Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Overlooked Movies: The Prisoner of Zenda (1952)

Last week I did a post on the 1937 version of The Prisoner of Zenda, and this week we have the 1952 version, which is the one I saw in the theater when I was a kid.  Back in 1952, Hollywood hadn't started to "reimagine" movies.  When The Prisoner of Zenda was remade, they just dusted off the old script, spiffed up the soundtrack, and filmed it in color.  Oh, and they hired different actors, too.  Many people think the 1937 version is superior to this one, but I'm here to speak a good word for it.

Since the plot is the same and the script is the same (almost line for line), what's there to talk about?  Technicolor, for one thing.  I know that the B&W photography in the '37 version is wonderful, but Technicolor adds a lot to a historical spectacle like this one, or it does for me.  I love Technicolor, which is far superior to some of the washed out color we see these days.

Now for the actors.  Stewart Granger is wonderful.  It's true that he's not "The Voice," as Colman was called, but he's a lot more athletic than Colman, and his acting style was perfect for roles like this one.  Deborah Kerr isn't Madeleine Carroll, and she doesn't try to be.  She's fine as Princess Flavia, and because she and Granger had worked together previously in King Solomon's Mines, there's a bit of extra chemistry there.  James Mason is Rupert, and he chose to play the role almost exactly opposite from the way it was done by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.  Fairbanks seems to be having a wonderful time and gives an enthusiastic and zesty performance.  Mason underplays with wry grins and humor.  It's effective in its way, but I liked Fairbanks' approach better.  Robert Coote takes the David Niven part, and while Coote is okay, he doesn't really come close to Niven in the role.  The humor is missing, somehow.  Robert Douglas is okay as Michael, but he doesn't approach the deep-seated villainy of Raymond Massey in the original.  Louis Calhern is Col. Zapt, and I think he's excellent, but so was C. Aubrey Smith in the original.  Smith might have a bit of an edge here.  Jane Greer is beautiful, and as Antoinette de Mauban she's fully the equal of Mary Astor.

And then there's the sword fight.  Sure, Fairbanks was one of the best, but Colman, well, not so much.  James Mason might not be in Fairbanks' class, but he's very good, and Granger is so much more athletic and able than Colman that the sword fight in the 1952 version is extended to greater length than the original, and we can see the participants much better.  A big improvement.

So which version do I prefer?  Let me put it this way.  I saw the 1952 version in the theater when I was at an impressionable age.  I'd already seen King Solomon's Mines, and I thought Granger was the ultimate adventure hero. I was half in love with Deborah Kerr already.  So given the choice of which one I'd watch again, I'd go with the '52.

Side note: Both versions of The Prisoner of Zenda were made before irony was discovered, so people could talk about duty and honor and courage without any eyeball rolling in the audience.  Maybe that's another reason I like both versions of the movie so much.


pattinase (abbott) said...

I loved this movie as a kid. Always a big Deborah Kerr fan. Was anyone ever as elegant again?

Jeff Meyerson said...

This is the version I'm most familiar with. I was never a huge Granger fan, to be honest, and I prefer him in KING SOLOMON's MINES to this, but it was fun. And I 100% agree with you about Technicolor. For '40s noir and the like, I will always choose black & white, but movies like PRISONER demand color.

James Reasoner said...

I prefer movies from the Pre-Ironic Age, too. I've seen both versions of this and would also give the 1952 version a slight edge.

George said...

I remember seeing THE PRISONER OF ZENDA as a kid. I miss the Old Days, too.

Jerry House said...

I really liked this version. Coincidentally, I think this is the one with the outtakes of a farting horse -- not that that influenced my judgment.

SteveHL said...

The Prisoner of Zenda
by Richard Wilbur

At the end a
"The Prisoner of Zenda,"
The King being out of danger,
Stewart Granger
(As Rudolph Rassendyll)
Must swallow a bitter pill
By renouncing his co-star,
Deborah Kerr.

It would be poor behavia
In him and Princess Flavia
Were they to put their own
Concerns before those of the Throne.
Deborah Kerr must wed
The King instead.

Rassendyll turns to go.
Must it be so?
Why can't they have their cake
And eat it for heaven's sake?
Please let them have it both ways,
The audience prays.
And yet it is hard to quarrel
With a plot so moral.

One redeeming factor,
However, is that the actor
Who plays the once-dissolute King
(Who has learned through suffering
Not to drink or be mean
To his future Queen),
Far from being a stranger,
Is also Stewart Granger.

Unknown said...

Wonderful poem. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Max Allan Collins said...

THE PRISONER OF ZENDA was Mickey Spillane's favorite book. He also loved Dumas, specifically THE THREE MUSKETEERS and THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO.