Prisoner of Zenda (1952)

The Prisoner of Zenda
Rating: ****
Origin: USA, 1952
Director: Richard Thorpe
Source: Warner Bros. DVD

The Prisoner of Zenda

If you want to recapture the essence of a classic movie in a new version, I guess a shot-for-shot remake is one approach. The 1952 Zenda used the same shooting script as the 1937 version with just a few changes, and even a cursory comparison shows that scenes, set-ups, and shooting angles are virtually the same in both. They even repurposed Alfred Newman’s excellent score from the earlier film. But though the newer version is just as well made as its predecessor, it lacks some of the spark or spirit of the Ronald Colman film. Why is that? The qualities of the ’37 version certainly weren’t the result of spontaneity or serendipity—it was shot, cut, re-shot, and re-cut until the studio finally had what they wanted. And Zenda already had a long history on the stage, and even on film, with two previous silent versions. Perhaps it was that the ’37 version aspired to be better than what had gone before, while the ’52 version only aimed to be as good—and that just wasn’t aiming high enough.

The story is still great, and there’s no denying that Ruritania and its comic-opera uniforms look better in Technicolor, even if we miss James Wong Howe’s dueling shadows. But a Zenda stands or falls on its hero, the twin cousin Rudolfs, and their nemesis, Rupert of Hentzau. The ’37 version had the mature Ronald Colman as Rudolf playing off the brash young Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as Hentzau. The new ’52 flips this, pitting the energetic young Stewart Granger as Rudolf against the seasoned and sophisticated James Mason as Hentzau—and yes, it works. Granger is confident and likeable, and lithe enough for some acrobatic swashbuckling. Furthermore, like Basil Rathbone and Cornel Wilde, he’s a serious fencer: Mason had to be doubled by an expert in the final, heart-stopping saber duel in Zenda Castle, but that’s Granger all the way. Put a sword in Granger’s hand, and Colman is eclipsed.

Ah, but when it comes to the love story, the sly and nuanced Colman easily outdoes the new guy. However, Deborah Kerr as the new Princess Flavia holds her own compared to Madeleine Carroll, and maybe even edges her out. As for the rest of the supporting cast—Louis Calhern, Robert Douglas, et al.—they all carry their weight, but can they compare with Raymond Massey, David Niven, and C. Aubrey Smith? Sorry—there the ’37 entry gets the nod. That said, the Granger version is still top-notch entertainment, and who doesn’t want to pop a monocle over his eye and spend another two hours in Ruritania? Bonus: watch for craggy old Lewis Stone playing the Cardinal of Strelsau—Stone, the man who starred as the twin Rudolfs in the silent 1922 version!

Prisoner of Zenda (1937)

The Prisoner of Zenda
Rating: *****
Origin: USA, 1937
Director: John Cromwell
Source: Warner Bros. DVD

David Selznick bought the rights to The Prisoner of Zenda specifically as a starring vehicle for Ronald Colman, who was at the height of his fame coming off Lost Horizon (1937). Colman, of course, was cast in the dual role of Rudolf Rassendyl / King Rudolf, and Selznick surrounded him with a first-rate cast, including the glowing Madeleine Carroll as Princess Flavia, and C. Aubrey Smith and his whiskers as the king’s loyal Colonel Zapt. But best of all are the villains: Raymond Massey, looming and ominous as the would-be usurper Black Michael, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as the raffish rogue Rupert of Hentzau, who steals every scene he appears in (as Rupert does in every version of Zenda).

The story sticks pretty closely to that of Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel—and if you’re not familiar with it, why are you wasting time reading this? On the eve of his coronation, King Rudolf of Ruritania is kidnapped, but his loyal aides convince his lookalike English cousin to stand in for him. While impersonating his royal cousin, Rassendyll falls in love with the king’s betrothed, Princess Flavia—and she with him. Heartbreak ahead! Meanwhile, good guys Colonel Zapt and Fritz von Tarlenheim (a very young David Niven) are in a desperate dance with the villains, as nice and nasty try to outmaneuver each other before their various threats and ultimatums erupt in violence.

There’s so much to love in this movie: drugged wine, secret passages, throwing knives, and brooding Castle Zenda, so medievally murderous it’s practically a character unto itself. The outrageous helmets and embroidery-crusted uniforms of the Ruritanian nobles and guards cannot be improved upon. And everybody wears monocles! So fine.

In the end it all comes down to swordplay, of course, in a climactic duel filmed by James Wong Howe, who projects the duelists’ shadows thrice life-size on the walls of Castle Zenda. (Yes, this is where that trope originated.) The Oscar-nominated soundtrack is by Alfred Newman. Watch for Mary Astor in the small but pivotal rôle of the adventuress Antoinette de Maupau. Fun factoid: When the first theatrical production of Zenda was the hit of the London stage in 1896, the dual role of Rudolf and Rassendyll was played by … C. Aubrey Smith. (Pre-whiskers!)

Prisoner of Zenda (1922)

The Prisoner of Zenda
Rating: ***
Origin: USA, 1922
Director: Rex Ingram
Source: Warner Bros. DVD

The Prisoner of Zenda

This film, the second silent movie adaptation of Anthony Hope’s best-selling 1894 novel, features craggy-faced Lewis Stone in the dual parts of Rudolf Rassendyll and King Rudolf, and Ramon Novarro, in his breakout rôle, as the villain Rupert of Hentzau. Every version of Zenda is stolen by the engaging rogue Rupert, and this is no exception—and Novarro’s raffish charm in the part made him a star. The movie starts slow, and its talky set pieces betray the production’s origins as a stage play, but the emphasis on interiors and close-ups gives plenty of scope for mugging by an array of fine silent-screen character actors. A great deal of effort was put into Ruritanian pomp and display that hasn’t aged well, and the story doesn’t really pick up until over an hour into it—but once the action starts, there’s actually more swordplay than in the better-known 1937 and 1952 versions. The last forty minutes definitely redeem the previous seventy, and the fencing in the final scenes is better than anything we’ve seen previously in the silent era. Visual Bonus: monocles and jodhpurs!