The Prince and the Pauper feels something like a warm up for the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood: both movies were made by Warner Bros., both scores were composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and both films share four prominent actors, with Claude Rains trying to steal with throne, while Errol Flynn tries to stop him. But The Prince and the Pauper is not really a Robin Hood-type story. It’s based on Mark Twain’s novel published in 1882 and is a reasonably accurate adaptation (though I haven’t read the book since I was a child).
Born on the same night are two boys in very different circumstances, though nearly identical in appearance. Edward (Bobby Mauch) is the son of Henry VIII and destined to be king. Tom Canty (Billy Mauch – the actors are identical twins) is born in poverty with an abusive and criminal father (Barton MacLane). Perhaps twelves years later, Tom has grown up a beggar in the streets, while Edward lives in his castle, indulged, slightly bored and unaware of the world outside.
Henry VIII (Montagu Love) knows he’s dying and plans to make the Earl of Hertford (Claude Rains) regent while his son is still young, even though he knows Hertford is a scheming, ambitious and sycophantic nobleman, but he can’t stand the truly noble and good Duke of Norfolk (Henry Stephenson), who Edward likes much better. Montagu Love is quite good as the debauched, corrupt, but dying king who nevertheless has a soft spot for his son. His advice to his son about being king is to never trust anyone and never like anyone so much that he is unwilling to “betray them with a smile.”
But when Tom Canty wanders near the castle and is beaten by the Captain of the Guard (Alan Hale), Edward interferes and invites Tom into the castle to play with him, since he’s so bored. They exchange clothes and realize that they look like each other and when Edward goes outside, he is mistake by the Captain of the Guard for Tom and thrown out of the castle grounds.
The next day, everyone thinks both boys are mad. The only person who believes Tom’s protestations that he’s not the prince is Hertford, who pieces the truth together after interviewing the Captain of the Guard. Henry VIII is dismayed, but determined to ensure that his son will rule, mad or not, but dies before he can appoint Hertford as regent. Meanwhile, Edward runs about London proclaiming that since Henry VIII is dead, he is now the king, but people just laugh at him and he finds himself in a street fight until he is rescued by roving soldier of fortune, Miles Hendon (Errol Flynn), who at first also thinks he’s a bit nuts, but comes to believe him.
Court intrigue ensues for poor Tom, who is told by Hertford that he must appoint him regent and do whatever he says or else Hertford will expose Tom and have his head cut off. Oliver Twist-like adventures ensue for Edward, who gets an education on how his subjects really live. He runs into Tom’s father (who plays him like a Bill Sykes character) who wants to use him as a retriever of stolen goods by lifting him through windows. Meanwhile, Hertford has sent the Captain of the Guard out to look for Edward and kill him. Miles Hendon chases after Edward, rescues him several times and has a sword fight with Alan Hale. Meanwhile, Hertford plans to have Tom coronated as king while Edward tries to return in time with the aid of Hendon.
It’s actually quite interesting to see Alan Hale in a straightforward role, where he is nobody’s sidekick and does not ham it up and is actually the tool of the villain. He doesn’t want to kill Edward, but he fears for his job and life because he unknowingly turned him out of the castle. It’s one of two films – out of 12 movies they made together – where Flynn and Hale are enemies. The other is The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. But in this one they get a sword fight.
Claude Rains is always excellent (I’d watch him in a film if all he did was sit in a chair and stare at the wall), duplicitous, shrewd and scheming. Errol Flynn is almost hyper-jaunty in this film, perhaps because he has too much energy for the role he is playing. Miles Hendon is not in the film that much and does not even show up until perhaps thirty minutes into the story. Originally, the studio executives were not going to put Flynn in the role because it would cost so much to have him in such a comparatively small role, but after testing Patric Knowles (Will Scarlet in The Adventures of Robin Hood) and George Brent, they realized that only Flynn would do, and he does bring a much appreciate zip and sparkle to the story. One just wishes, perhaps inevitably, for more of him.
The Prince and the Pauper was released in 1937, around the same time as the coronation of George VI of England and there must have been great interest in royal coronations because the one near the end of the film where Tom nearly gets crowned king goes on for a very long time. We get all the oaths, the various postures of humility the king must assume, the prayers, the costumes and the various interjections by the choir. But I suppose if you’re going to take the trouble to pay for a good choir, you might as well have them sing as much as possible.
Part costume drama, with a dash of swashbuckling spirit, a little bit of Dickensian social sensibility (Edward learns that it is okay to use the royal seal often, despite his father’s warning not to, so that he get rid of so many of the silly and oppressive laws), good humor and a fantastic cast, The Prince and the Pauper is quite fun. I try not to think too much about real history when watching the film. In reality, Edward VI was crowned at nine years of age (the Mauch twins were sixteen), but ruled for only six years and died at fifteen, after a somewhat tumultuous reign featuring war and rebellion. But Twain’s story is more fantasy than history and so leaves room for imagining a happier ending.