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Sunday, 27 September 2009

The Prince and the Pauper (1937)

Director: William Keighley
Stars: Errol Flynn, Claude Rains, Henry Stephenson, Barton MacLane and The Mauch Brothers
As if to counter Hollywood's preponderance for massacring history, this story begins with this disclaimer: 'It may have happened. It may not have happened. But it could have happened.' If only most Hollywood historical pictures carried the same disclaimer. Many could well have benefitted from those words. The story is courtesy of Mark Twain, via a screenplay by Laird Doyle, who died before the film was released. The film's release was delayed from 1936 to 1937 to coincide with the coronation of King George VI, premiering four days before that event.

We're in London in 1537 and two boys are being born. One is the son of a king, Jane Seymour finally providing Henry VIII with an heir, the future Edward VI. The other is at the other end of the social scale, an urchin born to a beggar in the slums known as the Offal Court, Tom Canty by name. They meet ten years later. Young Tom has found his way into the grounds of the palace past napping guards to hide from the rain under a stone bench, only to be hauled out by the palace guard. The young prince discovered the resulting affray by leaving quarters via a secret passage and promptly sneaks him in to play with him.

Of course they discover that they look notably alike, something apparently hidden previously by the dirt, their respective clothes and the fact that there can't be too many mirrors around. It's helped by the fact that they're played by the Mauch brothers, Billy and Bobby, who I know best from the Penrod and Sam movies, instead of the original choice of using Freddie Bartholomew from David Copperfield in a double role, presumably using dubious early split screen technology. Bobby is Prince Edward and his screen father here is Montagu Love, who looks fine as Henry VIII when dressed and dining, but perhaps a little less convincing on his deathbed. Billy, as Tom Canty, gets a suitably thuggish father in Barton MacLane, who is a thoroughly believable lout.
Of course you can see the potential for confusion here, and it does provide the key to our story. The prince sneaks back out via his secret passage to fetch his dog and the palace guard promptly send him packing. So in the morning, when Tom wakes up in the palace, he's Prince Edward, and only a day later he's King Edward VI of England, albeit an apparently addlepated one who thinks he's a beggar. And so the intrigue begins, aided by a number of Hollywood greats, often fortunately ones who have believable English accents, some even through being English.

Claude Rains, born in London, is the Earl of Hertford, a suitably conniving soul who King Henry calls a 'palace rat'. The initial intrigue is to ensure that he can become Lord Protector to Edward VI, instead of the Duke of Norfolk, played by Henry Stephenson, born in the British West Indies. Hertford is the only one at the palace who ends up believing the beggar story and he naturally uses it for his own nefarious ends. Rains was a great villain, something he didn't play often enough, and he doesn't have a redeemable bone in his body here. Also in the palace is Leo White as the prince's jester, who plays no great part in this film but surely has to be one of Marty Feldman's chief inspirations for his role in Young Frankenstein.
Top credited is Errol Flynn, who doesn't even appear until well over fifty minutes in. He's Miles Hendon, a dashing and enthusiastic but poor swordsman, who is thrust into the story in its other strand, rescuing the real king from no end of bad ends. Initially it's just from a rabble who take umbrage after the news of the death of King Henry when an apparent beggar announces that he's now their king. As the film runs on, he gets plenty more opportunity to do so, all the way up to the highly improbable but nonetheless fascinating finale.

The film is quintessentially classic Hollywood, with all the positive and negative connotations that suggests. It's nonsense, of course, but it's told with such relish that it's irresistible. The acting is top notch, however much neither Mauch brother is truly believable as the king of England. Claude Rains dominates with his subtle villainy, again true golden age Hollywood villainy that is unmistakeable to us but apparently invisible to every other character in the film. Barton MacLane is superb as John Canty and Errol Flynn is, well, precisely what you'd expect Errol Flynn to be. Alan Hale appears here as the captain of the royal guard in the first of thirteen films he made with Flynn and, sure enough, they get a swordfight. Further down the credits are recognisable faces like Halliwell Hobbes, Fritz Leiber and Ian Wolfe.

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