Sunday, November 04, 2012

'Prisoner of Zenda' Was Pretty Good Swashbuckler



There have often been times in my life when I have wondered if my mother had a thing for swashbuckling adventure stories.

I never asked her about it while she was alive, but I guess the evidence was all around me.

One of my earliest memories is of my mother telling someone (perhaps Mom was telling me) about a record she had as a child. It was all about Robin Hood, and Mom and her friends had been inspired to organize a backyard production of the story. The dialogue in their play apparently came directly from the recording, but the costumes and sets must have been their own creations.

That was long before video cameras, and no photographs (to my knowledge) survive — so I have only what Mom told me ... and my imagination.

I don't know how well attended this production was or how many shows my mother and her friends gave, but she still remembered lines from their play years later. I remember in particular one exchange of dialogue that was a ritual during the Christmas season; on Christmas Eve, Mom always called her best friend from those days and would exclaim, when her friend answered the phone, "It is Christmas Eve of the year 1400!"

These recitations went on until the point in the narrative when the king (or someone) came in, and either Mom or her friend would exclaim, "All hail!"

I usually heard only one side of this dialogue, but it just didn't seem like Christmas until they re–enacted that memory from their childhoods.

Well, anyway ...

When I got older, my parents took my brother and me to the theater to see Peter Sellers' version of "The Prisoner of Zenda." I don't remember how my brother responded to it, but I rather enjoyed it — and one of the things I enjoyed most was watching my parents' reaction to it.

Mind you, Peter Sellers was one of my parents' favorite actors. They always laughed uproariously when they watched any of the movies in the "Pink Panther" series — even at lines they had heard dozens of times before — and they laughed the day we saw "The Prisoner of Zenda."

It didn't occur to me until much later that they might have been laughing about the clear differences between the Peter Sellers version — and the version that made its debut in New York City 60 years ago today.

The adaptation from the 1950s came out when my parents were young newlyweds. When I was growing up, they told me stories of their early days together, how they were as poor as church mice and had to do a lot of things to make their money last.

But they were brought up in the Depression, when movies were one of the few forms of entertainment that most people permitted themselves, no matter how impoverished they might be, and my parents often went to matinees to see movies when they were young newlyweds. They might well have seen "The Prisoner of Zenda" when it was released in late 1952.

They might even have seen the first talkie version that came out in 1937. My parents were children in those days — and, to my knowledge, did not yet know each other — but they may have seen Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Ronald Colman in that film version.

(Perhaps the 1937 movie was where my mother first developed her fondness for swashbuckling stories. Who knows? The recording that she and her friends memorized may have been a commercial tie–in with that movie.)

The movie that debuted 60 years ago today wasn't the second film adaptation of Anthony Hope's novel. The first three versions came out in 1913, 1915 and 1922.

It was a good story so I suppose you can't blame MGM for making a movie out of it. But that was the problem. There wasn't anything original about it.

When Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr starred in the 1952 remake, it was practically a frame–by–frame duplicate of the 1937 movie, the only real difference being that it was filmed in the still evolving — and costly — technicolor process.

If you compare the 1937 and 1952 movies side by side, you will see that they are almost identical in every way — costumes, sets, dialogue, you name it.

And if, indeed, my mother did see the 1937 and 1952 movies, it is no wonder that she laughed so upon seeing Peter Sellers' spoof.

The story was kind of a prince and the pauper tale of swapped identities. Granger played a vacationing Englishman who was recruited to stand in for the soon–to–be–crowned monarch of a country in the Balkans — for whom he was a dead ringer (and was also portrayed by Granger).

The Englishman also happened to be a distant relative of the king–to–be — and, to make things even more complicated, the monarch–in–waiting (who had a fondness for alcohol) had a devious half–brother who was ready to seize power at the first opportunity and he was about to marry a princess (Kerr) who was also a relative.

As a result, Granger became a stand–in for himself. No wonder Sellers — who, after all, played three roles in "Dr. Strangelove" — played the lead in his version of the story.

I'm afraid that, if I tell you more, I will give away more than I should — or you will be hopelessly confused — or both.

I thought it was entertaining, but I felt that the 1937 adaptation was a little better — even if it was in black and white. And I wish I had seen it before I saw the Sellers spoof, though. I feel like I was left out of the best inside jokes in that production.