The Swashathon: THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937)

This post is part of The Swashathon hosted by Fritzi of Movies Silently.  Buckle your swashes and check out all the other posts here!

I love a good swashbuckler.  When I want to sit back, pop some popcorn, and have a darn good time, no Marvel blow-em-up for me thanks I will take Errol Flynn and his acts of daring do.  Now having said that, the name Ronald Colman does not immediately strike one as being a natural leading man in a swashbuckler.  But in 1937 with THE PRISONER OF ZENDA he became just that.

In some picturesque country far off in the Balkans, Rudolf Rassendyll (Ronald Colman) is having a very strange time with the locals.  The British tourist is finding that wherever he goes people keep giving him odd looks and are unable to form words correctly.  He goes off to enjoy his fishing trip leaving the local inhabitants behind.  While relaxing by a stream he runs into two well-dressed men.  Colonel Zapt (C. Aubrey Smith) and Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim (David Niven) are on a hunting trip with the almost king, Rudolf V (Ronald Colman).  Zapt and von Tarlenheim are slightly startled by Rassendyll’s appearance but they are more amused than anything.  It soon becomes clear why when Rudolph V shows up.  He and Rassendyll look identical, most likely thanks to a dalliance between two distant relatives.  Rassendyl and Rudolph take a liking to each other and the group goes off to a nearby hunting lodge for some dinner and drinks.

The party lasts late into the night.  Rudolph proceeds to drink everyone else under the table.  When Zapt suggests that he might want to slow things down, especially since he has his own coronation to attend in the morning, Rudolph responds by slapping him in the face.  Clearly Rudolph is a great guy.  Zapt excuses himself and Rudolph is left alone.  A servant enters with a bottle of wine that has been sent by his half brother “Black Michael,” Duke of Streslau and Lord of Zenda Castle (Raymond Massey) which Rudolph partakes from.  The next morning Rassendyl awakes to a bucket of cold water in his face from Zapt.  Annoyed at first, Rassendyl is startled to find that Rudolph has been drugged by Michael.  If Rudolph is not in attendance at his coronation this afternoon not only will he not become king, but Michael will use this as an excuse to seize the throne for himself.  There is only one thing to do…Rassendyl must impersonate Rudolph and take his place in the coronation.

Meanwhile, Michael is already drawing up the needed paperwork to have Rudolph removed from power.  While this might seem a tad bit premature to some, to Michael this is simply prudent planning.  Everyone is quite cheerful at the prospect of their evil plan succeeding except for Michael’s French mistress Antoinette de Mauban (Mary Astor).  Antoinette wants Michael to be happy of course but really she is hoping that Michael will give up the throne and settle down with her (yeah, I don’t think it is going to happen either).  She is making her case for this bright future when Rupert of Hentzau (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) enters the room.  He has some delightfully off hand remarks for Michael, who quickly takes his leave of his favorite henchmen, and some scathingly risqué ones for Antoinette.

Back onboard the royal train, Rassendyl is practicing his speech for the coronation.  He must make sure to get everything exactly right or the jig will be up, as they say.  The ceremony goes off without a hitch, though not without a few tense moments, and Rassendyl gets to meet Rudolph’s cousin and fiancee, Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll).  Flavia never liked Rudolph because, let’s face it, he was always sort of a jerk.  But now she finds him much changed and all for the better.  The two begin spending time together and love begins to blossom.  But alas things must be cut short as Rassendyl has done his job, and with the coronation a success he travels back to the hunting lodge with Zapt to retrieve the true king.  Upon arriving however they find the lights off and the servant left to guard the king, murdered.  And Rudolph?  He has been kidnapped by Rupert and been stolen away into the night.

There is no film quite like this version of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA.  It is a perfect alignment of the stars (literally and figuratively) allowing for true movie magic to occur.  Just take a gander at these names…Ronald Colman, Madeline Carroll, David Niven, Raymond Massey, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Mary Astor, and David O. Selznick.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

The story of The Prisoner of Zenda had been around for many years before this film was made.  Of note, when the play based on the 1894 book by Anthony Hope was first put on in 1896, C. Aubrey Smith played the dual lead roles.  The play had been a great success for many years and while several film versions were made this is considered to be the definitive one.  The shoot was not an easy one for director John Cromwell.  He had trouble with everything from David Niven and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s late nights on the town, Ronald Colman’s lack of knowledge when it came to his own lines, and Colman and Madeline Carroll’s insistence of being only shot from their “good sides”…which were both the same.  George Cukor actually stepped in to shoot some scenes when Cromwell became too frustrated.  In spite of any issues during filming, THE PRISONER OF ZENDA is one of the best romantic swashbucklers around.

If I’m honest I think that the thing that makes THE PRISONER OF ZENDA so special is Ronald Colman.  For a start there is his voice, which I would quite happy listen to for hours.  He could say anything and it would sound fabulous.  Luckily for all of us he also happens to be reciting some intelligent and witty dialogue.  Ronald Colman brings a quality to Rudolph/Rassendyl that is equal parts nobility and amusement.  As Rassendyl he seems to be having the time of his life pretending to be king while at the same time, gravely aware of the importance of what he is doing.  When he must devise a plan to save the true king, Rassendyl swings into action with the cunning and strategic mind of a general without a moment’s hesitation.  In Rudolph, Colman finds not only the tempestuous man-child who has never been told no but also the humble contrition of a man shown the error of his ways.  Only Ronald Colman could create two men of such dignity and honor with such different moral centers while still making them likable people.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. initially wanted to play the lead role but when he received the role of Rupert instead, he was told by his father that “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”  Douglas Fairbanks Sr. helped his son when it came to billing and costume, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. took his father’s advice.  His portrayal of Rupert is one of the best parts of the movie.  Rupert is a man who is only in it for himself.  He switches loyalty quickly and often, throws witty quips and punches, and has absolutely no problem flirting with his boss’s girlfriend.  Where Raymond Massey’s “Black Michael” is a villain in the most traditional sense, Rupert is a man of few scruples and even fewer alliances.  He is his own man and it is beyond delightful to watch him duck and weave his way through the story.

THE PRISONER OF ZENDA has been called a “splendid schoolboy adventure story”.  This is a perfect description of not only this movie but also any great swashbuckler.  Swashbucklers are not subtle or full of nuance, they are bold, brash, and exciting.  Swashbucklers speak to a part of us that still wants to go out in the backyard and climb trees with sticks/swords in hand.  That part of us that is still twelve years old and seeing the world through wide and curious eyes, the part of us that still believes that we can be heroes and heroines and go on grand adventures.


The Universal Blogathon: OH, DOCTOR! (1925)

This post is part of the Universal Blogathon hosted by Silver Scenes.  Be sure to check out the other entries here!

Wrapping up my month of silents comes a quirky and thoroughly entertaining comedy from Universal starring Reginald Denny and Mary Astor!

Rufus Billop (Reginald Denny) was born with a thermometer in his mouth and a bottle of medication in his hand.  That is to say that dear old Rufus was a wee bit frail when he was born, so much so that he had to spend some time in an incubator when he was an infant, and though he survived the experience left him a hopeless hypochondriac.  Matters weren’t helped much by the fact that pretty much everyone in his family fed his delusions, all except for his Aunt Beulah (Lucille Ward).  Rufus has now grown up into a man dominated by his neurosis and is stuck living with Aunt Beulah because he has outlived every other member of his family.  For her part, Aunt Beulah is under the impression that all Rufus needs is some red meat and a visit from a twelve foot tall lady osteopath.

Rufus prefers the company of other, more conventional doctors.  He is visited by one such doctor, Doctor Seaver (Clarence Geldart), who realizes at once that Rufus is far healthier than he thinks he is.  Dr. Seaver becomes much more interested when he hears about Rufus’ financial prospects.  Although Rufus has no money of his own at present, he stands to inherit $750,000 as long as he stays alive for the next three years.  While Rufus is certain that he will be dead long before that ever happens, Dr. Seaver convinces him to take out a loan against his inheritance so that he can spend the money to have his final months spent in the comfort that any dying man might wish.  As luck would have it, Dr. Seaver also knows just the fellows who would be willing to take on this deal!

Mr. Clinch, Mr. McIntosh and Mr. Peck (Otis Harlan, William V. Mong and Tom Ricketts) are willing to loan Rufus $100,000 in exchange for the rights to his inheritance.  After an extensive medical examination Rufus is declared an absolutely healthy hypochondriac and therefore a completely risk-free investment.  Rufus is touched that these men are willing to help make him comfortable in what he is sure are his final days.  After receiving the money, Rufus sets about creating an oasis of hypochondriacal desires, complete with his own personal nurse.  When Clinch, McIntosh, and Peck go to visit him they find Rufus apparently at death’s door having been ushered closer to there by his nurse, Death Watch Mary (Martha Mattox).  In a panic that their meal ticket might be punched too early, the three men rush off to Dr. Seaver who prescribes a change of scenery for Rufus.

The change of scenery comes in the form of a new nurse named Dolores (Mary Astor).  Dolores is not only young and pretty, but she also believes in sunshine, fresh air, and not paying Rufus any mind.  Rufus does indeed sit up and take notice of Dolores and decides to take a good hard look at himself.  What he sees is not impressive and Rufus is determined to make himself into a new man.  He will become a man who, to quote his pretty young maid (Helen Lynch), is “not afraid of nothing!”

Rufus’ new life begins with pork chops.  From there it is a short leap to new clothes, a new car, a new driver, and some snappy dance moves.  Of course Rufus begins to take things too far and does things like crashing a motorcycle, driving his car on the wrong side of a racetrack during a race, and begins reading up on deep sea diving, aviation, and steeplejack tricks.  This new found lust for life is shortening the collective lives of Clinch, McIntosh, and Peck.  If Rufus gets himself killed they won’t get their money!  The only person he listens to is Dolores, whom he has taken a particular fancy to, so the three men go off to enlist her help.  Dolores however has caught on to their scheme and has been coming up with one of her own to save Rufus from himself, as well as Clinch, McIntosh, and Peck.

Reginal Denny is one of those actors who I know from sight but not by name.  But I know him like this…

Not like this…

So imagine my surprise when I realized that the man who I knew from MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE was the same man crashing a motorcycle in OH, DOCTOR!  Denny was an Englishman and a WWI veteran of the Royal Flying Corps who made a name for himself in silent film by playing the “All-American” guy in comedy films.  I have to say that I found his brand of humor quite refreshing.  While the comedy stylings of Keaton, Lloyd, and Chaplin can sometimes be a little out there when it comes to gag set ups, OH, DOCTOR! features comedy based on real life situations.  Rufus is goofy and quirky certainly but he is goofy and quirky in the realm of reality.  As a nurse I can’t tell you how many of these moments reminded me of patients, and family members, that I had encountered over the years.  I loved the parts when Dolores is practically, and sometimes literally, rolling her eyes at Rufus.  I could completely sympathize.

I was first introduced to Mary Astor via THE PALM BEACH STORY.  Seeing her run circles around Rudy Vallee, Joel McCrea, and “Toto” made me sit up and take notice of this dynamic woman.  I had no idea that she had a career in silent film prior to watching this film and let me say she is just as “sit up and take notice” as ever, which is even more impressive given the fact that she was only eighteen when this film was made. As an aside, can I ask why teenagers in classic/silent films are always twenty times more sophisticated than I ever was at that age?

Anyway, Dolores is fantastic.  Her moments with Rufus when she is first dealing with his neurosis are hysterical, especially to any healthcare professionals who will know exactly where she is coming from.  Not only that but she is also a genuinely smart person.  Sure she likes Rufus and dresses up in a pretty dress to impress him, but she also very quickly gets a read on his situation and figures out a way to deal with it.  No running off to Rufus for help, no soppy weeping for mercy at the feet of Clinch, McIntosh, and Peck.  Dolores, like Rufus and his comedy, feels very rooted in reality and it makes her an even more enjoyable character as a result.

I was classify OH, DOCTOR! as a charming comedy.  It is different than most silent era comedies but is just as funny.  It also has a wealth of great character actors who are all serving up their A-games.  This was one of those films where I enjoyed the supporting cast just as much as the main characters.  The only sour note in the film would have to be the racially sterotyped intertitles given to the Chinese gardener, Chang (George Kuwa).  While this was typical of the time, although it was rare that an Asian character would be played by an Asian actor, it is still a bit jarring in practice.  Luckily it is only a few instances and not enough to ruin what is otherwise a really fun film that is deserving of a good deal more attention.  Don’t worry, I won’t make any jokes about it being just what the doctor ordered.  Even though it is.

Fritz of Movies Silently is the one who introduced this film to me through her great review which can be found here.