Monday, January 4, 2016

Ronald Duels

We aren't quite done with swashbucklers, as our film for this week is The Prisoner of Zenda (1937).  Ronald Colman plays Major Rudolf Rassendyll, an English officer on a fishing trip to Ruritania, when he meets Colonel Zapt (C. Aubrey Smith) and Fritz von Tarlenheim (David Niven).  Both are flabbergasted at Rassendyll's resemblance to King Rudolf V (also played by Colman); Rassendyll, it turns out, is descended from the Ruritania royalty on the wrong side of the blanket.  The King is also amused at the resemblance, and invites Rassendyll to his palace for a night of conversation and drinking, at the end of which, the Rassendyll, Zapt and von Tarlenheim discover the King unconscious, his wine drugged by servants in the pay of his half-brother, Black Michael  (Raymond Massey).  With the King's coronation scheduled for that afternoon, Zapt convinces Rassendyll to step in for the King, for if King Rudolf doesn't show up, Michael will stage a coup to take over the goverment.  Reluctantly, Rassendyll agrees, only to discover that Michael and his henchman Rupert of Hentzau (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) are all too quickly aware of the masquerade, and kidnap the King from his vacation palace.  Add to the problems - Rassendyll has fallen head over heels in love with the Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll), Rudolf's betrothed.  

With an absolutely magnificent cast, this is a film that is not be missed.  Colman creates distinctive personalities in the characters of King Rudolf and Rassendyll (and given he has very little to work with when it come to the King - who we barely see - it is all the more exceptional).  With his fantastic voice and his engaging personality, it is quite clear why Flavia would fall for him almost instantly, even when she thinks he is the King (who she dislikes).

His equal is Douglas Fairbanks, Jr as the arch-villain Rupert of Hentzau.  Fairbanks gives him a sparkle that makes him attractive and treacherous at the same time.  When the film was remade in 1952, James Mason took over the role; while Mason had the evil down perfectly, he just doesn't have the charm that Fairbanks does in the role.  That little twinkle in his eyes, as he performs his nefarious deeds is the difference.  Interestingly, Fairbanks badly wanted the lead role, and almost turned down the part of Rupert when that was offered instead.  His father, Douglas Sr, is the one who talked him into doing it - he told him the character was "witty, irresistible, and as sly as Iago".  That the part was "so actor-proof... that Rin Tin Tin could play the part and walk away with it!", we are inclined to disagree (in our opinions, Mason didn't walk away with it!).  It's proof of the talent of Fairbanks, Jr. that he could make you look away from Colman on occasion.   (This TCM article goes into more detail on the history of the film).
With actors like Mary Astor (as Michael's lover, Antoinette de Mauban), David Niven and Madeleine Carroll in the film, even the small parts are performed by experts.  Niven, who had started in films in 1932, primarily in unbilled parts, was about to become a star.  By 1939, he was the second lead in Wuthering Heights and starred (with Ginger Rogers) in Bachelor Mother.  A versatile actor, noted for his wit (if you've never read his autobiography, The Moon's A Balloon, you owe yourself a treat - many stories of him and Errol Flynn and their bachelor pad are included), Niven was highly regarded in the Hollywood community; in his article for Niven's Star of the Month turn on TCM, Robert Osborne recalled being at an event where a group was laughing at someone's tales.  Mr. Osborne surreptitiously wandered over, to discover Mr. Niven regaling the table with stories.  Mr. Niven married twice - he was widowed when Primula Rollo died after falling down a flight of stairs during a game of hide and seek.  Two years later, he wed Hjördis Tersmeden, and though they were together until his death in 1983 of ALS, it was allegedly not a happy marriage (Niven's close friends Roger Moore and Robert Wagner actively disliked her).  Niven served in the British Army during the Second World War, returning home from America when war broke out.  This hiatus had little effect on his career - he returned from military duty to make such excellent films as A Matter of Life and Death (1946), The Bishop's Wife (1947), and his Oscar-winning turn in Separate Tables (1958).
Madeleine Carroll is probably one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood history, but not only is she lovely, she is a strong, intelligent, and talented actress.  You believe that Princess Flavia could lead a nation, thanks to Ms. Carroll's strength of character.  After appearing in two Hitchcock films (his earliest "cool blonde") in Great Britain, Ms. Carroll came to America to appear in this film and The General Died at Dawn.  The parts she was given were uneven in quality, and she left filmwork in 1949.  She continued for a few years more in television (appearing, for example, in a Robert Montgomery Presents of "The Letter" in 1950).  She also appeared on Broadway in Goodbye, My Fancy, in the role Joan Crawford would assume on screen).  She also worked on film production aimed at promoting "better understanding among the peoples of the world".  He efforts also helped to raise money for an orphanage housing children injured in France during World War II.  She died in 1987, at age 81.

The film that we see today did change from the original concept.  It seems there was a prologue and an epilogue that were filmed and never used.  The film would have opened with the much older Rassendyll recounting the story of his adventures in Ruritania, now many years in the past.  As the film ended, he would have learned of the death of Princess Flavia.  Interestingly, this differs from the sequel written by Anthony Hope, entitled Rupert of Hentzau, in which Flavia become Queen after the deaths of King Rudolf and Rassendyll.

We'll close with the fencing scene from the end of the film.  According to the AFI Catalog, David O. Selznick was not satisfied with the scenes originally filmed by John Cromwell and brought in W.S. Van Dyke to reshoot them.  The fencing, as you will see, is excellent:


  1. I am sad to admit that, though Ronald's version is great, the other version with Stewart Granger gets my vote...should there ever be a contest. I don't even care for Granger that much! The thing is, Granger actually fought with his sword in his version, while Colman (one of my acting heroes) was mostly in tight closeups of his face, wiggling his shoulders, or in long shots of his much-more-fit stuntman! In a swashbuckler, the sword is king; that's why The Mark of Zorro is still the has the best fights! :)

    I was never so sad as when that conclusion became necessary!

    Clayton @ Phantom Empires

  2. I agree with you that Colman is an unconvincing fencer - but Fairbanks Jr can cut a lovely swash. I think, in the long run, for me, it is the combination of Colman and Fairbanks (without their swords) that makes this my preferred film. But, viva la difference!


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