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.
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).
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.