25 January 2010

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)

The Prisoner of Zenda Dated, but Charming Nonetheless.
By Kristin Battestella

Everyone’s probably heard of The Prisoner of Zenda and refers to the 1894 novel by Anthony Hope as a basis for adventure film, video games, and ‘Ruritanian romance’- but have modern audiences even seen any of the film adaptations of The Prisoner of Zenda? I took in an afternoon with the 1937 version to see this gem for myself.

While on vacation in Ruritania, Rudolf Rassendyll (Ronald Colman) meets his distant royal relative, the soon to be King Rudolph V (also Colman). The cousins look exactly alike; and when the wine loving Rudolph is drugged by his vile illegitimate half brother Duke Michael (Raymond Massey, Abe Lincoln in Illinois), Rudolph’s aides Colonel Zapt (C. Aubrey Smith) and Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim (David Niven) convince Rassendyll to take the would-be king’s place. Matters are further complicated, of course, when Rudolph is taken prisoner at his castle in Zenda. Rassendyll must go on as king, and he quickly falls in love with the beautiful Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll).

This tale of romance and mistaken identity needs no additional support, but the subtle talk of abdication and modern political intrigue creep into The Prisoner of Zenda, thanks to producer David O. Selznick’s push for this film in light of the abdication and scandal of Edward VIII and Wallace Simpson. Director John Cromwell (Of Human Bondage, Since You Went Away) saves the big action sequences for the finish, and the talk-heavy script may seem slow and dated compared to today’s films. It’s tough to see all the lavishness of the costumes and set in the tone on tone silver screen, but the ornate chairs and adorned uniforms get the look across just fine. The supposedly big scenes seem a little small scale, too; but it’s the tale at heart that wins out in The Prisoner of Zenda. Could you so easily assume a hostile rule? Could you walk away from such power and love?

I have to admit the dual scenes with Coleman (A Tale of Two Cities, A Double Life) as both Rassendyll and the titular prisoner look dang good, without any of the obvious split screen tricks and such. He’s not bad at hamming it us as the drunk regent to be, either. Colman has the proper blend of hesitancy about kingship, romance with the ladies, and action in protecting his duty. Likewise, the loyal C. Aubrey Smith (The Four Feathers, Rebecca, Little Women) and David Niven (The Bishop’s Wife, Around the World in Eighty Days) look and act the proper aristocrats. As a lover of old school film, it’s a shame to think many of the players here lost most of their prime years to decorated service in World War II. It’s sadder still that the gems we do have- like The Prisoner of Zenda- are growing under appreciated seventy years on.

Although he made many fine pictures including Gunga Din and Little Caesar, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. might be less well known to the classic film layman than his famous father. Nevertheless, Young Fairbanks’ Rupert is so bad it’s good. He’s slick, a snake waiting to strike. If anything is more alluring than the royal look-a-like switch, it’s the swarthy villain who’s seeking to subvert all to his advantage-including the noble women. The ladies in The Prisoner of Zenda are delightful as well. Madeleine Carroll (The 39 Steps, The General Died at Dawn) is I think a little forgotten today, but she is a beautiful woman and fine actress-not nearly as done up and over the top as the women of the day could be. Her lovely air makes us believe in princesses and royal intrigue. Likewise Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon, Meet Me in St. Louis) is wonderful as the bad but good girl Antoinette de Mauban. As wonderful as the bait and switch and political villainy are, the ladies at stake make The Prisoner of Zenda all worthwhile.

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937 and 1952 Versions)Yes, it might be too old-fashioned for younger, graphic obsessed audiences, but fans of classic films and swashbuckling adventure tales can love The Prisoner of Zenda. There’s nothing offensive here-even the political aspects of the story are fairly innocent. If you’re child is a fan of adventure, try a viewing or offer up the titular novel. It’s such a shame for good fiction and great films to be pushed aside simply because they’re a little old. Fortunately, a dual DVD edition is available, including this film and the sub par 1952 version. That Technicolor version may add spectacle and lavishness to its frame-by-frame update, but the cast isn’t as charming. Actually, in this day of remakes and updates, I’m surprised a proper, lavish, modern interpretation of this timeless tale hasn’t happened yet. Till then, love and cherish this The Prisoner of Zenda.


Juanita's Journal said...

It's a pretty darn good movie. Although I did have problems with immediately accepting Ronald Colman as an action hero. And I noticed that most of the movie's action is in the second half, making it a bit imbalanced for a swashbuckler.

Kristin Snouffer said...

Hi Juanita! Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

I agree this thirties type of style takes getting used to today, but it's a fun little adventure nonetheless!