A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Prisoner of Zenda (John Cromwell, 1937)

The identical cousin is a genetic anomaly known only to Anthony Hope and the creators of The Patty Duke Show, but both got a great deal of mileage out it. Hope's novel about a man who finds himself posing as a Ruritanian king to fend off a threat to the throne was such a hit that it was immediately adapted for the stage, turned into a film in 1913, and even became a Sigmund Romberg operetta. But leave it to David O. Selznick to produce perhaps the best of all adaptations. It was once said of Selznick -- I forget by whom, but it sounds a lot like something Ben Hecht would say -- that to judge from his movies, he had read nothing past the age of 12. Among the novels he made into movies are David Copperfield (George Cukor, 1935), A Tale of Two Cities (Jack Conway, 1935), Little Lord Fauntleroy (John Cromwell, 1936), and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Norman Taurog, 1938). But it has to be said that each of these adaptations remains probably the best screen version of its source. The 1937 Prisoner of Zenda is so good that when MGM decided to remake it in Technicolor in 1952, producer Pandro S. Berman and director Richard Thorpe not only used the 1937 screenplay by John Balderston and Noel Langley, with Donald Ogden Stewart's punched-up dialogue, but also the score by Alfred Newman, following the earlier version almost shot for shot. The chief virtue of Selznick's production lies in its casting: Ronald Colman is suave and dashing as Rudolf Rassendyll and his royal double, Madeleine Carroll makes a radiant Princess Flavia, and Raymond Massey is a saturnine Black Michael. Mary Astor, C. Aubrey Smith, and David Niven steal scenes right and left. Best of all, though, is Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Rupert von Hentzau, a grinning scamp of a villain. Fairbanks is so good in the role that we cheer when he escapes at the end. How Selznick got this one past the Production Code, which usually insisted on punishing wrongdoers. is a bit of a mystery, but he may have told the censors that he was planning to film Hope's sequel, Rupert of Hentzau, in which Rupert gets what's coming to him. He never got around to the sequel, of course, being distracted by Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939).

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