The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) by matthew c. hoffman

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The Prisoner of Zenda is a perfect film—that rare synthesis of great casting, meticulous direction, and a witty screenplay. The producer, David O. Selznick, was himself a perfectionist who spared no expense at making his films the best they could be. What he created in 1937 was the greatest romantic adventure film ever made. There are more popular films in this series, and they have everything we expect in a swashbuckler—but they don’t have Ronald Colman. David Selznick once said that he would not have made this film without him. Around Colman is one of the finest casts ever assembled. This will be the only time we see the son of Douglas Fairbanks in Crossed Swords, but fortunately for us, it’s his best swashbuckling role: the villainous Rupert of Hentzau. For those who have never seen this film before, you are in for a real experience.

The Prisoner of Zenda is a beautiful fable about love and heroism. It’s the story of Rudolf Rassendyll, a British gentleman who must fill in for his look-alike cousin, King Rudolf, when the king is abducted. The novel was written by Anthony Hope and published in 1894. Soon after, it was turned into a popular stage play. It had been made into silent movies in 1913 and again in 1922. But tonight’s film would be the first sound version. What separates this version from the others—as well as from other swashbucklers in general—is the profound way it deals with its themes of loyalty and devotion to the throne. In the role of Rassendyll is Ronald Colman who, throughout his career, embodied the noble virtues of the gentleman adventurer.

Author R. Dixon Smith writes, “As the dedicated Englishman who saves a kingdom at the expense of his own happiness, Rassendyll is the perfect incarnation of all the qualities which made the definitive Colman screen personality so overwhelmingly popular in the thirties: sincere and reliable, determined and resilient, affable and witty, yet somehow always bearing just a touch of the ‘broken wing’ which so arouses female sympathy and affection. This inner fragility, the vague sadness under the surface which was reflected both facially and through the sensitive, restrained delivery of that exquisite voice, had by now become the most distinctive element of Colman’s style.”

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In the foreward to Sam Frank’s Bio-Bibliography on Colman, Robert Morsberger writes, “Though less athletic than Errol Flynn, Colman could be as dashing a swashbuckler. His Prisoner of Zenda vies with The Adventures of Robin Hood as the most beloved swashbuckler of all time.” What few people realize is that Colman was a swashbuckling matinee idol in the silent era—certainly not to the same degree as Douglas Fairbanks, but producer Sam Goldwyn tried to make him the new Valentino. This is most evident in the still photos I’ve seen of some of his films with actress Vilma Banky, such as Two Lovers. Unfortunately, these films are not available. Even most of his sound films are not commercially accessible.

Colman would be better known today if he hadn’t turned down so many roles. It’s a shame The Prisoner of Zenda was the only film he and David Selznick made together. Colman was considered for the role of Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, but instead he made a film that was better suited to him: The Light That Failed—another one of those terrific Colman performances not on dvd. Colman also turned down Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

This rare photo (courtesy of Kendall Miller) comes from a Sunday newspaper supplement (Nov. 1937).

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But at least we have his Rudolf Rassendyll, which is one of his best roles. It’s a dual role, and he had played dual roles before in films like 1933’s The Masquerader, which had some parallels to tonight’s film in terms of plot; both movies deal with the substitution of political figures. Even going back to his silent career he had played a dual role in one of his teamings with Vilma Banky: 1927’s The Magic Flame. Since we see two Colmans in this film, I should reveal how this effect was accomplished. In Ron Haver’s wonderful book, David O. Selznick’s Hollywood, Haver explains the scene where Colman shakes hands with himself, which was of course a double. “The camera shot through a plate of sheet glass that had been taped to cover the area of the double’s head and shoulders. After exposing the action, the film was rewound in the camera, the plate glass was retaped to cover everything except the area of the double’s head and shoulders, and Colman changed costumes and stood in. Colman’s head and shoulders were then photographed in perfect register with the double’s body.”

According to the brilliant cinematographer James Wong Howe, this camera effect would have been more obvious had it been in color as Selznick had originally intended. The idea was to shoot the film in three-strip Technicolor. Author Sam Frank challenged this assessment years later in 1970 by asking James Wong Howe why he didn’t simply make a screen test in color to see how the effect would look. Howe responded that it hadn’t occurred to him. There are, however, some color photos taken on the set by photographer Fred Parrish, which look amazing and offer a glimpse into what could’ve been. But nevertheless, the black and white compositions and lighting effects in this film are stunning, so we can forgive Howe for the color test that never was.

The Prisoner of Zenda was directed by John Cromwell, but the climactic swordfight with sabres was actually directed by W.S. Van Dyke. Known as an action director, Van Dyke’s tempo for this sequence was more in keeping with what Selznick envisioned. Also, the moving renunciation scene between Rassendyll and Princess Flavia was directed by George Cukor, who was known for directing women to great effect. This was Madeleine Carroll’s best scene in the film. Her dialogue about honor binding a woman too brings an added depth to her character and to the sequence.

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Selznick had tested Anita Louise for the role of Princess Flavia but thought Madeleine Carroll had more the aura of a princess and was a better match for Colman age-wise. She had recently starred with Robert Donat in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. Selznick did have issues with Carroll’s makeup, however, which he changed, feeling that she needed to look more like a princess of the 1880s and not a movie star of the present day. The other major female role in the film is that of Antoinette, played by Mary Astor, four years before her appearance in The Maltese Falcon.

Playing the roles of the king’s aides are British stalwart C. Aubrey Smith and David Niven, who at the time was a relative newcomer to Hollywood. As the sneering Black Michael is Raymond Massey, whom we remember from Things to Come in last year’s series. Massey is also one of the elite actors to have essayed the role of Abraham Lincoln, which he did in Abe Lincoln in Illinois. There is a funny anecdote that Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. tells from the set involving Massey and his struggle to interpret the role of Black Michael. For advice, Massey turned to C. Aubrey Smith. “Sorry to butt in, Aubrey, but I just can’t get under the skin of my character, Black Michael. I thought you might advise me.’ Aubrey had to turn up the power in his hearing aid first. Then he lowered his Times, took the monocle from his eye, and glaring at (Massey), said, ‘My dear Ray, in my time I have played every part in The Prisoner of Zenda except Princess Flavia. And I ALWAYS had trouble with Black Michael.’ With that, he replaced his monocle, turned off his hearing aid, and picked up his Times again.”

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And finally, in the role of Rupert of Hentzau is Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. He had been acting since the silent period (where studios capitalized on his last name), but it was this role that really restarted his career. Originally, he had wanted to play the lead, but his legendary father talked him into playing Hentzau because “not only is The Prisoner of Zenda one of the best romances written in a hundred years and always a success, but Rupert of Hentzau is probably one of the best villains ever written. He is witty, irresistible, and as sly as Iago… Nobody has ever played Rupert and failed to steal the show, on either stage or screen. It is so actor-proof, in fact, that Rin Tin Tin could play the part and walk away with it!”

The character of Hentzau seems to appeal to many modern viewers because of today’s penchant for anti-heroes. He is very much the charmer in this film, and he’s really the perfect antagonist for Colman: two characters who are polar opposites in what they stand for, and that just makes the final confrontation between them all the more potent.

The film was originally previewed at 135 minutes and contained a prologue and an epilogue depicting an older Rassendyll telling his adventures in flashback. This was eventually cut out. It’s interesting to note that Lost Horizon, Colman’s other great film of 1937, initially contained this same framing devise in its structure but was also cut out. When it was finally released in late 1937 it was an immediate hit with audiences and critics alike. The Prisoner of Zenda was even topical. It came in the wake of the abdication of Edward VIII. The film’s coronation scene paralleled the real-life coronation of King George VI of England.

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Selznick’s “glamorized ideals” in this film were certainly in keeping with the tone of Hollywood at that time. It’s a shame such ideals are in short supply in modern film, which fixates on the ugly realities. As with society in general, the bar has been lowered and we are more willing to embrace poor conduct and glorify the wrong things. Personal integrity and tradition are relegated to the fringe, and films like The Prisoner of Zenda are collectively viewed as cultural relics of a time that is no more. But how much, within today’s entertainment whirlpool, will be remembered seventy-five years from now? And who will remember what our mainstream films say or what they teach us, if anything, about ourselves?

The Prisoner of Zenda, by contrast, is timeless– its poetry captured on film, its purity, undiminished through the years. It is set in a time that never was, but this does not make it irrelevant. As with Shakespeare, stories do not have to recreate reality or document historical fact in order to provide an emotional truth or meaning. At the heart of its theme is the nobility of character and self-sacrifice. Never were these values better conveyed than in tonight’s film. With that, we come back to the play-actor, Rassendyll.

Since this is our only swashbuckler with Ronald Colman, I thought I’d end my talk with a few words from a friend of mine who is a bit of a Colman scholar. His name is George Schatz. Speaking of Colman’s legacy on screen, he wrote that, “There seemed to be some indefinable quality, some unique combination of appearance, voice, quiet humor, or personal projection that made us pay, by the millions, to spend some time with him; not to be preached at or instructed by, but simply to be complimented by his example of what qualities the human species is capable, even the least of us. Perhaps this is the heritage that Colman offered: that it is most important to not only reveal what man is, but what man can be.”

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~ by mchoffman on April 6, 2013.

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