7 September 2003 | cariart
Extravagant Remake of 1937 Classic Nice, but...
Hollywood has always had a philosophy, that if a film makes money, either do a sequel, or remake it! While sequels are most common (offering original cast members, older and less believable in their roles, performing variations of the same plot that made the original film popular...usually less successfully...), remakes have a long history, as well, with some remakes an improvement over the original (John Huston's THE MALTESE FALCON far outshines both of the earlier sound versions), some just as good (1939's BEAU GESTE, with Gary Cooper, has as loyal an audience as Ronald Colman's silent version), and some truly disastrous (why anyone would even CONSIDER remaking Frank Capra's LOST HORIZON, much less turning it into a 70s MUSICAL, defies comprehension!)
MGM, in their 1952 remake of 1937's classic THE PRISONER OF ZENDA, tried to surpass the earlier version by creating a 'scene-for-scene' duplicate of the film, while utilizing some of their biggest stars in each role, reworking Alfred Newman's original score, and shooting it all in glorious Technicolor. The end result, however, was a mixed bag...
Stewart Granger, MGM's resident 50s swashbuckler, certainly was more athletic than Ronald Colman in the lead, but lacked the older actor's panache, and more importantly, 'The Voice', that distinctive, oft-imitated but never duplicated speaking voice that made Colman so unique. It still wins hearts, nearly 50 years after his death, and was the reason Colman made the transition from a star of silent pictures to sound so effortlessly. While Deborah Kerr was as regally beautiful as Madeleine Carroll, she lacked the fragile quality that made Carroll's doomed love of the commoner Colman so heartbreaking. Louis Calhern, in C. Aubrey Smith's role, as Col. Zapt? No way! Robert Coote replacing David Niven as Fritz had some novelty value, as both would costar, twelve years later, in the television series, THE ROGUES, but the younger Niven was far more appropriate in the role of a young but loyal assistant to Zapt. While Robert Douglas was every bit as sinister as Raymond Massey as Black Michael, the most disastrous miscasting came with the film's other major villain, Rupert of Hentzau. While James Mason was a truly gifted actor, he was too old, and actually too villainous in the role! While the character has to be truly jaded and unscrupulous, he also has to be such a young, likable scoundrel that his escape, after the climactic duel, disappoints no one, not even the hero he nearly defeats. The role ideally suited Douglas Fairbanks Jr., whose prowess with a sword was unmatched, and whose scenes with Colman were instant classics of sophisticated wit. When Granger and Mason repeated the same lines, their exchanges came across as typical 'good guy vs. bad guy' dialog, lacking the unique chemistry Colman and Fairbanks brought to the roles.
As for shooting the film in Technicolor...While the regal color photography certainly made the Palace scenes more impressive (don't forget, Great Britain was crowning Elizabeth as Queen when the remake was released, and American audiences were rabid Anglophiles, totally enthralled by all the Pomp and Circumstance), it also 'dated' the story, making the adventure seem quaint and old-fashioned in the Cold War era. The black-and-white photography of 1937, with it's masterful use of light and shadow, gave the earlier version a timeless quality it still carries to this day.
David Niven, in his autobiography ('The Moon's a Balloon'), said he thought MGM's remake was a ridiculous idea, and that he was pleased that the newer production, even as a scene-for-scene copy, failed. While I think he was, perhaps, too hard on the Granger film, I have to agree that no other version has ever even come close to the magic of Ronald Colman's 1937 classic!