PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937) *****
PRISONER OF ZENDA (1952) ****+
(directed by John Cromwell & Richard Thorpe)
> I’ve been trying to catch up on classic adventure/pirate swashbucklers that I somehow missed in my lifelong love affair with the movies, so I decided to order this Netflix “twofer” containing both Hollywood screen iterations of the classic book. And it was fascinating to view them back-to-back, making very clear the strengths and weaknesses of each.
. The first incarnation featured typically glorious black-and-white photography from the great James Wong Howe, but the second had a D.P. who made very good use of the saturated, almost lurid Technicolor processes of the later era. The remake had a very capable if somewhat bloodless Stewart Granger in the dual lead of both monarch and imposter, but the original had a wickedly wry performance by the wonderful Ronald Coleman who I thought more fun to watch. Again, the evil behind the evil was better portrayed in the first version by a deliciously malevolent bon vivant Douglas Fairbanks Jr. than by James Mason’s brooding turn in the reboot.
. Amazingly, the remake appears to have been derived from what is nearly the EXACT THE SAME SCRIPT as the one used fifteen years previously. The only way one would notice this is to view them back-to-back, as I did. I soon found that I knew nearly every single line before the character said it! Then I began to notice subtle differences: a more pointed word substituted here, a clever bon mot inserted there- which clearly seemed to be referring back to the original book, convincing me that despite their striking similarities, the 1952 remake had a sharper and more sophisticated script. Despite this, the remake felt somewhat lesser. Perhaps it was because the storylines differed not one iota in the 1952 version, robbing it of any surprise. The remake’s ending seemed to fall flat as a deflated balloon. Then too, the inferior performances of the remake did less to give life to a superior script.
. One very consistent element between them: the lush, romantic soundtracks. No big surprise, considering the first was composed by classic Hollywood composer Alfred Newman, and the second was composed by… classic Hollywood composer Alfred Newman, nakedly borrowing from himself!
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