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The Prisoner of Zenda (1952)

The Prisoner of Zenda. Feature film. (1952, 95 mins) IMDB

...A fascinating study in remaking a classic film....

T

he film is a remake of a 1937 film of the same name. A study of the two films is an interesting lesson in filmmaking.

The original film is based on a novel. I can't say anything about the adaptation. The second film is basically the same script but with different directors and actors. There are few changes between the first and second film. The dialogue is virtually identical. The scenes and even the direction is the same, but they aren't the same film. How is that possible? Three characters.

David Niven plays a small role as a junior advisor to the king in the first film and he stands out because he's David Niven. The same role exists in the second film with an actor I don't recognize and well, he seemed invisible.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. played Hentzau probably the only way he could with flamboyance, a laugh and over the top, but it was fun to watch. James Mason is an entirely different person and the performance is more menacing and devoid of humour. Both effective but I preferred Fairbanks even though I have nothing against Mason and have enjoyed his other performances.

Then there is the brother to the king who wants to be king. The minute Raymond Massey shows up on screen we feel the evil of the character and it continues until his final scene in the movie. The actor in this role in the second movie seemed invisible and at best a warm towel.

For the casting choices and acting alone, I argue the first version is a much better film, but not entirely. The sword fight at the end between Mason and Granger is one of the best in film. At least pre-CGI films. It's much better than what happened in the first film, but it's not enough to compensate for the other deficiencies.

In William Goldman's book WHAT LIE DID I TELL? he states that you have a chance if you have: a good script, the right director and it's cast properly. If those ingredients aren't in place at the start of production, then the film will surely fail. Having watched these films back to back, I can see what he means. Same script, same directing but different casting and they aren't the same films.

The rest of the casting works. Granger for Coleman. Kerr for Carroll. Louis Calhern for G. Audrey Smith. They all worked.

Mary Astor is believable in the first film and Jane Greer in the second, but each different. To me, Greer catches and hold your eye. She has an intriguing look with a sense of power and command within. Astor is more plain looking and vulnerable. The sense of desperation of the character is entirely believable. Greer works in this small role, but she deserved staring roles.

Posted 2009/03/01 at 17h57ET in Movie Commentary.

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