Monday, January 16, 2012

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937/1952)

Since these two versions come nicely packaged on one DVD, I watched both of them this weekend. I viewed the 1952 version first, then the 1937 version. Now, the 1952 is a remake that used the same script, so the dialogue, even the staging, etc. is virtually the same. The only real differences are the cast, and that one film is in b&w, the other in color. I have to say I liked both versions and would happily watch either again, but if I had to choose, I'd go with the 1937 version.

Why? Because of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Rupert of Hentzau. Because he is awesome. The biggest difference between the two versions is in Rupert's character. In the 1952 version, James Mason has the role.

Both are very good, but despite the fact that they're saying the same dialogue, each is an entirely different character. James Mason is an older Rupert, a wee bit older than Stewart Granger, and he makes Rupert more thoughtful, creepy, and downright evil. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is considerably younger than Ronald Colman, and is a cocky/arrogant/devil-may-care version. I wanted James Mason to get it at the end, whereas I wanted Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to get away.

I wouldn't want to mix casts, either, because each villain works specifically with their type of protagonist. Stewart Granger is a bit flippant and devil-may-care himself, so James Mason is a nice foil for that. Same with Fairbanks and Ronald Colman. Colman is the thoughtful one, so having Fairbanks be the grinning, cocky one works beautifully. I particularly love their sword fight at the end. Fairbanks' Rupert is so arrogantly sure of himself, facing this unassuming, older Englishman. You can just see how he's positive there's no way he can lose. But Ronald Colman's Rudolph is all steady confidence and resourceful physicality. As the fight goes on and Fairbanks realizes he's not teaching Colman a lesson, quite the reverse, he gets more and more desperate. It gives the whole fight an arc that plays out just perfectly.

Granger and Mason seem much more evenly matched, and while Mason plays Rupert with a fair touch of arrogance, there's more caution there, less recklessness. He's more the older soldier going to teach the younger foreigner a lesson. As he starts losing, his desperateness is of an entirely different tone. It's quite interesting watching the two movies back to back. I loved both sword fights.

I enjoyed Stewart Granger and Ronald Colman. One gives you matinee idol dashing, the other gives you clever reliability. I think Ronald Colman and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. are the better matches for the characters they're portraying, but at the same time, it's hard to beat handsome Stewart Granger. I think this is why I liked both versions. The 1937 version is better, more accurate, but the 1952 has a lot going for it too.

As for the rest of the cast, both sets of actors were good and interchangeable. Princess Flavia is played by Deborah Kerr in the newer version, Madeleine Carroll in the older. Jane Greer vs. Mary Astor, as Antoinette. They all were fine. Same with the different sets of male characters. Oh, I should mention that the 1937 version has David Niven, who is delightful.

Some favorite shots from both films:

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. showing his dangerous side.

Ronald Colman, nicely backlit by the fireplace during the final fight... but you know, did he have to put on the heavy sweater? He had a very nice black outfit on before he swam the moat... rather like:

Stewart Granger sneaking around, in his most excellent and attractive black attire. See, he knows better than to put on a wool sweater! More please!

And finally, my favorite shot of Stewart Granger in the whole movie, as the imprisoned king, suffering from an unknown wound, rumpled and disheveled, chained up, and sporting a lovely five o'clock shadow. I'd break into the castle to rescue him!

There's a 1979 version of Prisoner of Zenda that I'd like to see, but Netflix doesn't have it. It stars Peter Sellers, which doesn't interest me, but it does have one of my favorite modern sword fighting actors, Stuart Wilson, as Rupert of Hentzau, and I would dearly love to see him play that role! I've commented on how fast he is with a sword every time I see him wield one (which, so far, is in Ivanhoe, Mask of Zorro, and Princess of Thieves... the latter, I realize, I loved and never blogged about... sigh.) One of these days, it might come around.


Laura said...

Yes, I agree pretty much with everything you wrote here. Some people like to diss the remake because the staging is so identical, but in a strange way that's part of the remake's beauty, and how could I not love that '52 cast?! And it may have helped that I saw that version first too.

If pushed I would choose the older version, like you, because of Fairbanks, who's absolutely brilliant. And Niven is so charming he pushes me over the edge to vote that direction. But I also love Granger and Mason, and on the right day I might pick that version...

You shared some very good insights about why the pairings work -- Granger being more flippant needed to be offset with a more serious foil, and vice versa in the earlier film. That makes great sense to me as to why the pairings work. I also like your analysis of the sword fights.

Great movies!

Best wishes,

DKoren said...

Yep, I really did like both and didn't mind that they were nearly identical at all. And David Niven really was completely disarming and charming in this role. He and Fairbanks really make the older version sparkle. But then, Granger and Mason are good opponents too... so you're right, it's easy to swing back and forth.

I've got King Solomon's Mines coming next. :-D

Patti said...

I have never seen the original film, only the 1952 version. I really enjoyed it!!

I have come to really like Stewart Granger. No, he's not on my top 20 list...yet! As I keep watching his films, though, I may end up having to move someone else off so I can put him.

And James Mason...oooh, what a voice! I think we've discussed that before! That voice is like velvet!!

Laura said...

Ah, KING SOLOMON'S MINES...that's a movie I stumbled across on TCM one Saturday morning, I'd never been interested in it and Granger was, let's just say I now own it and have seen it a few times (grin). He's really charismatic and convincing as the guide. Good stuff! Except for Deborah Kerr's amazingly perfect haircut partway through the movie (grin).

Best wishes,

Ruby (Old movie lover) said...

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is just...WOW :)
I realy like him in this role and I SO wanted him to get away. i have read the book the movie was based on and they are both 10/10

Hardraada said...

I absolutely love both versions and have read the book once a year since I was 14 (That would be 52 times to date). I actually prefer the '52 version slightly as the final duel is less Hollywood dazzle and more actual saber play. (As someone who fenced saber in the distant past, that matters to me.) I also prefer Granger to Coleman as I feel he captures Rupert from the book more closely. And Mason frightened me, which Fairbanks never did. But they are both excellent films, on my top 20 list and I thank you for your fine review of them!

DKoren said...

I rewatched the '52 one a couple months ago, and I do agree that James Mason is scary in a way Fairbanks never will be. Way more intimidating. I should really read the book. I think I'd really enjoy that.

Also -- YAY! Another fencer!