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Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Classic Era Trips To Zenda

Three Ways To Do The Prisoner Of Zenda

The legendary NBC special on David Selznick from 1968 began with a pull-back of Ronald Colman (some day I will spell it "Coleman" just to be like everyone else) and Madeleine Carroll as they enter a grand ballroom in The Prisoner Of Zenda, narrator Henry Fonda calling it a moment to epitomize old Hollywood at a most grandiose. That highlight was all I could get of The Prisoner Of Zenda at the time, because no station in NC ran it by my searching eyes, and search I did through every week of TV GUIDE for years. How we take for granted treasure so readily had today. MGM bought Selznick's Zenda for a 1952 remake. His original went from there to diminuendo. It could be rented on 16mm non-theatrical from Films, Inc., but stayed elusive otherwise. Elders maintained the 1937 version was better than what Metro later did with Stewart Granger, but where was evidence for comparison? The newer Zenda was broadcast from early 60's onward, but syndication glossaries kept a "?" beside listings for the 1937 version. United Artists broke ice when they distributed the pre-48 MGM library, Zenda among those available by the late 70's. Since then, of course, TCM has righted the wrong, and there is a DVD that pairs 1937 and 1952 treatments. Preferred one has been loudly declared and agreed upon, personnel in '52 knowing theirs was but pale patch on Selznick's work, even as Technicolor splashed paint on the pageant.

I looked at the DOS version again recently. It begins slow, has to trudge thicket of exposition, but sails admirably once we're at court and deception of one Colman substituting for another. Here is also where Alfred Newman's splendid music really kicks in, a kind of sum-up score for what we love about a Classic Era. Selznick knew the property was old-fashioned, but trusted it, just as he had Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Garden Of Allah. The producer's taste had been formed by childhood explore of literature. One writer (I think Ben Hecht) said frankly that it had ossified there. Success proved Selznick right however, as The Prisoner Of Zenda took $2.6 million worldwide, overseas gross topping what the film got domestically. All of what Selznick made had gloss beyond what even majors could achieve. He'd putter with a thing until it was flawless, bring in directors just to do specific moments he knew they'd excel at. That was how W.S. Van Dyke came to shoot the climactic duel, and George Cukor the "renunciation" of Colman by Carroll in favor of the throne she must now sit on.

I Don't Know Much About Board Game Collectibles, But This Must Be One Heck Of a Rare One

John Cromwell got directorial credit for Zenda, him a ready instrument of Selznick's will, sensible enough to realize that a man's name on studio stationary meant that his word would be final. As to whether Cromwell helmed bulk of the film, there is Douglas Fairbanks Jr.'s autobio recall (The Salad Days) that JC and DOS "had a showdown" over constant Selznick rewrites and that "John was relieved of his assignment and a good deal of the film was re-shot with W.S. Van Dyke replacing Cromwell as director." Fairbanks observed that the switch "did make everything go smoother." Certainly Cromwell gave no ground in later-in-life interviews ... so far as he was concerned, The Prisoner Of Zenda was his work, and co-workers let that impression stand so long as the veteran director lived. The Salad Days was published in 1988, nine years after John Cromwell died. A search of Selznick records might reveal how much of Zenda was actually Cromwell's, but then, how much of any Selznick production could belong to staff other than Selznick, always in firmest control of everything written, shot, and edited.

John Cromwell, Center with Pipe, Directs The Prisoner Of Zenda

An Outdoor Dueling Scene Deleted From Final Prints of the 1937 Version

Casting beyond Colman and Carroll was as perfect. Here, in fact, was where any remake would die on vines. Robert Douglas and Jane Greer for Raymond Massey and Mary Astor? And this was only fifteen years later, when memory of Selznick's Zenda was fresh. It must have amused DOS to see what he knew would be a punk try. Not that anything was specifically wrong with the 1952 version. It is most enjoyable on updated terms, especially if you'd not been exposed to the earlier one, but back-to-back, and ouch. James Mason was interviewed by Focus On Film in 1970 (#2). " ... a depressing experience for an actor ... ," he called  Zenda '52, wherein Mason played Rupert Of Hentzau. Blame was fixed on director Richard Thorpe, the players limited to one take unless something went seriously wrong. Mason recalled Stewart Granger asking to do a scene again, feeling he could improve on it, to which Thorpe responded, "No, I don't see any reason. It was fine. I'm going to print that. It was good." When Granger persisted, the director reminded him that takes with "reasonable tempo" where actors "say their lines in a way that's completely intelligible" was plenty enough to get jobs done for the boxoffice, that last Thorpe's primary concern according to Mason. 

Home Movie Hound Doug Jr. Gets Some Captures of Co-Stars

Ramon Novarro as a Silent-Era Rupert

Jane Greer said they kept a moviola on the 1952 set where scenes from the 1937 version were viewed and then slavishly duplicated. Outcome of the remake bears this out. It is like a photocopy done after someone figured out how to do photocopies with color. But everyone acquits fine, none seeming to slum. I had a 16mm IB Technicolor print of this Zenda back in the 70's and it was a thrill of a collecting lifetime. Affection sustains for that, if little else. I'm not at Viva Richard Thorpe stage, but those apparent first takes he printed play fine, Metro at peak of technical efficiency, if a twilight one. They were wise enough to re-use the Newman score, this time adapted by Conrad Salinger. Posters fairly had to shout The NEW Prisoner Of Zenda to avoid appearance of stale bread. Did anyone in sales alert Dore Schary that fifteen years was but wink of time to at least mature ticket buyers --- or did Schary figure attendance had gone over altogether to kids and teens? Selznick's oldie came back to theatres as recently as 1949. He was promiscuous in licensing backlog for reissues. Had MGM even looked into possible over-exposure of the earlier film? And wait, Selznick's wasn't even the first, as there had been a silent Zenda back in 1922, directed by Rex Ingram for the old Metro firm before merger that made up MGM. The Prisoner Of Zenda, then, was a tale told plenty by the time 1952 audiences took receipt of it.

Mary Astor and Colman Relax Between Scenes

Where a Baddest Man Is a Movie's Best Asset
There was also a fifteen years window between the Ingram silent and Selznick's try. The gulf in terms of pace and story construction was vast, however, as though filmmaking had got its full education in that brief space of time. The 1922 Zenda plods, misses opportunities Selznick would seize, and lets both action and the love story wilt on a near two-hour vine. Ingram was about visuals more than narrative, excelled at the first, tended to drag with the second. His Zenda has size and luminous effect later ones would not attempt, and is worth a look for elements they'd improve upon. In Colman/Granger's part is Lewis Stone, his dual role hardly separate for neither character having much verve, Stone then as now our idea of mature rectitude, one of those you imagine never saw a young day in his life. Starred in the 1922 Zenda is Ramon Novarro, who plays Rupert of Hentzau, said to be the most actor-proof part ever written. In other words, no one could emerge from it in less than triumph. When Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was offered the role in 1937, his father told him to accept by all means, that this was a best opportunity he'd ever have to make an impression, which indeed he did. My question, then: What other parts are actor-proof, that is, so good as to foreclose possibility of failure? One at least comes to my mind, Doc Holliday, but what of others? Surely there are more, in fact, lots more.

Rupert Of Hentzau getting away with murder was one of few times that happened in Code-dominated movies. Several deaths are attributable to him, only one shown, but we're given to understand he is ruthless, unsportsmanlike, and has killed unarmed men. Hentzau is utterly likeable otherwise ... well, likeable really because he is ruthless, unsportsmanlike, and laughs it off, his philosophy being that morality is for chumps. I think The Prisoner Of Zenda was onto something with Rupert. He's like a character from today dropped down over a century back (the novel published in 1894), and kept around to give readers/viewers a glimpse of anti-heroism to come. Rupert is funny and sardonic and no one wanted to see him punished, then or since. Selznick knew this and used a trick to let Rupert off the hook, telling the PCA that he had a Zenda sequel planned where Rupert would get just desserts. As it stands, he gives a jaunty farewell and swims off to safety. Of course, there was no sequel, by Selznick or anyone, even though Anthony Hope had written a follow-up novel to The Prisoner Of Zenda. The three principal versions of Zenda can be had on DVD, including the silent version from Warner Archive. Screening of the three gives good account of progress and changes in H'wood filmmaking over a thirty-year span.


Blogger Dave K said...

Rupert may be an actor-proof role, but is PRISONER a parody-proof property? Blake Edwards took a satirical stab at it in 1965 (THE GREAT RACE) and Richard Quine and Peter Sellers tried again in 1979... and both times contemporary critics were savage. Never could make it through the Sellers job myself. And I'm actually one of those people who really likes THE GREAT RACE but have to admit the Zenda stuff doesn't quite work all that well.

9:31 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Some credit has to go to Raymond Massey, seething aristocratic contempt and looking quite capable of killing anyone. When Rupert toys with Black Michael -- and moves in on his mistress -- you know Rupert is really living dangerously. Rupert and Rassendyll can banter; at best chilly Black Michael can smile at a foe's misfortune. The imposing, sneering Massey completes a sort of triangle with the almost wistfully gallant Colman and the daring rascal Fairbanks. All three are icons.

James Mason really should have been cast as Black Michael against a more playful actor as Rupert (I had a sudden vision of Danny Kaye daring to be unlovable). As it is, he plays Rupert as the cold-blooded schemer, leaving nothing for Robert Douglas except agitation to contrast Mason's cool. They do give Black Michael a sword in his cane, but it's not deployed until near the end. We needed to know at the outset he COULD be murderous, restoring the shaky balance of power between him and Rupert.

A nice touch with Colman is that he plays old fashioned heroes with a wry self-awareness. He knows his brand of chivalry is out of fashion, simply allowing himself a quip and a rueful smile before nobly carrying on. A similar approach was taken by Christopher Reeve as Superman: the Big Blue Boy Scout knew he was hopelessly square, but cheerfully owned it.

The sequel book, "Rupert of Hentzau", was evidently filmed as a silent. I haven't seen it but Stan Laurel spoofed it as "Rupert of Hee-Haw", so it must have been well known.

One more take was the book and then movie ROYAL FLASH. The central joke was replacing the noble hero with the womanizing coward and liar Harry Flashman; then adding real-life historical figures. Double-crosses and multiple seductions ensue. The movie is a comic romp that holds up better than a lot of its peers; Richard Lester collaborated with novelist George MacDonald Fraser, who also scripted the Musketeer films. In the book, elderly narrator Flashman recalls that he drunkenly related his adventure to Anthony Hope, who cleaned it up and published it.

3:33 PM  
Blogger Richard KImble said...

In The Moon's A Balloon David Niven mentions filming POZ. At one point DOS actually fired him.

Re actor-proof roles: in TMAB Niven mentions being offered The Dawn Patrol (previously played by Doug Jr) and being told "It's the best part ever written for an actor!"

I seem to be in the minority, but I like the POZ spoof in The Great Race. The Curtis-Martin duel scene is one of my favorites, even if fencing experts aren't impressed.

I'm a huge fan of the Flashman books but don't care for the film (neither did author G.M. Fraser). MM is all wrong as Flashy (Alan Bates is a very good Rupert figure, however). Fittingly, I always visualize Niven as Flashman when I read the books (and not the author's model, Flynn). Niven himself later said he was a fan of the books and would have loved to play Flashman if he were younger.

Richard Lester had tried to film the first novel of the Flashman series in 1970, w/John Alderton in the lead. Allegedly the cast had already gathered in Spain for location shooting when financing fell through.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

One of the greatest movie seeking desires of my youth in the late '60s and early '70s was to view the Selznick version of Prisoner of Zenda. The Granger remake came on TV all the time and it was okay but what I really wanted to see was Colman as Rassendyll and Fairbanks as a suave villain. I even wrote to Fairbanks about it and he responded in a very gracious letter that the film couldn't be shown on television due to copy right reasons due to the '52 remake, much the same as his Dawn Patrol at the time.

A local Toronto film society announced that the '37 version would be shown one day and I eagerly looked forward to it. Alas, something went wrong, they couldn't secure a print and in its place they substituted the Colman Tale of Two Cities. "Tale" was fine in its own lavish, slightly stodgy MGM way but how could it compare in excitement to Zenda?

One day a local television station announced the Colman Zenda in its listings for a Saturday morning and, I thought, oh sure, it's just gonna be the Granger version again. Much to my surprise, it was the Selznick adaption and I sat, transfixed, shocked that I was suddenly actually viewing the film after all these years.

It is far and away my favourite of the three Zenda adaptions. Lewis Stone seems a middle aged stiff in the silent version while Granger brings virility to the '52 version. But Ronald Colman, ah, Ronald Colman, with that wonderfully mellifluous voice and handsome, debonair British air, brings romance, class and sophistication to the role while, like all great swashbuckling actors, not quite appearing to quite take the old fashioned material entirely seriously (though, at the same time, never mocking it).

And the film has one of the great Anglophile casts of all time, from the impossible fairy tale beauty of Madeleine Carroll down to C. Aubrey Smith and David Niven. As Rupert Fairbanks pretty well steals all his scenes with, for my money, what was probably the performance of his career.

My only real quibble with the Selznick version is in regard to the duel. Both Fairbanks and Colman (the latter looking particularly stiff with a sword in his hand, no matter how well the actor in him tossed off the bon mots) are both obviously extensively doubled, and the duel lacks the same theatrical flamboyance that Curtiz would soon bring to the Robin Hood duel.

Having said that, however, the shadows of Rassendyll and Rupert on the wall leave an impression. And I have to wonder if Curtiz was influenced by those Zenda shadow action shots when he staged the Robin Hood duel in December, 1937, just three months after the U.S. release of Selznick's adaption of the Anthony Hope novel.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

I had a good sized stack of those Classics Illustrated comic books. My favorite was THE BUCCANEER based on a Hollywood film.

2:30 PM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

@Dave K, there has been a recent update of The Prisoner Of Zenda (for cable) called The Prisoner Of Zenda, Inc. which has Zenda be a corporation, much like a recent film version of Hamlet had the titular hero be the heir to a corporation named the Denmark Corporation. So yes, something like this can be updated.

3:15 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers two versions of Zenda:

There was a young woman of my acquaintance who was possessed of a very romantic turn of mind, transforming even commonplace experiences into the stuff of fairy tales. I shared with her the Colman and Granger versions of “The Prisoner of Zenda,” and she much preferred the Colman. It is a black-and-film, of course, yet its imagery is so much richer, so much more nuanced, that it is more “colorful”—that is, more visually interesting—than that of the Granger, filmed in Technicolor though it was, but which seems attenuated and empty in comparison. However, this is no mere superficial difference, as perhaps the images of the Rex Ingram version may have been, but rather reflects the greater emotional depth of the film.

I understand that the Granger version was intended to be almost a shot-by-shot duplicate of the earlier film, except for the color. Your analogy to a photocopy is apt, in that an original is inevitably degraded in the copying process. The spoken lines are intelligible, even touching, and yet have not the intensity of the earlier film. The chivalric ideal remains the same, given that the lines and plot are the same, yet the delivery in the Colman has greater commitment, the wry humor of Colman himself only highlighting the resignation to that which must be, if there is to be love or honor or romance. Perhaps he spoke his lines as readily as Granger and with no more need to go back, yet there is a sense of reflection in his pauses, or a consideration of the costs and the yearning which may not find fulfillment. It is as though an artist was applying layer upon layer of glaze, and thus deepening the richness of the color in a way that no superficial approach would suffice.

For my friend, the Colman was a realm her heart could inhabit, the Granger only to visit in passing, while remembering that other, better place.

11:56 AM  

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