The Prisoner of Zenda (1937 film)

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The Prisoner of Zenda
The Prisoner of Zenda (1937 film poster).jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Cromwell
W. S. Van Dyke (uncredited)
Written byWells Root (adaptation)
Donald Ogden Stewart (additional dialogue)
Ben Hecht (uncredited)
Sidney Howard (uncredited)
Screenplay byJohn L. Balderston from the novel (and Edward Rose's dramatization)
Based onnovel by Anthony Hope
Produced byDavid O. Selznick
StarringRonald Colman
Madeleine Carroll
Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
CinematographyJames Wong Howe
Bert Glennon (uncredited)
Edited byJames E. Newcom
Hal C. Kern
(supervising film editor)
Music byAlfred Newman
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • September 2, 1937 (1937-09-02)
Running time
101 minutes
CountryUnited States

The Prisoner of Zenda is a 1937 American black-and-white adventure film based on Anthony Hope's 1894 novel of the same name and the 1896 play. A lookalike has to step in when his royal distant relative is kidnapped to prevent his coronation. This version is widely considered the best of the many film adaptations of the novel and play.

The film stars Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., with a supporting cast including C. Aubrey Smith, Raymond Massey, Mary Astor and David Niven. It was directed by John Cromwell, produced by David O. Selznick for Selznick International Pictures and distributed by United Artists. The screenplay was written by John L. Balderston, adapted by Wells Root from the novel, with dramatization by Edward Rose; Donald Ogden Stewart was responsible for additional dialogue and Ben Hecht and Sidney Howard made uncredited contributions.

Alfred Newman received the first of his 43 Academy Award nominations, for Original Music Score, while Lyle R. Wheeler was nominated for Best Art Direction. In 1991, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in its National Film Registry.


Ronald Colman and Madeleine Carroll in The Prisoner of Zenda

In June 1897, English gentleman Major Rassendyll (Ronald Colman) takes a fishing vacation in a small country somewhere between Vienna and Bucharest (unnamed in the film; Ruritania in the novel). While visiting there, he is puzzled by the odd reactions of the natives to his presence. Rassendyll discovers why when he meets Colonel Zapt (C. Aubrey Smith) and Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim (David Niven). Zapt introduces him to the soon-to-be-crowned king, Rudolf V (Colman again), a distant relative who looks just like him (except for the Englishman's beard). The king, astounded at first by the close resemblance, takes a great liking to the Englishman.

They celebrate their acquaintance by drinking late into the night. Rudolf is particularly delighted with the bottle of wine sent to him by his half-brother, Duke Michael (Raymond Massey), so much so that he drinks it all himself. The next morning brings a disastrous discovery: the wine was drugged. Rudolf cannot be awakened, and if he cannot attend his coronation that day, Michael will try to usurp the throne. It is revealed that Michael is bitter because his mother was not of royal blood, as the younger Rudolf is the heir to the kingdom. In order for Michael to secure his claim to the throne, he must marry his cousin Flavia. Zapt convinces a reluctant Rassendyll to impersonate Rudolf for the ceremony.

With the coronation accomplished, Rassendyll returns to resume his real identity, only to find the king has been abducted for ransom by Rupert of Hentzau (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), Michael's chief henchman. Rassendyll is forced to continue the impersonation while Zapt searches for Rudolf; however, Michael cannot denounce the masquerade without incriminating himself.

Rassendyll having recently met Rudolf's betrothed, the beautiful Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll), becomes enamored by her. In the past, she had always detested her cousin Rudolf, but recently finds him greatly changed – in her opinion – very much for the better. After spending time together and exchanging romantic words in a royal garden, they fall in love.

Help finding the king's whereabouts comes from an unexpected quarter, immediately after receiving a letter addressed to Rassendyll. Attempting to rescue the king, Rassendlyll meets Antoinette de Mauban (Mary Astor), Michael's French mistress, who promises to help rescue the king. She tells Rassendlyll he is being sent into a trap and reveals that King Rudolf is being held in Michael's castle near Zenda. Rassendyll, still impersonating the king, tells Princess Flavia he must engage in a secret dangerous mission and tells her goodbye, should they never meet again. Since King Rudolf would be executed at the first sign of a rescue attempt, Antoinette insists that one man must swim across the moat and hold off his would-be assassins while loyal troops storm the castle. Rassendyll decides that he is that man, over Zapt's strenuous objections and the plan to rescue the king is on.

Their carefully laid plans go awry when Michael discovers Rupert trying to seduce his mistress. The two men struggle and Rupert stabs Michael, killing him. A heartbroken Antoinette blurts out enough to alert Rupert to his danger. Rassendyll kills two guards, but must fight a prolonged duel with Rupert while at the same time attempting to cut a rope to lower the drawbridge, allowing Captain Zapt and his men into the castle. When he finally succeeds cutting the rope with his sword, Rupert flees.

King Rudolf is restored to his throne. Rassendyll tries to persuade Flavia to leave with him. Both confess their true love for one another, but she vows that her devotion to duty is too great, so their parting is bittersweet.




Douglas Fairbanks Jr. initially wanted to play Rudolf, but when the role went to Colman, his father, Douglas Fairbanks, told him "not only is The Prisoner of Zenda one of the best romances written in a hundred years and always a success, but Rupert of Hentzau is probably one of the best villains ever written".[2]

When the play opened in London in January 1896, C. Aubrey Smith played the dual lead roles. Massey asked Smith for advice and was told, "My dear Ray, in my time I have played every part in The Prisoner of Zenda except Princess Flavia. And I always had trouble with Black Michael!"[2]

The orchestra conductor who is forced to cease and resume conducting the Künstlerleben Walzer by Strauss every time the royal couple stop and start waltzing was played by Al Shean, uncle of the Marx Brothers (Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo) as well as half the earlier comedy team "Gallagher and Shean."

Former Prince of Sweden Sigvard Bernadotte was working in Hollywood at the time and was credited as a technical advisor.


This production was "one of the last great gatherings of the Hollywood English" before World War II.[3] Selznick was partly inspired to take on the project because of the abdication of Edward VIII, and exploited this angle in his marketing of the film.[3]

It was considered a difficult shoot.[3] Director John Cromwell was unhappy with his male leads, as he suspected that Colman did not know his lines, and was concerned about Fairbanks' and Niven's late nights on the town. George Cukor directed a few scenes of the film when Cromwell grew frustrated with his actors, especially Madeline Carroll over the scene dealing with the renunciation. Woody Van Dyke was brought in to re-shoot some of the fencing scenes, along with the costume design.[clarification needed][4]

A prologue and an epilogue were shot, but never used. The prologue has an elderly Rassendyll recounting his adventures in his club. In the epilogue, he receives a letter from von Tarlenheim and a rose, informing him that Flavia has died.[5]


Leslie Halliwell ranks it at #590 on his list of best films, saying that the "splendid schoolboy adventure story" of the late Victorian novel is "perfectly transferred to the screen",[6] and quotes a 1971 comment by John Cutts that the film becomes more "fascinating and beguiling" as time goes by. Halliwell's Film Guide 2008 calls it "one of the most entertaining films to come out of Hollywood".[7] Twelve residents of Zenda, Ontario, were flown to New York for the premiere.

The film earned a profit of $182,000.[1]

Proposed sequel[edit]

In 1947, Selznick announced he would make a sequel based on a play adaptation of Rupert of Hentzau, starring Joseph Cotten as King Rudolph/Rudolph, Louis Jourdan and Alida Valli.[8] The film was never made.


Colman, Smith and Fairbanks reprised their roles for a 1939 episode of Lux Radio Theatre, with Colman's wife Benita Hume playing Princess Flavia. Hume and Colman reprised their roles as Rudolph and Flavia again in the 1949 episode of Screen Director's Playhouse.

The 1952 film of the same name is virtually a shot-by-shot remake, reusing the same shooting script, dialogue, and film score. A comparison of the two films reveals that settings and camera angles, in most cases, are the same.[9] Halliwell judged it "no match for the happy inspiration of the original".[7]

Two episodes of the spoof spy television series Get Smart, "The King Lives?" and "To Sire With Love, Parts 1 and 2", parodied the 1937 movie version, with Don Adams imitating Colman's distinctive voice.

In popular culture[edit]

In the season 4 episode "Sleeping With the Enemy" of the television series Northern Exposure, Ed Chigliak dubs the film into Tlingit (a Native American language).

"The Prisoner of Benda" is the ninety-eighth episode of the animated television series Futurama.

During pre-production of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, director Nicholas Meyer asked costume designer Robert Fletcher to design new Starfleet uniforms inspired by the uniforms worn in The Prisoner of Zenda. The resulting uniform costumes appeared in six Star Trek films in total, from The Wrath of Khan through Star Trek Generations.[10]

The entire Potsdorf sequence in Blake Edwards' The Great Race (1965) is an homage to (or parody of) The Prisoner Of Zenda. Jack Lemmon plays the roles of the doubles (Professor Fate and Prince Hapnik); Tony Curtis is the swashbuckler (Leslie Gallant lll, a/k/a The Great Leslie), crossing swords with Baron Rolfe von Stuppe, Ross Martin's answer to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.'s Rupert of Hentzau.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b David Thomson, Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick, Abacus, 1993 p 262
  2. ^ a b Fairbanks, Douglas (1988). Salad Days (First ed.). New York: Doubleday. p. 275. ISBN 0-385-17404-7.
  3. ^ a b c The Brits in Hollywood Sheridan Morley, Robson Books 2006, p. 161, ISBN 978-1-86105-807-2
  4. ^ "robust sword play" is singled out for praise in VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever 2008, Visible Ink Press 978-0787689810
  5. ^ p. 113 Behlmer, Rudy & Selznick, David O. Memo from David O. Selznick Modern Library, 7 Mar 2000
  6. ^ Halliwell's Top 1000, John Walker, HarperCollins Entertainment ISBN 978-0-00-726080-5
  7. ^ a b Halliwell's Film Guide 2008, David Gritten, HarperCollins Entertainment ISBN 978-0-00-726080-5
  8. ^ Thomas F. Brady (March 1, 1947). "Cotten to Appear in Selznick Film: Actor Will Play Dual Role in 'Rupert of Hentzau,' Which Producer Is Remaking". The New York Times.
  9. ^ Thomas F. Brady (30 May 1951). "Metro is Planning Remake of 'Zenda': Stewart Granger Would Have Leading Role in New Version of Anthony Hope's Novel Of Local Origin". The New York Times.
  10. ^ "". "Pavel Chekov's officer costume". Retrieved 29 October 2012.

External links[edit]