It’s probably telling that Ernst Lubitsch’s silent-film version of Sigmund Romberg’s operetta The Student Prince is a far more satisfying movie than Richard Thorpe’s 1954 talkie with color and three additional songs by Nicholas Brodszky and Paul Francis Webster. Then again, this production was so beset with trouble that it’s a wonder it’s as good as it is. This adaptation of the The Student Prince was designed as a vehicle for Mario Lanza, but the combination of Lanza’s temperament and his tendency to spectacularly pack on the pounds caused him to end up on the soundtrack, but not in the movie. On-screen the title character became Edmund Purdom with Lanza’s singing voice. Lanza fans (of which there were many at the time) were not amused, though in all honesty Purdom cuts a much more romantic figure than Lanza ever did in anything.
The original director, Curtis Bernhardt, was fired and replaced by MGM house director Richard Thorpe—the kind of faceless, bland, boringly efficient director the studio loved. To add further insult, the studio was fighting with Technicolor at the time and shot the film in the inferior Ansco color process. The result? A modestly effective, terminally quaint version of the operetta about Crown Prince Karl going to “Old Heidelberg” to learn how to be more human—and inconveniently falling in love with pretty barmaid Kathy (Ann Blyth) in the bargain. It’s also cursed with that typical MGM sound where the musical numbers sound too much like they were done in a recording studio and too little like they’re being sung on the set. Oh, it has a dashing lead, the Romberg score (plus three) and juicy character parts for Edmund Gwenn, John Williams, S.Z. Sakall and Louis Calhern, but it’s also as stiff and old-fashioned as the detachable collars on the men’s shirts. Admirers of the operetta and fans of Lanza may get extra mileage from it.
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