I saw the comedy PRISONER OF ZENDA as a kid, having enjoyed Peter Sellers in many things, and found it curiously lifeless, almost totally lacking jokes, and didn’t think of it again for years. Only when I got interested in Richard Quine did the film seem worth revisiting. Quine killed himself after making it. Could it really be that bad?* Well, the guy had some hard things in his life, and it would be unfair to blame the strain of working with Sellers, or Clement & La Frenais’ script, at least not entirely. Those prolific TV writers always did better at sitcoms than they did on the big screen, though OTLEY is mildly amusing. The absence of comic bite here may be more to do with productorial (or actorly) interference that with any lack of inspiration on their part, who knows? I don’t have Roger Lewis’s splenetic Sellers bio to hand to check what he says about it, but the way the cast is peppered with previous leading ladies from PINK PANTHER films (Elke Sommer AND Catherine Schell?) and Sellers’ lovely young bride Lynn Frederick, suggests that he was very much running the show.
There’s a fundamental flaw in this kind of thing — by which I mean the comedy in which an ordinary, decent man of the people is thrust into a position of great authority — see also DAVE and THE POPE MUST DIE. While it has an agreeable whiff of wish-fulfillment, it offers no real chance of laughs. The OTHER parody of Anthony Hope’s Ruritanian romance, ROYAL FLASH, released just four years previously, solves this issue admirably: a nice chap suddenly granted power offers no entertainment (unless he’s immediately corrupted) — a rotter granted undeserved license can be pretty good fun. Lionel Jeffries appears as a sidekick/stooge in both films, adding to the deja vu.
This movie looks lush, but just as as I remembered, it’s curiously devoid of gags. The slapstick is poorly conceived and atrociously executed, though having three roles played by an actor who couldn’t do his own stunts must have been a hindrance. There are shots where PS has to be doubled twice (quadrupled?).
Sellers briefly plays the soon-to-be deceased King, plunging from a balloon by the end of the opening credits, in standard old duffer mode. As the effete Prince, he knows some kind of lisp is de rigeur, so in a fit of largesse he confers upon Rudolf V every lisp known to phonetics. Where he intrigues is as Syd Frewin, cockney cab driver and inadvertent doppelganger.
A Londoner and a mimic of genius, Sellers has no trouble bringing the outward character of Frewin to life, particularly in terms of accent. It’s pure Michael Caine, and, one is tempted to say, not a Michael Caine impersonation but a Michael Caine performance. Whether because the writers couldn’t think of any jokes (unlikely) or because Sellers rejected them all (quite possible: his starry misbehaviour took perverse forms), Frewin has almost no comedy to work with. So Sellers simply plays him as heroic: the lumpenproletariat leading man, body language of a stoic, stolid, squat waddler, but an embodiment of honesty, courage (never even thinking to be afraid or doubtful) and unassuming nobility. The obvious irony is that Rudolf V is a pratt, but his impersonator has all the qualities of a true king, though socially he’s from the gutter (the script throws out a broad hint that Frewin is actually an illegitimate brother to Rudolf, but does nothing with this).
None of this helps make the film a successful comedy, and Quine is more concerned, it seems, with opulent interiors and the odd swooping crane shot than with conjuring laughs out of this soggy confection. But something about the honest of Syd Frewin remains oddly touching. The way he holds himself. A staunch, baggy dolt with a good heart.
*The true suicide risk Quine movie is OH DAD, POOR DAD, MOMMA’S HUNG YOU IN THE CLOSET AND I’M FEELING SO SAD, a studio-butchered abomination that might cause self-slaughter among the audience, let alone the crew.