Archive for The Prisoner of Zenda

The Sunday Intertitle: The Ruritanian-Silestrian Border

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on October 2, 2022 by dcairns

This year’s Pordenone Festival of Silent Film has a Ruritanian theme — but in Italy, the name for it is, or was at the time of 1912’s SUI GRADINI DEL TRONO (ON THE STEPS OF THE THRONE), Silestria.

My ability to frame-grab from the Fest’s streaming site lasted one short film, a newsreel/actualité about Montenegro, and then I just get black screens, so I have to tell you there is for instance an intertitle (in Dutch) saying “HIS EXCELLENCY BACKINE, REGENT OF SILISTRIA,” and you’ll have to take my word for it, unless you want to buy a ticket, which I would recommend, but you’ll have to hurry, the film will be vanishing soon.

I did manage to get images from the newsreel —

The reference to Prince Danilo was explained by fest director Jay Weissberg in his intro — the connection with Maurice Chevalier’s character in THE MERRY WIDOW appears not to be coincidental — the real Danilo certainly took that view, because he sued MGM over his portrayal as a charming, happy-go-lucky playboy. We should all be so libelled.

SUI GRADINI is a fascinating artefact from the days of tableau staging, before America had even started making feature films. The performances are strikingly natural: sometimes the actors just seem to be chatting. Even the villains keep their Italianate gesticulations on the low-down. Director Ubaldo Maria del Colle, near the outset of a forty-year career and stuck with the one-shot-per-scene aesthetic, animates the frame with cunning background action (villains creeping about behind love scenes) to create dramatic irony in visual form. Segundo de Chomon’s purpose-built dolly has not trundled in this direction.

The plot is pure ZENDA, with switcheroos here and there.

The sets tend to the windowless, giving Silistria an air of low-budget claustrophobia, but the astonishing array of military headgear raises the production values considerably. A combination of Serbian and Hungarian influences, JW tells us. The sunlit exteriors add glamour.

When the hero is exiled to Paris, a performance by dancer/seductress Thais, surrounded by mirrors, prompts both a flurry of different colour filters, and a single axial cut to bring subject and camera closer together. A revolution!

Performances largely eschew the Keystone expositional mime, but there are moments of what the late Dudley Sutton referred to, in my presence, as “telegraphing” — the actor doesn’t just think, he makes his thoughts known, by expression or gesture, to the camera, tacitly acknowledging the absence of the fourth wall, the presence of a recording apparatus, an audience. Amusing moment when the doppelganger (Alberto Capozzi, louche in a bolero hat) of the prince (Alberto Capozzi, uptight in Stroheimian uniform) is first discovered: the villain steps back in amazement, hands raised, and the double glances at us, inviting us, his chums, to share his surprise at this odd character.

(End title from the Newsreel, with live-action logo-figure, a la Leo the Lion)

I’m not really into this period of film, unless we’re in the hands of a restless innovator or genius, but probably I just need to see more of it. So this was a nice opportunity.

PS. Best moment: in the hall of mirrors, Capozzi #1 bids farewell to Thais, and exists screen right. The shot continues a moment, and Capozzi #2 enters, screen left. The actor has switched hats and pasted on a couple of sideburns. Who needs special effects? (On closer examination, Thais freezes to permit a jump-cut — I’d loved this even more if it were purely a lightning costume change.)

The Sunday Intertitle: Zenda and the Art of Monocle Maintenance

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on May 19, 2019 by dcairns

The Rex Ingram PRISONER OF ZENDA (1922) might contain Ramon Novarro’s best work. As the villainous Rupert of Hentzau, and still using his birth name, Ramon Samaniegos, he’s suave and charismatic, and his unmistakable air of camp fits neatly with the stereotype of the effete villain.

David Wingrove tells me that Ingram named Novarro because the actor’s bottom reminded him of the Novarro Valley — a scenic beauty spot south of the border.

Relieved of the later need to centre a film or be sympathetic, Novarro is awesomely charismatic, leaving the boring stuff to the awesomely boring Lewis Stone. In his first scene, where the conspirators plot the uncrowned heir to the throne’s abduction, he gets no intertitles of his own, but has the tightest close-up as he draws a line across his throat to suggest what ought to be done, and then makes a hilarious and sulky “Oh, pooh!” face when told violence is off the table.

Stardom awaits!

Return to Zenda

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2016 by dcairns


“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).