THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937) B/W 101m dir: John Cromwell (and, uncredited, George Cukor and W.S. VanDyke II)
w/Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Mary Astor, C. Aubrey Smith, Raymond Massey, David Niven, Eleanor Wesselhoeft, Byron Foulger, Montagu Love
The durable melodrama of the king's double, who's called in to do an impersonation when the royal one is kidnapped. A swashbuckler to the core, done with great style and lavish production values. Superior fun.
From The Movie Guide: "Hollywood movies don't get much classier. The great Anthony Hope adventure is adapted for the screen with loving loyalty to the story, and Cromwell's helmsmanship is decisive and full of affection for the tale. Colman plays the doppelganger roles of Ruudolph Rassendyl and Prince Rudolf of the mythical European kingdom of Ruritania. ...
"Director Cromwell does a marvelous job in extracting great performances from his leading players, as well as carefully developing the Colman-Carroll romance, which is touched with gentility and poetic grace. Cromwell was brought in by [David O.] Selznick because the producer knew that this director would bring out the best from the cast and that he would stay within his budget. Selznick nevertheless hedged his bets and had George Cukor, famed as a 'woman's director,' helm the final scenes between Colman and Carroll. This shows in Carroll's departure from her pose as the soft and gentle Flavia, as she becomes abruptly assertive, her voice rising to tell Colman that she must do her duty. Action director W.S. VanDyke was also used to help with the exciting duel between Colman and Fairbanks. Selznick was repeatedly warned not to revive this Ruritanian adventure, his advisors telling him that the production was doomed. Selznick, however, rightly reasoned that he could capture the public's interest by highlighting the coronation scenes, since the public was already keyed to the upcoming crowning of Britain's Edward VIII. He was right. The film was a smash, enhancing the careers of everyone involved.
"Colman was not really a swashbuckling type, although he retained some of that image after appearing in the silent version of BEAU GESTE and 1935's CLIVE OF INDIA. Voted Hollywood's handsomest actor (at age 46) the same year that ZENDA appeared, Colman is the essence of gentlemanly dash. He is matched by a true Hollywood princess, Madeleine Carroll, in what she would later call her favorite role. The great climactic duel staged between Colman and Fairbanks (in a scene-stealing, roguish performance that would have done his father proud), with Colman parrying words as well as blades, suggests more than it really shows. And the carefully masked split screen effects enabling the two Colmans to chat and shake hands are handled with skill.
"Beyond the flawless visual elegance provided by Cromwell and ace cameraman [James Wong] Howe, the script by [John] Balderston, [Wells] Root, and [Donald Ogden] Stewart is witty, literate and, and lyrical, and [Alfred] Newman's sweeping, memorable score one of that composer's finest. The design of the picture is often stunning and earned an Oscar nomination for Lyle Wheeler. The dark, saturnine Raymond Massey is the perfect scheming Prince Michael, while Mary Astor does beautifully as the ill-fated mistress who proves a surprise ally for the good guys. That unofficial dean of Hollywood's British community, Sir C. Aubrey Smith, is charming, quaint, and heroically stalwart as the king's aide, and David Niven shows great promise as his brave protege."
THE PRISONER OF ZENDA was nominated for two Oscars: Best Score (Alfred Newman, Selznick International Pictures Music Department) and Art Direction (Wheeler).