Sunday, May 3, 2015

"The Prisoner of Zenda" with Ronald Coleman and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (1937)

Ronald Coleman is one of my favorite actors of the classical film genre. And this is one of my favorites of the scores of films in which he starred. In this film he plays Rudolf Rassendyll, a British subject, who has arrived in the Kingdom of Zenda by train for a vacation of fishing in the countryside. Almost immediately he finds himself the subject of much attention, which no one is willing to explain. He is a typical Englishman of the 1930’s, complete with tweed suit and pipe.  He is a man at peace with himself; but not for long.

Rudolf does finally find out that he has arrived in the country just in time for the coronation of the new King; who is a drunken playboy with no real eagerness to ascend the throne. In addition, it is feared by many that when he does it will be the ruination of the kingdom. To cap it all off, Rudolf is the spitting image of the King.

When the two meet for the first time it is reminiscent of the “Prince and the Pauper” as they carefully take measure one another. Much to their astonishment they discover that they are actually distant cousins; and set off to drink to the occasion. The Colonel and Fritz; the King’s two bodyguards; played by C. Aubrey Smith and David Niven respectively; are less than pleased by this turn of events. The Coronation is to take place the following morning, and if the King isn’t there the Crown falls to the evil Prince Michael; played perfectly by Raymond Massey.

As the evening waxes late the two cousins are still drinking. They are even toasting the health of the two persons whose one time dalliance centuries ago made them the distant cousins they are today; the king’s great-great-great-grandfather Rudolf and Rudolf’s great-great-great-grandmother Amelia. To ensure that the King will not be able to make it to the Coronation Prince Michael has a bottle of wine laced with a sedative. Thinking that the trap is set, he retires.

When the morning comes and the sun has risen, the Colonel and Fritz find the King and Rudolf unconscious. The King has drunk from the bottle which was laced; but Rudolf has not. Thinking quickly they decide to hide the King in the wine cellar with a trusted servant, while prepping Rudolf in a ll the customs necessary to take the throne in a few hours.

At first Rudolf refuses; he fears his fate should the ruse be discovered. But then he meets the King’s intended bride, the lovely Princess Flavia; played by Madeleine Carroll. The true King has been less than attentive to his would be bride in the days leading up to these events, and she is surprised at the difference in his new attitude towards her. Rudolf; of course; cannot tell her anything of the truth, but he is clearly smitten with her. Accordingly he decides to go for it.

The trio boards the train for the capital, where the coronation will take place; while Prince Michael readies himself to announce the disappearance of his brother and usurp the throne. When the King and his bodyguards arrive at the cathedral, Michael is shocked. Worse still, he cannot say a word without giving himself away.

The Cardinal crowns the King amid pomp and ceremony and Rudolf makes his speech. The Colonel and Fritz are greatly relieved that the plan has worked. Now if you want to know what happens to the real King, who you will recall has been left in the wine cellar; or what happens when/if the Princess learns that she is now in love with a different man; or even if the King and Rudolf simply change lives; then you’ll have to see this remarkable film to find out.

I will tell you this; there is a marvelous swashbuckling swordfight which surpasses any other ever filmed. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr; one of the screen’s original swashbucklers; is fantastic as he battles with David Niven through the cathedral up and down the steps. The only special effects in a classic film like this are the tights the two are wearing.  I can’t figure out how they got in them.

You simply can’t go wrong with this film, which is taken from the Anthony Hope novel of the same name.  John Balderston does a bang up job with the screenplay, and John Cromwell directed with assistance from the celebrated W.S. Van Dyke.

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