Rudolf (Lewis Stone) is an Englishman on holiday in the unstable European kingdom of Ruritania. It turns out that he is a dead ringer for the soon-to-be-crowned king (also Lewis Stone). This comes in handy when the king is kidnapped by his evil brother and Rudolf must take his place to save the kingdom. A young Ramon Novarro has a star-making turn as the theatrical (and homicidal) Rupert of Hentzau.
Bonus: I will also be reviewing the 1937 and 1952 talkie versions. Click here to skip to the talkie reviews.
King for a day. Then another day. Then another…
The Prisoner of Zenda has been filmed many, many times since its publication in 1894 (read my review here). It had already had two silent adaptations before director Rex Ingram got his hands on the story for his 1922 adventure film. Ingram was riding high with the success of The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, a film that made both the tango and Rudolph Valentino sensations.
The Prisoner of Zenda was an obvious choice for Ingram. It was deeply romantic and the settings ranged from cathedrals to dungeons, giving him an opportunity to work his magic on light and shadow. It also gave Ingram a chance to introduce another Latin lover to the American public: a 23-year old Mexican actor named Ramon Samaniego, who, in spite of his youth, was a veteran extra of more than 100 films. After his success as the charismatic supporting villain of Zenda, he would change his surname to Novarro.
Let’s take a look at the film and see how it measures up to the novel and subsequent adaptations.
The Rassendylls of England have a not-too-secret skeleton in the cupboard: A few hundred years back, one of the ladies of the family had a passionate romance with the dashing King of Ruritania and every generation since then at least one Rassendyll pops out with the royal Elphburg features. The proud pseudo-Elphburg this time around is Rudolf, until recently in the service of the queen.
Rudolf happens to read a newspaper item announcing the coronation of Rudolf V of Ruritania. Out of both boredom and curiosity, Rudolf decides to attend the coronation of his royal “cousin.”
The as-yet uncrowned king has a few enemies, though. His half-brother “Black Michael” covets the throne and has a plan to gain it.
A bit of an explanation on the wicked Duke Michael’s name: The royal Elphburgs are noted for their red hair. Michaels’ mother was not of royal blood and he inherited her dark hair while King Rudolf’s hair is as red as any Elphburg’s. So the unstable nation is divided between the Black and the Red.
Duke Michael has been currying favor with the people and the military. He knows that his half-brother is more famous for his drinking than his political abilities. If the King were to be absent from his own coronation… surely the people would clamor for a more capable monarch.
Duke Michael has four confederates (pruned down from six in the book) but young Rupert of Hentzau (Ramon Novarro, who overacts a little but is generally excellent) is the cleverest. He is tasked with the mission of eliminating the King. Nothing fatal (much to Rupert’s disappointment) just a flagon of drugged wine.
Meanwhile, Rudolf is taking a nap in the forest of Zenda, Duke Michael’s backyard, when he is awoken by Colonel Sapt (Robert Edeson) and Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim (Malcolm McGregor), the two closest allies of the King. They are astonished by the resemblance between Rudolf and their monarch. The King is tickled to meet his double and immediately invites Rudolf to a late-night drinking party.
In the midst of the festivities, Rupert knocks on the door and hands a gift of wine over to the King’s loyal servant (Snitz Edwards doing his patented weird-little-man schtick). The wine is duly delivered and the King drinks without suspicion.
Timeout here. The King knows his brother hates him. Wily old Colonel Sapt knows that as well. They know Duke Michael wants to be king himself. So when wine is delivered on the eve of the King’s coronation, a gift from the Duke, he just drinks? No one tastes it first or even sniffs the bottle? (The wine is a gift from Michael in the book as well but at least it is not delivered personally by the mwahahaha-looking Rupert.)
The inevitable occurs. The King is passed out, completely incapacitated by the powerful drug.
Col. Sapt realizes Duke Michael’s scheme. He also does not believe in coincidences. He means to make use of Rudolf’s resemblance to the King. Rudolf hesitates but relents when he realizes that the King, Sapt and Fritz will be murdered if Duke Michael takes the throne.
It won’t do for there to be two kings at the coronation so the zonked monarch is locked in the wine cellar for safekeeping with Snitz Edwards standing guard.
Michael hears that the wine is delivered and he already pictures himself on the throne. One small wrinkle though: Duke Michael has taken a lovely French mistress, Antoinette de Mauban (Barbara La Marr, writer, vamp and “The Girl Who is Too Beautiful”), and she is an acquaintance of Rudolf Rassendyll.
Want one more wrinkle? Rupert is determined to have Antoinette for himself. Want even more of a wrinkle? Michael is just using Anoinette until he can get the girl he really wants: Princess Flavia (Alice Terry, who became Mrs. Rex Ingram during this film’s production), the fiancee of the King and second-in-line for the throne. See, Michael covets Flavia almost as much as he covets the crown.
Well, Michael is in for a nasty surprise. Just as he is getting ready to declare the coronation cancelled due to the King’s non-appearance, Rudolf shows up with Sapt and Fritz. Rudolf plays his part brilliantly. He is stunned with Flavia’s beauty. She, in turn, is stunned to find her fiance on time, sober and dignified. Meanwhile, Antoinette is in the crowd watching the coronation and she recognizes Rudolf at once.
Rudolf is smitten with Flavia but he must return to Zenda and turn back into plain Mr. Rudolf Rassendyll. Sapt accompanies him on the journey. Unfortunately, clever young Rupert has uncovered the deception and has kidnapped the King, murdering poor Snitz Edwards in the process. (Always bad form to murder Snitz Edwards.)
Michael has his brother imprisoned in the dungeon of the castle of Zenda. Antoinette has filled him on on Rudolf’s identity. However, he cannot act. If he kills his brother, he will still not have the throne. He must kill Rudolf first, then he may dispose of his brother whenever he wishes. Antoinette balks at all this talk of violence. She asks to look in on the prisoner of Zenda. The King was wounded during his abduction and he is dying by inches due to rough treatment and the cold of the dungeon. Antoinette decides to act.
Meanwhile, Rudolf is continuing his kingly masquerade. He is encouraged to woo Flavia for the sake of the King but he finds himself falling in love with her in his own right. And Flavia herself has declared that she never loved him until she saw him at the coronation.
So, who will win Flavia? Will Michael take the throne? Will Rupert’s nefarious schemes succeed? And just how will Rudolf manage to rescue the prisoner of Zenda? First, some more about the film itself.
Director Rex Ingram has a few trademarks that are on display in The Prisoner of Zenda. He was an absolute master of light and shadow and did some pretty amazing things with smoke in the bargain. His productions are among some of the most beautiful of the silent era but they are not outlandish or ostentatious.
Actually, Ingram’s other trademark kind of contradicts that. He loved his grotesques: supporting characters with enormous scars, putty noses, strange walks, goofy faces… The result gives Ingram’s films a fairy tale quality with beautiful leads and colorful background characters.
And then there is Alice Terry. I have to confess to not being as excited about Alice Terry as Ingram was. I mean, he was married to her after all. And he starred her in all of his remaining silent motion pictures. It’s not that she’s bad but she also doesn’t really do much to distinguish herself. Apologies to Alice Terry fans but there it is. I should note, though, that Ramon Novarro found Terry to be a delightful workmate.
Lewis Stone, another Ingram favorite, fits nicely into the part of Rudolf/The King and he looks quite dashing in his military regalia. There’s a good reason for that: Stone was a veteran of the Spanish-American War and served in the cavalry during WWI. My complaint? Well, this may sound odd considering that Mr. Stone plays two roles in this film but he actually is not on screen enough. How is this possible? Here is where we get into the nitty-gritty of screenplay adaptation.
For such a short book, The Prisoner of Zenda is awash in characters. We have Mr. Rassendyll’s family, Duke Michael’s six henchmen, assorted landlords, huntsmen and peasants as well as lady’s maids and elderly retainers. Obviously any film adaptation would have to cut the deadwood but this version is not ruthless enough. It even adds characters in the form of some really unfunny comic relief.
How unfunny are they? There are actual banana peels being slipped on. I thought that hoary joke went out along with the penny-farthing but apparently Rex Ingram was still a fan. Worse, the banana gag is not even particularly well done. Mr. Ingram had many talents but, like D.W. Griffith, comedy was not one of them.
Anyway, my point is that there are a lot of extra people taking up screentime that rightfully belongs to Stone and Terry.
Another problem with the film comes in the form of Ramon Novarro and Barbara La Marr. What? Bear with me. The camera clearly loves the pair of them and they play their parts well (though Barbara does overact a bit). So what’s the problem? Well, with Lewis Stone and Alice Terry’s screentime already cut down due to banana peels and extra henchmen, there isn’t a whole lot left to go around.
While Novarro and La Marr are fantastic, the extra pieces of the run time pie should not have gone to them. Their characters are important but they are not the leads. By focusing heavily on them, Ingram muddles the story. La Marr’s woman-scorned and Novarro’s lethal dandy are like cayenne pepper in this film: a dash adds spice but too much and you can’t taste anything else.
Proportion and balance are two of the most ignored and misunderstood elements of fiction but when they are out of whack…
Lewis Stone is further shorted when the film-makers choose to cut several of the book’s scenes of derring-do (including one where Rudolf holds off Michael’s henchmen armed with a tea table!) and hand others over to Fritz. Again, this serves to weaken Rudolf’s claim as protagonist. Perhaps a more forceful actor could have withstood this assault but Stone fades into the background a little too often.
Another odd change from book to film (and this is a spoiler) is the death of Michael. In the book, Michael is killed in a duel with Rupert after the latter makes one too many passes at Antoinette. In the film, Rudolf impales him with a thrown sword. In know I was just complaining about not enough Rudolf action but killing Michael in this way does not make story sense. What was the point of all of Rupert’s aggressive attention to Antoinette if there is no payoff? Perhaps the filmmakers felt that a graphic murder would damage Novarro’s future career. Anyway, it is not a good change.
The Prisoner of Zenda is an uneven film in general. The star-making performance from Novarro is undone by the slow pace and strange tangents that the plot follows. While is is beautiful to look at and historically important, it never really clicks as entertainment.
Novarro and Stone would be paired again the following year as hero and villain. This time, though, Novarro would be the hero and Stone the villain. The result was the infinitely more watchable Scaramouche. But that is another review.
Where can I see it?
The Prisoner of Zenda is available on DVD from Warner Archive. There are other public domain versions available but the Warner Archive print is the best by far.
Ladies and gentlemen, in this corner we have the 1922 version of The Prisoner of Zenda, a grand epic directed by Rex Ingram. And in that corner we have the 1937 version of the same tale, a film with more 1930’s stars than you can shake a stick at. Who will be named champion of this classic swashbuckler? Let the fight begin!
The Talkie Challenger: The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)
The Prisoner of Zenda was too popular a story not to make the jump to the talkies. And what better time to make this exciting swashbuckler adventure than in the 1930s, arguably the golden age of all things swashbuckling?
Producer David O. Selznick had purchased the rights to the classic novel and the 1937 abdication of a certain British monarch made its dusty tale of royal duty vs. love very of-the-moment.
While the production was reportedly troubled (director fired, Selznick interfering with the screenplay, etc.) you would never know it to see the finished product.
The adaptation follows the book closely but skillfully removes the flabby bits. Rupert of Hentzau is Duke Michael’s only henchman of note. No time is wasted on Rudolf’s family in England (they never figure into the plot anyway). Flavia has all of her scenes to herself without having to share them with ladies-in-waiting or elderly retainers.
Ronald Colman takes on the dual role as Rudolf/The King. You could never ask for a more courtly or dashing leading man. Madeleine Carroll is lovely as Princess Flavia and she brings depth to what could have been a trite role. C. Aubrey Smith (who said he had played every role except Flavia in the stage adaptation of this tale) is bold and fatherly as the loyal Col. Zapt. A very young David Niven is an utterly charming Fritz. Raymond Massey is a properly glowering Michael. Mary Astor gives her all as the smitten Antoinette. (Although the combination of Mary Astor and Raymond Massey is somewhat unexpected in the world of red hot movie lovers. Oh well.)
Every part is perfectly cast but one is particularly notable.
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was in a bit of a career slump when 1937 rolled around. He hesitated to take the part of Rupert since he would be a secondary character and a villain. Fortunately, he finally agreed and became the definitive Rupert of Hentzau.
What makes Fairbanks so good in the role is both his natural screen charm and the legacy of his father. While Douglas Fairbanks Sr. had practically invented the costumed swashbuckler, Doug Jr. had specialized in modern comedies and dramas up until this point. In this role, though, he is truly his father’s son. He grins, banters, and generally looks oh so Fairbanksian– all the while slipping a knife through someone’s ribs. A few turns to the right and his Rupert would be an Errol Flynn-esque charming rogue. Fairbanks plays him just twisted enough to be dangerous but not so twisted that he loses the audience’s affection.
And, like all the other versions of this tale, Rupert lives to fight another day. This in spite of leaving a trail of corpses in his wake. Remember, this was the Breen era of the motion picture code and letting a cold-blooded killer off the hook was a definite no-no. (Spoiler again. This movie version also changes the death of Michael. Rather than dying in a duel against Rupert, Michael gets a dagger through the heart when he attempts to push Rupert away from Antoinette.) Perhaps the censors felt that Rupert would get his comeuppance in a theoretical sequel that never came to be. Or maybe they were so charmed by Rupert that they forgot to punish him.
And the winner is…
One of the biggest advantages of the 1937 version is pacing. It takes a mere 5 minutes for the film to present the hero, get him to Ruritania and introduce him to his double, which is where the real story begins. The 1922 version, in comparison, takes 17 minutes to reach this point. The 1937 version gets the king drugged and the impostor to the coronation in 26 minutes, whereas the 1922 version does not reach this point for 34 minutes.
The 1937 version is brisk but never rushed while the 1922 version takes its sweet time on almost everything. And because of it being caught up in subplots and non-essential characters, the 1922 version actually manages to fit less story into its run-time in spite of being 12 minutes longer. And keep in mind that silent films are usually able to fit more plot per minute of film than talkies.
There is nothing wrong with a deliberate pace but it needs to serve some purpose. Character development, foreshadowing, something. If it is squandered on non-essential characters and bad comedy relief… You have bored your audience and that is a serious problem.
Having read the novel and watched the films, I have to say that the 1937 version not only successfully adapts the tale, it actually improves on it. Superfluous supporting characters are combined or cut. Scenes are trimmed, slimmed down and cross-cut. The additions made to the film (such as cranking Rupert’s knife fixation up to 11 and giving Rudolf a fishing license) improve the characters and the story.
The more colorful performances (Fairbanks and Astor specifically) are given enough screentime to satisfy but they do not detract from Colman as the protagonist. Further, the villains come off as more dangerous in this version. While Novarro was excellent, he did not come off as dangerous as he needed to. (Novarro could do “brooding” or even “sarcastic” but “dangerous” always gave him trouble.) Fairbanks, on the other hand, is quite deadly.
In fact, I believe that this screenplay is one of the very best adaptations from book to film. I am generally in the “book was better” camp but not this time.
However, there are some flaws with the ending of both the book and all the film adaptations. (Obviously, a spoiler warning is issued for this paragraph) The Victorian readership of the tale would have objected to Rudolf gaining the throne, even though he is the best man for the job. But think about it: A smart, brave, capable man gives up the throne of an unstable kingdom so that an irresponsible alcoholic suffering from PTSD can take over. What could possibly go wrong?
The 1937 version is described as “definitive” for a reason. It perfectly captures the spirit of adventure and romance that is essential for a swashbuckler classic.
But wait, there’s more!
There is one more famous Zenda adaptation to consider: The 1952 remake starring Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr and James Mason. It was a disappointment when it was released in spite of its star-studded cast.
I think I can lay the blame squarely on the fact that it is a virtual shot-for-shot remake of the 1937 version. When remaking a confirmed classic, simply doing it all again with a new cast is not the answer. A new angle, a new interpretation is required.
It’s like someone looked at the calendar and said “Hello, it’s been 15 years and no new Zenda film. Must keep up the schedule!” without bothering to ask if a new version was really wanted or needed.
There is not a single scene or cast member that is better than the 1937 version. James Mason in particular is miscast as Rupert of Hentzau, a part that is generally considered actor-proof. The usually excellent Mason is just too old and too dignified to play a character whose entire description is summed up as “the young rogue.”
Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger, meanwhile, seem bored with the undertaking. The rest of the cast tries but what can be done with such an ill-conceived film?
Any changes that are made in the film (mostly minor changes in dialogue and fight choreography) cannot be described as improvements. I do give this movie points, however, for engaging Lewis Stone to play the cardinal at the coronation. A nice tip of the hat to the 1922 film.
One more thing that bugged me: In order to provide a slice of beefcake, the male actors are constantly unbuttoning their wool military tunics to reveal bare chests underneath. Now I am the intended audience for all of this but all I could think was “doesn’t that itch?”
1952 version is a distant third in the Zenda contest.
Where can I see it?
The 1937 and 1952 versions are packaged together on a “flipper” DVD. Mine doesn’t get flipped much though…