“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.