Return to Zenda

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“Why are old films so much better than new films?” asked Fiona in wonderment, as John Cromwell and David Selznick’s film of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937) unspooled before us. It may or not be true, but it’s the kind of thought that certainly FEELS true when you’re seeing a classic Hollywood movie in which all the elements have come together. “The genius of the system” is the usual phrase on these occasions, because John Cromwell is not an auteur, because the source novel was adapted by a pretty big roomful of scribes, because “One-Shot” Woody Van Dyke handled some unspecified reshoots, because Selznick was very hands-on. “A good film can be made good by anybody – the writers, the actors, the editor,” said Orson Welles. “Great films are made by the director.” So in a case like this, the film is ascribed either to providence, an impersonal system, or else we downgrade the movie to just “good.”

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Well, whether or not ZENDA deserves the weighty name of Greatness, it is definitely excellent. Everybody in it is perfect. Ronald Colman gets to be dashing but also soulful; Madeleine Carroll gets to be beautiful but also alert and alive in a way people in costume dramas often aren’t (acting in the past tense); David Niven gets to be funny; Raymond Massey snarlingly villainous in a monocle; Mary Astor tragic; and Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. seems to be having the time of his life. Funny thing about Jnr. — he had big shoes to fill (although: “How did he perform such amazing stunts with such tiny feet?” ~ Hedley Lamarr) and when cast as roguish heroes he sort of doesn’t quite make it, but cast as outright rogues, something is UNLEASHED.

Great fights in this movie. Colman evidently can’t fence like Flynn, even with the aid of undercranking, so he’s doubled in the wide shots, and then we get quick cut-ins to tighter frames in which a few slashes are exchanged. It’s tremendously dynamic and effective, even if it’s born of necessity. The huge wide shots mean the misty backlighting and Gothic sets provide much of the drama. Colman’s character is also a master of bricolage, enlisting tables and chairs to help him fend off bullets and blades and opponents. He does this so consistently that Fairbanks complains he can’t get used to fighting furniture.

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But despite all the action, the film is at heart a love story: the true effect of all the plot is to bring a pair of lovers together in an untenable situation. It works admirably, even though stories that have people sacrificing happiness for the throne do leave me asking “Why?” a little. But the movie has done such a good job of presenting the conceit that being an English gentleman is the best thing you can possibly be, that it even makes me swallow this final silliness. Besides, if you don’t put Ronald Colman through some romantic agony, you aren’t really making the most of his unique gifts (even if he’s playing a dual role).

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14 Responses to “Return to Zenda”

  1. Fairbanks fils is terrific as a Times Square grifter in Ben Hecht’s “Angels Over Broadway.” It’s the kind of performance you think of as star-making, except he already was. It’s a really charming little movie, shot by Lee Garmes, score by George Antheil, Thomas Mitchell & Rita Hayworth (both coming off “Only Angels Have Wings”), and it’s under 80 minutes. The Genius of the System also allowed for off-beat stuff like this to happen every now and again.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation! Union Depot is another good one. Cast in a Cagney type role, Jr’s inherent lightness causes him to play it somewhat weaselly, which Cagney never could — surprisingly effective and interesting.

  3. And, like — James Wong Howe (hello?)

  4. revelator60 Says:

    Will you be writing about the Rex Ingram version of The Prisoner of Zenda? I’d love to read your take. It’s rougher around the edges and doesn’t flow as well as Cromwell’s version, but it too captures the heart and appeal of the book (both adaptations are relatively faithful). Anthony Hope wrote a sequel to Zenda, and I’ve always thought it a pity that Coleman, Cromwell and company didn’t film it.

    I watched the Cromwell Zenda back to back with the 1952 remake and was shocked—the latter film is almost entirely a shot-for-shot remake, using almost every line of the 1937 script. It’s claustrophobic, creepy, and uninspired, and the actors gave performances wholly inferior to those of their 1937 analogues (James Mason is horribly miscast as Rupert).
    I agree entirely with your assessment of the Peter Sellers Zenda—a very interesting performance by Sellers but far too few gags.

    I would amend Welles’s statement—a great film can be made when good writers, actors, editors, and a good director coalesce into a great team. The Manchurian Candidate is a good example (last time I checked Frankenheimer had not yet been admitted into the club, though it seems to grow larger and larger by year. And when will John Huston be let in?).

  5. What especially ties the 1937 Zenda together is Alfred Newman’s score. The 1952 remake suffers in every other category, but in using the 1937 script and score (virtually note for note), it comes off far better than it has a right to.

  6. Cromwell did some great work with Newman (Son of Fury is a great romantic score) and also various great cameramen such as Wong, Struss, Musuraca…

    Must have been pretty unusual to recycle a score back in 1952 — a tribute to Newman’s skill. As for the shot-for-shot approach, I suppose it’s karma, since Cromwell had been instructed to shoot Algiers using Pepe le Moko as crib sheet — I think they had a moviola on set so he could duplicate it exactly.

    On paper, James Mason must have seemed ideal as Rupert, since it’s just the kind of rogue he’d played in his British 30s roles. By 1952 he’d have been better suited to the lead.

    Hope to get to the Ingram Zenda soon — I WAS going to watch it first, but then I heard such great things about this one! And I hadn’t watched a really good Colman show since Lewis Milestone Week.

  7. Colman’s nobility always had a wry, world-weary edge. He seems to be looking back to an more chivalrous era, flying that frayed banner with wistful self-awareness — even in a period costume fantasy like Zenda.

    In “Random Harvest”, a damn good tearjerker, much of the story is about Colman and Greer Garson being noble in ways that simply wouldn’t fly with other actors (admittedly, it just barely works here). In “Tale of Two Cities”, Colman’s alcoholic lawyer is nostalgic for a nobler version of himself. In “The Talk of the Town”, it’s a comic effort for Judge Colman to even pretend to be less than noble.

    Today, by weird coincidence, found cheap CDs of a radio sitcom Colman did with his wife, Benita Hume. Titled “Halls of Ivy”, it casts him as the president of a small American college. It seems the Colmans gained a reputation for comedy after guesting as “themselves” on Jack Benny’s show, long-suffering neighbors to Benny’s radio household.

  8. One thing about “The Enchanted Cottage”: The story centers on a disfigured war hero and an ugly girl, but this being Hollywood they can barely bring themselves to make the two leads look moderately plain. It helps if you mentally provide the proper faces — as with the stage play “The Elephant Man”.

  9. Lucky Partners, in which Colman plays a disillusioned creator of erotic illustrations, enjoys no reputation at all but is absolutely wonderful, imho.

    I must revisit Enchanted Cottage. I had forgotten it’s the one Cromwell I knew before Caged. Movies don’t encourage that kind of mental substition — apart from the kind where you replace Gregory Peck with someone more interesting.

  10. Watch out. I once played ‘Who’d Be Better Than Greg?’ in the comment section of an old Self Styled Siren post and somebody hurled a dead cat through my window every day for the next two weeks. In a sense.

  11. The same cat, continuously, or different ones? If the same, was it named Catticus?

  12. Certainly similar cats.

  13. Marc L. Kagan Says:

    Even though independent producer Hal B. Wallis had nothing to do with The Prisoner Of Zenda . Wallis was married to actress Louise Fazenda so the Hollywood wags said this about him, He was “The Prisoner of Fazenda.”

  14. I love this film, too. That line about fighting with furniture never fails to make me laugh, not least because of Fairbanks’s perfect delivery. He ought to be better-known today.

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