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Director Ernst Lubitsch -- cinematic master of wit and sophistication -- weaves a lavish tale of love and heartbreak in The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927).
Crown Prince Karl Heinrich leads a sheltered life, being primped and tutored to assume the throne, with little opportunity to experience any of life's ordinary pleasures, such as love and friendship. When we first meet Karl Heinrich, he is a young man (Philippe De Lacy), withering under the scowl of his militaristic father, King Karl VII (Gustav von Seyffertitz). As he matures, Karl Heinrich (Ramon Novarro) never shakes his childlike fascination with the world outside the palace. His playful side is nurtured by his tutor, Dr. Jttner (Jean Hersholt), who indulges the overgrown schoolboy, allowing him to sneak a cigarette and slyly offering him clues during a difficult academic exam.
Much to their delight, Karl Heinrich and Dr. Jttner are dispatched to Heidelberg, and dive into its proletarian joys of biergartens, rowdy military cadets and pretty maidens. Karl Heinrich falls in love with Kathi (Norma Shearer), who serves beer at the local garden, even though they're both aware that their different social classes forbids a formal engagement. When Karl VII falls ill, Karl Heinrich must leave Heidelberg and fulfill his obligations to the family. Months pass and Karl Heinrich is able to return to Heidelberg, to find that the world has changed, but some things are still just as enchanting as he remembers.
The Student Prince bears less of a resemblance to the sophisticated sex comedies for which Lubitsch would become famous (Trouble in Paradise , Design for Living ) than the kinds of films he had made as a director before emigrating to the U.S. While in Berlin, he divided his time between satirical fairy tales (The Oyster Princess [Die Austernprinzessin, 1919] and The Wildcat [Die Bergkatze, 1921]) and somber costume pictures (Madame DuBarry  and Anna Boleyn ). Lubitsch combined qualities of each of these genres to make The Student Prince. The film was adapted by his frequent collaborator from the Berlin years, Hans Kraly (who scripted all the abovementioned films).
It is said that a person only misses a place after they have left it. This may have been true of Lubitsch, because never before had he treated his homeland with such affection and sentimentality. In The Student Prince, there is an almost tearful nostalgia for the simple pleasure of kugelhopf (a German bundt cake) and an uncharacteristic awe of Prussian military pageantry (which, a few years earlier, he would have ruthlessly mocked). A more likely explanation for this change in Lubitsch's outlook was the influence of studio brass. The project was conceived as a follow-up to Erich von Stroheim's hugely successful The Merry Widow (1925). Stroheim turned the project down, because of his bitter experiences with producer Irving Thalberg, who had produced (and massively re-edited) Greed (1924) and The Merry Widow. And so, MGM had to find another European expatriate to helm its bittersweet ode to Heidelberg. Meanwhile, Stroheim moved over to Paramount to make The Wedding March (1928), a film which would bear a great number of similarities to The Student Prince.
The production did allow Lubitsch to revisit his roots -- not just symbolically. He organized a small crew (including director Paul Leni and cinematographer John Alton) to travel with him to Germany to shoot some location shots along the Rhine valley. In the end, the trip was a disappointment. Reportedly none of this authentic footage was used in the finished film, and Lubitsch felt out of place in Berlin, "I'm like a stranger, and yet my entire existence is rooted in this city. All I need now is for the porter to tell me which tourist attractions I should visit."
To provide the necessary touches of realism, Lubitsch turned to a frequent collaborator from the Berlin years: costume designer Ali Hubert (Sumurun , The Loves of Pharaoh ). Lubitsch cabled a laundry list of wardrobe demands, "Need 20 uniforms of officers of various levels, others who are armored soldiers. Parade uniforms, helmets with feathers, six artillery soldiers and one officer. Parade uniforms for military band, six ministers of state, chamberlains, six lackeys, six footmen, three officers of a small town, a sergeant, a customs inspector, three policemen of Heidelberg, 300 hats in the old high hat style, 100 hats of students of various classes..." and on and on. According to Scott Eyman's biography, Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise, Hubert arrived in Hollywood with a total of 32 trunks filled with costumes. Although uncredited on The Student Prince, Hubert stuck around L.A. and became the official costume designer on Lubitsch's The Patriot (1928).
The production experienced no major setbacks. The studio was dissatisfied with a crucial love scene between Karl Heinrich and Kathi, and -- according to some sources -- Thalberg brought in B-movie producer/director John M. Stahl to reshoot it. Stahl was probably recommended by Novarro, who had just starred in Stahl's Latin-flavored romance Lovers? (1927). The film's editor, Andrew Marton, denied Stahl's involvement and insisted that every frame belonged to Lubitsch, but remarked, "It was a scene that Lubitsch still hated after he re-did it."
The love scene is a great example of Lubitsch's visual ingenuity, but it doesn't deliver the emotional punch intended. The camera dollies alongside Kathi as Karl Heinrich chases her though the gardens at night. They pass by a series of stone columns that break the long shot into passing "windows." When the camera passes one column, the "window" is empty. Karl Heinrich has apparently caught the maiden. A dachshund comically wanders into the shot, and finally Kathi appears, wiping the prince's kiss from her lips.
In a coda to the love scene, Karl Heinrich wanders to a hillside covered with flowers, relishes the newly discovered feelings of love, and spies a shooting star. The meadow (which had been built, destroyed, then re-built when Lubitsch decided to re-shoot the scene) is a carefully-sculpted slope covered with uniformly perfect daisies. A physical representation of the prince's interior rapture, the field is a wonderful example of MGM set design at its most shamelessly artificial.
"The chemistry [between Novarro and Shearer] was not the way Lubitsch imagined it," said Marton, "He never thought that Ramon Novarro or Norma Shearer was the right casting for the film, but the studio insisted and he was stuck with them. Lubitsch did marvelously with them, actually, but not to his exacting standards."
At least one of the actors was not particularly happy with Lubitsch, either. Shearer (who was Thalberg's girlfriend), decided to test the limits of her clout at the studio. She walked off the set when she objected to Lubitsch's playful method of directing her. According to Shearer biographer Gavin Lambert, she "disliked his technique of acting out a scene, then expecting her to imitate him. By now she had fixed her own approach to a role, which was to immerse herself completely in it until she felt secure." Shearer placed an angry telephone call to Thalberg's office but, much to her surprise, was told, "everyone has a lot to learn from Mr. Lubitsch." The argument was settled.
This did not damage the actress/producer relationship. They were married one week after the film's release. To most observers, The Student Prince was a boon to Shearer's career, but at least one critic remarked on the lack of chemistry between her and the director. "Norma Shearer is attractive as Kathi," wrote The New York Times's Mordaunt Hall, "She, however does not seem to put her soul into the part... she does not respond as other players have done to Mr. Lubitsch's direction. The ablest acting in this piece of work is done by Jean Hersholt as Doctor Jttner and Gustav Von Seyffertitz as the King."
Life Magazine concurred, "Norma Shearer as the girl gives a performance that is excellent at times, and at other times, a trifle laborious." But this critic, Robert E. Sherwood, seems to have gone gaga over Novarro, whose performance is, to modern eyes, nothing more than hammy, "This is the best work that Ramon Novarro has ever done. It is comparable with the best work that any one has ever done on the screen."
Variety's critic was remarkably insightful into the film's greatest weakness. "Lubitsch took his tongue out of his cheek when he directed this special. He had to, and in doing so he also took any kick right out of the picture...It looks as though the director had been miscast. Not meaning that Lubitsch hasn't done well by Heidelberg. Quite to the contrary considering the paper material with which he had to work. It's not farce and it's not drama. Just a pretty love story of peaches and cream that may have put perfume in the director's cigars as he supervised."
As one of the studio's prestige productions, The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg was an expensive undertaking (costing $1.2 million) and was not able to return its investment, bringing in approximately $900,000 in gross revenue.
Although its official title is The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, some prints of the film were titled simply Old Heidelberg (as is the one being shown by TCM). The other half of the title was dropped in 1954 when the film was remade as The Student Prince, a musical starring Mario Lanza and Ann Blyth.
Producer: Ernst Lubitsch, Irving Thalberg
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Marian Ainslee, Ruth Cummings, Hanns Kraly, Wilhelm Meyer-Forster (play)
Cinematography: John Mescall
Film Editing: Andrew Marton
Art Direction: Richard Day, Cedric Gibbons
Music: Carl Davis
Cast: Ramon Novarro (Crown Prince Karl Heinrich), Norma Shearer (Kathi), Jean Hersholt (Dr. Friedrich Juttner), Gustav von Seyffertitz (King Karl VII), Philippe De Lacy (Young Karl), Edgar Norton (Lutz).
by Bret Wood