One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley got to visit the set of The Prisoner of Zenda. She had announced the film was starting production on October 4th, when she got “a glimpse of the scenario for the picture, which has already been completed by Mary O’Hara, reveal[ing] the tremendous scale on which it will be filmed.” The studio also promised elaborate sets, fabulous costumes, big stars and enormous crowd scenes. Since early publicity had helped with the success of director Rex Ingram’s earlier Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the studio was happy to invite her to see the shoot for herself.
Zenda was already such a popular story that she didn’t need to tell her readers the several-times-adapted-to-theater-and-film plot of Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel, which involves a king kidnapped by his evil brother and a look-alike tourist who steps in as a temporary substitute. She could assume they all knew who King Rudolf, Grand Duke Michael, and Mr. Rassendyll were, so she began by calling the shoot Ingram’s honeymoon, because he’d married his leading actress Alice Terry in the middle of it. In his interview, he was in his best promotion mode, saying “I believe this is the greatest love story which has ever been put on the screen.” She also reported that he felt he had discovered the secret to making a popular historical drama; he said:
“Characterization is the thing. The trouble with costume plays in the early days, and the thing that killed them with the public was that people in the were mere animated costumes.”
He went on to tell her about how much effort they were putting in to making the film realistic, even though it was set in Ruritaina, a fictional kingdom. The experts advising them included John Howell, former valet to King Edward VII; Ingram told Kingsley:
“He can tell you everything about a king’s behavior from the way he behaves when he gets up in the morning and goes into his cabinet, to the etiquette regarding calling up the family physician to cure the royal stomach-ache.”
He’d also hired Col. Sterrett Ford to make sure the military detail was correct, even though the “army of soldiers wearing handsome new uniforms which cost $80,000, who are used principally for decorative purposes, as there are no war scenes in the picture.”
While hanging out on the set, Kingsley also got to chat with an up-and-coming new star Ramon Samaniegos. She wrote:
This Samoniegos is a brilliant new screen personality whom Ingram has lately discovered. He will doubtless become a star following the release of Zenda, according to Ingram, who certainly does know how to choose his players. Even as Valentino was made by The Four Horsemen, so it seems likely now that this handsome young Spaniard will become world-famous overnight. He said “Now sometimes I’m so happy I’m unhappy!”
Samoniegos was different from most of the other up-and-comers Kingsley wrote about, because after a name change to Novarro, he did become a star. His most famous role was the lead in Ben Hur (1925). Unfortunately, now he’s mostly known for his tragic death—he was murdered in 1968.
Kingsley concluded: “But the play’s the thing. And in The Prisoner of Zenda Rex Ingram and Metro have a sure-fire story.”
It’s remarkable how much work studio publicity departments put in to ballyhooing their big films (and how accommodating the press was to all their material). Zenda wasn’t in theaters until nearly a year later, but they kept up a steady flow of information about it before then.
In April the company issued a press release promising an amazing spectacle that got widely quoted. Exhibitors’ Trade Review wrote about some of the film’s impressive statistics, from the salaries (“probably the most heart-breaking a task as any in the making of The Prisoner of Zenda was the writing of checks. Signing the post-office payroll is not unlike it,”) to the 23,000 people who worked on in, in one way or another. Its scenario contained 1622 pages of single-spaced typewritten material, and so many extras appeared in the big scenes that Ingram had to use a radiophone communicate with the assistant directors to direct them. The costumes for the principles in the coronation scene alone cost $105,000, and just that took two weeks to shoot. The film’s total cost came to $1,118,453.16. No expense was spared! I guess they thought that people would like to see what a million dollars looked like on the screen.
New York based L.A. Times writer Frederic James Smith got to attend the trade preview, but his response probably wasn’t what they were looking for. He wrote:
the good old Anthony Hope marshmallow adventure did not stir us overmuch. Metro apparently slathered on the dollars in making the picture and Rex has tried to escape his penchant for beautiful dramaless pictures in favor of action, but the results don’t measure up to The Four Horsemen…The much-touted Ramon Samaniegos reminds us of a successful dentist—and nothing more.
Oddly enough, Mr. S’s father was a dentist. Nevertheless, the trade papers viewed it through a different lens: they thought that Zenda would sell loads of tickets. Film Daily said:
There is enough romance, drama, adventure and love interest in The Prisoner of Zenda for several big features, but Rex Ingram kept them carefully knitted together and as a result has welded a splendid box office, sure fire picture which Metro will release for the coming season.
They also liked Samaniegos/Novarro more than Smith did, saying “he is a devilish villain, but on the whole very charming.”
The film arrived in Los Angeles in September, and naturally Kingsley didn’t get to review it. Her editor Edwin Schallert wrote a mixed review, saying:
Mr. Ingram’s picture is an earnest effort to visualize the events of the story and something of its stimulating charm. he hasn’t caught the delicate aroma—the bouquet of the original, but he has manufactured a palatable substitute. In the main, his Zenda is zestful, and in the artistry of sets and imitations of sets, and in types it possesses great pictorial allurement, while the actual drama evinces more climax than Mr. Ingram has heretofore been able to put on screen…What seems particularly lacking in the picture are the finer semblances of reality. I don’t know that the original story showed these in any greater degree fundamentally, but we weren’t so aware that the characters were made out of pasteboard…There are flashes of ability from Ramon Navarro, the much-heralded find of Mr. Ingram, but for the most part he indulges in clownish mugging.
Nevertheless, the film was on Film Daily Yearbook’s Top Ten Best Films of 1922 list and it did sell plenty of tickets. Zenda is available on DVD now, but according to Fritzi Kramer it suffers in comparison to the 1937 version (but honestly, most movies do).
“Ingram has Produced Another Real Picture in This One,” Film Daily, April 30, 1922, p. 3.
Grace Kingsley, “Flashes: Rex Ingram’s Nest,” Los Angeles Times, October 5, 1921.
Edwin Schallert, “Reviews: Myths and Fancies,” Los Angeles Times, September 18, 1922.
Frederic James Smith, “Color Film Sensation,” Los Angeles Times, April 30, 1922.
“Statistics of Prisoner of Zenda,” Exhibitors’ Trade Review, April 15, 1922, p.1390.