Best Supporting Actor of 1937 – Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (The Prisoner of Zenda)

Other Noteworthy Supporting Performances of 1937:

Thomas  Mitchell (Make Way for Tomorrow)

Erich von Stroheim (Grand Illusion)

Lucas Gridoux (Pépé le Moko)

Thomas Mitchell (The Hurricane)

Ralph Bellamy (The Awful Truth)

Thomas Mitchell (Lost Horizon)

Edward Everett Horton (Shall We Dance?)

Joseph Schildkraut (The Life of Emile Zola)

Charles Winninger (Nothing Sacred)

Edward Arnold (Easy Living)

Edward Everett Horton (Lost Horizon)

My head tells me I should choose Thomas Mitchell in Make Way for Tomorrow as the lousy son who knows he’s lousy, doesn’t want to be lousy, but isn’t strong enough to do stand up to his wife and be decent.  He gives a subtle, conflicted performance that deserves recognition, especially considering the fine supporting performances he gave in John Ford’s underrated The Hurricane and Frank Capra’s overrated Lost Horizon.  But my heart wants Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. to get some recognition too.  In the end, Mitchell comes up a close second to Fairbanks’ devilish performance in an awkward movie.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Rupert of Hentzau

The Prisoner of Zenda is, all things considered, a pretty goofy movie.  It’s one of those Victorian swashbucklers replete with kidnapped princesses, royal treachery, and a convenient double for the king.  Ronald Colman plays Rudolf Rassendyll, an Englishman visiting the fictional Central European kingdom of Ruritania.  As luck would have it (or as the author of the original novel needed it), he is a perfect double for the soon-to-be-coronated king, Prince Rudolf (also played by Colman).  As is always the case with these silly stories, he stumbles into a plot to incapacitate the prince with drugged wine, so his brother Duke Michael can declare his brother incompetent and have himself crowned king.  English Rudolf is asked to help thwart Michael’s plans by impersonating the unconscious prince and go through the coronation ceremony.  It’s a standard plot of a standard nineteenth-century action story.  It’s so bad that Raymond Massey, usually a good actor, gives an overbearing, melodramatic performance – a rare misstep.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. has some real fun with his part as Rupert, Duke Michael’s henchman.  He does all the dirty work, arranging the drugging of Prince Rudolf, later kidnapping him and killing (or at least trying to kill) those who get in the way.  Fairbanks uses his natural charisma, screen presence, and physical attractiveness to turn Rupert into the most dangerous sort of villain: a likeable one.  He’s charming; even when we know he’s lying, we still believe he could charm his way into our hearts.  Everyone wants to win his approval, knowing all the time that he wants something or else he wouldn’t bother to waste his time.  People like Fairbank’s Rupert depend on his marks to weigh the risk: how much are we willing to sacrifice to keep this person’s approval?  The dumb ones are willing to give up everything, like Lady Flavia (Mary Astor).

Fairbanks and Ronald Colman battle it out -- but don't we kind of root for Fairbanks' villain?

I’ve always felt that Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was underappreciated as an actor.  He had a natural, easy presence on the screen.  Like his father, he was a perfect leading man and he had range allowing him to play comedy, action, romance, and drama.  And this wasn’t the first time Fairbanks played a villain.  He was less successful as mentally unbalanced Tsar Peter in The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934), but he had nice moments, especially as he struggled with the delusions and paranoia his madness caused.  There is no such struggle here.  Rupert is simply out for himself and will work any angle to further his ambition.  He is a lout, ready to do anything, break any law, or betray any confidence.  At one point Michael sends Rupert to kill the royal imposter.  Instead of killing him, Rupert proposes a double-cross whereby they would kill both the real king in captivity and Michael and rule the kingdom together.  Only after Rudolf declines the sincerely sociopathic proposition does Rupert essentially shrug his shoulders (it was, after all, worth a try) and throw a knife at him.

Fairbanks plays Rupert with a joy not often seen in a fictional criminal (Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game or Wallace Beery’s 1934 portrayal of Long John Silver in Treasure Island both come to mind).  In the end, he wants the money and the women, but I think he would trade that all in to continue the game, the sport of intrigue and treachery.  At one point, Rudolf is cornered and he and Rupert get into a shoot out.  Rupert grins like the Cheshire Cat.  Sure his life is in danger, but what, for him, would be the point of life without the fun of danger.  The testament to Fairbanks’ skill in the role is that the Hayes Office did not demand his death or capture, as villains were routinely required to face some sort of retribution at the time.  He gets away in the end, with his characteristic aw-shucks grin.  He may have lost this particular game, but it was still fun to play.  Besides, for someone as enterprising and ruthless as Rupert, there will always be opportunities.  He knows he’ll be back.

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7 Comments

Filed under 1937, Yearly Best Performances

7 responses to “Best Supporting Actor of 1937 – Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (The Prisoner of Zenda)

  1. I read Anthony Hope’s novel a year or so ago and appreciated anew the justice Fairbanks had done to the role. Given how Rupert is a prototypical charismatic villain, it surprises me that Hope’s sequel, which acknowledges Rupert’s charisma by taking his name, hasn’t been filmed more often. It’s hard for anyone to stand up to Thomas Mitchell in this period, but Fairbanks deserves your recognition.

    I’m also glad to see a good word for Fairbanks in The Rise of Catherine the Great a film I prefer, with a slightly guilty conscience, to The Scarlet Empress, in large part because of Junior’s more humane performance as the mad villain and a greater emphasis on emotional substance over style. A matter of taste, I guess.

    • I didn’t realize that there was a sequel to the novel, but it makes sense. I was wondering if they were planning a sequel after the 1937 version because Rupert’s escape does leave that option open.

      And yes, it is hard for anyone to stand up to Mitchell. Nineteen thirty seven was such a great year for him. Besides Make Way for Tomorrow he also turned in great supporting performances in Lost Horizon and The Hurricane.

      I’m not surprised that you prefer The Rise of Catherine the Great over The Scarlet Empress. Though it isn’t an opinion I share, I agree that Fairbanks’ characterization of Tsar Peter is both more humane and more realistic, rather than the cartoonish Tsar in Scarlet Empress. It was an interesting casting choice and clearly the audience was meant to struggling with Peter’s insanity as much as he was. But I Sternberg wasn’t terribly interested in the emotional context. Like you say, it was more an exercise in style, though a very good one.

  2. Well Jason, this is another great choice, and he’s close to my own #1 as well. Like you, I lament passing up Thomas Mitchell for the role you site as well as his equally excellent work in LOST HORIZON and THE HURRICANE. It’s clear that Mitchell is the actor of the year when you add everything up though. I loved H.B. Warner of course and some others not included in your terrific runner-up list, especially my #1 choice of the year:

    Ernest Thesinger , THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT

    Runners-Up: (in addition to just about all of yours)
    Jean-Louis Berrault, LES PERLES DE LA COURONNE
    John Barrymore, MAYTIME
    Humphrey Bogart, DEAD END
    Ermete Zacconi, LES PERLES DE LA COURONNE
    Lionel Stander, A STAR IS BORN
    Adolphe Menjou, A STAR IS BORN
    Leo Carillo, HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT
    Walter Connelly, NOTHING SACRED
    Douglas Fairbanks, THE PRISONER OF ZENDA
    Alan Hale, Stella Dallas
    Alan Mowbray, TOPPER
    Joseph Schildkraut, THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA
    C. Aubrey Smith, THE PRISONER OF ZENDA

    • Sam, sometimes I think you should take over this project because you have seen so many more movies than I have. I am using this project to systematically fill in some of the holes on my viewing lists, but there are still movies that aren’t always easy to find so you clearly have a leg up on me. Most of the performances you mention I was able to consider, and if they don’t make my list it’s only because I they aren’t extraordinary. That doesn’t mean I don’t think they’re good (in fact they all are). But movies like MAYTIME, HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT, and THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT have been difficult to get my hands on. (Though isn’t THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT a 1938 release?) Other than that slight technicality I don’t think there is much to argue with your own list. You have included some fine actors doing good work. It’s especially pleasing to see Walter Connelly and Alan Hale get some recognition.

  3. +40 Teenage Werewolf

    This is who George MacDonald Fraser had in mind for Flashman.

  4. Kitty

    Actually, no: MacDonald Fraser said that he wanted Errol Flynn to play the part of Flashy (similar moustache!) – but Rupert of Hentzau does appear in his books. Royal Flash is a take on The Prisoner of Zenda, with Flashman in the Rassendyll role, and a character called Rudi von Starnberg as the equivalent of Rupert. At the end of the novel, we see Flashman telling the story of his adventures to ‘Hawkins, the lawyer’ – Anthony Hope, the author of The Prisoner of Zenda, was called Anthony Hope Hawkins, and started his professional life as a barrister. And, like Flashman, he was educated at Rugby (though MacDonald Fraser doesn’t mention it), so the conceit works out very neatly!

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