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Prisoner of Zenda [DVD]  [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
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The 1937 version is in black and white. It's a good transfer. The 1952 version is in color and looks fine. The Prisoner of Zenda may be romantic nonsense, but it's great romantic nonsense...the 1937 version, that is. The 1952 version, a nearly word-for-word, scene-for-scene remake, comes across as a pint of professionally made but still weak beer. The difference lies in the performances.
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The story is all about honor and duty, with a great dollop of noble love added to the mix. In a small middle European country, the king, Rudolph (Ronald Colman/Stewary Granger), is to be crowned, and then he will marry the Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll/Deborah Kerr). But Rudolf is a hard-drinking wastrel, the despair of Colonel Zapt (C. Aubrey Smith/Louis Calhern), an elderly, upright military man who served Rudolf's father and is determined to serve the crown no matter how lacking in substance the son is. But Rudolf has a half-brother, Prince Michael (Raymond Massey/Robert Douglas), who is determined to take the throne. His henchman is the thoroughly unprincipled, charming and murderous Rupert of Hentzau (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr./James Mason). Into this seething royal mix arrives Rudolf Rassendyll (also Ronald Colman/Stewart Granger) from England, looking for a spot of good fishing. Due to a liaison years and years ago, it turns out that Rudolph and the king are remote cousins...and are as alike as identical twins. Rudolf and the king, accompanied by Zapt and a young aide, meet by chance near the king's hunting lodge. Before long the king has been drugged and abducted, Rudolph has agreed to Zapt's pleas to impersonate the king for the coronation so as to foil Black Michael's and Rupert's schemes. "Englishman," Zapt says to Rassendyll, "I'm much older than you. As a man grows old he begins to believe in fate. Fate sent you here!" Ah, but then Rudolph meets Flavia and they fall in love. Rudolph must choose whether or not to save the king, who is now imprisoned in Rupert's castle. If he saves the king, he will lose Flavia. All this is going on amidst coronation balls, inside sumptuous palaces and moat-ringed castles, outside stone chalets, in dank dungeons, on galloping horses and with pistols, swords and knives in hand.
Ronald Colman's urbanity and solid projection of a man of honor forms the keystone to the 1937 movie. Colman was a major leading man in the silents of the late Twenties. With his inimitable, cultured voice layered on to a strong, natural screen presence, he became one of the great stars of the Thirties and well into the Forties. He promised a kind of natural, non-competitive camaraderie to men. To women, he seemed to promise nights of romantic passion but without too much emphasis on love's mechanics. Although he makes a dashing sword fighter, he was not the athlete that Stewart Granger was. Granger, however, lacks most of the natural nobility that Colman brings. In diction and line reading alone, Colman outclasses Granger.
The 1937 version also is blessed with an outstanding performance by Aubrey Smith as Colonel Zapt. Smith specialized in craggy aging Englishmen, driven by duty and often irascible toward the young puppies he had to deal with. He's just that here, an old man determined to do his duty and to see that others do, too.
And for a villain, Black Michael may be driven by envy and jealousy, but it is Rupert of Hentzau who seems to be driven by the sheer delight of being reprehensible. "I don't like women who lie to me," he says to Prince Michael's lover. "They don't usually do, as a matter of fact." Then he smiles. "I usually lie to them." Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. tackles the role with great panache; he's very good. Unfortunately, he has to compete with the performance of James Mason in the 1952 remake. It is Mason's performance that makes the 1952 version so rewarding to watch. Mason could slide more irony and amused contempt into his reading of a line than just about any other actor. His delighted and subtle satisfaction with his own murderous betrayals make him impossible to dislike. Pity the actors, particularly Stewart Granger, who had to share scenes with him.
And what are we left with? Who could say it better than the king himself. "You couldn't have served me better, cousin," he tells Rudolf with simple sincerity toward the end of the film. "You taught me how to be a king."
The 1937 version is in black and white. It's a good transfer. The 1952 version is in color and looks fine.
This is a cinematic version of the book that gave us the word "Ruritanian" to signify a small, "fairy-tale", probably Balkan, kingdom. It centres on one of the great fantasies of man - what would it be like to be a king for a day?
Made to coincide with the Coronation of King George VI (presumably originally with that of Edward VIII in mind) the film is brilliantly cast, the sets are tremendous, the direction captures the romance and excitement of the book, the duels are legendary and the soaring score is wonderful.
Most important perhaps, for me at least, is that the film takes the story relatively seriously - we get a real feel for a divided Kingdom. Raymond Massey's impressive Duke Michael is no cardboard villain - he imbues the character with real emotion and ambition. Equally, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr's Rupert of Hentzau brilliantly captures the dash and elan of a pre-1914 Austro-Hungarian hussar or dragoon (his self-designed uniforms could be either).
Ronald Coleman's Rudolf Rassendyl is relaxed, charming, the quintessential English gentleman, but equally gallant and courageous. One can understand why Princess Flavia (a radiant Madeleine Carroll) falls instantly in love with him. Coleman provides an amusing and contrasting cameo as Rudolf V of Ruritania, Rassendyl's double.
There are smashing supporting performances from Mary Astor, a young David niven and the incomparable C Aubrey Smith as the redoubtable and loyal Colonel Sapt. (He once said he had played every part in the Prisoner of Zenda on stage bar the Princess!)
The colour version made in 1952 (at the time of another coronation - that of Elizabeth II) and starring Stewart Grainger and James Mason, is a pale shadow of the 1937 masterpeice. Indeed, the director studied the Selznick version before every take.
Note the attention to detail - advisers would have been available in 1937 who knew how things were done at the courts of Berlin or Vienna before 1914. Hairstyles, the conduct of Rudolf's bodyguards in the cathedral, the uniforms, orders and decorations, the court protocol of the ball, are all beautifully observed and believable. I actually forget that it is in black and white!
The final duel in the castle of Zenda, all dancing shadows up and down staircases, introduced what became a film "trope" - the witty repartee between the two duellists as they seek to kill each other. Coleman and Fairbanks contrive to be urbane and deadly simultaneously.
David O Selznick produced some superb films in the 1930s (A Tale of two Cities - again with Coleman; and David Copperfield spring to mind). Zenda is a classic, with all the elements brought together in a perfect way.
The book - by the way (and its sequel, entitled Rupert of Hentzau) - bears up very well and is worth finding and reading. Penguin do an edition with an informative introduction.
If you love history, romance, sword fights and splendour, then this is a film for you.
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