“The Prisoner of Zenda” (1937)

Welcome to the first of hopefully many posts about classic movies. And by classic, I mean old. And by old I do not mean from the 1980s. I mean old films, from the 1920s to perhaps the 1960s. Why? Because I like and watch old films. Yes, many of these films are in black and white. Don’t let that frighten you. There is real craft in these old films. And we start off with “The Prisoner of Zenda” of 1937.

First of all, let us establish a few of the things that happened in the world of 1937. Franklin D. Roosevelt is sworn in for his second term, and under his leadership the Great Depression is still going strong. The U.S.S.R.  is “purging” (i.e. killing) hundreds of thousands of people for supposedly being enemies of the state. China and Japan are at war. The Spain is in the middle of a civil war. Events that will lead to the second World War are accelerating. In other news of the day, Prince Edward has abdicated the throne and marries the commoner and two-time divorcee Wallis Simpson (which was something of a scandal at the time). Nylon is invented. Detective Comics (now known simply as D.C.), Tolkien’s The Hobbit and the Warner Brothers cartoon character Daffy Duck all make their first public appearances.

And “The Prisoner of Zenda” was released on September 2 of 1937. It is based on an 1894 novel by Anthony Hope. The film stars Ronald Coleman, Madeleine Carroll, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., C. Aubrey Smith, Raymond Massey, David Niven, and Mary Astor. The movie was directed by John Cromwell, and produced by David O. Selznick (who would go on to produce “Gone with the Wind”).

Rudolf Rassendyll (played by Ronald Coleman) is a British man travelling Europe on a fishing vacation. In one unnamed (in the film) country, he gets odd stares from natives as he goes through customs. He discovers the reason for the strange reactions later when, while fishing in Zenda (a province of this unnamed country), he encounters Colonel Zapt (C. Aubrey Smith, who played the lead in the original play production of the story), and Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim and Rudolf V (the Fifth) who is soon to be crowned king (and played, in an excellent and nearly seamless bit of film trickery, by Ronald Coleman). That both Rudolfs look the same is explained by them having common ancestors several generations back.

Anyway, the not-yet-king invites Rassendyll back to the hunting lodge for a dinner on the eve of the coronation. And so they drink into the night. Come the morning, the not-yet-king Rudolf is in a heavy, drugged sleep. It turns out that his half-brother Michael (Raymond Massey) wants the throne, and has conspired to drug Rudolf V with the intent to prevent the coronation ceremony. Apparently Rudolph V has a reputation for less than disciplined behavior. Michael seeks to capitalize on this and have the populace demand that he, Michael, take the throne.

Colonel Zapt, being a man of duty and a man who believes Michael on the throne would be a bad thing, convinces Rassendyll to pretend to be Rudoph V and go through with the coronation ceremony. But during the ceremony Michael’s partner in conspiracy, Rupert of Hentzau (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), investigates why Rudolph V was not unconscious. Rupert kidnaps Rudolf V, and Rassendyll ends up having to keep the pretending going a little longer.

Which is not as objectionable to Rassendyll as it might be. For at the coronation ceremony, he met the lovely Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll) and became infatuated immediately. Wooing commences and as the days pass, Rassendyll and Flavia fall in love. But she thinks he is Rudolph V.

And after several action scenes and some political plotting and backstabbing, the heroes win and the villains loose. What? You didn’t think I was going to give away the whole plot, did you? I want you to watch the movie.

Anyway, Ronald Coleman as both Rudolph Rassendyll and Rudolph V is well done. Rassendyll is a ordinary if somewhat aristocratic fellow who wants to come out the other side of all the plotting and scheming and get back his ordinary life. Rudolph V is the likable but spoiled brat who has grown up expecting to be king. And while the trick of having Ronald Coleman shake hands with himself may seem ordinary these days, remember that this was done decades before anyone was even thinking of using computers to play with film editing. And in 1937, the first actual electronic computer (ENIAC) was still almost a decade in the future.

Even many of you who are are aware of film stars from the era of what we generally call classic film, may not recognize the name Madeleine Carroll. But she was considered one of the most beautiful actresses of her time. If you want to see her in some other films, check out Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” With Robert Donat, and “The General Died at Dawn” with Gary Cooper.

“The Prisoner of Zenda” is a very romantic film, with romantic ideas about monarchy and government and duty and love and adventure. Some of you may wonder why a libertarian like me would start off movie reviews with this movie. Well, I wanted a relatively light film for this test drive, so to speak, of me writing a movie review. Also, it is a film hopefully most of you, O readers, would enjoy.

Consider this movie review number zero, the one that comes before we really get started.

And now, a few words for some of the D/s folks out there. If you submissive women want to learn how to act with poise and calm nobility, pay close attention to the way Madeleine Carroll plays Princess Flavia. While “The Prisoner of Zenda” is not a movie with a strong example of a D/s relationship, it does have a bit of a lesson for Dominants as well. Pay attention to Ronald Coleman as Rassendyll. When he is wooing the princess, he shuts out the other concerns as much as possible.

I am tired and still not fully well. So I will end this review here. If all goes well, I should have another review up next month. Of which movie? Of one of the most controversial and notorious films of the classic era, “Citizen Kane.” More on that another time.

2 Responses to ““The Prisoner of Zenda” (1937)”

  1. So many things I want to say…hm…Where to start?
    First the movie review, I really like it! I’ve never seen “The Prisoner of Zenda” but your review made me curious and I will see if I can get the movie.
    My favorite classic is “M” (M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Moerder), a German movie from 1931 (released in the U.S. 1933), there is an English version, but I would recommend the German one with English subtitles. Maybe worth a review as well?
    Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca”, Charles Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” and Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove”, 3 more movies worth to see and maybe also worth a review?
    For now I look forward to the “Citizen Kane” review

    Does it count when I leave a comment here to your other post? Not sure…
    “What I want” – heavy… the first thought was “what has she done to deserve this punishment?” And of course my head cinema started immediately to work…
    2 strong emotions, fear and arousal, were fighting and it was difficult to decide which was stronger…

    oh, and yes, I have recommended your blog to some of my friends…

    • I agree that Fritz Lang’s “M” is a brilliant film. I may indeed someday review it here. “Rebecca” is on the list of films I will likely review. “The Great Dictator” is a soft maybe. I will have to watch it again before I decide. “Doctor Strangelove” is on the definite list.

      No, leaving a comment here for the “What I Want #4” post does not count toward the total commenters requested for that post, as I am counting individual commenters on that page specifically.

      Thank you for recommending the blog. And thank you for sharing your suggestions.

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