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Sunday, March 10, 2013

THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1922)

Rex Ingram’s reputation as one of the great visual stylists in silent film rests largely on the continuing popularity (or is it notoriety?) of THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE/’21, and the tango that made Rudolph Valentino a new sort of sexualized male pop star. But this limited view of the director is both dismissive and incomplete. Dismissive because almost all of Ingram’s surviving films are stunners; incomplete because the claim largely ignores the immense contribution of cinematographer John Seitz, who shot all of Ingram’s famous films.* That said, this early version (actually it’s about the third!) of Anthony Hope’s ripe Ruritanian chestnut of a novel (it’s the one about the English traveler who looks just like a kidnapped King and even falls in love with his Princess) shows Ingram on auto-pilot. Lewis Stone, the long time character actor @ M-G-M, is fine in the dual role of soused, unworthy King & the lookalike intrepid traveler, but even in his younger days, Stone hadn’t the dash or undertow of rue Ronald Colman brought to the best version of the story in ‘37. Alice Terry, Ingram’s wife & regular lead, is a better match as Princess Flavia, and Ingram has a bit of fun dressing up one of the henchman to look just like Erich von Stroheim. (Stroheim considered Ingram Hollywood’s finest director and even insisted that he make the initial, alas unaccepted, second cut of GREED/’24.) But the real standout role is that delightfully amoral fair-weather villain, Rupert of Hentzau, a juicy part later taken up by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. & James Mason. Obviously designed as a follow-up role for Valentino, it was eventually taken by a new Ingram discovery/sensation, Ramon Samaniegos who gives a broad & funny characterization. He’d shortly change his name to Ramon Novarro and go on to play Ben-Hur in ‘25, just as Ingram was leaving the studio, miffed at being passed over for that directing assignment. (Note: Bad Public Domain editions abound, but Warners VOD service offers a generally superb print with a good piano score accompaniment.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Seitz was a visually transforming figure for many directors, especially those two verbally oriented masters, Preston Sturges & Billy Wilder.

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