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The title card for this film reads: "Selznick International presents Ronald Colman in a picturization of the celebrated novel by Anthony Hope...." The foreword to the film states that any resemblance of the story to the royal scandal of Europe at the end of the last century is unintended. According to news items in Hollywood Reporter in May-July 1933, M-G-M had planned to make a musical version of The Prisoner of Zenda starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, with Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart writing the music, Herbert Fields writing the screen treatment, and Wells Root and Leo Birinski collaborating on the screenplay. Although Root wrote the adaptation for the Selznick version, it is unclear whether he actually wrote a screenplay for the unproduced M-G-M musical, or whether any of his earlier work was used in this film. A Hollywood Reporter news item dated May 11, 1935 stated that Ernest Vajda was working on a screenplay for the film for Irving Thalberg at M-G-M. On August 12, 1935, Hollywood Reporter reported that Gerard Fairlie had joined Marian Ainslee, who was already working on the script. By September 4, 1935, according to Hollywood Reporter, the project was postponed. A December 23, 1935 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that Coningsby Dawson had been assigned by M-G-M to work with Jules Furthman on the screenplay for The Prisoner of Zenda. The proposed M-G-M production was to have been supervised by Al Lewin for Thalberg and was to have starred William Powell and Myrna Loy, but was never made.
According to Hollywood Reporter, Madeleine Carroll was borrowed from Walter Wanger Productions. Arthur Byron and Margaret Tallichet are listed in the cast in an early Hollywood Reporter production chart for this film, however, their participation in the released film has not been determined. A Hollywood Reporter production chart for day twelve lists Bert Glennon as photographer, although he is not credited on the film. According to a modern source, The Prisoner of Zenda was part of David O. Selznick's expanded program of ten-to-twelve "class A" features to be made in 1937 with a combined budget of $12,000,000. Initially slated only as an "original for Ronald Colman," the title of this film was kept secret until negotiations with M-G-M for story rights had been completed. Modern sources also note that Selznick had wanted to make this film while he was at M-G-M and had several scripts prepared, but production never got underway. According to modern sources, Selznick negotiated with Frank Borzage to direct, but Jack Warner of Warner Bros. refused to loan him. Following the publicity surrounding the abdication of King Edward VIII in December 1936, Selznick decided to capitalize on the topical idea of a morganatic union, but had not wished to purchase the rights to the story until he had secured Colman in the lead.
Modern sources indicate that this film's shooting began with the scene in which Colman appears to shake hands with himself. Cinematographer James Wong Howe created the scene by placing a 3 X 4 foot optical glass three feet in front of the camera. Colman shook hands with a double, whose head and shoulders were subsequently matted out with masking tape on the glass. The scene was photographed and the film was run backward so that the scene could be re-photographed with everything matted out except Colman's head and shoulders. The New York Times reviewer remarked that the trick photography was so convincing he was sure a double had been used. He further stated that his only complaint about the film was that there also should have been two Madeleine Carrolls. According to a news item in Hollywood Reporter on May 27, 1937, Selznick had scheduled additional scenes to be directed by George Cukor because John Cromwell was tied up with pre-production on The Adventures of Marco Polo. In a letter to Ronald Colman on July 21, 1937, reproduced in a modern source, Selznick explained his decision to have Cukor direct the renunciation scene featuring Carroll because he was adept at directing women. The scene had been rewritten that afternoon by Sidney Howard, Cukor and Selznick (reportedly during a break in their meetings on Gone with the Wind). In excerpts from a speech Selznick gave on November 1, 1937 to a class at Columbia University also reproduced in a modern source, Selznick states that after the film was finished and the fencing scenes were recut, Selznick, still dissatisfied, brought in W. S. Van Dyke from M-G-M to re-stage the fencing sequences already shot by Cromwell.
According to Daily Variety, Selznick publicity chief, Russell J. Birdwell, staged a "bury-the-hatchet" stunt in the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese Theatre for the Hollywood premiere of this film. The stunt was a result of controversy over Culver City's desire to change its name to Hollywood. Representatives from the respective Chambers of Commerce literally buried in cement a hatchet donated by Birdwell to mark the end of their dispute. California governor Frank Merriam refereed the ceremony. Birdwell's publicity stunts also included him flying, along with twelve residents, into New York for the world premiere from the town of Zenda, Ontario, Canada, which was named after Hope's mythical kingdom. Birdwell also had Los Angeles Mayor Frank L. Shaw inaugurate a downtown fencing tournament to publicize the film. According to her 1948 article in Saturday Evening Post, "Flavia" was Madeleine Carroll's favorite role. In the article, Carroll recalls being addressed as "Princess Flavia" by a wounded soldier while on a hospital train in France during the Battle of the Bulge. Art director Lyle Wheeler and score composer Alfred Newman were nominated for Academy Awards for their work on the film.
Among the many film versions of Hope's story is the 1913 Famous Players Film Co. picture directed by Edwin S. Porter and starring James K. Hackett and Beatrice Beckley (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1911-20; F1.3571); and a 1922 M-G-M silent directed by Rex Ingram and starring Lewis Stone, Stuart Holmes and Alice Terry (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30; F2.4356). In 1952, M-G-M remade Selznick's version in Technicolor with Richard Thorpe as the director and Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr and James Mason in the cast. M-G-M's 1952 film used Alfred Newman's score and, according to a modern source, was a frame-by-frame copy of the Selnick version. In 1979, Richard Quine directed a comedic version of the story for Universal starring Peter Sellers and his wife, Lynne Frederick.