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

Review: East of Eden (1955)

east_of_eden_posterEast of Eden. It was John Steinbeck’s epic work. Showcasing a familial narrative sprawled across his familiar locales of Salinas and Monterey over the turn of the century. But as a film, it rather unwittingly became James Dean’s. He wasn’t even a star yet. He had been on the stage and in a few small roles on television. His performance as Cal Trask was his first film role and the only one that ever got released during his lifetime. As his following two films, both premiered after his untimely death (curiously not all that far away from this film’s setting).

Director Elia Kazan utilized Technicolor and the harrowing perspective of Cinemascope to paint East of Eden with vibrant colors and rather unnerving angles. It’s also true that Kazan, known for evoking intense performances from actors bread on the Method,  was more inspired than perhaps even he realized when he cast Dean. The actor’s body movements. His moody histrionics. His angst emanating from those piercing eyes of his. Even his terminal sadness channeled from his own real-life desire for his father’s love. It’s all within the role of Cal Trask and takes away any doubt about who the focal point of this film is.

And for some, this might be a rather glaring problem with the film. Kazan’s adaptation of the latter half of Steinbeck’s novel focuses on the Cain and Abel dynamic between brothers Cal and Aron as they vie for the affection of their father Adam. For the film to work, each of these characters should be on equal footing. And it’s true that the film is a pendulum of emotional turmoil. It’s positively charged with virulent intensity. First, it’s Cal who is angry and isolated as he tries to discover the whereabouts of the mother he never knew. Meanwhile, his brother Aron (Richard Davalos) is happily in love with his girl and readily defends his brother against any criticism.

But as Cal tries with all his might to win the affection of his father by any means possible, things begin to change. No, his father never exhibits the type of pleasure in him that he so desires, but in his struggles, Cal becomes closer with his brother’s girl — gaining her sympathy.

As time passes, the U.S. is teetering on the brink of the Great War and still, Cal cannot earn his father’s love and his brother becomes more and more jealous. As Cal comes into his own, showing a certain amount of industry and thoughtfulness, it seems Aron becomes more withdrawn and cold. And still, Adam loves his “good son” the best.

James Dean’s performance is spectacularly engaging. I would argue it’s not a morbid sense of curiosity that draws us to him as a tragic hero. But he truly had a special ability to control entire scenes with a glance or some slight movement. Like a Brando or a Clift, he had a certain ability to tap into something that classical actors couldn’t quite touch. Whether it was realism or not is slightly beside the point because they live in characters who are charged with real emotions. It makes Dean’s role as Cal Trask almost palpable. You can feel all that is going on inside of him.

It’s the fact that Dean is so memorable, that brings to light just how much some of the other roles pale in comparison. Davalos does a fine job in his first film, but he cannot balance the scales weighed down by Dean. Raymond Massey on his part is a fairly flat actor not given to anything altogether interesting. It is Dean who elevates Massey’s role in a sense (even though Massey despised the younger actor). Furthermore, Julie Harris is a reputable performer with great heart but she somehow seems miscast (perhaps she’s too old for her role). And Jo Van Fleet gets into the film with a few integral scenes but even she does not have enough time to neutralize Dean.

Perhaps it’s because of the now iconic screen tests of Dean and Paul Newman working off each other, but part of me wonders if Newman in the role of Aron could have done anything to counterbalance Dean. Part of me rejects this hypothesis because Newman never had the same type of melancholy or intensity that Dean was able to muster. He was the likable one. Still, it’s an interesting supposition that in no way takes away from the phenomenal way James Dean burst onto the scene in 1955. He was an explosive supernova of talent — unfortunately for us, he was snuffed out far too quickly.

4/5 Stars

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant with a zany and strange supporting cast, this film adapted from a play is a farcical  black comedy. Grant is a drama critic who is just recently married and he is about to go on his honeymoon. However, he is horrified to learn that his two unassuming aunts have killed hopeless, old men with arsenic-laced tea. He must also deal with one brother who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt and a recently returned brother who is wanted for murder. Add these crazy characters, a peculiar German doctor, some policemen, and you are in for a wild ride of wacky antics and mock terror. All the while Grant tries to balance his many problems which nearly go awry. Everything gets figured out in the end and Grant carries his bride away. To say the least this film is very odd and perhaps not Capra’s best. It does culminate nicely in the end however, closing the story on a high note. The cast includes Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey, Josephine Hull, Peter Lorre, Jean Adair, Jack Carson, and John Alexander

3.5/5 Stars

East of Eden (1954)

In his first great film role, James Dean plays a rebellious son named Cal Trask who lives with his father and brother Aron in Salinas. Directed by Elia Kazan from the Steinbeck novel, the movie chronicles Cal’s struggles in the shadow of his favored brother Aron. Despite good intentions at first, Cal is constantly rejected the praise that his brother garners. Thus embittered, he lashes out at his brother, falls for Aron’s girl, and turns their father’s world upside down. With his performance Dean brings alive the character who is himself an allegory for Cain. Julie Harris, Raymond Massey, and Jo Van Fleet all deliver good performances that play off Cal. Overall this is a classic adaption of a classic author. 

 4/5 Stars

The Woman in the Window (1944) – Film-Noir

Starring Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett, this film-noir involves an ordinary psychology professor and a beautiful woman. The story begins at the club where the professor and his friends begin to discuss an enchanting portrait of a woman in a store window. He stays behind for a while longer and before he leaves he takes one last look at the painting. And there he meets the woman herself who then invites him over for a drink. However, her angry boyfriend comes by and he is left dead after a scuffle. Now the two perpetrators must cover up their murder and dispose of the body. That task goes to the professor and he naively dumps it out in the country leaving behind numerous clues. One of the professor’s friends is the district attorney and so he finds himself invited back to the scene of the crime. The professor is not suspected but the woman is blackmailed by a low life ex-cop who threatens to expose them if he doesn’t get his money. Much to the woman’s relief the blackmailer is killed but it comes too late for the professor. Or does it? This noir directed by Fritz Lang focuses on a mysterious woman and psychology. It also has one of the most abrupt, out of the blue endings. Every movie should not be resolved this way but I rather liked it one time around.

4/5 Stars