“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.”
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.
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).