I watched The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) last night on Turner Classics, and it’s still a great movie. Here’s a few thoughts I had from it:
- Ronald Colman does the whole two characters on the same screen bit here. (He plays King Rudolph V and his identical double, Rudolph Rassendyll.) It was probably movie magic back then, and we have more sophisticated techniques these days. Still, it was amazing, and the wife and I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how the two Colmans shook hands.
- Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll) was a little prosaic at times, and we giggled a bit when she would pour out her heart in long, tortured sentences. Still, she’s beautiful. Ms. Carroll is the definition of movie star glamor that hasn’t been seen since.
- Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who plays the villianous Rupert of Hentzau, is the MAN. Seriously. The guy served in WWII sometime after the movie, and he pretty much invented the precursor to the Navy SEALS.
- There’s a great swordfight at the end, and it’s unparalleled. Nowadays, there’d be much emphasis on blood and gore, something you couldn’t get away with in Hollywood in the 1930’s. Still, the fight is brutal. Rassendyll and Rupert pound on each other, slice through the air, parry, thrust, and it’s very, very believable. I was actually worried for the actors accidentally getting their fingers sliced in a few points.
- By the way, all those vaguely German characters? They look like Nazis. Especially Black Michael, the guy trying to take Rudolph’s throne. Which was weird, since it was still 5 years before the US entered WWII, and the public did not know yet the depths of Nazi villainy.
- The locations are fantastic. Again, with old movies, it can sometimes seem like they’re stuck on a set full time. I have no idea if they shot on location, but there are some great scenes up in the mountains and next to a lake by a looming castle. And then there’s a shot after Rassendyll is crowned king and he descends down what seems like an infinite set of stairs. Incredible.
- I really appreciate that SPOILERS!!!!!! there was no happy ending. Oh, things turned out OK, but it was very bittersweet. It’s something Hollywood dares not do because it’s so risk averse these days. It was right up David O. Selznick’s alley, too. He’d later produce the similarly bittersweet Gone With the Wind.
So there you go. The Prisoner of Zenda — an action movie from the 1930’s that still holds up today.