A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

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).