Friday, February 03, 2012


The aging King Karl VII of Karlsberg greets his nephew, the crown prince Karl Heinrich, a mere child who has arrived to begin the proper schooling and training for a future king. The hundreds of people lining the street to catch a glimpse of him all doff their hats in unison, and cannon shots fired in his honor scare the boy, who longs to be allowed to play with the other children outside the palace gates. His tutor, Dr, Juttner, sympathizes with the boy and helps him to have fun as he teaches him. Years later, Karl passes his exams (barely) and is sent with his tutor to study at the university in Old Heidelberg. He stays at a humble inn and falls for Kathi, the lively barmaid and favorite of all the students who congregate to drink and sing in the inn's courtyard. She tells Karl she's engaged "but not so terribly" so, and even though he has had a bride picked out for him by his uncle, the two begin a springtime affair. He also becomes good friends with some fellow students who don't know he's the crown prince. Eventually, however, his fling with "normal" life comes to an end when the old king gets sick and Karl must return to the palace. Both the King and the tutor die, and before being crowned king, Karl decides to take one last visit to Old Heidelberg where he learns that you cannot recapture the past.

This is a charming romantic comedy, despite its inevitable bittersweet ending, based on a play but better known as an operetta by Sigmund Romberg, who wrote the music to several Jeanette McDonald & Nelson Eddy musicals. The 1927 version is a silent film, so there are no songs, though you can see where they would fit—and indeed there is one song "sung" by Norma Shearer, as Kathi, with its lyrics presented on title cards. The wonderful score for the version shown on Turner Classic by Carl Davis makes up for the lack of songs. Shearer is delightful as the barmaid and Ramon Novarro is just as good as the prince, torn between his love for Shearer and the student life, and his duty to become king. Jean Hersholt is fine as the friendly tutor. Ernst Lubitsch directs with a light touch and adds several stylish flourishes, the best being a lovely scene between Novarro and Shearer in a windy starlit meadow. With the high spirits and good performances, one doesn't miss spoken dialogue at all.

The 50s version is a color musical with most of the Romberg music, but somehow it's not as fun as the silent film. The entire segment with the prince as a child is missing here, and there's a silly rivalry between two of the student groups that takes up too much screen time. The prince is played by the handsome but generally lifeless Edmund Purdom (who does a nice job lip-syncing the songs, recorded by opera singer Mario Lanza), and Kathi is Ann Blyth, who works a little too hard at being charming; they have very little chemistry. Edmund Gwenn is fine as the tutor, Louis Calhern is the old king, and S. Z. Sakall is Kathi's father, a part that has been beefed up a bit here. If you have to pick just one version, I would recommend the silent one. [TCM]

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