Movie Fan Man: Cinema Connoisseur

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The Swashbuckler of Swashbucklers:

1937’s Prisoner of Zenda

by Tony Nash

(All opinions are pf the author alone)

(Some spoilers may be present, but I’m sure everyone has seen at least one of the adaptations of this classic)

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The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) *****

Ronald Coleman: Maj. Rudolf Rassendyll/Rudolf V

Douglas Fairbanks Jr.: Rupert of Hentzau

Madeleine Carroll: Princess Flavia

David Niven: Capt. Fritz von Tarlenheim

Aubrey Smith: Colonel Zapt

Mary Astor: Antoinette de Mauban

Raymond Massey: Black Michael

Montagu Love: Detchard

Philip Sleeman: Albert von Lauengram

Written by: John L. Balderston, Edward E. Rose (as Edward Rose), Wells Root, & Donald Ogden Stewart, based on the novel by Anthony Hope

Directed by: John Cromwell

Synopsis: While on holiday in the country of Strelsau, British Major Rudolf Rassendyll discovers he’s the distant cousin and exact double of the future king Rudolf V. When Rudolf’s evil half-brother Black Michael decides to overthrow him, his guardian Colonel Zapt convinces Major Rassendyll to temporarily pose as the king to thwart the plot. When Michael’s slimy cohort Rupert of Hentzau discovers the switch, it’s a cat and mouse game to restore Rudolf to the throne, and avoid an international scandal.

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One of the few Swashbuckling Adventure films Errol Flynn didn’t make (he’d made Captain Blood only two years earlier). Filmed a couple of times in the Silent era, and even done a few times on the stage as a play, The Prisoner of Zenda combines Action, Romance, and even some Thrills, and does it all very well. It’s also one of the first films to deal with political intrigue, as an attempt of a coup against the current Royal Family is being hatched. Things get messy after a visiting foreigner’s aid in the matter is compromised by an even more devious and treasonous turncoat and Suspense pops up as the good guys try to stop the bad guys from turning their failed takeover into an International Incident. Many have agreed that The Adventures of Robin Hood is the all time Swashbuckling film ever made, but The Prisoner of Zenda beats it out by only a few points in how well crafted the twists and turns are in the film. The blending together of the love story, the feeling of adventure, and even some aspects of comedy offers something for everyone, so there’s very little to not like about the film.

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That the book is listed in the credits as a celebrated novel is interesting, as this story has had as many film adaptations as Dickens A Christmas Carol and Christie’s And Then There Were None. By the time of the 1937 film, several Silent Film versions had already been done from the turn of the century to the 1920’s, though the 37 version is considered the quintessential one as it maintained the majority of Hope’s original text. Some adaptations followed including a scene for scene duplicate starring Stewart Granger and a comedy version starring Peter Sellers. Even the TV series Get Smart took a stab at a comedy homage with Don Adams doing a nice imitation of Ronald Coleman in a three episode stint. The timelessness of the tale is what has allowed so many versions to come to the screen the span of almost 50 years, each set of filmmakers bringing their own interpretation to the book.

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Ronald Coleman is at his finest in the dual role as Major Rassendyll and his lookalike cousin King Rudolf V. Coleman, who was known more as a Romantic Drama leading man, got one of his rarer opportunities to be the lead in an Action/Adventure type story and certainly shows he was just as well suited to those roles as his lover parts. One of the tougher aspects of acting is to be able to keep track of two completely separate personalities and remember when you’re supposed to play each part and Coleman succeeds at this. Nothing is ever mentioned s to what Coleman did to keep these two characters from becoming blurry while filming, but it looks as if he kept Major Rudolf as the common man with a touch of class, and King Rudolf as a prima donna who matures into a classy aristocrat of the court. He certainly gives the likes of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. a run for their money as a swordsman, and while his skill isn’t on display very long, Coleman impresses with his ballet like agility. It’s a shame Coleman didn’t get to do more films like Zenda as he was very believable as a hero and could’ve gone even farther in his career has that aspect of his talents been played up more.

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Douglas Fairbanks Jr., the son of famed Silent Screen legend Douglas Fairbanks Sr., is in great form as the slimy Rupert of Hentzau. Fairbanks originally sought to play the dual lead role, wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps as a heroic character. The senior Fairbanks managed to convince his son he would receive much more acclaim as the villain than he would the hero, and he proved right. Fairbanks’ smile and charm allow for an extra dose of bedroom villainy, as Hentzau’s main avarice is pretty women he constantly tries to seduce. Sometimes a smiling villain is more effective than a stone faced or serious one, as what’s really on his mind is a constant mystery. Much of Fairbanks’ dialogue adds to the character as well, as much of what he says reveals his double-faced nature, making everyone, including Michael, see him for the dog he is. In many ways he’s the villain to outdo all villains, as he doesn’t even trust the man willing to give him a good chunk of the kingdom in exchange for getting rid of the king.

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Coleman and Fairbanks play well off of each other in the film, and it’s a shame they didn’t make more films together. The famous dueling scene between them is like watching two boxers duke it out, and the exchange of dialogue between them outdoes the scene between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone in The Adventures of Robin Hood by a long shot. Certainly not as witty as Flynn and Rathbone, the way Fairbanks and Coleman compliment each other in the reciting of the lines is sometimes worth more than the words themselves. Both had been working before the advent of sound, and already demonstrated a few times before Hollywood had been right in taking chances on them for the talkies, are in some of their earliest high prowess as actors. The dynamic of the duo is really cool to see play out as it’s like a Master Class for anyone interested in filmmaking and acting, showing what two experienced individuals are capable of in their craft.

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Another interesting point of note is an early effort of future leading man David Niven. While already making waves in Hollywood and his native England, Niven had yet to reach the status he’d become known for. Supporting roles are a good start for any actor, and Niven shows what he’s capable of in a small, but still substantial role. Niven had the grace and eloquence he was always known for, though some might argue he was still getting used to the camera. Not as colorful or in-depth as some of the other characters, Niven shows early on what he was capable of as an actor.

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Even though many versions came before and after it, the 1937 version of The Prisoner of Zenda is (at least in this viewer’s opinion) number one on the list. The acting, story, cinematography, score, and direction are top-notch, even with the director’s complaints of about many of the male cast. Being that it was a couple of years into the sound era, this one had found its tone, pitch, and feet very quickly and was one of the first truly great successes of a format many studio heads secretly hoped would fail. David O. Selznick might have intended this to be his response to Edward VII, Duke of Windsor’s abdication for love, but what audiences really get is a good love story and adventure film that ends happy, just not the way it’s traditionally supposed to. It may not fit the traditional bill, but this one couples can see together, the ladies can watch Ronald Coleman impress Madeleine Carroll and the fellas can enjoy the intrigue and the fighting, so it can make for an amusing date night.

(This version of The Prisoner of Zenda is one of my all time favorite films and in my top 100 list. I highly recommend this version over all others, it is that good.)

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