(director: Richard Thorpe; screenwriters: John L. Balderston/Noel Langley/Wells Root/ from the novel by Anthony Hope and the drama by Edward Rose; cinematographer: Joseph Ruttenberg; editor: George Boemler; music: Alfred Newman; cast: Stewart Granger (Rudolf Rassendyll/King Rudolf V), Deborah Kerr (Princess Flavia), James Mason (Rupert of Hentzau), Louis Calhern (Col. Zapt), Jane Greer (Antoinette de Mauban), Lewis Stone (The cardinal), Robert Douglas (Michael, Duke of Strelsau), Robert Coote (Fritz von Tarlenheim), Francis Pierlot (Josef); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Pandro S. Berman; MGM; 1952)
“The 1937 version was much livelier.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel had been done three times in the silent era and once in a talkie in 1937, and in 1979 the version starring Peter Sellers tried unsuccessfully to be a comedy. In this MGM big-budget version director Richard Thorpe (“Ivanhoe”), known for only taking one take, keeps it almost exactly the same as the superior 1937 John Cromwell version, even keeping the same Alfred Newman score. What Thorpe didn’t have going for him was the inspiration and Stewart Granger, though competent, was not as dynamic as Ronald Colman in the leading role. Somehow the 1937 version was much livelier, while this one was flat. Lewis Stone who was the star in the 1922 silent, here has a cameo as the Cardinal. The only detectable improvements for this costumed swashbuckler was in the lush Technicolor and fine camerawork of Joseph Ruttenberg, and by a more spirited and better choreographed dueling sequence.

In 1897 an English tourist named Rudolf Rassendyll (Stewart Granger) is on a fishing vacation in the Balkan country of Ruritania where he runs into his distant relative and look-alike, King Rudolf (also Granger). The night before the King is to be crowned King Rudolf V, his evil half brother Michael, Duke of Strelsau (Robert Douglas), whose mother was not a princess, connives to have his brother’s wine drugged and therefore the unconscious Rudolf won’t attend and he will seek to become regent. Michael has ambitions to be king, and anyway feels his brother is a drunk, a weakling and an incompetent. But Rudolf’s closest advisers Colonel Zapt (Louis Calhern) and Fritz von Tarlenheim (Robert Coote) prevail on the tourist Rudolf Rassendyll to substitute for the king, as they wish to foil the dangerous conspiracy. The masquerade fools everyone and the tourist is crowned King and will soon marry his beautiful cousin Princess Flavia (Deborah Kerr). But after the coronation the ambitious Rupert of Hentzau (James Mason) discovers the real King in the wine cellar and takes him hostage.

The impostor falls in love with Princess Flavia, but remains dutiful in carrying out his assignment. She has not seen her chosen groom for a few years, but is quite pleased with the changes she sees in his character from the time he slighted her. Meanwhile Michael’s main squeeze Antoinette de Mauban (Jane Greer), a hot-headed commoner, frets that Michael if he becomes regent will dump her for Flavia. The palace intrigues play out as the two sides play out their hands, as the Machiavellian Rupert also desires Antoinette and is willing to sell out his ally Michael to get what he wants. As each side is not willing to divulge to the public what is really going down, it leads to the only scene in the film that seemed to have a pulse– the climactic battle between the honorable Englishman hoping to rescue the real King in his captivity at Zenda and the Teutonic heavy Rupert hoping to gain power, riches and a beautiful woman for himself.

The Prisoner of Zenda (1952)