The theme of a prince who gives up the girl he loves in order to fulfill his royal duty has been tried many times, but Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg is the best.
The plot is simple and predictable. After a brief opening of pomp and circumstance in the Royal Palace of King Karl VII (Gustav von Seyffertitz) at the close of the 19th Century, we first see young Crown Prince Karl Heinrich as a boy (Philippe de Lacy) arriving to take his place next-in-line to the throne.
Heinrich is the King’s orphan nephew, totally unaccustomed to the demanding lifestyle expected of him. He is kept away from other boys his age, and his beloved nanny is sent away in order to toughen him up. His only playmates are the stuffy palace staff, who are at best tentative about playing ball.
Heinrich’s luck changes in the person of Dr. Juttner (Jean Hersholt), who is brought in to tutor the youth. Here, Heinrich finds the father he never had. Old Dr. Juttner is not afraid to roughhouse with him, as well as show him tenderness and love. The two share a warm and friendly bond together.
When Heinrich becomes a young man (Ramon Novarro), he and Dr. Juttner are sent to Heidelberg to further the Prince’s education. They both look upon this as a chance to escape the stifling atmosphere of the Royal Palace, and enjoy the freedom and autonomy that the city has to offer. One beautifully photographed scene by cameraman John Mescall takes place when Dr. Juttner whispers in Heinrich’s ear about the clandestine joys he will experience in Old Heidelberg. Novarro throws his head back and laughs, with the light caressing his face like a lover.
In fact, ravishing Ramon laughs and smiles a lot in The Student Prince – and he never looked lovelier. His mouth and eyes are bright and expressive, and his face is carefully lit by Mescall’s camera with the assistance of MGM’s overall high production values. As a result, Novarro seems to radiate joy. I particularly liked the warm relationship between him and Hersholt. The two actors really looked like they cared for each other.
Eventually, the Prince and the Doctor arrive in Heidelberg where they meet the proprietor of the local hotel and part-time beer-hall hostess, Kathi (Norma Shearer). She is beautiful and plucky and high-spirited; all the ideals young Heinrich finds attractive. It is no surprise that they fall in love.
The scene where Kathi emerges from the beer hall, clutching two fistfuls of ale, is gorgeous. The camera cuts to Heinrich’s look of pleasant surprise when he sees her guzzle down a mug of beer, and you immediately know that this is the girl for him.
One breathtaking tracking shot shows Heinrich pursuing Kathi in a garden. They both look beautiful together, like a perfectly matched set. In another sequence, Mescall’s cinematography and fluid camera movements showcase the lush natural background surrounding them as they lie in the grass together.
Now, on a personal note I can honestly say that I am too jaded and cynical to like “romance” stories, but this is an exception. Knowing that the “boy” does not get the “girl” at the end, endears this film to me for just that reason. There is no happy ending.
Prince Heinrich is ordered back to the Royal Palace to tend to the dying King and to take his place on the throne. After a while, his passion for Kathi can no longer be contained, so he returns to Heidelberg only to discover he can never recapture the carefree life he had once shared with a commoner. He knows it is his duty to marry a princess and take up his crown.
The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg moves smoothly along thanks to Ernst Lubitsch’s deft direction. Both Novarro and Shearer are at the peak of their erotic appeal, and Hersholt was never more lovable. As a plus, Philippe de Lacy – billed here as “Philipe de Lacy” – is quite appealing as the boy Prince.
In fact, I’ve seen de Lacy in a few other MGM silents, for instance, as Greta Garbo’s son in Love. I always find his performances remarkably honest for someone his age.
Back to The Student Prince: John Mescall’s cinematography is clear and crisp, while Cedric Gibbons’ sets appropriately range from the mundane to the opulent. And finally, the screenplay by frequent Lubitsch collaborator Hanns Kräly, based on the Sigmund Romberg-Dorothy Donnelly operetta, fully succeeds in showing us his characters’ heartbreaking depth.
© Danny Fortune
The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg / Old Heidelberg (1927). Director: Ernst Lubitsch. Screenplay: Hanns Kräly; titles by Ruth Cummings and Marian Ainslee; from Sigmund Romberg and Dorothy Donnelly’s operetta The Student Prince, based on Wilhelm Meyer-Förster’s novel Karl Heinrich and play Old Heidelberg. Cast: Ramon Novarro, Norma Shearer, Jean Hersholt, Philippe de Lacy, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Edgar Norton, Bobby Mack, Edward Connelly.