Friday, June 5, 2015

Movie Review: The Prisoner of Zenda, starring Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr, and James Mason (1952)

Movie poster for The Prisoner of Zenda, 1952. This was the fifth movie version of the classic tale.

Deborah Kerr as Princess Flavia and Stewart Granger as Rudolf Rassendyl, The Prisoner of Zenda, 1952.

Stewart Granger, looking handsome on the set. This photo was used when he appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1952.

Jane Greer and James Mason in The Prisoner of Zenda.

Fencing instructor Jean Heremans talks to James Mason and Stewart Granger during filming of the climactic sword fight.
Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda has become a classic adventure tale. The story has been filmed many times, and the 1952 remake starring Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr, and James Mason was the fifth version. I haven’t seen any of the other versions, so I can’t compare the 1952 version to them, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  James Mason is one of my favorite actors, so I’m always inclined to look favorably upon his films. 

The story of The Prisoner of Zenda is that an Englishman, Rudolf Rassendyl, (Granger) is on vacation in the fictional country of Ruritania when he discovers that he bears a striking resemblance to the soon to be crowned King Rudolf (also played by Granger). It turns out they are extremely distant cousins. When the King is incapacitated, but not killed, by a poisoned drink, the King’s right hand man, Colonel Zapt (Louis Calhern) convinces Rassendyl to impersonate the King during his coronation. Fortunately for Rassendyl, everyone in Ruritania speaks perfect English, so his accent won’t be a problem. Rassendyl is assured that he will only have to play his role for one day, but that changes once he learns that King Rudolf has been kidnapped by his evil brother Michael (Robert Douglas) and his accomplice, the scheming Rupert of Hentzau (Mason). Rassendyl also meets the lovely Princess Flavia (Kerr) who is engaged to the King. He quickly falls for her, and she warms up to him, as Rassendyl treats her better than King Rudolf ever did. Thanks to Michael’s girlfriend, Antoinette de Mauban, (Jane Greer) Rassendyl learns where King Rudolf is being held. Rassendyl is the type of courageous protagonist who has no problem at all planning and carrying out this daring rescue mission. There’s an excellent swordfight at the end between Rassendyl and Rupert, which ends with Rupert leaping out the window into the moat, leaving open the possibility that he survives. (Anthony Hope did write a sequel, Rupert of Hentzau, which has been filmed several times.) With King Rudolf rescued, Rassendyl leaves Ruritania and the beautiful Flavia behind and returns to England.

Stewart Granger gives an excellent performance as Rassendyl and King Rudolf. The scenes where Rassendyl and Rudolf interact look seamless and the scenes weren’t shot using the obvious trick of having a double stand with his back to the camera. There’s even a moment where Rudolf touches Rassendyl’s sleeve, and it looks quite convincing. I’m surprised the technology was that advanced in 1952.

Granger had the requisite good looks and charm to be a successful leading man, and he projects Rassendyl’s inner decency very well. Granger also had the great hair necessary to be a swashbuckling action star. An interesting fact about Granger is that his real name was James Stewart. When he went into acting, he changed it to avoid confusion with the American actor, but Granger was always known to friends as Jimmy. At the time The Prisoner of Zenda was made, Granger was married to the lovely actress Jean Simmons. The Grangers were good friends with Richard Burton and his first wife Sybil. Burton was another highly acclaimed British actor who first came to Hollywood in 1952. Supposedly, Burton kissed Simmons instead of Sybil at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. I don’t know if Burton and Simmons had an affair, but the chemistry between them is easy to see in 1953’s The Robe, the religious epic that introduced the world to CinemaScope. The Robe also starred the wonderful Victor Mature. My two favorite Victor Mature quotes: When a director wasn’t satisfied with Mature’s work in a scene, he said, “I’ve got three looks, looking left, looking right, and looking straight ahead. Which one do you want?” And when Mature was refused membership in a country club because he was an actor, he replied, “I’m not an actor-and I’ve got sixty-four films to prove it!”

Mason is excellent as the villain, and he brings a sly humor to Rupert. Mason could be both charming and menacing, often at the same time, and he does both very well here. He clearly has fun with the role of Rupert, and it’s again a reminder that Mason would have made the best James Bond villain ever. Mason also would have made a superb Iago. Mason was always quite self-deprecating about his own acting talent, and the only comment he made about The Prisoner of Zenda in Clive Hirschhorn’s 1975 book The Films of James Mason was “I thought the costumes were ghastly.” (Hirschhorn, p.104) The costumes were certainly designed to take advantage of the color photography, but I quite enjoyed them, even though Stewart Granger can’t quite keep his shirts and jackets buttoned up in the second half of the movie.

Kerr is luminous, as always, as Princess Flavia, and although the role doesn’t require her to flex her acting muscles very much, she still does an excellent job. Kerr is convincing as we see her have a change of heart towards King Rudolf. 

Granger, Mason and Kerr all had similar career trajectories, as they became big stars in British films, and then moved on to Hollywood in the late 1940’s. Kerr made three movies with Stewart Granger, the others being King Solomon’s Mines, which made Granger a star in the U.S., and was the second highest grossing movie of 1950, and 1953’s Young Bess, about the early years of Queen Elizabeth I. Kerr also made three movies with James Mason, the others being Hatter’s Castle, a British film from 1942, and 1953’s Julius Caesar, which featured one of Mason’s best performances as Brutus. The Prisoner of Zenda was the fourth movie that Stewart Granger and James Mason had made together. They first appeared together in Secret Mission, from 1942, which starred Mason, and in which Granger had only a small role. By the next year Granger had moved up to his first starring role in The Man in Grey, which proved to be Mason’s breakthrough role, and they co-starred again in 1944’s very successful Fanny By Gaslight. In both films, Granger played the good guy, while Mason played an evil cad.

I’ve written before about Mason’s early career in my review of Caught, the 1949 movie that was his first Hollywood film. My description of Mason that follows comes from that post. Mason found his greatest success in England playing sadistic, aristocratic types in period dramas, and women loved him. Or loved to hate him, or hated that they loved him, or something like that. Mason cut a handsome figure on screen, with his thick, dark hair, his sad, expressive dark eyes, his brooding countenance, and of course his beautiful voice. Mason’s voice could suggest either friendly openness or chilling cruelty, and he truly made the most of his fantastic instrument.

The 1952 version of The Prisoner of Zenda is a thrilling adventure story, elevated by the excellent performances from the three leading actors. Watch for Lewis Stone in a small role as the Cardinal-he played Rassendyl and King Rudolf in the 1922 silent version.

1 comment:

Curtiss Mooney said...

Another great Victor Mature quote comes from when Tony Curtis & Mature were both courting Janet Leigh during the time Leigh & Curtis were co-starring in the movie, "Houdini." When Leigh went on to marry Curtis, Mature's comment about losing her was: "Apparently the only way to a woman's heart is to saw her in half."