Ronald Colman: Turner Classic Movies’ Star of the Month in two major 1930s classics
Updated: Turner Classic Movies’ July 2017 Star of the Month is Ronald Colman, one of the finest performers of the studio era. On Thursday night, TCM presented five Colman star vehicles that should be popping up again in the not-too-distant future: A Tale of Two Cities, The Prisoner of Zenda, Kismet, Lucky Partners, and My Life with Caroline. The first two movies are among not only Colman’s best, but also among Hollywood’s best during its so-called Golden Age.
Based on Charles Dickens’ classic novel, Jack Conway’s Academy Award-nominated A Tale of Two Cities (1936) is a rare Hollywood production indeed: it manages to effectively condense its sprawling source, it boasts first-rate production values, and it features a phenomenal central performance. Ah, it also shows its star without his trademark mustache – about as famous at the time as Clark Gable’s.
Perhaps not as relevant as the absence of Ronald Colman’s penciled bit of facial hair, but A Tale of Two Cities is also remarkable for not setting aside the sociopolitical events that are crucial to its plot – unlike, for instance, George Sidney’s 1952 Scaramouche, which all but erased the French Revolution, the leitmotif in Rafael Sabatini’s 1921 novel.
As a result, in A Tale of Two Cities, you get to see common folk bravely rising up to bring down the ruling (but not coastal) elites, in order to, with the help of outsiders, drain the swamp. And drain it they do – only to fill it up again with their own fanatical, bloodthirsty vermin, including, to some extent or other, stage stars Blanche Yurka and Lucille La Verne.
As a politically minded hag, La Verne is particularly effective, coming up with such a memorably monstrous portrayal that it’s no wonder she would be voice-cast as the Evil Queen/Witch in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Update: This Ronald Colman post is being revised and expanded. Please check back later.
As an aside, the now largely forgotten Jack Conway should be better appreciated. After all, besides A Tale of Two Cities, his portfolio – from the mid-1920s on, almost exclusively at MGM – includes major productions such as Red Headed Woman, Best Picture Oscar nominee Libeled Lady, and The Hucksters. During his nearly four-decade career (1912–1948), Conway directed actors ranging from 1910s film icon J. Warren Kerrigan, Lon Chaney, and William Haines to William Powell, Jean-Pierre Aumont, and Walter Pidgeon, from 1910s actress Ella Hall, Norma Shearer, and Jean Harlow to Katharine Hepburn, Greer Garson, and Ava Gardner.
For the record, 22 years after Ronald Colman, Dirk Bogarde would star in the less well-regarded remake of A Tale of Two Cities, under the direction of Ralph Thomas. Dorothy Tutin was Bogarde’s leading lady.
Also revolving around politics, powerlust, and heartbreak (but without the decapitations) is John Farrow’s The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), the first talkie version of Anthony Hope’s Ruritanian novel.
Colman is excellent as both the visiting Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll and the deeply flawed Central European King Rudolf V, while the very blonde and very beautiful Madeleine Carroll succeeds in creating a well-rounded human being out of what in other hands would have been a bland, decorative role. As for Raymond Massey, he sure looks the part of the evil Black Michael, who, unable to pardon himself for crimes committed against the state, meets a less-than-pleasant end.
But most notable of all – because it’s such a surprisingly effective performance – is Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as the self-serving villain Rupert of Hentzau, who does whatever it takes to help the forces of darkness attain and, later, remain in power just because he can.
Beginning at the dawn of the sound era, Fairbanks Jr. had made a career playing ineffectual (and less sympathetic) variations of the sort of go-getting “all-American” characters his father had portrayed in his pre-swashbuckling days (e.g., The Habit of Happiness, He Comes Up Smiling).
To the best of my knowledge, throughout his career Douglas Fairbanks Sr. was to remain the embodiment of the shining hero of millions of 10-year-old boys. Fairbanks Jr., however, dared to take a different route in The Prisoner of Zenda – consequently delivering what may well have been, by far, the most memorable performance of his career.
The younger Fairbanks could have become a fantastic villain – a more suave, more psychopathic Basil Rathbone – but he unfortunately opted to go back to following his father’s career arc, leaving behind the go-getters of I Like Your Nerve and Parachute Jumper to move on to swashbuckling/fantasy heroes of varying degrees of effectiveness in star vehicles such as The Corsican Brothers and The Exile.
David O. Selznick, always of a fan of classic novels, produced both A Tale of Two Cities and The Prisoner of Zenda.
Prior to Cromwell’s classic 1937 movie, Rex Ingram had directed the mammoth – for the time – 1922 version. Lewis Stone, in his pre-Andy Hardy’s Dad days, starred. Alice Terry was his love interest, while Ramon Novarro got his big break as the villainous Rupert.
Directed by Richard Thorpe, a 1952 version starred Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr, and James Mason, with Jane Greer in the role played by Barbara La Marr in the 1922 film and Mary Astor in the 1937 remake. (At the time, the future Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner – for The Great Lie, 1941 – was enmeshed in a scandal centered on her, according to rumors, sexually explicit diary.)
Kismet (1944) is a great-looking but magic-less Technicolor fantasy. Admittedly, part of the problem lies with its star. Ronald Colman takes the easy way out in his portrayal of a Baghdad-ian beggar/magician, basically rehashing the same happy-go-lucky characters he had created – usually without much genuine enthusiasm – in Samuel Goldwyn movies released during the early years of the sound era (e.g., The Devil to Pay!, The Unholy Garden).
Also not helping matters is the fact that Kismet director William Dieterle was no Ernst Lubitsch. Jewel Robbery aside, Dieterle wasn’t exactly known for his comic touch. Maybe if Jennifer Jones had been cast in Marlene Dietrich’s – subordinate – role, things might have turned out differently. After all, Jones seemed to bring out the very best in Dieterle (Love Letters, Portrait of Jennie).
As another aside, it’s great that Ronald Colman is Turner Classic Movies’ Star of the Month, including presentations of Clive of India and The Light That Failed; on the other hand it’s too bad that this Colman month failed to include several rarities that should be available to TCM, among them the late silent The Rescue (1929), which features the prototype of Colman’s “serious” heroes of the talkie era; Condemned! (1929), which earned Colman – along with Bulldog Drummond – his first Best Actor Academy Award nomination; and two little-seen star vehicles of the mid-1930s, The Masquerader (1933) and Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934).
Ronald Colman movies on July 20 (ET)
8:00 PM A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1935). Director: Jack Conway. Cast:Ronald Colman. Elizabeth Allan. Edna May Oliver. Reginald Owen. Basil Rathbone. Blanche Yurka. Donald Woods. Lucille La Verne. Henry B. Walthall. B&W. 126 mins.
10:30 PM THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937). Director: John Cromwell. Cast: Ronald Colman. Madeleine Carroll. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Mary Astor. C. Aubrey Smith. David Niven. B&W. 101 mins.
12:30 AM KISMET (1944). Director: William Dieterle. Cast: Ronald Colman. Marlene Dietrich. James Craig. Edward Arnold. Hugh Herbert. Joy Page. Florence Bates. Harry Davenport. Color. 100 mins.
4:30 AM MY LIFE WITH CAROLINE (1941). Director: Lewis Milestone. Cast: Ronald Colman. Anna Lee. Charles Winninger. B&W. 81 mins.
Ronald Colman movies on July 13 (ET)
10:30 PM IF I WERE KING (1938). Director: Frank Lloyd. Cast: Ronald Colman. Basil Rathbone. Frances Dee. B&W. 101 mins.
12:30 AM CLIVE OF INDIA (1935). Director: Richard Boleslawski. Cast: Ronald Colman. Loretta Young. Colin Clive. B&W. 92 mins.
4:00 AM THE MAN WHO BROKE THE BANK AT MONTE CARLO (1935). Director: Stephen Roberts. Cast: Ronald Colman. Joan Bennett. Colin Clive. B&W. 67 mins.
Ronald Colman movies on July 6 (ET)
12:15 AM BULLDOG DRUMMOND (1929). Director: F. Richard Jones. Cast: Ronald Colman. Joan Bennett. Lilyan Tashman. Claud Allister. Lawrence Grant. B&W. 89 mins.
2:00 AM RAFFLES (1930). Director: Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast. Cast: Ronald Colman. Kay Francis. Bramwell Fletcher. David Torrence. Frederic Kerr. John Rogers. Alison Skipworth. Frances Dade. Uncredited: Virginia Bruce. B&W. 71 mins.
5:00 AM CYNARA (1932). Director: King Vidor. Cast: Ronald Colman. Kay Francis. Phyllis Barry. Henry Stephenson. B&W. 78 mins.
6:30 AM ARROWSMITH (1931). Director: John Ford. Cast: Ronald Colman. Helen Hayes. Richard Bennett. Myrna Loy. Alec B. Francis. B&W. 99 mins.