Saturday, March 06, 2010

Tonight's Movie: The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)

THE PRISONER OF ZENDA is first-class entertainment starring some of the very best actors of Hollywood's Golden Era: Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Mary Astor, and David Niven, ably supported by Sir C. Aubrey Smith and Raymond Massey.

ZENDA is one of David O. Selznick's peerless literary adaptations of the 1930s. Colman stars in a dual role as the kidnapped king of a small European country and his lookalike British cousin, Rudolf. Rudolf finds himself swept up in intrigue and adventure when he is convinced by the king's loyal aides (Niven and Smith) to impersonate the king and save the throne, ultimately fighting to free the king from his evil half-brother Michael (Massey) and Michael's henchman, Rupert of Hentzau (Fairbanks).

ZENDA has everything: adventure, mystery, swordplay, and romance, as Rudolf falls in love himself with the king's fiancee, lovely Princess Flavia (Carroll). They simply don't get any better than this film, in which every element is perfection.

The entire cast is superb, but special mention must go to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. for his joyously energetic, scene-stealing performance as the villainous Rupert of Hentzau. Fairbanks had been somewhat reluctant to take the part, as it wasn't the lead, but was encouraged by his legendary father to play "one of the best villains ever written." Fairbanks played the role for everything it's worth and then some, and in my book would have been deserving of an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. If only... The Academy recently honored the centennial of Fairbanks' birth with a special screening of ZENDA.

Visit Moira Finnie's tribute to Fairbanks for more on his career and this film.

This film was also David Niven's breakthrough role; Niven pressed to insert some of his trademark humor into the role and caught Hollywood's attention after a few years of toiling in bit parts. Over the next couple years Niven starred as the lead or in major supporting roles in 10 more films, including WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939), BACHELOR MOTHER (1939), and RAFFLES (1939). Niven was largely absent from the screen during the early '40s, other than a couple of morale-building films, as he served in the British military during WWII. Niven was reunited with Raymond Massey in one of his first post-war films, the classic A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946), which was also known in the United States for decades under the title STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN.

Beautiful Madeline Carroll starred in many interesting films during the 1930s, including John Ford's THE WORLD MOVES ON (1934), Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS (1935), Tyrone Power's star-making LLOYD'S OF LONDON (1936), and the musical ON THE AVENUE (1937). Like Niven (and Fairbanks, for that matter), the British-born Carroll disappeared from the screen during the war to do volunteer work, including serving as a Red Cross field nurse and aiding war orphans. She only acted in a few more films and TV shows after the war, including THE FAN (1949).

A Technicolor 1952 version of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA is also wonderful, starring Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr, James Mason, and Jane Greer in the roles played by Colman, Carroll, Fairbanks, and Astor. The Niven and Smith roles were played in 1952 by Robert Coote and Louis Calhern, with Robert Douglas in the Massey part. The 1952 version is extremely faithful to the Selznick original, including reusing the Oscar-nominated musical score by Alfred Newman; the remake even uses many of the same camera angles. The later version may not have quite the same magical glow as the black and white original, but it still stands on its own as grand entertainment.

THE PRISONER OF ZENDA was directed by John Cromwell. W.S. Van Dyke worked on the film without credit after Cromwell and Selznick's working relationship fell apart, and some sources credit Selznick favorite George Cukor with shooting some retakes; Cukor himself would later famously part ways with Selznick early in the shooting of GONE WITH THE WIND.

The movie was shot in black and white by the great James Wong Howe, with uncredited assistance, per IMDb, by Bert Glennon. The film has a running time of 101 minutes.

THE PRISONER OF ZENDA is available on DVD either as a single-disc release with the 1952 remake on the flip side, or as part of the five-disc, six-film Literary Classics Collection.

This film was also released on VHS. It can be seen on cable on Turner Classic Movies.


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