Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, The (1927): Lubitsch’s Silent, Starring Ramón Novarro Norma Shearer

The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (aka as The Student Prince and Old Heidelberg), a silent romantic drama based on the 1901 play “Old Heidelberg” by Wilhelm Meyer-Förster, was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and stars Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer.

Young Crown Prince Karl Heinrich (Philippe De Lacy), heir to the kingdom of Karlsburg (a fictional sovereign state of the German Confederation), is brought to live with his stern uncle, King Karl VII (Gustav von Seyffertitz). The king immediately dismisses the boy’s nanny (Edythe Chapman) without telling the youngster to avoid an emotional farewell. Dr. Friedrich Jüttner (Jean Hersholt), his new tutor, proves to be sympathetic, and they become lifelong friends. Nonetheless, despite the commoners’ belief that it must be wonderful to be him, the boy grows up lonely, without playmates his own age.

Upon passing his high school examination in 1901 with the help of Dr.Jüttner, the young prince (Ramón Novarro) is delighted to learn that both he and Jüttner are being sent to Heidelberg, where he will continue his education. When they arrive, Karl’s servant is appalled at the rooms provided for the prince and Jüttner at the inn of Ruder (Otis Harlan). When Ruder’s niece Kathi (Norma Shearer) stoutly defends the centuries-old family business, Karl is entranced by her, and decides to stay. He is quickly made a member of Corps Saxonia, a student society.

Later that day, Karl tries to kiss Kathi, only to learn that she is engaged. Her family approves of her fiance, but she is not so sure about him. She eventually confesses to Karl that, despite the vast social gulf between them, she has fallen in love with him. Karl feels the same about her and swears that he will let nothing separate them. When he takes her boating, their rower, Johann Kellermann, turns his back to them to give them some privacy. Karl jokingly tells him that, when he is king, he will make Kellermann his majordomo.

Then Jüttner receives a letter from the king ordering him to inform Karl that he has selected a princess for him to marry. Jüttner cannot bring himself to destroy his friend’s happiness. That same day, however, Prime Minister von Haugk (Edward Connelly) arrives with the news that the king is seriously ill, and that Karl must go home and take up the reins of government. When Karl sees his uncle, he is told of the matrimonial plans. While Karl is still reeling from the shock, the old king dies, followed by Jüttner.

Later, von Haugk presses the new monarch about the marriage. The anguished Karl signs the document for the wedding. Then Kellermann shows up to take the job Karl had offered him. When Karl asks him about Kathi, he learns that she is still waiting for him. He goes to see her one last time.

In the last scene, Karl is shown riding through the streets in a carriage with his bride. One onlooker remarks that it must be wonderful to be king, unaware of Karl’s misery.

Irving Thalberg initially planned for Erich von Stroheim to direct this film as a follow-up to the director’s commercial success The Merry Widow. Stroheim declined, opting instead to leave MGM and work on The Wedding March (1928). Thalberg then tried to attach E.A. Dupont, and then John S. Robertson to the project, but both passed on it. He then settled on German émigré Ernst Lubitsch, who was 34.

Novarro was cast in the lead after John Gilbert was considered. Lubitsch felt that both Novarro and Shearer were miscast, but he was unable to override the studio’s casting decisions. Lubitsch’s insistence on multiple takes and minimal rehearsal time were hard on both leads. When Shearer complained to Thalberg, her fiance at the time, about Lubitsch’s penchant for acting out scenes before they were shot, Thalberg just told her that “everyone has a lot to learn from Lubitsch.”

According to director King Vidor, Lubitsch also made Novarro shoot “a buddy scene with an effeminate extra,” in order to “playing up the charge between them.” Novarro, no doubt, was extremely uncomfortable doing the scene and resentful of being put in that situation by the director; Novarro was  guarded about his own homosexuality.

The film was in production for more than 108 days and cost $1,205,000. A perfectionist, Lubitsch drove up the budget, infuriating the studio. He had costume designer Ali Hubert bring numerous trunks of wardrobe and props from Europe for use in the film. Following principal photography, he went to Germany to film establishing shots, though none of which were used in the finished movie; the little location work in the finished film was shot in Laurel Canyon.

Although now considered a classic by many film historians, it was not a  critical success during its original theatrical run. Despite being a popular film with movie goers, the exorbitant production cost kept it from being profitable, and MGM declared a loss of $307,000. Even so, it received better reviews than MGM’s 1954 color remake based on Sigmund Romberg’s operetta version of the story.

Cast
Ramón Novarro as Crown Prince Karl Heinrich
Norma Shearer as Kathi
Jean Hersholt as Dr. Friedrich Jüttner
Gustav von Seyffertitz as King Karl VII
Philippe De Lacy as Young Karl
Edgar Norton as Lutz
Bobby Mack as Johann Kellermann
Edward Connelly as Prime Minister von Haugk
Otis Harlan as Old Ruder
André Mattoni as Count Asterberg (uncredited)
Hans Joby as Student (credited as John S. Peters)
George K. Arthur as Drunk Student (uncredited)
Edythe Chapman as Young Karl’s nanny (uncredited)

Credits:

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Written by Hanns Kräly (Continuity)
Ruth Cummings (intertitles)
Marian Ainslee (intertitles)
Based on Old Heidelberg
by Wilhelm Meyer-Förster
Produced by Ernst Lubitsch
Cinematography John J. Mescall
Edited by Andrew Marton
Music by William Axt, David Mendoza
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date: Sep 21, 1927 (U.S.); Sept 10, 1928 (Germany)
Running time 105 minutes