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The Student Prince (1954) hails from venerable source material, but this production was so marred by troubles and setbacks that it's a miracle it ever saw the light of day. The 1924 operetta by Sigmund Romberg, with book and lyrics by Dorothy Donnelly, was the most successful of Romberg's works and the biggest hit of 1920s Broadway, running on stage longer even than Showboat. Revivals followed in the 1930s and 1940s, and in 1927, Ernst Lubitsch directed a silent film version of the story, which follows young Prince Karl as he is sent by his grandfather, the King of Karlsberg, off to Heidelberg to learn how to become a man. When the prince is charmed by a young barmaid, he is set to run away with her, but the king's sudden death means that Karl is now faced with a choice between love and duty.
With the great triumph of this property on stage, it was inevitable that Hollywood should eventually mount a musical film version, and in the summer of 1952 MGM was all set to roll the cameras. Curtis Bernhardt was to direct, and none other than tenor superstar Mario Lanza, whose voice was believed by many to be one of the greatest of the century, was to lead the cast as Prince Karl. Lanza, in fact, had already prerecorded all his songs. These included not just the Romberg/Donnelly classics like "Serenade," "Deep in My Heart, Dear," and "Golden Days," but three new ones by Nicholas Brodszky and Paul Francis Webster: "Beloved," "I'll Walk With God," and "Summertime in Heidelberg." (Webster also revised some of the lyrics of the old Romberg/Donnelly songs.)
On what was to be the first day of production, however, in late August 1952, things started to go downhill -- and fast. Lanza didn't show up to work and was suspended by the studio. Given another chance five days later, he again didn't show and was again suspended. Then it happened a third time, and now Lanza was discharged from MGM and the plug was pulled on The Student Prince. Some sources attribute the problem to a creative clash between Lanza and Bernhardt, but most agree that it had more to do with the temperamental star's larger-than-life ego and reckless overall temperament, not to mention recent weight problems. Lanza had risen to stardom in a very brief amount of time, and his financial expectations and sense of entitlement had risen even faster.
MGM production chief Dore Schary later recounted the episode in his memoir, Heyday: "Mario checked in overweight. He was told he needed to reduce... [He] became meaner. His language was pure gutter speech and lacked the saving grace of even a spot of humor. He was also eating cauldrons of pasta and drinking flagons of beer and wine...He skipped starting dates, reported in late for wardrobe fittings, and made an utter nuisance of himself. When speaking to [MGM executive Eddie] Mannix and me, he called us and other executives a stream of obscenities... We warned Mario and pleaded for him to reorganize his life. He was flirting with oblivion for himself and we told him so. He was too far gone to listen. He left after telling us we could go f*ck ourselves."
Schary wrote that he wanted to fire Lanza and sue for damages, but Nick Schenk, the New York head of MGM parent company Loews, Inc., wanted to talk to the volatile star first. It didn't help. By Schary's account, Lanza unleashed an expletive-laden barrage at Schenk, telling him he was an "idiot" and that MGM should defer to Lanza and his "God-given pipes." That did it. Lanza was expelled from MGM, and the studio soon thereafter settled a lawsuit with him, winning the rights to Lanza's recordings.
Those recordings were a potential gold mine, MGM realized, and in the months ahead the studio decided to re-mount the film with another actor playing Prince Karl, and lip-synching to Lanza's singing voice. By the summer of 1953, the film was again set to go. Mervyn LeRoy had in the interim replaced Bernhardt as director, but delays eventually made him unavailable as well, and Richard Thorpe took the reins. Cast as Prince Karl was Edmund Purdom, a relatively unknown British actor. Ann Blyth, who had starred opposite Mario Lanza in his signature title role of The Great Caruso (1951), was borrowed from Universal to play the barmaid, Kathie, and she sang here for the first time on screen. Also in the cast are the fine character actors S. Z. "Cuddles" Sakall, in his final screen appearance, and Edmund Gwenn as the prince's tutor. Gwenn had another major film, Them! (1954), open the same week as this one.
When The Student Prince opened in June 1954, Lanza's production troubles were well-known to the public, having played out in the gossip columns. Everyone was curious to see how this Purdom/Lanza lip-synching extravaganza would turn out. Critics and public were satisfied, with all seeming to agree that Purdom did a very good job under the circumstances.
Variety described the picture as "classy" and "a fresh, beguiling musical, beautiful to hear and behold." It also called the film "an important career break" for Purdom. The dubbing was a bit off-putting at first, Variety said, making "a warm Italian tenor out of a clipped-speech Britisher," but Purdom's acting and Lanza's singing were both so good that it ultimately didn't matter.
The New York Times' Bosley Crowther also praised Purdom but said the best thing about the film was the "very good" music. Crowther wrote: "This bright-colored widescreen production of the old Romberg musical romance -- the first that has been done with music on the screen -- is a cheerful and thoroughly uninhibited outpouring of synthetic German schmaltz, as bubbly as boiling maple syrup and as tuneful as a crowded Yorkville stube."
After all the production troubles, MGM turned a profit on The Student Prince. As for Mario Lanza, he made just three more pictures over the next few years, including Serenade (1956) for Warner Brothers and director Anthony Mann, and two European productions. He died in 1959 at the age of 38 -- from a heart attack, though there was speculation at the time about Italian mafia involvement. Lanza made only eight feature films in his career, but they along with his recordings have allowed his powerful voice to endure.
Producer: Joe Pasternak
Director: Richard Thorpe; Curtis Bernhardt (uncredited; fired, replaced by Richard Thorpe)
Screenplay: Sonya Levien, William Ludwig (writer); Dorothy Donnelly (play); Wilhelm Meyer-Frster (novel, play)
Cinematography: Paul Vogel
Art Direction: Randall Duell, Cedric Gibbons
Music: Albert Sendrey, George Stoll, Robert Van Eps (uncredited)
Film Editing: Gene Ruggiero
Cast: Ann Blyth (Kathie Ruder), Edmund Purdom (Prince Karl Franz), John Ericson (Count Von Asterburg), Louis Calhern (King Ferdinand of Karlsberg), Edmund Gwenn (Prof. Juttner), S. Z. "Cuddles" Sakall (Joseph Ruder), Betta St. John (Princess Johanna), John Williams (Lutz), Evelyn Varden (Queen Mathilda), John Hoyt (Prime Minister Von Mark).
by Jeremy Arnold