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.

Watching With Warner: THE SEA HAWK (1924)

Thanks to my recent participation in the Russia in Classic Film Blogathon hosted by Fritzi of Movies Silently fame, I have been bitten by the silent film bug.  Before this my experience with silent films was more towards Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, but thanks to suggestions from Fritzi herself (yes, she is real!) I have been taking a look at some more serious offerings.  And so when I saw a post about THE SEA HAWK, I knew that this was a movie that I needed to check out.

Chances are that if you have seen THE SEA HAWK you most likely saw the 1940 version with Errol Flynn.  This offering from director Frank Lloyd, who would go one to direct MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, too often is relegated to an afterthought or a bit of historical background.  That is a shame because this film not only adheres more closely to the original story of THE SEA HAWK, but also is just as exciting and full of buckles to be swashed as the later version.  Not only that but there are some spectacular full-sized ships used in thrilling ship to ship battles, the footage of which was re-used at Warner Brothers for years to come.

In the quiet Cornwall countryside, Sir Oliver Tressilian (Milton Sills) is enjoying his retirement thanks to a commendation from Queen Elizabeth I.  As one of her majesty’s privateers, Oliver was part of the fight that finally defeated the Spanish Armada and is now planning on marrying his sweetheart.  His intended is Rosamond Godolphin (Enid Bennett), the sister of Peter Godolphin (Wallace Mac Donald) and under the guardianship of Sir John Killigrew (Mark MacDermott).  Unfortunately for Olivier, John Killigrew is none too pleased with the notion of the fair Rosamond marrying, as he words it, a pirate!  He has sent Peter over to tell Oliver just that but Oliver, taking offense at being called a pirate, storms off to speak with John himself.  However, Oliver’s idea of talking is to challenge John to a duel and promptly slice him to ribbons.  He considers this letting John off with a warning and is about to leave when Rosamond appears.  When Oliver tries to explain that he was defending his besmirched honor, as if thrashing a man with a sword disproves the point of him being a ruthless pirate, Rosamond pleads with him to come to her the next time he wishes to use his sword in anger.  Not wanting to hurt Rosamond, Oliver agrees and the couple embrace.

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Oliver and Rosamond are happy for a time, until their respective brothers begin to make trouble.  It seems like Oliver’s half-brother Lionel (Lloyd Hughes) and Rosamond’s brother Peter are both enamored of the same woman.  She is a matron whose, as the intertitles describe, “conscience is elastic and husband is – old” so naturally she has no problem stringing both men along.  This is fine for a little while but then a half drunk Peter discovers Lionel embracing his lady-love and storms off in a huff.  Lionel is also angry at having been played for a fool and breaks things off with the matron, who is left alone and wondering what happened to all her pretty young men?  Peter rides into town and begins horse whipping Oliver, demanding that he send Lionel to him.  Oliver is quite understandably less than pleased with this and rides off after Peter, intent on giving him a thrashing of his own.  But partway out-of-town Oliver remembers Rosamond’s words and turns his horse’s head back to the way he came.  Some time later Peter finds Lionel and provokes him into a fight, which in turn leads to Lionel killing Peter in self-defense.  Horrified at what he has done and bleeding from his wounds, Peter gathers his things and hurries back to Oliver’s house where his brother is wondering what has become of him.  Lionel confesses what has happened but worries because no one saw the fight that he will be convicted of murder.  Oliver promises to help his brother and to protect him.

Morning dawns and with it comes the discovery of Peter’s body.  Worse yet, the ugly rumor is circulating that Oliver is the one that killed him and that rumor has reached Rosamond.  It seems that a trail of blood lead from the corpse back to Oliver’s front door and Rosamond is convinced that the man she loves has killed her brother.  Oliver is hurt that Rosamond could believe such a thing of him, especially since she asked him to promise to come to her before acting in haste.  However, he has a plan to prove his innocence and asks the local justice to come and inspect his body for fresh wounds.  When none are found the justice makes out an affidavit which will prove Oliver’s innocence in the crime.  But as Oliver seems calmer and calmer in the face of these accusations, Lionel seems more and more panicked.  He is afraid that by proving his innocence Oliver will end up casting blame on him.  But if Oliver were to disappear…

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Lionel makes his way to a local pub and meets with Captain Jasper Leigh (Wallace Beery) of the Sparrow, and offers him a great deal of money (and a jeweled ring) to shanghai his dear brother.  Jasper does just that and when they are far enough out to sea he sends for Oliver.  Taking off his chains Jasper presents Oliver with a proposition.  Pay him a lot of money and he will deposit him safely back on English shores.  Oliver demands to know who betrayed him and is horrified to learn that it is his own brother who has done the deed.  Promising to pay Jasper double, Oliver is ready to storm out onto the deck when a call comes out that a Spanish ship is bearing down on them.  Outmatched and outgunned, the tiny Sparrow and her crew have no choice but to surrender.  Now a prisoner of Spain, Oliver finds himself chained to an oar and lashed daily.  Six months pass and Oliver has become hardened of both mind and body, disillusioned by the un-Christian attitudes of the Spanish.

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Oliver’s oar-mate is Yusuf (Albert Prisco), an Algerian of some prominence and nephew of Asad-ed-Din, the Basha of Algiers (Frank Currier) a famed corsair.  It just so happens that Yusuf’s uncle is right around the bend and the Spanish ship is soon under attack.  The Algerians defeat the Spanish, but Yusuf is killed in the action.  Disgusted by the cruel treatment of the Spanish, Oliver joins Asad-ed-Din’s forces and soon becomes one of the most feared pirates, called The Sea Hawk.  After many years of sailing and defeating Spanish ships, The Sea Hawk and his crew happen upon The Sparrow and take her and her crew prisoner.  Down in the hold they discover Jasper, a prisoner of Spain all this time.  Oliver takes this chance to get a message back to England using Jasper as courier.

After first retrieving the affidavit from its hiding place in Oliver’s estate, Jasper goes to see Rosamond.  He attempts to present the documents to her but Rosamond, ever forgiving and level-headed, throws them into the fire unread.  Jasper accuses Lionel of being the one who killed Peter but is thrown out on his ear for his trouble.  Jasper returns Oliver and delivers the bad news with one addition.  Rosamond and Lionel will be married within the month.  Jasper decides that with crew, his ship, and his new set of skills, it is time to return to England and settle old scores.  First stop will be the wedding of Lionel and Rosamond because who doesn’t love a wedding crasher?

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I really enjoyed this film and found myself caught up in the action.  The sea battles are worthy of anything made today, and are actually all the more impressive for the lack of CGI and the use of real full-sized ships.  The story itself is exciting and thrilling with only a few moments that tend to lag a bit.  For me, the love story was a little bit like an afterthought in some places and there was a moment or two where I wondered how much Rosamond could care for Oliver if she was so willing to believe the worst of him?  What ever happened to stand by your man?  Still, Enid Bennett is quite lovely and give a good performance as the lady love though perhaps she could have used a few more scenes to flesh out her character?  She and Milton Stills have a good chemistry which makes her inner turmoil of whether or not to completely hate Oliver more believable.

There is also a nice examination of culture and character, the pious Spanish and English often coming off as judgmental and cruel, while the Algerians are shown with little stereotyping and as throughly devout.  It is a good backdrop in which to question the truth of men’s characters and ambitions.  Being made in 1924 you can almost feel the excitement of the filmmakers in the chance to portray such exotic and foreign places, as well as historical times.  The costumes and scenery are lush and beautifully done, looking far more authentic than many films made today.

This is my first time seeing Milton Sills and I am now a full-fledged fan, happily inducted into the club thanks to Fritzi.  He plays the part of Oliver as a man of conflicts but also with heart and passion.  He flip-flops between loyalties and cultures without coming off as wishy-washy or indecisive.  The character of Sir Oliver Tressilian is one of a man of differences that are each fighting to find their place in his character.  Is he a pirate or a gentleman?  A warrior or a lord?  A lover or a man bent on revenge?  With everything that happens to him you can’t help but sympathize with his constantly shifting perspectives and loyalties, after all how can he be expected to settle on one thing or another when everything he holds dear and trusts in is taken away when he needs it most?  Milton Sills is not a name that is terribly well-known today which is a shame because he is such a terrific actor.  His pure energy comes out of the screen and carries us along, veering expertly between a hero and a villain.  Yes, there are some moments of overly emotional acting but those are few and far between, and for the most part Sills puts on a performance that made me want to see more of his films.  Unfortunately, Sills died at the early age of forty-eight of a heart attack, and very few of his films have survived and made the transition to home video.  The Warner Archive has done a great job in restoring THE SEA HAWK and added a terrific score to go along with it, making it a perfect introduction to an actor who deserves to be seen by a much wider audience.