The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)

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It’s the curse of a childhood watching too many reruns of Get Smart but I can’t seem to get Don Adam’s impersonation of Ronald Colman out of my head while watching The Prisoner of Zenda. There are worse curses to be stricken with though I suppose.

This classic adaptation of Anthony Hope’s eponymous novel also relies on a storytelling device that I have long abhorred, again, probably because I watched too many sitcoms with the incessant trope of one actor playing two unique individuals who always seem to have the gall of showing up in the same frame together so they can interact.

Yet here I generally don’t mind the convention so much because it feels less like a gimmick and more of a way to get at a far more interesting dilemma about identity. Because Ronald Colman is given the dual roles. One as the incumbent king, Rudolf V, who first finds himself incapacitated the night before his coronation thanks to some foul play and then ultimately kidnapped by one of his enemies.

But Colman is also, rather conveniently so, an Englishman named Rudolf Rassendyll who initially meets the King due to his striking likeness and ultimately resolves to play the role at the behest of the King’s faithful aides (C. Aubrey Smith and David Niven) so that the kingdom is not usurped by the vengeful Duke Michael (Raymond Massey).

Duke Michael on his own is hardly an interesting specimen as villains go but he does have a woman who is madly in love with him (Mary Astor) and another man in his stead who is even more unscrupulous than himself in Rupert of Hentzau (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.).

No doubt the King’s plotting brother and Rupert are flabbergasted to see the King make an appearance at the coronation without a hitch — their plans spoiled — and the King reunited with his Queen, Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll), a woman who finds herself rather unexpectedly falling in love with this man who seems so vastly different from the person she used to know.

It sets up one of the greatly humorous balls in recent memory with a stop-and-go waltz, followed by passionate romantic confessions, and harrowing interludes where Rudolf brazenly confronts his opposition with his usual gentlemanly charm. Though he doesn’t trust them too much in order to keep his life to live another day.

Thus, it’s drawn up as a film of factions led at one end with Ronald Colman and his cohorts the wizened Colonel Zapp (Smith) and young Captain Fritz (Niven). Then you have the stone-faced Massey with his counteroffensive joined by Fairbanks Jr. as a character of arrogance and playful impertinence who subsequently livens up many a scene. Madeleine Carroll makes a mesmerizingly beautiful entrance on coronation day to complete this vast accumulation of talent which included directors John Cromwell as well as George Cukor and W.S. Van Dyke filling in a handful of scenes for which Cromwell struggled to get the desired results.

First and foremost, I admire Colman deeply as a romantic lead and a most virtuous protagonist but he is secondarily an action hero, at least not in the way that Flynn and Fairbanks Sr. or even Tyrone Power will always be thought of in such terms.

So Prisoner of Zenda is a fine film and there’s a great bounty of entertainment that can be plucked from its pages but it’s not quite the swashbuckler you might be led to believe. Even the enduring finale punctuated by the climactic duel is a fine showing complete with shadowy castle interiors courtesy of James Wong Howe paired with snappy repartee and clashing steel but it’s not quite as thrilling as Flynn and Rathbone. There’s certainly no crime in that.

That long trod connection between love, duty, and honor is drummed up once more but it can be seen as a timely commentary on one residential royal who abdicated his throne in deference to love. I’ll give you a hint, he was British and he went off to marry a commoner named Wallis Simpson. You would think Hollywood would go for a love conquers all sentiment but apparently not if David O Selznick is working the strings.

As someone who is coming at films from so many directions in so many different orders and approaches, sometimes it’s fascinating to step back and see why I’ve finally arrived at a film at a particular juncture in time.

Madeleine Carroll began as a mere blip on my radar after I saw 39 Steps (1935) but after numerous years of never seeing another one of her pictures I found myself back to Hitchcock’s Secret Agent (1936) and still further I sought out My Favorite Blonde (1942) and The Prisoner of Zenda — two of her most lauded films after she made the move to Hollywood.

More remarkable than her gilded place as one of the first successful British actors in Hollywood, was the fact that she willingly dropped her entire career for something far more profound. Because she was a British subject and after her sister died during the Blitz, she resolved to return to her home and serve tirelessly in the Red Cross as her contribution to the war effort.

She didn’t have to do that but she was so compelled that she gave up the limelight, the recognition, and the undoubted wealth to sink into the background and do her part. Certainly, that has nothing to do with this wonderful film. Then again, maybe it does. Because this is a film about doing your duty and living by a certain code of honor that no one holds you to but yourself. Some might call it a human conscience. Rudolf had an inclination to do what was good as did Carroll.

In truth, her part to play is rather small though still memorable. But what are films if not artifacts that wield so much power outside of themselves? They point all of us to people and places, times and universal themes that we might never get to any other way. I watch movies for something that goes beyond mere entertainment and I did an abysmal job trying to explain it but maybe I don’t have to. Maybe you understand it. Because what we do outside of the movies to impact our fellow man is far more important than any performance on celluloid.

4/5 Stars

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