Saturday 26 September 2020

Movie Review: The Prisoner Of Zenda (1937)

A swashbuckling adventure, The Prisoner Of Zenda is a breezy story of palace intrigue, conspiracy, romance, and one wild coincidence.

British aristocrat Rudolf Rassendyll (Ronald Colman) arrives in an unnamed small eastern european country for a fishing vacation. He carries an uncanny resemblance to king-to-be Rudolf V (also Colman), who is about to be coronated the next day. The future king and his loyal assistants Colonel Zapt (C. Aubrey Smith) and Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim (David Niven) spend the evening drinking with Rassendyll.

Unfortunately, Rudolf V consumes a wine bottle spiked with a sleeping drug, courtesy of his evil brother Duke Michael (Raymond Massey) and co-conspirator Rupert of Hentzau (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). Michael will ascend to the throne if Rudolf misses his coronation, with a bonus prize of marrying Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll), who is promised to whoever becomes king. Antoinette de Mauban (Mary Astor) truly loves Michael, and is therefore in danger of losing her man.

With Rudolf V incapacitated, Colonel Zapt thinks quickly and convinces doppelganger Rassendyll to show up at the coronation, disrupting Michael's plot. Rudolf V is captured and imprisoned by Hentzau, and Rassendyll now has to pretend to be King. He starts to fall in love with Flavia and is thrust into a ruthless battle for the crown.

The adaptation of the classic Anthony Hope novel is given lush, high-quality treatment in this David O. Selznick production. As a story The Prisoner Of Zelda may operate best at an almost childlike level of thrills and wonder, but the movie just powers ahead, fully committed to the absurd tale of an Englishman asked to fool an entire foreign nation and getting away with it for much longer than makes sense.

With eager pacing, director John Cromwell somehow packs the multiple characters, twisted agendas, numerous double-crosses, and convoluted but internally logical events into just the 101 minutes. The actors help by appearing resplendent in their outfits, the men convincing as they partake in a joust for dominance, the ladies leaning heavily towards theatricality and heavy breathing. The impressive set designs, featuring hundreds of extras, create a bountiful ambience. A few athletic sword and dagger battles add punctuation marks.

The stellar cast is deep in talent, and Colman is in fine form playing dual roles and overcoming a few incidents of clunky editing when Rassendyll and Rudolf V appear together. Surprisingly C. Aubrey Smith overshadows almost everyone else as Colonel Zapt, a wily veteran patriotic officer with a singular mission to protect the throne's reputation.

Slicing its way through any scrutiny of rationality, The Prisoner Of Zenda is an exuberant escape to exotic exploits.

All Ace Black Movie Blog Reviews are here.

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