Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer play young lovers divided by class in Ernst Lubitsch’s lavish operetta adaptation. Jean Hersholt steals the picture.
Salad and Beer Days
Ernst Lubitsch’s career has always been a strange one to discuss. Not fancy enough for some film snobs (I’m always getting flak for naming him as my favorite German director and not Murnau or Lang), Lubitsch was also deemed too fancy for middle America (I’ve also gotten flak for holding him up as a master of the rom-com over some home-grown talents). Fortunately, Lubitsch maintains an enthusiastic following among the movie nerd set and this is one of his most-requested films.
Hoping to create a romantic hit for two of their top stars, MGM handed a million dollars over to Lubitsch and cast Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer as the lovers of Old Heidelberg.
The story had started as a novel by Wilhelm Meyer-Förster, which he adapted into a play, which was subsequently adapted into an operetta called The Student Prince. The MGM film hedges its bets by combining the titles and thus the unwieldy The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg was born. (By the way, it was quite common for silent films to be adapted from musicals, operettas and operas. It’s certainly no more strange than making a movie based on a pegboard game.)
The story is pretty typical three-hankie stuff but we’re going to be discussing the real secret of the film’s appeal in just a bit.
Karl Heinrich (Ramon Novarro) is the heir to the throne of some Ruritanian kingdom or other. His grandfather (Gustav von Seyffertitz) seems to be a benevolent monarch but he is also cold, distant and bound by duty. Karl’s only comfort is his tutor, the nonconformist Dr. Friedrich Jüttner (Jean Hersholt), who is father, playmate and teacher to the lonely kid.
Everything changes when Karl is sent to attend university in Heidelberg. The picturesque town is site to a sort of rumspringa for German noblemen, a place to sow wild oats before a life of clicked heels and duty.
It is there that Karl meets Kathi (Norma Shearer), the daughter of the innkeeper where the royal party is staying. It’s love at first sight, of course, and Karl declares that nothing will ever separate them.
But then word comes that the king is ill and Karl was go and take over his duties. He promises to return but can a monarch wed a barmaid?
(Spoilers) Of course he can’t and this creates a quietly tragic ending in which Karl gives up all for his country. The story ends in 1902 and, as would be obvious to viewers of 1927, the double tragedy was that Karl likely would not have had a throne after the events of the First World War. As a German, Lubitsch certainly would have been aware of this and he even poked fun at the shabby state of German royalty in The Oyster Princess. So it’s entirely possible that Karl and Kathi’s sacrifice really didn’t amount to a hill of beans.
In the final scenes, Lubitsch brilliantly captures the failure that often results from trying to recreate a happy memory. Karl tries to return to his student days but finds that his boisterous friends are now dreary soldiers and Kathi is being more sensible than romantic. Karl is determined to force time backwards and wears his old student cap as an emblem but it does him no good. (End Spoilers)
If this all sounds serious and drab, let me assure you that the story has plenty of humor as well. When Karl’s snooty valet declares the room at Kathi’s inn unsuitable, she races around showing off the amenities. A sofa! You can sit on it, you can lie on it! What more do you want in your sofa?
And this is where we must single out Jean Hersholt for praise. Dr. Jüttner has been around for a while and has an outsider’s perspective on Karl’s situation. He understands what the young man needs but he also knows his power is limited. He cleverly works within the situation to save the sanity of a sensitive future king. Hersholt is just wonderful in these scenes, sweet and fatherly and with a dose of good humor.
Ramon Novarro’s greatest asset was his ability to be surrounded by lavish sets and costumes but still manage to be heard above the gingerbread without resorting to wild overacting. He gives a melancholy performance here as somebody who is never going to be happy and knows it. Heidelberg will have to be a sweet memory in a life of constant stiffness and duty and he will never again be surrounded by merry friends and lovers. Karl could work toward a more equitable government, of course, but that’s not really the story The Student Prince wants to tell.
I have to admit that I am not the biggest fan of Norma Shearer. It’s not an active dislike, I just never have run into a role that makes me stop and say, “Wow!” (And, please, no sealioning with “Have you seen this or this or that?” I prefer my own journey of discovery without being interrogated, thanks very much.) I suspect that Shearer’s fans will find much to love here but it didn’t do much to change my mind.
Experienced ham Gustav von Seyffertitz is on hand as the cold king and he does excellent work in his brief appearance. The king is not bad or evil (nobody seems to be starving or dragged away by the secret police) but he can’t imagine life changing for either himself or his grandson. Philippe De Lace is on hand in his usual role as the child version of the star (De Lacy played half the male stars in Hollywood as children) and has some very nice scenes with Gene Hersholt. MGM’s, ahem, “comedian” George K. Arthur is also present to add some dubious comedy relief. (Spoiler: It doesn’t work.)
The shoot was allegedly contentious and there are conflicting reports as to whether there were any reshoots. Supposedly, Erich von Stroheim was the first choice for director but thank heaven he was unavailable. Dear Erich would have injected his randy notions (yes, Erich, you’re very naughty and I am oh-so offended), squandered twice the budget Lubitsch did and probably would have left the thing unfinished.
Lubitsch was no stranger to adapting operettas to the silent screen. One of his earliest available films is The Merry Jail, a quirky take on Die Fledermaus, and it’s quite a bit of fun, though obviously on a much smaller scale than this MGM mega-epic.
According to editor Andrew Marton, Lubitsch was dissatisfied with the casting of the leads. For her part, Shearer didn’t like Lubitsch’s signature combination of performance and rage and ran to Thalberg, whom she was dating and would later marry. Thalberg, however, took Lubitsch’s side and advised that they could all learn something from him.
Shearer and Lubitsch did join forces, however, to fight for retaining the operetta’s original ending. (Spoiler) The prince doesn’t get his barmaid and he remains in the same situation that he has been in since childhood but now he has tasted freedom and the sting is sharper. Which, let’s face it, would have been exactly what would have happened in such a situation. I generally afford more sympathy to the peasantry but monarchy wasn’t much fun for anyone, really.
The picture was a hit but, like Ben-Hur, its mammoth budget assured that profitability would be elusive. Lubitsch did not make another film for MGM until he helmed the remake of The Merry Widow, which had been a hit for Erich von Stroheim. The budget was even larger than The Student Prince and the film failed to turn a profit in the United States, though it was quite popular overseas. Lubitsch’s next trips to MGM eschewed crinoline and bustles. Ninotchka and The Shop Around the Corner proved to be far more fruitful for MGM’s accounting department.
Reviews were all over the place with some critics praising the stars and some slamming them. Mordaunt Hall once again proves his uselessness by proclaiming Novarro too “Latin” to play Karl. Hall does not explain exactly what he means by this statement (Hint: It’s probably racist) but it displays a shocking ignorance of how monarchies work. Couldn’t Karl’s mother have simply been a Spanish princess or Italian countess or something? If Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi could be the son of Mitsuko Aoyama then why would a dark-haired Germanic prince be so odd? This rather reminds me of people who watch movies with dragons and lightsabers and CGI-enhanced leaps but find the presence of a woman in an action-adventure role to be “inaccurate” or otherwise unbelievable. Maybe the problem is on the couch, not on the screen.
I have read that Lubitsch tended to bend material to suit his vision but with this film, he bent his vision to suit the material. I don’t really agree with this. While the film is more old-fashioned than his sassy take on Lady Windermere’s Fan, it is very much an echo of an earlier, younger Lubitsch.
It is valuable to compare The Student Prince with a pair of 1919 comedies that Lubitsch made in Germany, The Oyster Princess and The Doll. Like Karl, Ossi Oswalda has an army of stiff servants who fulfill her wishes with stiff precision, which would be later echoed in Karl’s palace. However, Ossi is an American heiress and not bound to the same rules of behavior as a Germanic prince. Her band of servants bends to her wishes and they work to fulfill her demand: she may not be a German prince but she is determined to marry one.
Later, when a very intoxicated royal personage (Harry Lietdke) stumbles into her presence, she and her friends engage in a group boxing match with the honor of treating his hangover as the prize. Our tipsy aristocrat finds this all to be delightful.
Karl, meanwhile, finds his youthful spirit crushed by the constant presence of stiff older people who have been born and bred to avoid fun at all costs. He has more in common with Lancelot (Hermann Thimig), the leading man of The Doll. Stifled and tormented by would-be brides, he determines to escape the horror of an arranged marriage by purchasing and marrying an automaton.
Karl has no such science-fiction escape waiting for him, of course, but he is the latest in a long line of Lubitsch characters who exist at the center of a swirl of synchronized humanity. At this point in his career, Lubitsch was obsessed with the power some people possessed to command obsessive attention, whether through influence, rank, notoriety, beauty or sex appeal. For a further example, check out The Eyes of the Mummy.
Other echoes of Lubitsch’s old style are the simultaneously formal and frenzied party scenes that fill Karl’s student days. Lubitsch’s German pictures are full of these scenes of precise chaos.
Perhaps Lubitsch did not bend the story to his will because it contained so many familiar elements and trips down memory lane.
The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg is a delightful, bittersweet confection that is an excellent showcase for Novarro. I remain firmly in Camp Meh for Norma Shearer but I am sure that this film will hold plenty of pleasures for her fans. Most of all, though, it is a wonderful showcase for everything that made Lubitsch such a delightful director. There have been other versions of The Student Prince and Old Heidelberg (most notably a 1915 version with Dorothy Gish and Wallace Reid) but this is the one people remember. There’s a good reason for it. Enjoy!
Where can I see it?
The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg airs on TCM from time to time and was released on VHS with Carl Davis’s wonderful score. Alas, like so many MGM classics of the silent era, this film is not yet available on DVD or Bluray.
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It should be noted this wonderful film was also on Laserdisc and I have it. I think the title card has “Old Heidelberg” and not the full name. I have not looked at it for a long time and would love a Blu Ray rendition down by Warners. I thus have no idea if my laserdisc films still all play as I started to have trouble some years ago with some sides, particularly those that had 15mins max running time and using the CAV(best for still frame viewing) coding and not the longplay CLV coding.
I have been at MGM in the early 1970s to meet an executive and lunch with him and two pioneers from the 1920s, JJ Cohn and Buddy Gillespie(who later took me to see his Beverly Hills home in a valley below a road with his smoking pipe collection and photos of miniatures he made for MGM films on the walls in his den or whatever you call it, maybe poolroom as he had a table for that). Nothing was mentioned of the not so old then 1960s vault fire and so much nitrate said to be lost with prized, maybe, Louis B Mayer and Goldwyn Films(where Gillespie started and stayed on when Metro-Goldwyn was formed at the studio space) along with everything else in that vault. Digital was decades to late for these treasures.
I believe the title was shortened for redistribution.
Yes, I understood that to be the case.
I still have my laserdisc copy of this, but have yet to attempt a transfer to DVD-R or recordable Blu-ray – it’s also been so long since I’ve watched it that I can’t remember what I thought of it at all. I have no firm opinion of Norma Shearer – I love her in The Women, and if Billie Burke hadn’t been around Norma could have pulled off Glinda in the Wizard of Oz rather beautifully. This type of story isn’t my go-to type, and Scaramouche – which I just got for Christmas this year – is beginning to change my impression of Novarro as just a drab presence – that and seeing Lloyd Hughes. Another excellent review – might time I revisited m laserdisc.
Scaramouche is my favorite Novarro performance hands down!
Being a strong Novarro advocate, I think this is one of his best silent roles. Both he and Shearer had their work cut out for them working for Lubitsch, who had no faith in either of them. Ramon even had to endure Lubitsch putting him into a scene with a fellow homosexual actor (one of the Corps Saxonia) who gets physically close to him, just to inject some sexual tension between the two.This made Novarro extremely uncomfortable, and Thalberg eventually had the scene deleted. And aside from Jean Hersholt’s runaway performance, the Carl Davis score created a magical sweet/sad rhapsody to the very end. The look on Novarro’s face in the final scene is a masterful mix of sadness, regret and pain at having loved and lost……Nothing is more bittersweet than to have experienced joy and then have it snatched away for good.
I do so wish that Davis score would be released! It’s so lovely.
I just don’t get people who like to discredit Lubitsch as I think he is on par with Lang and Murnau and others but I like apples and oranges. I love this review and I never thought that the old regime was just a few years old when it was gone for good. I wonder if Lubitsch thought well of this old regime like my Opa did (which got him into bad trouble during the Hitler regime). I have only seen the musical version with Anne Blyth and Edmund Purdem which I just loved when I was a kid. Too bad Mario Lanza was so..Mario Lanza.
Yes, the 1910 and 1920s were such momentous decades. I do recall that Lubitsch and the rest of the German industry fully expected their side to win WWI but I’m not sure how much nostalgia he carried. Of course, TO BE OR NOT TO BE showed exactly how he felt about Nazis.
I like Novarro and Hersholt in almost anything, and I particularly like the combination in this film. I may appreciate Shearer a little more than you do, but I find her contribution to this film to be mildly pleasant rather than riveting. I think this film is a highly enjoyable rollicking good time, if not exactly a milestone in cinema history. And, while I am one of those people who prefer Murnau and Lang to Lubitsch (by a little way, not a lot), I won’t give you any flak for having a different opinion to mine. I have been looking forward to your review of this film, and as usual you have delivered an interesting and informative review. Thanks.
So glad you enjoyed! 🙂
I had the privilege of seeing this film at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, recently with Dennis James playing a theater organ hooked up to 4 large speakers lying at an angle underneath the screen, the bass notes occasionally causing the theater to rumble. That sounds like overkill, but his playing swelled and ebbed perfectly with the scenario. The print was gorgeous. I agree about the performances, with Norma Shearer’s mannered, affected style not the best for a sense of spontaneous comedy, but I got used to her. I loved the swirling, orchestrated crowd scenes, like watching a huge group of migratory birds dance in the sky.
Lubitsch knew his crowds for sure! Even his lightest German comedies often make use of them.
Ramon Novarro. Norma Shearer was married to one of the bosses, Irving Thalberg until he died suddenly of weak heart(a lifeline problem) in his later 30s and she was out of pictures into the early 1940s. I have always enjoyed The Women(1939) with its color fashion show. thought Paulette Goddard looked her best in this film and Virginia Weidler was a favorite here also. Did you know her brother George Weidler, a big band musician, was Doris Day’s second husband(1946-49) nd treated her very badly according to Doris.
Hersholt seems to have been a respected actor and a Humanitarian Award was named after him. He played a great The Grandfather role to Shirley Temple in Heidi(1937). A lovely film.
Lubitsch. At least a number of Lubitsch’s German silents from the WW1 period survive with him as an actor and made it to Blu Ray-Lubitsch in Berlin
Student Prince. I like the color musical version of the story but not too impressed with Edmund Purdom. Mario’s trainer at MGM was Terry Robinson who died May 25 2014 at 98. I spoke to Terry about 1972 when he called my aunt at her Lincoln Park home in Michigan. I was staying there for about 9 months and both were involved in the Mario Lanza club that meet each oct/Nov for a banquet each year in Mario’s home city of Philly. I went that year as a guest with my family.
The Davis scores are marvellous on all those MGM/Thames silents.
Novarro. In the 1970s there was still a Ramon Novarro fan club operating in London and had regular meetings. I had a friend who had been in the industry(BFI/National Film Theatre) who was a member(he died in March 1980 from the effects of a stroke 10 years before).
Having revisited this last night, I think Norma Shearer was pretty two dimensional in this – her best scene was at the grave of Dr. Juttner. I like Lubitsch’s direction a lot, subtly effective use of things like moving camera without being showy. The film seemed a bit rushed to me, odd for a two hour film yet I didn’t think we really got a strong sense of his camaraderie with the Corps Saxonia. I also appreciated being able to see the thing run as it was supposed to, without duplicated frames – funny how Olive pulled off a digital release of a silent – The Captive – without duplicating frames yet nobody else seems to be able to pull it off. They must be trafficking with the devil or something.
Yes, Shearer doesn’t seem to be in the Lubitsch spirit, unlike Irene Rich or Marie Prevost.
One of my favorite books on film history is “Romantic Comedy in Hollywood From Lubitsch to Sturges” (1986) by James Harvey. Harvey is very enthusiastic about both Lubitsch and legendary writer/director Preston Sturges. Going through that book and digesting every sentence is the equivalent of taking a year’s worth of courses in the Film Studies department of any good university such as UCLA. And it has lots of pictures! Lots of appreciative info about Hawks, too.
Ye, if I had to pick my two favorite rom-com directors, Sturges and Lubitsch would be my picks. Wit to spare!
I mind Shearer much less in this film, found her charming and less mannered than she was in talkies. Reminds me I do need to see the earlier Dorothy Gish version.
Yes, I grabbed a copy but didn’t get a chance to see it before the review. At least Shearer doesn’t lurch toward the camera the way she does in The Women. 😉
Actually, Stroheim’s “The Wedding March,” released by Paramount a year later, is a sort of alternate reality version of “The Student Prince,” in which the prince — now jaded, debauched and not-so-young-anymore — encounters true love in the form of a butcher’s beautiful daughter, but is obligated to marry a plain (and disabled) woman of nobility. Heartbreak ensues. Hey, at least Erich doesn’t have him contracting syphilis or committing adultery or pedophilia! He can be subtle … sort of … 😉
Yes, in later years von Stroheim learned to hit us over the head with a ball-peen hammer instead of a cartoon mallet.
(Rewatches Queen Kelly)
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