Some films just seem to have everything going for them. Start off with a great title, add a leading man who can do it all, fill the film with a supporting cast that wows and amazes, and then just for good measure, cast your leading man in not one, but two roles to show his range, his humor, and his uncanny ability to dominate every frame. Essentially that is always going to be a formula for success, as long as the story is halfway decent anyway, which is the case of “The Prisoner of Zenda” (1937) and its witty, engaging screenplay.
Based on the 1894 novel of the same name written by Anthony Hope, the film tells the adventurous tale of the soon-to-be king, Rudolf, of an unnamed country (Ronald Colman), who on the eve of his coronation makes quite a discovery. While hunting, he meets an English gentleman named Rudolf Rassendyll (also Ronald Colman). It turns out that they are distant relatives, and they also just happen to look identical. Together they spend the evening drinking, along with the king’s two personal guards, Colonel Zapt (C. Aubrey Smith) and Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim (David Niven).
Everything is going marvelously until the future king drinks a drugged bottle of wine, rendering him unconscious. His villainous half-brother, Duke Michael (Raymond Massey), wants him to miss the coronation ceremony, thus opening the doors for his own succession to the throne. Of course what Michael could have never foreseen is the convenient meeting of look-alike Rassendyll, who accepts the highly secretive mission of taking the unconscious would-be king’s place at the ceremony.
Just in case that isn’t complicated enough, Rassendyll, now pretending to be royalty, also is meeting Rudolf’s soon-to-be wife, Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll). Rudolf and Flavia haven’t seen each other in many years, so she doesn’t notice that Rassendyll is in fact an imposter. Not only that, she actually finds Rassendyll much more appealing, leading to a love story- and even more problems.
After the ceremony, Rassendyll heads out of the castle to switch places with the (hopefully) awakened Rudolf, but he has now been kidnapped by one of Michael’s cohorts, Rupert (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). Now Rassendyll must remain in the castle, keeping up his ruse of being king until the real king can be recovered. Luckily help comes from an unlikely place when Michael’s secret love (Mary Astor) gives Rassendyll Rudolf’s location out of jealousy. (If Michael became king, he would have to marry Princess Flavia, leaving her lonely and miserable.)
I do love a complicated adventure plot, and as you can see, “The Prisoner of Zenda” certainly fits that description. The convenient coincidences and ridiculous plot points are all easily forgivable because the sweeping adventure and passionate romances help to keep the overall focus on the fun- and not the details. (Which really are rather unimportant anyway.)
Ronald Coleman is always a delight to watch, but “The Prisoner of Zenda” gives him a different type of role to undertake. Throughout his career he constantly seems to be stuck as the sad, lonely sort, but here it is exactly the opposite. Here he is given the opportunity to be funny and enchanting. Everyone likes him, even the evil Rupert, as the two share a couple of memorable scenes packed with cleverly written, banter-filled dialogue before they end up drawing swords (where they still continue to make jokes while fighting).
The supporting cast is good, without having a need to be great. Nobody is given significant screen time, but they would just have been in Colman’s way, taking away from the glorious part of the picture. It is his film, and he only needed a little bit of help from the rest of the cast, and these consummate professionals are more than up to that task.
There have been several adaptations of Hope’s novel on both the screen and the stage, but it is this 1937 film that stands out above the rest. Perhaps because of the timing of its release (both with WWII and King Edward’s avocation), or maybe it was just the light-hearted, rousing adventure that appealed to audiences. Really, it doesn’t matter why the film seems to have gotten better with age- it just has. Of course any film with great costumes, sword-swinging action, an abundance of romance, and Ronald Colman should keep getting better with age, right?