The Prisoner of Zenda (1937 film)

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The Prisoner of Zenda
The Prisoner of Zenda 1937 film poster.jpg
Original film poster
Directed by John Cromwell
W. S. Van Dyke (uncredited)
Produced by David O. Selznick
Written by Wells Root (adaptation)
Donald Ogden Stewart (additional dialogue)
Ben Hecht (uncredited)
Sidney Howard (uncredited)
Screenplay by John L. Balderston from the novel (and Edward Rose's dramatization)
Based on novel by Anthony Hope
Starring Ronald Colman
Madeleine Carroll
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
Music by Alfred Newman
Cinematography James Wong Howe
Bert Glennon (uncredited)
Edited by James E. Newcom
Hal C. Kern
(supervising film editor)
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
  • September 2, 1937 (1937-09-02)
Running time
101 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1,250,000[1]

The Prisoner of Zenda is a 1937 American black-and-white adventure film based on the Anthony Hope 1894 novel of the same name and the 1896 play. Of the many film adaptations, this is considered by many to be the definitive version.[2]

The film starred 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 dramatisation 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 45 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 Rudolf Rassendyll (Ronald Colman) takes a fishing vacation in a small country in the Balkans (unnamed in the film; Ruritania in the novel). While there, he is puzzled by the odd reactions of the natives to him. 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), who turns out to be not only his distant relative, but also in facial features close enough to be his double. Rudolf is astounded and 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. Zapt convinces a reluctant Rassendyll to impersonate Rudolf for the solemn ceremony.

Rassendyll meets Rudolf's betrothed, Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll). She had always detested her cousin Rudolf, but now finds him greatly changed – for the better in her opinion. As they spend time together, they fall in love.

With the coronation a success, Rassendyll returns to switch places with his distant cousin, only to find the king has been found and kidnapped by Rupert of Hentzau (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), Michael's charmingly amoral henchman. Rassendyll is forced to continue the impersonation while Zapt tries to locate Rudolf.

Help comes from an unexpected quarter. To be king, Michael must marry his cousin Flavia. Antoinette de Mauban (Mary Astor), Michael's jealous French mistress, reveals that the king is being held in Michael's castle near Zenda and promises to help rescue him. Since Rudolf would be executed at the first sign of a rescue attempt, she proposes that one man swim 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.

Their carefully laid plans go awry when Michael finds Rupert trying to seduce his mistress. After Rupert kills 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 trying to lower the drawbridge to let Zapt and his men in. When he finally succeeds, Rupert flees.

Rudolf is restored to his throne. Rassendyll tries to persuade Flavia to leave with him, but her devotion to duty is too great, and 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".[3]

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!"[3]

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.

Former Prince of Sweden Sigvard Bernadotte was working in Hollywood at the time and credited as a technical advisor for the coronation scene and other matters of royalty.[4]


This production was "one of the last great gatherings of the Hollywood English" before World War II.[5] 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.[5]

It was considered a difficult shoot.[5] Director John Cromwell was unhappy with his male leads, as he suspected that Colman did not know his lines, and was concerned with 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].[6]

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.[7]


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",[8] 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".[9] 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 as Rupert and Queen Flavia.[10] The film was never made.


Colman, Smith and Fairbanks reprised their roles for a 1949 episode of Screen Director's Playhouse, with Colman's wife Benita Hume playing Princess Flavia.

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.[citation needed] Halliwell judged it "no match for the happy inspiration of the original".[9]

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 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.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b David Thomson, Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick, Abacus, 1993 p 262
  2. ^ VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever 2008, Visible Ink Press 978-0787689810
  3. ^ a b Fairbanks, Douglas (1988). Salad Days (First ed.). New York: Doubleday. p. 275. ISBN 0-385-17404-7. 
  4. ^ IMDb
  5. ^ a b c The Brits in Hollywood Sheridan Morley, Robson Books 2006, p. 161, ISBN 978-1-86105-807-2
  6. ^ "robust sword play" is singled out for praise in VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever 2008, Visible Ink Press 978-0787689810
  7. ^ p. 113 Behlmer, Rudy & Selznick, David O. Memo from David O. Selznick Modern Library, 7 Mar 2000
  8. ^ Halliwell's Top 1000, John Walker, HarperCollins Entertainment ISBN 978-0-00-726080-5
  9. ^ a b Halliwell's Film Guide 2008, David Gritten, HarperCollins Entertainment ISBN 978-0-00-726080-5
  10. ^ COTTEN TO APPEAR IN SELZNICK FILM: Actor Will Play Dual Role in 'Rupert of Hentzau,' Which Producer Is Remaking By THOMAS F. BRADYSpecial to THE NEW YORK TIMES.. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 01 Mar 1947: 11.
  11. ^ "". "Pavel Chekov's officer costume". Retrieved 29 October 2012. 

External links[edit]