New Movies -
Old Movies -
Prince in Old
Ramon Novarro, who never had much of a film career in the sound era, stars as the titular, pretty-faced prince. His wide grin sets the affable tone that comes to define the movie. It is a winning performance, from someone who clearly had star power to spare, and it’s odd that more isn’t said about Novarro’s talent these days. He’s helped out by a supporting cast that Lubitsch seems to have chosen largely because of their look. Lubitsch defines, and gently mocks, character through visual exaggeration, and the approach works splendidly here, as he’s populated the picture with instantly recognizable types. In this context, even Norma Shearer is allowed to be goofy, slinging beers to a group of rowdy college lads, then chugging one down herself in a show of camaraderie. She’s presented as a natural match for Novarro’s boyish prince from the moment she reminds him that “a prince, after all, is only a human being.”
Lubitsch jam packs Student Prince with fleeting examples of the famed “Lubitsch touch”. His sophisticated grace notes are always knowingly winking at us. As a director, he’s more at ease with human foibles than just about anyone. For example, one sequence comically fades from a lecture hall with a solitary student in attendance to a jam-packed dance hall where the rest of the student body revels. Another scene shows Dr. Jüttner, the hero’s mentor, as he laments his hung-over stupor. “That stuff is poison for me…,” he complains, before immediately drinking more anyway. Such reversals of expectation come not with judgment, but rather with the ability to make us marvel out peoples’ capacity to subvert our pre-judgment of them.
As The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg begins to wind down, though, it steps back from the frivolity that so defined it. The young prince must face his ultimate duty, leaving his puppy love threatened. It’s a development that seems predictable (indeed, it was presaged in the early scenes recounting his childhood), but it’s not any less affecting as a result. The movie concludes not with a celebration of amour, but instead with a melancholy (yet nonetheless amusing) sequence in which the hero attempts to recapture the glory of his college days. It’s no great spoiler to note that Lubitsch is too perceptive about human nature to permit such wish fulfillment, but even so the slap of The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg’s final irony stings plenty.