Prisoner of Zenda, The (1937): Exuberant Adventure Starring Ronald Colman

Made in 1937, The Prisoner of Zenda, the first and arguably best screen version of he Anthony Hope 1894 novel (and the 1896 play by Edward Rose) is an exuberant adventure that is regarded as classic of its genre.

In addition to Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll, as the love interest, the beautiful Pruincess Flavia, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., the cast includes C. Aubrey Smith, as the matermind of the impersonation, Raymond Massey as the sinister Black Michael, Mary Astor, as the woman caught in the middle of the intrigue, and David Niven as the stalwart Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim.

Made by the still vastly underestimated director John Cromwell, and lavishly produced by David O. Selznick, the film was adapted to big screen by John L. Balderston, though various writers have contributed to the drama and dialogue, including Wills Root, Donald Ogden Stewart, Ben Hecht, Sidney Howard, and Selznick himself.

British actor Ronald Colman, then at the height of his popularity, plays the double role of the commander gentleman Rudolf Rassendyll and King Rudolf V in this Ruritanian romance about the look alike who is drafted into impersonating the king to foil a plot to prevent Rudolf’s coronation.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who plays Rupert of Hentzau, initially wanted to play Rudolf, but when the role went to Colman, his father, famous star Douglas Fairbanks, encouraged him to take the well-written role of the dashing villain.

There has been dispute not only over the writing, but also the direction of the film, which is credited to Cromwell and W.S. Van Dyke, as George Cukor also added his touch.

Oscar Nominations:

It was nominated for rwo Oscars, for Art Direction and Original Score by Alfred Newman in his first Oscar nomination. Newman would receive an all-time record of 44 nominations.

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The Art Direction Oscar went to Stephen Gooson for Lost Horizon.  Charles Previn win the Score Oscar for One Hundred Men and a Girl.

Critical Status

Prisoner of Zenda was remade numerous times, and some critics consider the 1952 Technicolor version, starring Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr, and James Mason to be the second best.

In 1991, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the National Film Registry.