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

If I Were King (1938)

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There’s a moment in the film that can’t help but draw us back to Genesis where Joseph (of technicolor dream coat fame) has risen in the ranks of Egypt and finds himself with the lives of his brothers in the palm of his hands. He’s able to toy with them while also blessing them immensely. It’s easy to see the hand of Providence at work. Nothing so meaningful happens in If I Were King but there is, nevertheless, a similar moment.

Ronald Colman plays the charming, most agreeable of vagabonds and that’s hardly a complaint. We might call into question the validity of his portrayal of such a mythic figure as Francois Villon but we can never doubt his pure charisma.

Francois Villon as witnessed in this film, directed by Frank Lloyd (Mutiny on the Bounty) is a glorified scoundrel who might be a far cry from the man who actually bore the name Francois Villon but, once more, do we care? Hardly.

Preston Sturges’ quill is in playfully fine form mixing eloquent verse with a lightness of being that’s able to upend typical medieval drama with its warring nations, kings, and battles. All of the aforementioned are present but they’re made rather more enjoyable. The tongue in cheek nature of it all enlivens any dips into needless melodrama.

Instead of stringing this man up for his obstination, insubordination, and theft the giggling king (Basil Rathbone) proceeds to make the same man commander of his armies for not only killing the most loathed traitor in the king’s ranks but also boasting he could do a far better job running the kingdom. The origins of a new medieval gameshow are afoot: King for a week.

Basil Rathbone shines in a particularly enjoyable performance for its various quirks including a cackling delivery that feels completely at odds with the persona he cultivated with the majority of his villainous roles. In other words, it’s a real corker.

Meanwhile, in his newfound place of power, the remade Grand Constable finds he has considerable influence. First, to free his friends from the caverns of the dungeon and being by the king’s side to advise him in his moment of crisis. You see, his generals don’t want to fight the militant Burgundians who are about to lay siege to his kingdom.

Villon receives a stroke of genius from the lovely lady in waiting (an exquisite Frances Dee clothed in royal opulence), unload all the kingdom’s food supplies to the poor so the feckless military leaders will get off their duffs and be stirred to action with their larders all but depleted. It’s a drastic and terribly outrageous solution but it does produce some results.

The earlier raucous swordfight within a tavern against the king’s constable is only surpassed and subsequently quashed by the sheer magnitude of the final conflict between the Burgundian marauders and the city’s protectorate — a sequence that was declared to use some 900 extras. It’s certainly no hoax watching the mad chaos of clattering steel.

It was some time into watching this medieval period piece that I realized if Hollywood were to remake such a film as this or one of a similar nature it seems like there would be an unspoken impetus to somber it up and make it into high drama.

All but gone are the days when period dramas could be fun with a touch of whimsy to go with the usual action, adventure, and romance. Errol Flynn and Ronald Colman, those charming heroes of old, are a forgotten breed of leading men and the last time I remember a film channeling this same enjoyment in such things was The Princess Bride now over 30 years ago.

In truth, I suppose the space for medieval heroes and swashbucklers has been edged out by newer and bigger blockbuster beasts. Namely, sci-fi and superhero mammoths that have taken over the main stage. And I have nothing particularly against said tent poles mind you, but I do long for more pictures like this one. Period pieces that don’t have to be so serious. They can have fun too (even if historical accuracy goes a bit to the wayside). That’s a pardonable offense when there’s no pretense for accuracy.

Because If I Were King is blessed by its rich and constantly comedic overtones. That is no doubt the gift of Preston Sturges. This picture can wear the strains poetry and still keep the mood a sprightly one. Films like this are something special.

4/5 Stars

The Three Musketeers (1948)

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The Three Musketeers is a luscious Technicolor swashbuckler done in the fashion of the luxuriant Hollywood costume dramas of the time as we are no doubt accustomed to seeing. Fittingly, they’re also easily subject to classic stereotypes. It’s positively bloated with top-tier talent and whether or not it takes on its source material faithfully is generally beside the point.

Its aims are not those of authenticity and if they were it would be laughable. Maybe it is still laughable but it proves to be made for enjoyment as much as it is made up of cliches. Because in one single package it sums up all that is marvelous and to some, all that is tawdry about such productions of old.

It’s a cinematic “Illustrated Classic” courtesy of George Sidney who provides a film that’s precisely to his proclivities as we might expect even if it’s not so much a musical. It’s meant to be gobbled up voraciously by the children and enjoyed with unbridled enthusiasm by their parents. No more, no less.  And how can you not at least admire its sheer gaudy decadence and the way it chooses to slice a path through the material?

Where there’s no pretense to mask any of the actor’s normal speech patterns or any discernable patois. I think mainly of Van Heflin and Vincent Price sounding like they always have and who nevertheless are both generally enjoyable. We also have the pleasure of a cutthroat Lana Turner, an angelic June Allyson, and a various number of others including royalty played by Frank Morgan and Angela Lansbury and a lovestruck maidservant played by Patricia Medina. Undoubtedly there are still others lost under facial hair and plumage but, again, that hardly matters.

Initially, it also felt like a royal pity that Gene Kelly (playing the lead of D’Artagnan) was not dancing but then being the athletic performer that he is, it soon becomes obvious that his sword fighting utilizes many of the limber movements his dancing has and he really is well suited for such a role. If there was ever a genesis for “The Dueling Cavalier” look no further than right here.

Beginning with the opening duel with Richelieu’s men that sees the formation of the famed partnership as we know it, the picture proves to be ripe with thoroughly gripping and lightly comic fight sequences. They prove to be the highlight of the film on a spectrum of entertainment.

The best part is that they keep on coming at us with rip-roaring wreckless abandon, sabers at the ready, though it begins to fizzle out, in the end, overcome by a plodding narrative that seems no fault of Dumas but rather the adaptation itself. If I were to choose favorites I for one would single out Richard Lester’s adaptation but then again, maybe even that film is not for all.

3/5 Stars

Review: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

the adventures of robin hood 1As a young boy, no hero was greater in my mind’s eye than Robin Hood and only Star Wars held a more honored spot in my childhood imagination. Because, to this day, Robin of Locksley remains the quintessential hero of mythical lore. Part historical truth mostly canonized myth and that’s the beauty of him. We can believe in him — see how he was in so many ways real but in the same instance larger than life.

To his credit, Erroll Flynn does a surprisingly phenomenal job in portraying the legendary outlaw in Lincoln green with a bit of British (Australian…) cheekiness, as well as bravado and charm. In fact, the film is full of so many wonderful elements from its engaging action sequences full of timeless spectacle and a plethora of characters who come right off the pages of the greatest Robin Hood narratives. Will Scarlett, Much the Miller, Friar Tuck and of course Little John still hold a great deal of esteem in my heart. While there are no men more villainous and corrupted than the likes of Prince John (Claude Rains), The Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) and Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone).

Meanwhile, Michael Curtiz took the reigns of the film and makes it a lively swashbuckler that revels in a sense of good fun and that starts with Flynn’s performance radiating out from there. While this early use of three-strip Technicolor only serves to add yet another layer of elegance and vibrancy to the film’s look. It truly was made for color and every shade of Lincoln green and every bit of medieval opulence proves to be a feather in the film’s cap. It looks absolutely stunning and the same goes for young Olivia De Havilland as Maid Marian.

Olivia_de_Havilland_and_Errol_Flynn_in_The_Adventures_of_Robin_Hood_trailerFrom what I know from Robin Hood folklore, specifically Howard Pyle’s seminal edition, the film is surprisingly true to many of the origin stories and tales that have long since proliferated. As an audience, we become privy to the first meetings of Robin and the formidable Little John (Alan Hale) who lays him out in the local stream after a bout with quarterstaffs. Then, in another instance, Robin provokes the portly Friar Tuck (Eugene Palette) who happens to be a master swordsman and a lover of good food and drink. Still, other vignettes include Robin’s successful masquerade as a lowly archer who wins the grand prize at the Sheriff of Nottingham’s Archery Tournament.

Of course, the most thrilling set pieces occur in Nottingham Castle, initially when Robin brazenly drops in on Prince John and his cronies bearing a deer over his shoulders. Admittedly I have Star Wars on the mind, but this sequence is rather reminiscent of Luke wandering into Jabba’s Palace.

Then, the climax comes later with the return of King Richard and Robin’s assault on the castle full of stellar swordplay and general chaos. The duel between Flynn and Basil Rathbone is especially thrilling and it holds up well even today because there is something so satisfying in watching them thrust and feint back and forth.

the adventures of robin hood 2For me, the reason very few heroes surpass Robin Hood is based on his innumerable qualities. He’s a superior fighter with bow, sword or staff. He’s blessed with a wonderful wit and impressive leadership capabilities. He wins over the girl with his charm. He gets to live out in the forest with his best friends, eating great food. But most of all, he’s a rebel with a heart of gold, robbing the rich to feed the poor.

He’s an embodiment of all things that a little boy dreams of as a kid and in many ways, he’s a fairy tale, but the kind of fairy tale that a boy readily conjures up in his own imagination. The villains are formidable and the action is unmistakable, but it’s all in good fun. That’s why the Adventures of Robin Hood remains an enduring folk tale of the cinema. Its hero transcends a single medium. Because he lives in the heart of many a young lad long after the title credits have rolled.

5/5 Stars

The Mark of Zorro (1940)

markofzorro1Madrid–when the Spanish Empire encompassed the globe and young blades were taught the fine and fashionable art of killing…

The mythology of Zorro most certainly starts with the swashbuckling silents of Douglas Fairbanks, but the character’s legacy would be carried forward into the 1940s. So much so that it even gave some inspiration to a young Bruce Wayne, along with numerous boys picking up comic books in his generation.

In all fairness, I don’t know a whole lot about director Rouben Mamoulian. I assumed his forte was costume dramas and stage production as he did do a lot on Broadway. And if that is true, The Mark of Zorro, while not seemingly the work of some creative mastermind, is invariably enjoyable. That is also to the credit of 1940s matinee idol and dashing leading man Tyrone Power. Although over his career and even in this film, he proves to be more than a handsome face. He seemed to hold his own up against Basil Rathbone when it came to swordplay and he danced between the superficial and heroic personas with relative ease. It brings to mind other such roles as Christopher Reeves in Superman (1978) for instance. That of course, brings up the need for an origin story.

markofzorro2In many ways, it feels anachronistic that Don Diego Vega makes the long voyage from Spain to Los Angeles California, but then in the 1800s Spain still had some presence on the West Coast. It’s there were Vega gives up his sword, rendezvous with his father and mother, while slowly taking on a second life. Zorro certainly has a wonderful double life going. By day a stuffy, foppish playboy fascinated with magic tricks and given to fatigue. Then, by night he dons the black mask and saber as “the fox” wholly prepared to rob from the oppressors and bring hope to the common man. He’s the Robin Hood of the Spanish settlements marking his territory with his iconic “Z” and simultaneously getting a bounty stuck on his head.

markofzorro3The corrupt tub of lard Luis Quintero pushed Vega’s father out of office with the help of his menacing right-hand man Captain Pasquale (Basil Rathbone). On the surface, Don Diego plays into the older man’s hand, while at night he fools everyone including the local priest (Eugene Palette) with his masquerade.

Perhaps most importantly of all Zorro is able to romance the young ingenue Lolita Quintero by eventually letting her in on his little secret and taking down her nefarious uncle. But of course, everything must come down to some epic swordplay and heroics. Zorro and Pasquale eventually face on in an office sword fight that made me absolutely giddy with excitement. As he leads the revolt against the powers that be there is an obvious energy pulsing through the storyline. This is a pure cinematic action-adventure that glories in the age of swashbucklers.

True, we have a pair of tragic stars in Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell. He died of a heart attack at the age of 44 and she died only a few years later at 41 years of age after a house fire. But, for the time being, they are young, vibrant, and full of life. Perfect protagonists in a film where love and justice reign supreme and heroes always conquer evil.

4/5 Stars

Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

c854d-pirates_of_the_caribbean_movieStarring Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, and Keira Knightley, the film opens with Elizabeth having her first encounter with Will Tuner and she also sees a mysterious ship. Now in the present, a man recently promoted to Commodore proposes to Elizabeth. Through a series of events she is not able to answer and then ends up meeting the notorious Captain Jack Sparrow. He is taken captive after a duel with Will Tuner. However, his mutinous former crew raid the city from their ship the Black Pearl. Elizabeth is taken captive and Jack and Will join forces to rescue her, while the Commodore makes his own arrangements. Once again they face the pirates and end up in grave trouble. Jack, Will, and Elizabeth all prove their bravery and cleverness. Ultimately, they are able to take down the immortal pirates and Captain Jack is let go once again. This film was entertaining with good action and enjoyable character. I thoroughly understand how Jack Sparrow has become an icon.

4/5 Stars

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, and Claude Rains, the film chronicles the legendary exploits of the outlaw Robin Hood. Whether he bolder enters the royal castle, meets Little John, or encounters Friar Tuck, Robin always exhibits bravado and bravery coupled with lightheartedness. Ultimately, he always helps the needy and that makes him the sworn enemy of both Prince John and Guy of Gisbourne. After narrowly escaping death again following an archery match Robin soon returns to the castle to profess his love for Maid Marian. However, after he leaves, Robin learns she has been imprisoned but also King Richard is rumored to have returned. With one final bold and clever move Robin aids Richard and duels Gisbourne to the death. Of course everything ends happily ever after. This film is full of swashbuckling fun, a good score, striking color cinematography, and light moments as well.

5/5 Stars

“Hanging would be a small price to pay in the company of such a charming lady” – Robin Hood