The Prisoner of Zenda


1h 41m 1937
The Prisoner of Zenda

Brief Synopsis

An Englishman who resembles the king of a small European nation gets mixed up in palace intrigue when his look-alike is kidnapped.

Film Details

Genre
Drama
Adventure
Period
Adaptation
Classic Hollywood
Release Date
Sep 3, 1937
Premiere Information
World premiere in New York, 2 Sep 1937; Los Angeles opening: 6 Oct 1937
Production Company
Selznick International Pictures, Inc.
Distribution Company
United Artists Corp.
Country
United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope (London, May 1894) and play The Prisoner of Zenda by Edward E. Rose (London, 7 Jan 1896).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 41m
Sound
Mono (Western Electric Noiseless Recording)
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
12 reels

Synopsis

King Rudolf V, of the small Balkan country of Ruritania, meets his exact double, Major Rudolf Rassendyll, an English cousin of his who is on holiday, the night before his coronation. The king then takes his cousin to his lodge, where they toast their shared ancestors. The dissolute king unknowingly drinks wine that has been drugged by his villainous half-brother "Black Michael," Duke of Streslau and Lord of Zenda Castle, who wants the throne. The next day, Rudolf poses as the king while the real monarch lies unconscious in the lodge cellar. The coronation is a success, but Rudolf unwittingly falls in love with the king's intended, Princess Flavia, who, upon finding him a reformed man, loves him for the first time. Colonel Zapt, determined to make the real king an honorable man, returns to the lodge and finds Josef, a loyal servant, dead and the king missing. Rupert of Hentzau, a courtier, is seemingly in league with Michael, but is really after the king's mistress, Lady Antoinette. As part of Michael's scheme to murder Rudolf and bury him as the king, Rupert blackmails Rudolf into meeting him alone, demanding ransom money for the king's return. Rudolf goes to Antoinette's room at the castle and she offers to help him if the king's men let Michael live. She then gives Rudolf an earring and tells him to watch for a messenger bearing its match, and he escapes. Michael and Rupert then have the king moved to Zenda Castle, where they keep him in chains. After Rupert tries to bribe Rudolf into keeping the kingdom for the two of them, Michael tries to force the king to write an abdication, but he refuses. Antoinette's messenger arrives with plans for Rudolf to swim across the moat to Antoinette's room that night. Because the king will be killed at first alarm, Rudolf must fight the guards and rescue the king before the drawbridge is lowered for Colonel Zapt's approaching army. The plan works until Rupert, seeing Antoinette's door open, enters and kisses her. When Michael walks in on them, he and Rupert fight and Rupert stabs him. Antoinette then confesses her scheme to save the king and Rupert kills the messenger as he tries to lower the drawbridge. Rudolf then kills the guards who are about to kill the king and, following a sword fight with Rupert, slices the drawbridge rope. When the troops storm the castle, Rupert dives into the moat. The king lives and is now kind-hearted and sober. Crediting Rudolf with teaching him how to be a ruler, the king wants to exonerate his cousin, but Zapt insists on keeping the double identity a secret to all but Flavia. When she and Rudolf meet again, they swear their love and she nearly gives up the throne to be with him, but, with the words "honor binds a woman, too" chooses to forfeit her love for Rudolf and become Ruritania's queen.

Photo Collections

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) - Lobby Cards
Here are a few Lobby Cards from The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), starring Ronald Colman. Lobby Cards were 11" x 14" posters that came in sets of 8. As the name implies, they were most often displayed in movie theater lobbies, to advertise current or coming attractions.

Videos

Movie Clip

Trailer

Hosted Intro

Film Details

Genre
Drama
Adventure
Period
Adaptation
Classic Hollywood
Release Date
Sep 3, 1937
Premiere Information
World premiere in New York, 2 Sep 1937; Los Angeles opening: 6 Oct 1937
Production Company
Selznick International Pictures, Inc.
Distribution Company
United Artists Corp.
Country
United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope (London, May 1894) and play The Prisoner of Zenda by Edward E. Rose (London, 7 Jan 1896).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 41m
Sound
Mono (Western Electric Noiseless Recording)
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
12 reels

Award Nominations

Best Art Direction

1937

Best Score

1937

Articles

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 fiancée, 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
The Prisoner Of Zenda (1937)

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 fiancée, 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

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

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

Quotes

Fate doesn't always make the right men kings.
- Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim
I see you want to let the drawbridge down. I just killed a man for that.
- Rupert of Hentzau
An unarmed man.
- Rudolph Rassendyll
Of course!
- Rupert of Hentzau
Someone once called fidelity a fading woman's greatest defense and a charming woman's greatest hypocracy. And you're very charming. And Michael's very busy and likely to be more so.
- Rupert of Hentzau

Trivia

MGM planned to make a musical version with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, and with music by 'Rodgers, Richard' and Lorenz Hart, but it was never produced.

As a publicity stunt, publicity chief Russell Birdwell flew from Zenda, Ontario, Canada (named for the fictional kingdom) along with 12 residents, to the New York world premiere. He also had the mayor of Los Angeles start a fencing tournament.

The play made from the novel opened in London on 7 January 1896.

This film was selected to the National Film Registry, Library of Congress, in 1991.

When Mary Astor leaves the dungeon after caring for the imprisoned king, Rupert bows to her and quotes a poem. It's an abbreviated version from Sir Walter Scott. "O woman! in our hours of ease Uncertain, coy, and hard to please, And variable as the shade By the light quivering aspen made; When pain and anguish wring the brow, A ministering angel thou!"

Notes

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.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States 1937

Based on the novel "The Prisoner of Zenda" written by Anthony Hope and published in 1894.

Selected in 1991 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.

Released in United States 1937