Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Prisoner of Zenda


The novel upon which this is based spawned an entire genre known as the “Ruritanian romance.” Anthony Hope invented the fictional country somewhere in Germanic Europe, and after that the term was used for any adventure set around stuffy royal courts. The Marx Brothers spoofed it in Duck Soup, George MacDonald Fraser used the same plot and background with his anti-hero Harry Flashman (who he also borrowed from Tom Brown’s School Days) in Royal Flash, and there have been countless other take-offs on the idea of an identical stand-in for royalty, but most of the books and movies in the genre are quite serious, including this one. The opening credits solemnly announce that this is a “pictureization” of the beloved novel. It’s got a hell of a cast, starring Ronald Colman and Madeleine Carroll and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, backed up by the great C. Aubrey Smith, David Niven (quite young), Mary Astor, and Raymond Massey. It’s a huge David O. Selznick production. It’s all well-done and even exciting until it got to the end, when true love had to give way to one’s “duty” (of a princess electing to marry the shithead new king instead of her true love), and the real bastard duke (or something royal) escaping to show up in the sequel, Rupert of Hentzau. Very unsatisfying, but I guess it played okay in 1937. These days, not so well.