Celebrating Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s 100th birthday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will screen The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) on Wednesday, December 9, at 8 p.m. at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. Oscar-winning visual-effects supervisor Craig Barron and Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt will examine the photographic and sound effects used in this Ruritanian classic directed by John Cromwell, and also starring Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll, and Mary Astor.
As a plus, the evening will feature rare behind-the-scenes color footage of The Prisoner of Zenda from the Academy Film Archive’s Home Movie Collection, including footage of master cinematographer James Wong Howe and his camera crew, along with Fairbanks practicing sword fighting.
The presentation will also include never-before-seen camera tests from the personal collection of visual-effects cameraman Clarence Slifer, which show how many of the film’s illusions were created — Colman plays dual roles. And finally, Ben Burtt will demonstrate how the sound effects for the climactic sword-fighting scene were achieved.
Based on Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel about a king, his English double, and a plot to steal the throne of Ruritania, the 1937 version of The Prisoner of Zenda, produced by David O. Selznick, is supposed to be the best ever made. I’ve only seen one other, Rex Ingram’s sumptuous but somewhat slow-moving 1922 film starring Lewis Stone, Alice Terry, Ramon Novarro, and Barbara La Marr. Although I do like Ingram’s version, I much prefer this lush, fast-paced, romantic, funny, and beautifully acted remake.
In the 1922 version, Novarro is good as the suave villain Rupert of Hentzau, but Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s Rupert is quite possibly the best characterization of his career. Certainly, it’s his best acting job from among the 30 or so films I’ve seen him in — and it’s eons away from his early roles, as he was usually cast as naive, idealistic young things. (Even when he played a heel in the early 1930s, Fairbanks came across as innocent; not so in Zenda.)
Ronald Colman, one of the most underrated actors of the studio era, is Fairbanks’ equal here. After all, with a villain as alluring as Fairbanks, only a thoroughly engaging hero would make me root for him. Colman achieves that feat — and that’s a rarity, as I’m almost invariably on the side of the darkest of movie evildoers.
Madeleine Carroll, for her part, looks great and proves herself a capable performer (she should have been — but wasn’t — much bigger than Grace Kelly), and so does Mary Astor in a supporting role. The Prisoner of Zenda is not to be missed.
The film was adapted by John L. Balderston, Edward Rose, Wells Root, with additional dialogue by Donald Ogden Stewart. Also in the Prisoner of Zenda cast: Raymond Massey, C. Aubrey Smith and David Niven (both above, with Colman).
The film earned Academy Award nominations for Art Direction (Lyle Wheeler) and Music - Scoring (Selznick International Pictures Music Department, Alfred Newman, musical director).
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. died on May 7, 2000, at the age of 90.
Tickets to The Prisoner of Zenda, are $5 for the general public and $3 for Academy members and students with a valid ID.
Tickets are available for purchase by mail, at the Academy box office (8949 Wilshire Boulevard, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.), or online at www.oscars.org. Doors open one hour prior to the event. All seating is unreserved.
The Samuel Goldwyn Theater is located at the 8949 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. For more information call (310) 247-3600 or visit www.oscars.org.
Photos: Courtesy of the Margaret Herrick