The Prince and the Pauper (1937)


Warner Archive;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Billy Mauch, Bobby Mauch, Errol Flynn, Claude Rains, Barton MacLane, Alan Hale, Henry Stephenson, Eric Portman, Halliwell Hobbs, Phyllis Barry, Montagu Love.

Starting in 1909 with a two-reeler (shot by Thomas Edison!), the story has undergone free interpretations by everyone from the brothers Warner and Mickey Mouse all the way up to Kid ‘n Play (Class Act) and the Olsen Twins (It Takes Two). (Wikipedia lists at least 20 variations on a theme.) Born in the pages of Mark Twain’s thrilling children’s fantasy, this rousing 1937 telling of The Prince and the Pauper is an exemplar of the studio system running on all cylinders to produce a seamless entertainment guaranteed to satisfy action aficionados as well as special effects mavens. If only one could convince them to sit through a two-hour black-and-white feature in which effects are indeed special, as in limited, not a constant barrage of mindless CG splatter. Take the opening shot for example: a traveling matte, both expensive and elaborate in its time, the effect is woven into the fabric of the narrative. Sol Polito’s camera surveyed the rooftops of London before resting on a gun tower with cannon primed and ready to blast. Rather than an enemy on the receiving end, this cannonball is aimed as a birth notice announcing the delivery of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.

One coincidence per story, that’s what I always say, and the sooner it’s attended to the better. Kudos to Twain for following my pronouncement to the letter! In the Autumn of 1537 two children were born. Having fulfilled her wifely duties, Lady Jane (Joan Valerie) died after presenting Henry VIII (Montagu Love) with his only male heir, the abovementioned Edward Tudor (Bobby Mauch). Same day, in another part of the kingdom and to a different set of parents, Tom (Billy Mauch) is born the son of petty crook John Canty (Barton MacLane). A sadistically reprehensible crud, Canty doesn’t think twice about parenting the old-fashioned way. With his fists. (Tom’s mother is of no importance other than mirroring the Queen by checking out almost immediately following the birth of her son.) MacLane’s performance delivers a scurvy gusto that puts his similarly reprobate gangster types of the period to shame. Canty regrets the boy hadn’t been born sickly to help make his life as a beggar as lucrative as it was inevitable. These two babes, fortuitously born on opposite sides of the moat, are destined to meet and, after marveling over their amazingly conspicuous alikeness, swap places and forever change the course of historical fiction. 

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The film is steeped in unpleasantry commencing with scenes of physical child abuse followed by a teenage Prince overcome by deep-seated anger issues that result in threatening to beat a servant for failing to choose a parlor game to the young master’s liking or promising to behead the Earl of Hertford (Claude Rains) the next time he addresses him as Edward, not your highness. So outlandish is the prospect of a commoner trading places with royalty that both lads’ sanities are called into question in harsh, degrading terms. Ultimately, time spent outside castle walls leads to a higher understanding of his subjects, but no one has a greater humbling effect on Edward than soldier of fortune Mike Hedron (Errol Flynn). It’s a strange role for the virile leading man who was at the time the studio’s star attraction. Patric Knowles was originally cast, but Jack Warner called an audible, replacing Knowles with a bigger draw. Flynn doesn’t appear until almost the halfway point. A notorious ladies man, rather than put sizzle before story, the script limited Flynn’s contact with the opposite sex to a brief hangout with a barmaid (Phyllis Barry). Stunning to behold, my only complaint would be the coronation sequence that caps the picture drags due in part to a running — and I do mean running — gag involving a search for a royal seal to corroborate Edward’s story.

When a severe flu bug knocked director William Keighley (The Match King, The Adventures of Robin Hood) out of commission, William Dierterle filled in. The latter’s contributions are seamless. After a lifetime spent watching actors and actresses twinning themselves with the help of split screen technology, it’s somewhat disconcerting watching twins move freely about the same space. According to IMDb, “Billy Mauch is regarded as a better actor than his twin brother, Robert J. Mauch.” Surrounded by Hollywood heavyweights, the Mauch Brothers’ delightfully unaffected performances outshine them all.  

This new 4K release was struck last year from the original camera negative. Also included are a trio of Warner Bros. cartoons (Plenty of Money and You, Streamlined Greta Green, Sunbonnet Blue) and the original theatrical trailer.