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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