The Student Prince

March 15, 2011 § 1 Comment

Back in the first half of the twentieth century, when most people didn’t go to college, it held a certain mystique that it’s since lost. College, to outsiders, wasn’t about academics. It was about fraternity rituals and goldfish-swallowing, phone booth-stuffing and raccoon coats–with a side of copious drinking. Most people saw college as a bourgeios waste of time, a glorified finishing school for rich kids. But for those who had the money to attend, it had an entirely different appeal: college was where you went to become a man. (See: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise.)

The Student Prince makes it clear that this is not just an American thing. The film, based on an operetta taking place in 19th-century Germany, follows the prince of a small German kingdom as he’s forced to attend one of Europe’s oldest universities in Heidelberg against his will. In the silent film adaptation that preceded this, he’s sent by his family to finish his education before he can take over the country, but in this film–playing up its more romantic recital of the story–he’s sent to develop his charm because his princess fiancee finds him stilted and contentious, trained for war rather than wooing. Unfortunately for her, at the university he finds himself developing a little bit more charm than she probably had in mind, ifyouknowwhatImean and I think you do.

At the inn where he’s spending the semester, Karl falls immediately for the sweet barmaid Kathie, who serves as his guide to student life at Heidelberg, which he initially finds baffling and raucous. The fact that nobody there gives him the full respect that his title commands is another wound. But with Kathie beside him, he quickly adapts–eating knockwurst like the other students, slamming his mugs of beer like a champ, following her advice on which student “corporations” (the German equivalent of fraternities) to join. In fact, he soon realizes that he’d rather hide his royal identity altogether.

Some things about college haven’t changed.

The Student Prince goes surprisingly deep into the traditional trappings of German student life. (This is all in the source material. What, you thought 1950s MGM would do historical research?) While the silent film largely had glossed over the depictions of college life in order to focus on the romance, The Student Prince goes so far as to integrate the German university traditions into the plot of the film. Two rival student corps fight over him–the snobbier of the two only once they learn that he’s a prince, the down-to-earth one from the very beginning. When the leader of the snobby Saxo-Borussians is offended that a prince would rather join the less prestigious Westphalians, they even settle the matter the same way turn-of-the-century corps members would–in a fencing duel. The winner is the one who manages to leave a permanent scar slashed across the loser’s cheek! Kathie’s fear over the result of Karl’s duel with the leader of the Saxo-Borussians is what forces her to acknowledge her heretofore hidden love for him.

One can’t talk about this film without talking about Mario Lanza’s beautiful voice, which–due to a casting dispute–handles the singing while Edmund Purdom appears on-screen. Purdom actually does a phenomenal job of the lip-syncing–I wouldn’t have known it wasn’t him had MGM not plastered Lanza’s name all over the bill. Ann Blyth is often underused, and this film doesn’t give her a whole lot to do besides look pretty and sing pretty, but she brings a sense of warmth and intelligence to Kathie’s character that I didn’t find in Norma Shearer’s silent version.

The film’s ending is surprisingly touching. The silent film gives the romance a different treatment: while watching the romance unfold is fun, you’re always aware that it’s a diversion, that at the end of the day he’ll have to go home and own up to his duties. But–unsurprisingly for a 1950s MGM musical–The Student Prince puts Karl and Kathie’s romance on display. You understand why they fall for each other, even after his nastiness at the beginning, and it’s genuinely crushing when you realize, right along with them, that they have no chance.

But despite the focus on the romance, that was never the point of the story in the first place. The point was that Karl had to leave home to become a man–to shift from his rigid, immature views on war being the focus of life. Through Kathie and his time at the university, he didn’t just learn about love. He learned about people. And when he returns home, ready to marry the princess and run the country after his grandfather’s death, we know he’ll be a success. (At least until World War I rolls in and kills off half his subjects.)

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