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Sunday, October 3, 2010

THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937; 1952)

There are many versions of this romantic Ruritanian nonsense. (It’s the one about the British commoner who just happens to be a ringer for an indisposed/unworthy King. He stands in at the coronation, foils a diabolical coup and even falls in love with the Queen.) But the story only works its charm in David O. Selznick’s irresistible 1937 production. As he put it, ‘In tackling THE PRISONER OF ZENDA, the great criticism was that we were making a very dated piece of material, an old-fashioned fairy tale with no conceivable appeal to present-day audiences. I frankly would not have purchased the material if I hadn’t had Ronald Colman under contract, and if I hadn’t determined in advance that Colman would play the role.’* Of course, he surrounded Colman with Madeline Carroll, Raymond Massey, David Niven, C. Aubrey Smith, Mary Astor and a scene-stealing Douglas Fairbank, Jr. He also used three A-list directors, John Cromwell gets sole credit, but left the action stuff for ‘Woody’ Van Dyke, and the stunning renunciation scene was reshot by George Cukor. The 1952 version, almost a shot-by-shot TechniColor clone, is a pale copy. The cast looks fine on paper, but everybody seems to be playing the wrong role. (One nice touch gives Lewis Stone, who played the lead in 1922, a bit as the Cardinal.) Be sure to check out the fine Extras. A top-notch TOM & JERRY cartoon, and on the other side two eye-popping 1937 3-strip TechniColor shorts. Dig that state-of-the-art 1937 ‘modern’ kitchen! Alas, the archive radio version of ZENDA has been mastered at the wrong speed and Colman’s mellow baritone turns tenor!

*Edited from MEMO FROM DAVID O. SELZNICK, a classic movie book which easily earns a READ ALL ABOUT IT.

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