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The Prisoner of Zenda

The Prisoner of Zenda(1937)

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teaser The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)

By 1937, The Prisoner of Zenda was already an old warhorse of a property. The 1894 novel by Anthony Hope was adapted for the Broadway stage by playwright Edward Rose in 1895, and that was quickly followed by a West End production. Over the next 15 years, it was revived on stage at least four times. The first film version, a 4-reeler, was produced in 1913; Metro remade it with Lewis Stone in 1922. More stage revivals, including a musical version, followed, until producer David O. Selznick decided in the 1930s that the time was right for a sound version. It was a smart move for this was the version that became an instant classic and has remained the definitive adaptation. A 1952 shot-for-shot, word-for-word remake starring Stewart Granger bombed, and a 1979 Peter Sellers spoof is better left unmentioned.

The story is set in a fictional Balkan nation, in the province of Zenda. When the country's King Rudolf V is drugged and kidnapped by his jealous brother, Rudolf's English cousin - who happens to be vacationing in Zenda and also happens to be an exact double of the King - is found and substituted for the real thing. But when he learns what's really going on, he fights to restore the proper King to the throne.

A bit farfetched? Sure, but in 1937 the story suddenly seemed topical, with its parallels to the real-life abdication of the Duke of Windsor and the approaching coronation of King George VI. Selznick liked these connections and assembled an all-star cast to bring the swashbuckling romance costume drama to life. In the lead dual roles he placed Ronald Colman, never more perfectly cast. Joining him were Madeleine Carroll, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Raymond Massey, Mary Astor, and young David Niven in a breakthrough part.

The memorable part of Rupert of Hentzau was something of a comeback for Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., but he was reluctant to take it because it wasn't a leading role. He went to his famous father for some advice, who told him he had to accept the part because "not only is The Prisoner of Zenda one of the best romances written in a hundred years and always a success, but Rupert of Hentzau is probably one of the best villains ever written. He is witty, irresistible, and as sly as Iago... Nobody has ever played Rupert and failed to steal the show, on either stage or screen. It is so actor-proof, in fact, that Rin Tin Tin could play the part and walk away with it!" That was all the convincing Fairbanks, Jr., needed and he did so well that he was indeed swamped with new offers after the film came out.

The picture also helped kick-start David Niven's career. He had recently come to California hoping to break into movies, but so far only a few small parts had materialized. His British expatriate friends introduced him to Selznick, who decided to take a chance with him for the role of Fritz. Years later, in his memoir, Niven recalled that he was desperate to enliven this part by playing it for laughs but that "humorless" director John Cromwell refused to let him. Finally, the day came when Niven asked: "Mr. Cromwell, would you let me do it again - my way?" This was unheard-of insubordination, and the set fell silent. "All right," said Cromwell, "Do it once more - your way." Niven did it. "Next scene," said Cromwell. Niven felt impending doom, and sure enough, that night Selznick called to say he was being replaced. But the next morning, Niven was summoned into Selznick's office. Cromwell was there. They had just seen the rushes and both thought Niven's "way" was superb. Cromwell said, "It's my fault entirely and [Selznick] and I are going to build up the part so that we can get much more fun out of it. You'll be great. Go get dressed."

As humble as he showed himself to be, Cromwell was having his own problems. He was angered by Selznick's constant script-tinkering which resulted in delays on the set. He was annoyed by his lead actors, whom he found "lazy and overindulged," and he complained that "Colman never knows his lines." Ultimately, Selznick fired him and replaced him with W.S. "Woody" Van Dyke, though Cromwell retained sole screen credit. (George Cukor also shot a few retakes.)

One amusing anecdote from the set, recounted in several books, involved Raymond Massey and the 60-film veteran British actor C. Aubrey Smith. Massey was worried about the interpretation of his part and went to Smith for some guidance. As Fairbanks recalled, Smith was reading a 2-week-old copy of his beloved London Times (he refused to read anything else) when Massey interrupted him:

"'Sorry to butt in, Aubrey, but I just can't get under the skin of my character, Black Michael. I thought you might advise me.' Aubrey had to turn up the power in his hearing aid first. Then he lowered his Times, took the monocle from his eye, and glaring at [Massey], said, 'My dear Ray, in my time I have played every part in The Prisoner of Zenda except Princess Flavia. And I ALWAYS had trouble with Black Michael.' With that, he replaced his monocle, turned off his hearing aid, and picked up his Times again."

Producer: David O. Selznick
Director: John Cromwell
Screenplay: Wells Root, John L. Balderston, Donald Ogden Stewart, Ben Hecht, Sidney Howard
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Film Editing: James E. Newcom
Art Direction: Lyle R. Wheeler
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Ronald Colman (Major Rudolph Rassendyll), Madeleine Carroll (Princess Flavia), C. Aubrey Smith (Col. Zapt), Raymond Massey (Black Michael), Mary Astor (Antoinette de Mauban), David Niven (Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim).
BW-101m. Closed captioning.

by Jeremy Arnold

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teaser The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) is one of the most-filmed and most-referenced of all swashbuckling stories, with eight feature-film versions, two made-for-television adaptations and three TV series. This story of love and heroism has also been told on the stage and radio, and its plot has been spoofed countless times in film and TV comedies. But of all the dramatized versions of Anthony Hope's 1894 tale of adventure, love and honor, the 1937 black-and-white movie version, produced by David O. Selznick for his Selznick International Pictures stands as the definitive adaptation. It is so beautifully realized that a 1952 color remake by MGM uses the same shooting script, dialogue and background score, and even duplicates the camera angles scene-by-scene!

The 1937 The Prisoner of Zenda provided Ronald Colman with a showy double role, one of his most colorful and best remembered. His first character, the dashing English gentleman Rudolf Rassendyll, takes a fishing vacation in a small middle-European country (unnamed in the film, Ruritania in the novel) where he discovers that he is a dead ringer for the soon-to-be crowned prince Rudolf V (Colman again), a distant cousin. Two of the prince's aides, Colonel Zapt (C. Aubrey Smith) and Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim (David Niven), discover the resemblance and take Rassendyll to the royal hunting lodge and introduce him to the future king. The look-alikes hit it off and embark on a night of drinking.

Unfortunately, the prince's scheming half-brother Duke Michael (Raymond Massey) has slipped him a bottle of drugged wine, and the morning finds him comatose and unable to attend his coronation. Since Michael plans to usurp the throne in Rudolf's absence, Zapt convinces Rassendyll to take the prince's place during the ceremony. Rassendyll bluffs his way through the proceedings, fooling even Michael, and claims the crown. Meanwhile, the imposter is falling in love with Rudolf's fiance, the beautiful Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll), who has never cared for her betrothed but suddenly sees him in a more attractive light.

The impersonation must continue after the real king is kidnapped by Rupert of Hentzau (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), Michael's devilish henchman. To seize the crown, Michael must marry Flavia, who happens to be his cousin. This inspires the wrath of his French mistress, Antoinette de Mauban (Mary Astor), who reveals the location where the real king is being held prisoner - the castle of Zenda. Rassendyll swims the castle moat to fight a climactic duel with Rupert, who has dispatched Michael after being found trying to seduce Antoinette. When royal forces storm the castle and right prevails, Flavia - who now knows Rassendyll's real identity and is torn by her duty to remain with the real king - must decide how to resolve her feelings.

The Prisoner of Zenda: Being the History of Three Months in the Life of an English Gentleman was written by part-time lawyer Anthony Hope Hawkins in one month and published in 1894 under the name Anthony Hope. The novel, which sold more than 30,000 copies in Britain and the U.S., helped established the adventure genre further explored by such authors as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H. Rider Haggard. It has never gone out of print and has continued to sell thousands of copies each year. The Prisoner of Zenda was escapist entertainment, written with flair and wit as well as a keen sense of what the audience wanted," writes Daniel Eagan in his 2009 book America's Film Legacy. "In that sense it was the perfect project for David O. Selznick, arguably the most significant producer in Hollywood during the late 1930s."

After distinguishing himself as a producer at MGM, Paramount and RKO, Selznick had started his own studio, Selznick International, in 1936. He had two other major projects in the works for 1937, Nothing Sacred and A Star Is Born and had begun shepherding Gone With the Wind (1939) to the screen when he bought the rights to The Prisoner of Zenda and some preliminary screen treatments from MGM for $100,000. (In 1936, while the property was still owned by MGM, it had been announced as a vehicle for William Powell and Myrna Loy. The studio had also toyed with the idea of a musical version to star Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, with a score by Rodgers and Hart.) Zenda was already a proven commodity in print, on the stage and in previous film versions, and the recent abdication of England's Edward VIII led Selznick to think that a story of kings and coronations would be timely.

Ronald Colman who had starred in Selznick's 1935 production of A Tale of Two Cities at MGM, was cast in the Zenda lead in what would be a rare swashbuckling role for him in talkies. (He had been a dashing matinee idol in silent adventures early in his career.) In one of his infamous memos, Selznick wrote that "I frankly would not have purchased the material if I hadn't had Ronald Colman under contract, and if I hadn't determined in advance that Colman would play the role." Colman's main reservation was taking on a double role because he had done that in a 1933 film called The Masquerader that had not been well-received. He had agreed to do A Tale of Two Cities with the provision that he play only one of the look-alikes in that story. But for Zenda he finally agreed with Selznick's opinion that for one character to double for another so successfully, both had to be played by the same actor. Colman, notoriously picky about his roles, would later turn down the leads in two super-successful Selznick productions, Gone With the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940).

In his foreward to Ronald Colman, a Bio-Bibliography (1997), Robert Morsberger writes, "Though less athletic than Errol Flynn, Colman could be as dashing a swashbuckler. His Prisoner of Zenda vies with The Adventures of Robin Hood as the most beloved swashbuckler of all time." And R. Dixon Smith, author of the 1991 book Ronald Colman, Gentleman of the Cinema, emphasizes the romanticism Colman brings to the role: "As the dedicated Englishman who saves a kingdom at the expense of his own happiness, Rassendyll is the perfect incarnation of all the qualities which made the definitive Colman screen personality so overwhelmingly popular in the thirties: sincere and reliable, determined and resilient, affable and witty, yet somehow always bearing just a touch of the 'broken wing' which so arouses female sympathy and affection. This inner fragility, the vague sadness under the surface which was reflected both facially and through the sensitive, restrained delivery of that exquisite voice, had by now become the most distinctive element of Colman's style."

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. had his heart set on playing Rassendyll and almost turned down the role of Rupert of Hentzau. It was Fairbanks Sr., the great swashbuckling star of silent films, who talked him into reconsidering, explaining that this was one of the most compelling villains of literature. (Anthony Hope had been so taken by the character that he created a sequel to The Prisoner of Zenda centered on Rupert. Selznick toyed with the idea of a film version of the sequel with Louis Jourdan as Rupert, but failed to follow through.) Fairbanks Sr. is said to have told his son that this anti-hero is "witty, irresistible, and as sly as Iago... Nobody has ever played Rupert and failed to steal the show, on either stage or screen. It is so actor-proof, in fact, that Rin Tin Tin could play the part and walk away with it!" With the advantage of his father's coaching on how to present himself, a cocky, grinning Fairbanks Jr. does come close to taking the film. It was his first real attempt to follow in his father's footsteps, and he delivered a performance that revived his faltering career and is still considered among his best.

The largely British cast included Madeleine Carroll, then a big name on both sides of the Atlantic, as Flavia. She was chosen by Selznick after Anita Louise and Fay Wray had tested unsuccessfully for the role. Blonde and regally beautiful, Carroll was in some ways the Grace Kelly of her day. Future star David Niven was five years into his film career and still playing supporting roles; he landed his role as von Tarlenheim after his friends Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Merle Oberon recommended him to Selznick. Mary Astor's role as the jealous mistress was a meaty one, leading Daniel Eagan to write in his 2010 book America's Film Legacy that Astor delivers perhaps "the best acting in the film." In his 1988 autobiography The Salad Days, Fairbanks wrote that Raymond Massey told C. Aubrey Smith, cast as Col. Zapt, that he didn't understand his own role as "Black Michael." Smith responded, "Ray, in my time I've played every part in Zenda except Princess Flavia, and I've never understood Black Michael either!" In an odd footnote to the film, Niven and Massey, who were friends and also acted together in 1946's Stairway to Heaven, would both die on the same day, July 29, 1983.

Selznick hired Donald Ogden Stewart (later to win an Oscar for 1940's The Philadelphia Story) to write the script for Zenda, but after a reworking by John L. Balderston and Wells Root (who receive screenplay credit), with additional input from Ben Hecht, Wells Root, Jules Furthman, Sidney Howard and Selznick himself, Stewart was given a credit for "additional dialogue" only. The finished script sticks closely to the novel, although some sequences - including an elaborate coronation parade - were eliminated for reasons of economy. Another significant change was the beefing up of Rupert's role, giving Fairbanks still more opportunities to shine. The screenplay originally contained a prologue and epilogue which had an older Rassendyll narrating his adventures in flashback and included mention of the death of Flavia. These scenes were shot but eliminated as unnecessary after the film was previewed.

As director, Selznick chose John Cromwell, a former actor better known for handling romantic dramas featuring female stars (including Bette Davis in 1934's Of Human Bondage) than for swashbuckling adventure. The producer explained in another memo that "In doing a picture like The Prisoner of Zenda, which is aimed at least fifty percent toward a foreign market, it becomes important to get a director who at least has the judgment and taste to respect the sensibilities of audiences which are sensitive, particularly in England, about the behavior of royalty."

Cromwell was not entirely happy with his cast, complaining in memos to Selznick that he couldn't decide "which one of them annoys me most." Fairbanks and Niven were "overindulged and lazy," while Colman "never knows his lines." He also complained that both Colman and Carroll insisted that both had a "bad side" to be avoided in closeups, "but it's the same 'bad side.' Shooting them face-to-face is all but impossible." Cromwell went so far as to dismiss David Niven from the film because he disapproved of the comedy the actor was bringing to his role. After seeing the rushes and realizing that Niven was bringing life to a dull role and to the film itself, Selznick interceded and he was reinstated. Niven, of course, would eventually become one of the movies' outstanding light comedians, and Zenda proved a major stepping stone in his career. It also introduced him to a circle of friends and colleagues - the "Hollywood English" - that he would enjoy for years afterward.

Once principal photography was completed and Cromwell's work done, Selznick called in W.S. Van Dyke to reshoot and "punch up" the action scenes, especially the fencing sequences. And for Flavia's all-important renunciation scene at the end of the film, Selznick brought in a director even more highly regarded than Cromwell for his handling of actresses: George Cukor. This required a reassuring Selznick memo to his male star, apparently sensitive to any idea that another performer in the film was getting special treatment. Selznick wrote to Colman, "I thought it would be folly not to take advantage of the fact that I have under contract, and available, a man who is generally considered to be one of the finest directors in the world, and certainly unquestionably the best director of women in the world... I am depressed at feeling any slight unhappiness on your part over the program for this retake. I am only making it in the desire that Zenda will shall be just as fine as it possibly can be, and I have no alternative but to hope that you will trust my judgment." Colman evidently was persuaded to play along.

Selznick had begun the film with Bert Glennon (later to shoot 1939's Stagecoach) as cinematographer, but replaced him with James Wong Howe (later to win Oscars for 1955's The Rose Tattoo and 1963's Hud.) Selznick had originally planned to film the picture in three-strip Technicolor, but years later Howe explained that this would have made the special effects (including process shots where Colman "interacts" with himself) more obvious. Howe's exquisitely lit black-and-white photography is outstanding, although color shots by Selznick still photographer Fred Parrish indicate that a Technicolor version would also have been lovely.

The special effects created by Howe included a subtle and convincing scene where Colman appears to shake hands with himself. A 3 X 4' optical glass was placed in front of the camera, and Colman exchanged the handshake with a double, whose head and shoulders were subsequently matted out with masking tape on the glass. The scene was re-photographed with Colman in a different costume and everything matted out except his head and shoulders. When the images were combined, the effect was complete and quite realistic.

A Selznick memo to Howe again concentrates on the crucial renunciation scene: "You know the importance of really getting a mood that is indicated by the twilight hour that the scene is played in. Here, too, I am counting on something striking - with gradually diminishing twilight, with decreasing light on the figures, and with only the face of Flavia showing in the final excellent tableau that Mr. Cromwell has devised for the end of the scene."

This exacting, hands-on style, so typical of Selznick, carried through to every facet of the picture. He even oversaw Madeleine Carroll's makeup, writing in another memo that "I felt that it was vitally important that there should be no trace of artifice, no makeup visible, and I had a number of discussions with her, even arguments, about reducing the makeup on her mouth, eyebrows, and even taking the polish off her nails, so that she would seem like the virginal queen or princess of the 1880s - not like a movie star of today."

According to Selznick biographer Bob Thomas, another example of obsessive attention to detail came in his insistence on a realistic sound effect when Raymond Massey strikes a spy over the head with an iron bar. Supervising film editor Hal Kern recorded a crow bar pounding into a leather pillow, but Selznick was unsatisfied. Kern tried delivering blows to a watermelon, coconut, pumpkin and other objects, but the producer rejected all results. Finally Kern went to a slaughterhouse and bought a calf's head, then smashed a crow bar into it and recorded the sound. Upon hearing it, Selznick cried "That's it!"

The film was scored by Alfred Newman, then music director for Samuel Goldwyn and soon to compose such outstanding scores as those for Gunga Din and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. For Zenda Newman created a variety of themes in the Wagnerian "leitmotif" tradition, with signature music for the hero, villain and love interests. He also composed a noble anthem for the mythical Ruritania, creating elements of pomp and dignity as well as the rousing sections underlining the action-adventure scenes. Art director Lyle R. Wheeler, soon to become legendary for 1939's Gone With the Wind, created a striking vision of Central Europe in the 19th century, and Ernest Dryden contributed the beautiful costume designs.

After its opening at New York's Radio City Music Hall in September 1937, Zenda scored with both critics and audiences. At the time of its opening, Variety described it as "hokum of the 24-carat variety." Leslie Halliwell later wrote, "A splendid schoolboy adventure story is perfectly transferred to the screen in this exhilarating swashbuckler, one of the most entertaining films to come out of Hollywood." In 1971 John Cutts called this version "The finest Zenda of them all" and considered that the movie "becomes more fascinating and beguiling" as time goes by. Its initial profits were reported at $182,000, a goodly sum for 1937. The film was nominated for Oscars for its music score and art direction.

The Zenda story has been a cultural touchstone through the decades. The original New York stage production opened at the Lyceum Theater on September 4, 1895, with a production in London to follow in January 1896. Silent film versions were produced in 1913, 1915 and 1922. The 1952 MGM version, directed by Richard Thorpe, starred Stewart Granger in the double starring roles, Deborah Kerr as Flavia, James Mason as a somewhat older and less dashing Rupert, Louis Calhern as Zapt and Jane Greer as Antoinette.

TV versions were broadcast in 1961 and 1996, with a mini-series shown in 1984. In 1979 Peter Sellers made a feature-film spoof version, playing three roles; and in 1988 an Australian film company created an animated version. Notable radio versions include three with original stars from the 1937 film: an episode of "Lux Radio Theater" with Ronald Colman and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in 1939; an episode of "Academy Award Theater" with Fairbanks in 1946; and a "Screen Director's Playhouse" with Ronald Colman, Fairbanks and C. Aubrey Smith in 1949. Spoofs of or references to the story appear in the feature films The Great Race (1965), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Dave (1993), and the TV series Get Smart, Northern Exposure and Futurama.

The Prisoner of Zenda is essential viewing because it is generally regarded as the outstanding version of one of the world's most engaging and best-loved adventure stories. It is also a jewel of the movies' Golden Age, representing a gleaming product of Hollywood at a time when no effort was spared to make every detail as perfect as possible. And this film was created by the man - producer David O. Selznick - who was perhaps the most relentless perfectionist of them all. It boasts a smart and literate screenplay, fastidious direction, top-notch production values and an exemplary cast with several career-defining performances. The movie is also a reflection of the old-fashioned virtues that prevailed in its day: honor, duty, loyalty and self-sacrifice for the common good.

Producer: David O. Selznick
Director: John Cromwell
Screenplay: Wells Root, John L. Balderston, Donald Ogden Stewart, Ben Hecht, Sidney Howard
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Film Editing: James E. Newcom
Art Direction: Lyle R. Wheeler
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Ronald Colman (Major Rudolph Rassendyll), Madeleine Carroll (Princess Flavia), C. Aubrey Smith (Col. Zapt), Raymond Massey (Black Michael), Mary Astor (Antoinette de Mauban), David Niven (Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim).
BW-101m. Closed captioning.

by Roger Fristoe

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