In an unusually mellow and melancholy mood, Ernst Lubitsch transformed a turn of-the-century Ruritanian story that had achieved success as a play and operetta into one of the most touching and beautifully crafted love stories of the silent era or, for that matter, any era.
After a lonely, sheltered childhood as a royal orphan (Philippe De Lacey), Prince Karl Heinrich of Karlsburg (Ramon Novarro) arrives in Heidelberg to complete his education. There, with his kindly old tutor, Dr. Juttner (Jean Hersholt), he finds lodgings in an inn that caters to the local
students. Soon, he wins their acceptance and affection and the love of Kathi (Norma Shearer), who works at the inn.
When his uncle, King Karl VII (Gustav von Seyffertitz), falls ill, duty calls Karl Heinrich back home to his uncle's bedside, but he is hopeful of returning to his studies, his friends, and the girl he loves. That is not to be: the king dies, and Karl Heinrich reluctantly assumes the throne.
Following the death of Dr. Juttner, Karl Heinrich decides to return to Heidelberg for one last day of bliss. He is disappointed when his old drinking buddies treat him with the stiff formality appropriate to a monarch, but he finds Kathi's love for him unchanged. As the young couple try to enjoy
their last tryst together, Kathi assures Karl Heinrich that, although both are to wed others, they will eventually find their separate happiness--but later, on the day of his arranged marriage, the despondent Karl Heinrich is able to think of nothing but his carefree days in Heidelberg, and of the
love he found and lost there.
MGM exec Irving Thalberg's first choice to direct THE STUDENT PRINCE was Erich von Stroheim, whose 1925 adaptation of another beloved operetta, THE MERRY WIDOW, had been a rousing success. But Stroheim passed, and Lubitsch (who would direct a sound version of THE MERRY WIDOW in 1934) got the job.
Lubitsch traveled to Heidelberg to take some establishing shots, but none of them appeared in the finished film, which emerged as a paragon of back-lot filmmaking.
The movie's great nocturnal love scene is a classic. In its first segment, ardent boy chases delighted girl along a garden wall. Three times he overtakes her, and three times she "escapes." At one point, the tracking camera finds itself ahead of the action and alights on a small dog who appears
and then, startled by the lovers, retreats. Karl Heinrich and Kathi then retire to a blossom-clustered meadow. As the wind blows the flowers sideways, the reclining sweethearts kiss, the breeze abates, and a shooting star bursts across the sky to cap a sequence that Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman
aptly characterized as "metaphorically erotic." The sequence was reshot by either John M. Stahl or Lubitsch himself, depending on what report one believes. Whoever was responsible for it, it's lovely--particularly when accompanied by "Serenade," the intoxicating Sigmund Romberg melody from the
musical version of the vehicle.
THE STUDENT PRINCE includes many examples of the famed "Lubitsch touch," especially in its opening reels, but they are gentler than usual and more affectionate. Indeed, the film is undoubtedly its director's most earnestly, romantically old-fashioned--a loving throwback to the days when the
occasion of a boy like Karl Heinrich happening upon a girl like Kathi making his bed was cause for embarassment.
Lubitsch was initially unhappy with the casting of Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer. He felt that the Mexican-born Novarro was too Latin, and The New York Times agreed with him. (In later years, Novarro himself expressed dissatisfaction with the movie and its director.) For once, Lubitsch was
wrong. Novarro's student prince was surely the most sensitive and affecting performance of his career. Prominent critic-playwright Robert E. Sherwood was moved to proclaim it "comparable with the best work that anyone has ever done on the screen." Almost as successful was Norma Shearer's winning
portrayal of Kathi.
Variety's bored reviewer missed the point when he called THE STUDENT PRINCE "a picture that cries for action." "It's a tender, romantic story," Lubitsch maintained, "and I treated it that way." His clear intention was to eschew the cliches of the genre. "For one thing, there won't be any duels,"
he promised. Also missing (and unmissed) are the stock narrative devices of mistaken identity, misunderstanding, and masquerading. What's left is simplicity itself, and a profound, almost tonic sadness. Adaptations of the story reached the screen before and after Lubitsch's, but none of them had
the benefit of a master's touch.
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- Review: In an unusually mellow and melancholy mood, Ernst Lubitsch transformed a turn of-the-century Ruritanian story that had achieved success as a play and operetta into one of the most touching and beautifully crafted love stories of the silent era or, for that… (more)