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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