When a story has been filmed several times it’s interesting to examine the different versions to see how similar or different they ended up appearing. In the case of Richard Thorpe’s “The Prisoner of Zenda” (1952), it’s definitely a matter of comparing the similarities to the 1937 version of Anthony Hope’s novel, as it is virtually the same movie, updated for a 1950’s audience.
The plot remains a combination of coincidence and convenience as the soon to be king of a made-up country (Stewart Granger) meets his distant English cousin, Rassendyl (also Granger), who happens to look almost identical. (Actually, I suppose I should say completely identical.) After a night of heavy drinking and camaraderie together, the future king is drugged by his half-brother, Michael (Robert Douglas), leaving him unconscious for his coronation. Enter his “twin” Rassendyl, who nobly takes the soon-to-be king’s place until he awakes.
Rassendyl, along with the king’s trusted friends (Louis Calhern & Robert Coote), put up a charade for the coronation, but things go wrong when the real king is kidnapped by one of Michael’s cohorts, Rupert (James Mason). Also adding trouble to the already plagued situation is Princess Flavia (Deborah Kerr), who is betrothed to the future king, but now finds herself in love with the disguised Rassendyl.
What is interesting to note between the 1937 film and the 1952 film is that they really are the same movie. After paying David O. Selznick for the rights to use his 1937 picture, the new filmmakers proceeded to use the same script, the same music score, and even many of the same camera angles, making “The Prisoner of Zenda” one of the most unoriginal films ever. What’s even worse is that it looks like a copy of an original, so the sharpness is lost, leaving nothing but a faded, dull film behind. One thing that wasn’t copied exactly was the costumes, and they should have been, as the 1937 version excelled in this aspect and the 1952 film’s costumes look like they were rented the night before shooting. (Except for Deborah Kerr’s dresses, but they don’t get much screen time anyway.)
Of course in all fairness, I have to speak of the acting in glowing terms. Stewart Granger is perfectly suited for this type of role, and it doesn’t really matter that he doesn’t live up to Ronald Colman’s performance because even copy-cat Granger is entertaining in this type of adventure film. (He always is though, right?) Likewise, Deborah Kerr is one of the most delightful women to ever grace the screen, but she doesn’t bring enough to this film to pull it out of the depths of despair. And then there is James Mason. One of the greatest, most under-rated, fear-inducing screen villains of his day, and here he’s just laughable. His evil charms usually come from being intelligent and sarcastically witty, and not from physical confrontations with knife and swordplay.
I wonder about the purpose behind this remake. Was someone just attempting to make some money? Was it designed to be an homage? Did anyone have a passion for the story, or even a desire to be involved? “The Prisoner of Zenda” can be fun, as evidence from early film versions prove, but in 1952 the production appears to be hurried and lack-luster. The result is an uninspired film that leaves the audience feeling flat and wishing they had just watched Ronald Colman in the 1937 film instead.