themselves. Warner Home Video has made The Prisoner(s) of Zenda available together on a single flipper disc. The merits of the Selznick version are pretty hard to miss or beat. The transfer quality on both is suspect. On the B&W 1937 version, the image is rather heavy at times with a very thick patina of film grain and a lot of age-related damage that occasionally intrudes on our appreciation for the story. Contrast seems solidly rendered in some scenes, but weaker than expected elsewhere. Evidently, film elements have not been altogether successfully stored or preserved and a restoration effort is definitely in order. I would sincerely petition the Warner Archive to get busy on a Blu-ray release of this original version.
The 1952 remake is another matter entirely. The Technicolor has held up remarkably well, but occasionally suffers from mis-registration with slight halos to blur and distort fine detail. Age-related artifacts are still an issue but do not seem nearly as distracting as on the Selznick original. Contrast is more refined and film grain far more naturally realized and rendered. The audio on both versions is mono, but on the 1937 it can infrequently sound very strident – particularly during a few of the music cues. Warner really needs to go back and do this title justice. This disc won’t win any awards and that is a shame, because the Selznick version of The Prisoner of Zenda is a movie that needs to be seen and re-seen. Extras are sorely limited to unrelated short subjects, a radio adaptation and theatrical trailers. Aside: if this ever goes to Blu-ray we absolutely need a commentary track for the 1937 version. Bottom line: recommended for content, not for quality.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
1937 version – 5+
1952 version – 2.5
Both versions – 3