'The Prisoner of Zenda' (1952) is a remake - using the same shooting
script, which was in turn adapted from the 1890s stage-play - of the
1937 Ronald Colman/Douglas Fairbanks jr version. While the colour
photography makes quite an impact, especially with the costumes, sadly
Stewart Granger is not in the Colman league in the dual role of Rudolf
Rassendyll and Rudolf V. In fact, the film seems as unnecessary as the
recent remake of 'Psycho' - Yes, it's in colour, but with a less
interesting cast than the original, so why bother? There was scope for
a new film based on Hope's novel, but it needed to be opened out more,
with greater development of some of the subordinate characters (always
a problem in filming a story written in the first-person).
Stewart Granger was one of the better of the later generation of swashbuckling stars, but somehow he lacks Colman's dignity as Rassendyll. Deborah Kerr at least has the merit of having the 'Elphberg red' hair (which the hero too should have!), and does well enough as the highly idealised Princess Flavia. Much as I generally like James Mason, he's no substitute for Douglas Fairbanks jr. Although he brings out the underlying viciousness of Rupert von Hentzau more effectively than Fairbanks did, he is too old and rather too austere for the role. Hentzau's deep malevolence is far more disturbing coming from what appears to be a flippant and charming boy in his very early 20s. Mason could have been a *wonderful* Duke Michael, although here - as per the 1937 version - that character was still under-written, and again cast too old (Robert Douglas).
Probably the most successful piece of casting in this version is Jane Greer as Antoinette de Mauban, the French courtesan who has attached herself to Michael. As in 1937 (with Mary Astor), an actress best known for her 'film noir' roles is ideal in this part, because Antoinette *is* in many respects an enigmatic, double-crossing 'noir' dame in 19C costume, who must choose whether to betray her lover in order to save him. Whose side is she really on? - It's a great, ultimately tragic sub-plot, which could have been given more weight as a counterpoint to the bittersweet Rassendyll-Flavia romance - but the antique 1890s-1930s script throws it away.
In conclusion: while this film gains some visual charm from the use of colour, the 1937 version has the more memorable performances; but neither quite lives up to the expectations in my imagination, fuelled by the books with their Charles Gibson plates.
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