Today's post is actually about TWO favorite films, both named THE PRISONER OF ZENDA. (From the novel by Anthony Hope.) I just couldn't decide which one I liked best, the Stewart Granger (1952) or the Ronald Colman (1937) version. I truly do love them both and can watch them anytime. I recommend seeing both if you get a chance or have the inclination.
The Granger version is, of course, in glorious Technicolor (the best film color ever in my personal opinion) with Granger and his co-star Deborah Kerr (who was born for Technicolor) showing to their best advantage. I was always in a swoon over Stewart Granger in these sorts of rolls anyway. I mean, who can forget: KING SOLOMON'S MINES (also with Kerr as co-star) and SCARAMOUCHE (those incredible black and white tights!), all in blazing color. Sigh...!
Watch the PRISONER OF ZENDA trailer and see if you don't agree. The IMDB site has this listed as being the Ronald Colman trailer, but it's not. It's the Stewart Granger trailer. Unfortunately, I couldn't find one for the Colman film. But here's a video I found on youtube of the first eleven minutes of the Colman film.
The Ronald Colman version has, of course, his unruffled, startlingly royal looking persona and that voice, that incredible speaking voice unlike any other. It has Madeleine Carroll as his leading lady. (She's all right, I'm not that crazy about her since she behaved so abominably towards Robert Donat in The 39 Steps.) This film also has an amazing cast: David Niven, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Raymond Massey, C. Aubrey Smith, Mary Astor - I did say amazing.
The Stewart Granger version has James Mason, Louis Calhern, Lewis Stone, Jane Greer - not as distinguished a cast as the earlier film, that's for sure. Although they all acquit themselves very well. Okay, so in casting, the Ronald Colman film is the winner. Now that I'm thinking even more about both films, I'm picking the Colman version as the all around best one. Though, as I said, I recommend watching both.
THE PRISONER OF ZENDA is a fabulous, over-the-top tale of love, duty, sacrifice and honor -all the good stuff. (It would make a great opera.) All the things that, perhaps, seem a bit old school in today's world. But once-upon-a-time, men and women actually gave and kept their word, loved with deep devotion and sacrificed for the sake of honor.
Here's the story in a nutshell in case you're not familiar with it: The hero, Major Rudolph Rassendyll (That's his name, not much I can do about it.) is on a walking tour of the Principality of Ruritania. There he is mistaken for the King of Ruritania (I like saying the name.) who has disappeared, unknown to the general populace. It turns out he (the king) has been drugged and kidnapped so his brother (if I remember correctly) or first cousin can be installed as king in his place. It also turns out that Rudolph looks EXACTLY like the King who, by the way, is a wastrel and unworthy of the beautiful princess Flavia whom he is to marry.
Anyway, you guessed it: Rudolph is hooked into a daring plan. He is asked to impersonate the King at least until the actual King can be found and convinced to behave himself like the monarch he is. Long story short: Rudolph is successful in his impersonation, so successful that the Princess Flavia falls in love with him -he is, after all, in character and deportment, everything the REAL king is not - so one can hardly blame her. Rudolph, of course, falls in love with the princess - an impossible situation.
In the meantime, there's a desperate search on for the 'real' king which involves secret plots, lots of derring-do, swash and buckle and fights to the death. The conspirators, you see, KNOW that Rudolph is not the real king, but they can't let on lest they be revealed as KNOWING what has happened to the real king. Great stuff. How all this is resolved is thrilling fun to watch and enjoy.
My favorite bit of dialogue comes at the end: One of the king's men who has been helping Rudolph carry out the impersonation, says goodbye with this incredible line and a bow, "Sometimes fate makes the wrong man King." Sigh. I LOVE that line!
You must, of course, suspend your disbelief while watching movies of this sort but I've always believed that that was what movies were about anyway: suspending our disbelief and being transported to another time and place. (This is why the older films have such a special spot in my heart.) There's enough ugly reality online and in the newspapers, thank you very much.