Frock Flicks note: This is a guest post by our friend Sabrina, a historical costume enthusiast who enjoys sewing historical costumes from various eras. She is currently working on her PhD in English literature.
The Prisoner of Zenda (1952) is a swashbuckling adventure, filled with romance, swash, and (you guessed it!) buckling. It’s an adaptation of the popular 1894 novel of the same name by Anthony Hope that gave rise to the genre of the Ruritanian romance, usually an adventure in which the setting is a fictional European country.
It’s also a remake of an earlier film version from 1937 and the novel was adapted into film many times before this in silent versions. TCM explains that the 1952 version is shot almost identically to the 1937 version, except that the fight scenes were improved (more swashbuckling!) and it’s in glorious Technicolor. The costumes are by Walter Plunkett, who is most famous for costuming Gone with the Wind (1939) but also had a long career in Hollywood designing costumes for a number of frock flicks.
With regard to the cast, Stewart Granger is a swashbuckler par excellence as both Rudolf Rassendyll and the king that Rudolf so greatly resembles, Deborah Kerr makes a lovely and elegant Princess Flavia, James Mason is a cunning and charming Rupert of Hentzau (although a bit old for the role of the young Rupert), and Jane Greer is beautiful (and very Technicolor) as the passionate Antoinette de Mauban.
While The Prisoner of Zenda is obviously a product of its time in its costuming, hair, and makeup, it’s still a pretty glorious visual spectacle. There’s lots of glamour because it all takes place at the royal court of Ruritania during a coronation and the Technicolor doesn’t hurt. Also, there is absolutely no hairpin/bobby pin shortage here.
Although the novel was published in 1894 and the setting seems to be even earlier since the book is recalling events in the past, the movie is set in 1897 (as a ball invitation helpfully tells us). So, for reference, here’s an illustration by Charles Dana Gibson from 1898 of a scene from the novel:
The guys are all in uniforms throughout pretty much the whole movie, which is not necessarily a bad thing. There’s lots of fun fancy braid and there are epaulets and medals and sashes. (And when they’re not in uniform, they’re swashbuckling in open V-neck shirts. Classic cheesy romance!)
But the ladies are where all the fun is happening. The overall silhouette is good for the period, with a nice amount of width at the shoulders, a bit smaller and higher than the puffed sleeves of the previous years, and defined A-line skirts. The women also look to be wearing corsets and a good number of petticoats to get this nice silhouette.
However, a lot of the fabric choices just scream 1950s Technicolor, like the gold lamé number that Princess Flavia wears to the coronation and all the intense reds and purples worn by Antoinette de Mauban.
It makes sense that if you are finally in colour and making a film spectacle to go bright with the clothing. It’s certainly eye-catching, if a little much for the eyes at times. (Especially Antoinette de Mauban’s super shiny lavender gown, which she wears for a secret meeting with Rudolf. I couldn’t find a picture of it, but check out the movie trailer here for a glimpse at 2:39.)
My personal favourite of all the gowns is this lace number that Princess Flavia wears. The silver and white really set off Deborah Kerr’s red hair.
There’s also lots of sparkling jewelry, and we get the fun of a ball scene, so lots of ladies dressed up all fancy with lots of frothy tulle. Unlike Anne of Green Gables, Princess Flavia has no problem with mixing pink dresses with red hair. (Fun fact: L.M. Montgomery loved Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda.)
Daywear is only slightly less flashy. There are lots of deeply colored dresses with appropriately high necks, even if they’re also made out of some questionable fabric choices like the pink sheer yoke on Princess Flavia.
And we get to see some great suits with really severe lines that are also intense, like Antoinette de Mauban’s stunning red suit.
Overall, while it might not be a great piece of cinema, it’s still a fun watch and the costumes are historically passable eye candy. I’ll leave you with this picture of the movie poster and if its over-the-top melodrama doesn’t convince you to watch it, nothing will!
Are you a fan of the swashbuckling technicolor Prisoner of Zenda?