Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Mary Astor Blogathon: The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)

“Toward the close of the last century, when History still wore a Rose, and Politics had not yet outgrown the waltz, a great Royal Scandal was whispered about in the Anterooms of Europe. However true it was, any resemblance in ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’ to Heroes, Villains, Heroines, living or dead, is coincidence not intended.”

Thus begins “The Prisoner of Zenda” (1937), one of the genuine jewels from Hollywood’s Golden Age, a marvelous entertainment on every level and one of the greatest romantic swashbucklers ever made. It offers several career-best performances, luscious black and white photography, wonderful costumes, a glorious Alfred Newman score and a truly literate and witty screenplay. “The Prisoner of Zenda” is one of those happy instances where all the right people were in the right place at the right time. Above all, it could be one of the most perfectly cast movies ever.

Some movies take a bit to warm up to. With others, it’s apparent from the very start that something magical is about to take place. “The Prisoner of Zenda” is the latter. With its scene of a row of immaculately dressed trumpeters shown onscreen playing a thrilling Alfred Newman fanfare, and an honor roll of a cast – Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll, C. Aubrey Smith, Raymond Massey, Mary Astor, David Niven and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., all appearing in a story “From the celebrated novel by Anthony Hope” I was hooked.

And when that aforementioned title card comes up right after the credits, one is ready to sit back and enjoy.

“The Prisoner of Zenda” tells the oft-filmed story of Rudolf Rassendyll, an Englishman on a fishing vacation in the mythical Central European kingdom of Ruritania. He’s an identical double for the king (and distant cousin) Rudolph V, about to be crowned the next day. When the fast-living king is drugged on the eve of his coronation, Rassendyll agrees to take his place at the coronation until the king can be revived. Immediate suspects to the drugging are the king’s power hungry half brother Michael (Raymond Massey) and his henchman Rupert of Hentzau (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., in the performance of his career).

Rassendyll falls in love with the king’s betrothed Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll), and she with him. She can’t get over the change to the man she formerly despised. When the king is kidnapped, Rassendyll continues the charade until the king can be found and restored to the throne.


So where does Mary Astor fit into all of this? She plays Antoinette de Mauban, the mistress of Michael. Hers is probably the most nuanced, and adult, portrayal in the movie. This is not meant as a slight to the other cast members. Everyone is at the top of their game. But Antoinette’s character centers the movie with real emotion. She genuinely loves Michael and thinks he is in love with her. But Rupert knows everyone’s Achilles Heel and he zeroes in on hers, which is Michael.

Rupert taunts her, telling her that as king, Michael will have to marry Flavia. If she thinks Michael will renounce Flavia and marry his mistress, does she have a surprise in store for her. Astor reacts marvelously in these scenes. One can almost see the yearning, hope and crushing realization crossing her face all at the same time.

She’s probably the most adult character in the film, giving the film an edge that plays against, but well, with the story’s more swashbuckling fantasy element. It’s not a large role, but it is a key one.

“The Prisoner of Zenda” offers my favorite Ronald Colman performance. 1937 was a great year for Colman with this and his other signature role in “Lost Horizon.” But the essence of Colman’s popularity is here. The beautiful speaking voice, the courtly manners, the wit and the style are all there. He’s fairly mature for a swashbuckling hero, but no one can charm like Ronald Colman. And that voice! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If there’s such a thing as reincarnation, I want to come back as Ronald Colman’s speaking voice.


I love his expression when he’s listening to Rupert’s plans to do away with everyone else and only leave the two of them standing. Rupert calls Rassendyll “the play actor” and tells him “You and I are the only ones worth saving” out of the whole mess. Rassendyll is as amused by Rupert’s plotting as Rupert is in hatching it.

The other great performance is Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s Rupert. It’s a joy to see him in every scene. Despite committing several murders on-screen and  ready to break a promise to not kill Rassendyll (as he holds a gun in his hand), he’s the most charming rogue and villain in swashbuckling movie history. The man gleefully grins from ear to ear at his own nefarious plots. He actually gets away at the end, and I for one am ready to cheer when he does so. I never felt that way about Basil Rathbone, George Sanders or George Macready in their costume villainous portrayals. Bur Fairbanks trumps all of them.  

(And for the life I can’t figure out how this got past the Hays Office. Censorship mores at the time demanded the villain be properly punished for his deeds at the end, but here Rupert gets off scot-free. Methinks he charmed the censors as much as he charms the audience. Author Hope did write a sequel called “Rupert of Hentzau” but when did a little thing like that ever affect the Hays Office.)

Fairbanks was initially reluctant to take on the role, due to its supporting nature. His famous father told him to can it, Rupert was the best role in the story and he would be a fool to forsake it. He thankfully took his dad’s advice. One does regret he didn’t do more roles like this. He should have received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor and he should have won that year.

James Wong Howe’s photography can’t be beat. The film boasts one of the most famous pull backs in movie history, as the Rassendyll and Princess Flavia make their first appearance at the coronation ball. The shot stars in on a close up and then pulls back the length of the ballroom as the two descend down the stairs and past a long row of bowing subjects.


The later castle dungeon scenes are marvelously evocative, with lighting from nearby a fireplace and flickering candles highlighting the final action as Rasendyll sneaks into the castle to save the king before he can be killed. The black and white contrast scenes are marvelous to behold and some of the scenes are gorgeous enough to frame. If Ansel Adams ever decided to photograph swashbuckling action in a castle, his scenes would look like something out of “The Prisoner of Zenda.”  

Madeleine Carroll makes just about the loveliest princess imaginable. Not just physical beauty (which Carroll most certainly has), but a warmth and generosity that makes her instantly appealing.

The film’s final scene between Flavia and Rassendyll is one of the greatest farewells in movie history and I think it’s every bit as good as the similar scene in “Casablanca.” (1942). After Flavia has been told who Rassendyll really is, she asks to see him. Rassendyll tell her that he has been an imposter in everything but his love for her and he invites her to throw away her cares and duties and follow him to England. She tells him she was born to those cares and duties and that honor binds a woman’s heart too, as much as any man. It’s beautifully played and written, and if “Casablanca” had never been made, I think this scene would win as the ultimate self-sacrifice scene in movie history.

Interestingly, it was a scene that came about amidst much controversy. The film was in production when Edward VIII elected to abdicate the English throne in order to marry the American socialite Wallis Simpson. No honor for Edward, and producer David O. Selznick was worried that this scene in “The Prisoner of Zenda” might be seen as a condemnation towards Edward. There was some talk about changing the ending, but wiser heads prevailed. (Still, one wonders if Edward had been allowed to keep the throne and marry Wallis Simpson, if Selznick would have done the same with Rudolf and Flavia).

Director John Cromwell stresses the film’s romantic aspects over the adventurous ones. Most of the action is confined to the castle raid, and the older Colman is clearly doubled in the long shots during the duel between Rassendyll and Rupert. The dialogue between the two as they parry and thrust is a delight. This is one swashbuckler where the words are more important than the action.

The film’s final goodbye scene between Rudolf, Col. Zapt and Fritz, backed by that glorious Alfred Newman music (with wordless chorus chiming in) and Rudolf riding away in the distance with a tip of his hat, is just about one of the greatest endings ever and never fails to bring a lump to my throat. Just glorious and wonderful in equal measures.


When looking at Mary Astor’s credits, I’m always impressed with her participation in several landmarks movies in their particular genres. In addition to Zenda, she graced two of the greatest private eye movies ever, one in the 1930s “The Kennel Murder Case” (1933) and one in the 1940s “The Maltese Falcon” (1941). Drama - her Academy Award-winning role in the splendid woman’s movie “The Great Lie” (1941). Musical – her warm mother portrayal in the immortal “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944). Comedy - roles in two of the greatest comedies ever made “Midnight” (1939) and in “The Palm Beach Story” (1942) (as the Princess Centimillia!)

“Dodsworth” (1936) is one of the finest literary adaptations ever, and “The Hurricane” (1937) ranks among the top disaster movies of all time, and the historically important “Don Juan” (1926), the first film to feature a synchronized score and sound effects impresses today with its wit, sweep and action.

Admittedly, Mary Astor may not be the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of these films. Undoubtedly though, she is an essential part of the success of these films, and one can’t imagine any of them without her participation.  She remains one of the most underrated figures from Hollywood’s Golden Age and if this Mary Astor blogathon attracts much deserved attention to her career, it will be a grand thing indeed.


To read more about this woman and her amazing career visit the Mary Astor blogathon page to see the schedule and what films are being covered.


Patti said...

Terrific write-up of a fantastic movie, Kevin. Well, maybe I should qualify that and say terrific write-up of a fantastic story, for I have never seen this particular movie. It's been in my DVR for months, but I just haven't had a chance to watch it. However, I do love the 1952 version of the is my favorite Stewart Granger film. (Jane Greer has Mary Astor's role in that one.)

It's such a great story. I definitely look forward to catching this version one of these days soon.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I love this movie and consider this version superior to others. Excellent review that brought back so many memories and emotions.

Caftan Woman said...

So ... you kinda like this movie, eh? I know how you feel. The lump in the throat, the tears in the eyes. The color re-make has a fine cast and apes the earlier film, but it doesn't have the same spark for me. There is only room in my heart for the '37 version. Oh, how I ache for a sequel with Rupert.

It is true that Astor brings a certain grounding, a certain heart crashing reality to her role. She triumphs.

Kevin Deany said...

Patti, it's not that the 1952 version, a virtual scene for scene remake, save for the final dueling sequence, is bad. It isn't. Far from it. I'd say its above average. But it can't hold a candle to the 1937 version, where everything and everyone in it is pitch perfect.

Jacqueline, it's my favorite too, but all the versions are good. TCM recently ran the 1922 silent version, and that's very entertaining. It seems to me a foolproof story, one very hard to mess up. I do admit though, I never saw the Peter Sellers comedy version.

CW, yeah I kinda love this movie. While there's no such thing as a perfect movie, this one comes pretty darn close.

DorianTB said...

Kevin, I've been wanting to catch up with the 1937 version of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA for years, ever since my dear late mom, an avid Ronald Colman fan among her many other lovable qualities, showed them to on TV back when I was a wee young'un. Combine that with lovely young Mary Astor, and you've got me eager to see it ASAP! I loved your quip "I want to come back as Ronald Colman's speaking voice." Who can blame you? :-) I also very much liked your description of James Wong Howe and Ansel Adams' black-and-white photography, too. Thanks very for joining our Mary Astor Blogathon fun!

Kevin Deany said...

Dorian, I hope you get the chance to see it one day. I think you would like it. And thanks to you and Ruth for co-hosting the Mary Astor Blogathon. I'm slowly making my way through all the entries after being off line for several days. There's some great reading to be had.

Silver Screenings said...

Beautifully done, Kevin. Strangely, I have only ever seen the middle of this movie, but your post reminds me that I need to make an effort to see the whole thing.

This is a wonderful tribute to Mary Astor: "Hers is probably the most nuanced, and adult, portrayal in the movie." Well said.

Thanks for participating in our blogathon!

Aubyn said...

So glad you chose to write about Zenda, Keven, since it's one of my very favorites. It's a testament to the greatness of this one that in 1952, Richard Thorpe basically just threw up his hands and copied it shot-for-shot in his remake.

Your comments about Mary Astor gave me plenty to think about. You're right that she gives a lot of real depth and sadness to a character with minimal development.

I agree with you that Fairbanks was eminently worthy of an Oscar for his performance here. And I also love that goodbye scene. Incredibly moving.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit, I'm not the biggest Ronald Colman fan, but your write-up makes me want to check this film out at some point.

Kevin Deany said...

SS, thanks for including me in the blogathon. Lots of good entries here. I hope you get to see the whole thing soon. The final two scenes are, for me, among the most memorable in movie history.

Aubyn, yeah the 1952 version is almost a shot for shot remake. Even Alfred Newman's score is re-used. The duel is longer and more lavish than the older one. Curiously, both films run 101 minutes so there must have been some trims to make room for the duel. As much as I like Stewart Granger and Debora Kerr, even with the same dialouge from the 1937 version, they don't inject the words with the poetry and emotion that Colman and Carroll do so effortlessly. Still, it's worth seeing.

Lipranzer, if "The Prisoner of Zenda" doesn't turn you into a Ronald Colman fan, then nothing will. I hope you get the chance to see it some day. Thanks for writing.

FlickChick said...

Kevin - what is not to like about this film? You are so right that Mary is "adult" - I think she always projected that quality.But it's hard not to kinda fall for Ms. Carroll.

Rick29 said...

Kevin, this is my favorite Mary Astor film (though I guess it's technically a Ronald Colman movie). The whole cast is delightful and I like your theory about Rupert charming the Hays Code folks. Well-written and insightful review. By the way, I also like Jane Greer in the role of Antoinette in the color remake.


I have only watched the 1979 version with Peter Sellers and, let me tell you, I've considered this 1937 film for my blogathon entry, but changed my mind. yet, I really want to see it!
I really agre that, even as a sometimes supporting character, Mary is an essential part of some film's successes.
Don't forget my contribution to the blogathon!

The Lady Eve said...

Kevin, "The Prisoner of Zenda" is a great favorite of mine, too, and I thoroughly enjoyed your enthusiastic - and insightful - review. Your reverence for Ronald Colman's voice reminded me of his daughter's description of it - she called it his "dream distant voice."

In one of her books, probably "A Life on Film," Mary Astor wrote that she preferred being a 'featured player' rather than a 'star.' Seemed to have to do with the fact that stars are expected to 'carry' a picture and she didn't care for that responsibility. Nevertheless, she added so much to so many films. And she co-starred with some of the biggest stars in movie history, from John Barrymore during the silent era to James Dean during TV's Golden Age.

Great piece!

Lasso The Movies said...

Your enthusiasm for this film is simply oozing out of my computer. I love it when someone feels so passionately about a film, especially when it isn't one that everyone has seen. Thanks for a great post and for sharing your love of "The Prisoner of Zenda" with us all.

Page said...

Did you know that Prisoner of Zenda is my favorite Coleman, Fairbanks Jr film and my favorite swashbuckling film? No? Ya do now. : )

You could have just posted screen grabs of Doug and Ronald and I would have been happy but since this is a celebrate about Mary. ha ha

While Madeleine was the star of the show here, Astor held her own. (I'm a huge Niven fan as well.) So she had her work cut out for her in this one. With that said, her resume with Don Q and Don Juan come to mind whenever I see her in this one. I always wonder if she reminisces while seeing Doug Jr light up the screen after getting to see, work with dad, the original swashbuckler in Zorro.

Anyway, enough reminiscing. I really enjoyed your review and reading your perspective on a film I'm quite fond of was a perfect addition to the Astor Blogathon

Have a great weekend, Kev!

Classicfilmboy said...

Excellent review of an excellent film. I haven't seen it in a while, but it's a great one. A good addition to the Mary Astor blogathon.

Kevin Deany said...

Thank you to everyone for writing.

FlickChick, you ask "What is not to like about this film?" I agree. It's a jewel.

Rick: I like Jane Greer in the remake too, but Mary Astor is heartbreaking her her small, but pivotal role.

Le: I hope you get to see it soon.

Eve: I loved your daughter's description of Ronald Colman's voice. So true. Interesting to read Mary's views on being a featured player. She made the right decision. Few actresses would have followed iconic femme fatale roles in "The Maltese Falcon" and "Across the Pacific" two years later with a warm turn as a mother of (almost grown) teenage daughters in "Meet Me in St. Louis."

Page: I've said it before and I'll say it again. you have excellent taste.

CFB: I hope you get to see it again soon. It gets better with each viewing.

Vienna said...

Thank you for great review of a film I love too, though I haven't seen it for years. I must seek it out. Colman and Carroll were perfect together . It had everything going for it, direction,photography and performances .
I never felt the same about the 50s remake which seemed a pale shadow compared to the original.

Vienna's Classic Hollywood

The Lady Eve said...

Hi Kevin, I wasn't very clear about that quote - it was Ronald Colman's daughter (in her biography of him) who called her dad's voice "dream distant."