The Prisoner of Zenda (1952)
“Fate doesn’t always make the right man King.”
Stewart Granger takes on the dual role in this technicolor version of the famed story fifteen years after Ronald Colman essayed the role.
MGM decorates this film with not only a wonderful palette of colors but a first rate cast to surround Granger as well. Our film starts with Granger arriving for a fishing trip one day before a coronation is about to take place crowning his lookalike to the throne. When he is approached by Louis Calhern and his double it is found he is a far distant relative and enjoys a night of drinking with the soon to be King. Problems arise when it is learned there are evil forces at work and our leading man must take the place of the real heir to keep the country in line and the throne from falling to the wrong hands.
The wrong hands belong to Robert Douglas who is the brother of the heir to the throne. The true highlight in this Richard Thorpe directed film is James Mason as Douglas’ right hand. Mason is in fine form here and chews the scenery quite nicely. He actually plays it as an arrogant SS officer in the German army. He’d like nothing more than to rule from behind the throne and capture Jane Greer as well. Trouble is she sees through him and loves Douglas despite his evil plotting.
The romance angle thickens when Granger the impostor meets the Queen in waiting. It’s beautiful Deborah Kerr. She senses a change for the better in the man she knew and is swept off her feet by the wrong Granger. He in turn has fallen for her beauty and grace.
The plot really takes a turn towards adventure and swordplay when Mason and Douglas put the real King on ice. Granger the adventurer along with Calhern seek to find his whereabouts and end the charade by putting the correct man in his rightful place. Even if it goes against his heart and losing Miss Kerr.
The scenes between Granger and Mason are what gives this film it’s drive. Their at odds from the beginning and will of course engage in an action packed duel towards the conclusion. Their banter both in the lead up and during the actual fight add that extra “something” to the spectacle. “Queen’s uniform and the old school tie,” Mason taunts when it comes to chivalry.
The screenplay here is credited to John L. Balderston who horror film fans should know as the writer of Universal’s Dracula, Mummy and Frankenstein originals that kick started the horror genre.
Richard Thorpe is one of those directors that never gets mentioned despite having a long and successful career. He worked with many of the top tier stars of the day and helmed a few costume pieces including Ivanhoe, Knights of the Round Table and Quentin Durward. All with Robert Taylor. He also directed both Granger and Taylor in 1953’s All the Brothers Were Valiant.
Granger and leading lady Kerr had also previously appeared in the successful remake of King Solomon’s Mines in 1950. Aside from Kerr it’s Jane Greer who I thought had the better female role in this adventure. She has a little more to do than just look radiant and swoon at Granger’s touch. She is after all in love with one villain and desired by the other.
And yes indeed that is Kathleen Freeman near the start of the film. The same lady who to my delight would one day be cast as The Penguin in The Blues Brothers bringing her yard stick down mightily on the boys.
Noteworthy is the casting of Lewis Stone as the Cardinal. Stone had played the Granger part in the 1923 silent. This was his second last film. The last being the Granger-Taylor teaming of 1953. Stone is of course widely known as Judge Hardy in the long running Mickey Rooney series.
Where this version of the story ranks compared to the other versions (including a Peter Sellers spoof) isn’t the point here. It’s to encourage you to check this one out and see Granger at the top of his game right alongside James Mason.