The Prince and the Pauper

by Charlie Largent Jan 30, 2024

The Prince and the Pauper
Warner Archive
1937 / 1:33.1
Starring Billy and Bobby Mauch, Errol Flynn, Claude Rains
Written by Laird Doyle, Catherine Chisholm Cushing
Photographed by Sol Polito
Directed by William Keighley

Errol Flynn is featured prominently on the poster but he doesn’t arrive till the 53 minute mark of 1937’s The Prince and the Pauper. He’s barely missed—not because of the resilient humor of Mark Twain’s story or the energetic horse play of Billy and Bobby Mauch, but the creative forces driving Warner Bros.’ movie-making machine; the cinematography of Sol Polito, the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and the direction of William Keighley, who makes dogged professionalism look like high art.

Mark Twain often treated his hooky-playing heroes as small-town royalty and his 1882 novel, a timely fable set in a 15th century palace, shares the same down-home humor and riverboat wisdom as most of his work. While Twain doesn’t shy away from real-world tragedy, the accent is on fun in this story about a couple of doppelgängers who flip Westminster Abbey on its head.

It’s a tale of two boys who live in a London split by decadence and squalor, and the screenplay, written by Laird Doyle and Catherine Chisholm Cushing, underlines Twain’s reformist intentions while Robert Haas, the brilliant art director for both Jezebel and Angels with Dirty Faces, constructs a megalopolis that is equal parts storybook and documentary; towering castles and palatial churches surrounded by a moat of poverty; filthy alleyways, cramped shanties, and the stench of gutter water fouling the air.

Billy Mauch plays Tom Canty, a young wretch with a Dickensian home life—his mother died in childbirth leaving him with a father who offers no other lessons than how to succeed as a pickpocket. Billy’s twin brother Bobby plays Edward Tudor, otherwise known as the Prince of Wales, who suffers in his own way—like Tom, his mother has died in childbirth, and his father, King Henry VIII, has a Royal temper.

While Edward is suffocated by an ever-present team of tutors, Tom finds escape in the books he borrows from a kindly priest—but old man Canty is worse than Huckleberry Finn’s vicious pa and Tom, like Huck, “lights out for the territory.” Caught in a rainstorm, the boy finds shelter near Whitehall Palace where he’s taken in by the Prince himself. They strike up a quick friendship born out of loneliness and mutual recognition; they’re mirror images of one another—especially after they’ve exchanged clothes.

The illusion is too perfect—the Captain of the Guard spies Edward dressed in rags and ejects him from the palace. Now separated, each boy must deal with the other’s problems, Edward conquers the street bullies with his ingrained authoritarianism while Tom charms the Palace staff with good cheer and a humanistic approach to his reign.

Not so easily charmed is the Earl of Hertford played by Claude Rains—even more villainous than his Prince John in Robin Hood, Rains gives the film’s best performance as a snake in the palace who sees through Tom’s disguise and uses the boy as a stepping stone. As Miles Hendon, wayward soldier, Edward’s unofficial guardian, and Warner’s resident swashbuckler, Flynn sails in on a cloud of easy charm and makes it look easy—he brings a sharp sword and winking optimism to his adventures with the undercover Prince.

Though it’s probably unfair to view this superbly-mounted bit of escapism as a mere warm-up for The Adventures of Robin Hood, the notion is inescapable—Flynn and Rains’s characters are rough sketches for their work as Robin and Prince John, Alan Hale shows us Little John’s dark side as Lord Hertford’s palace lackey, and Korngold’s elegiac score, a showstopper in any other film, only hints at the glory of his oratorio to Sherwood Forest. Where’s Maid Marian you say? She’ll have to wait, this is Mark Twain territory and it’s strictly a boy’s club.

Warner Archives’ new Blu ray, a 4K Scan from the original camera negative, is a beauty, even the muddy water and dirty rags have a sparkle. There are precious few extras, a trio of Warner Bros. cartoons, each from 1937 and almost certainly featured in theaters playing The Prince and the Pauper: Plenty of Money and You, Streamlined Greta Green, and Sunbonnet Blue. Also included is the film’s original Theatrical Trailer.

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Brendan Gerard Carroll

So I got my Blu-ray yesterday & watched it last night! All I can say is WOW.

I have seen this grand old film so many times over the past 50 years, always in dismal TV prints here in the UK and even the WAC 2003 DVD wasn’t much of an improvement. But THIS restoration from the original nitrate camera negative is a revelation.

What a beautiful production this was, what stunning costumes and what superb photography (Sol Polito AND George Barnes – a luxury team if ever there was one). I loved every minute & marvelled at the tremendous amount of detail in every frame.

To give an idea of how good the restoration is, for the first time I noticed the differences between the two Mauch twins!

Alas, the soundtrack is still very tinny (very unusual for Warners in the 1930s) and so Korngold’s magnificent score never really makes its proper mark. Just a year later for THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, Korngold’s music is superbly recorded and a genuine ‘foreground’ score. He won the Oscar for that too.

The sound track of PAUPER for dialogue & sound effects however is clear & defined so I assume the music track was always low-fi even back in 1937.

Anyway, thank you WARNER ARCHIVE & especially Mr George Feltenstein for a truly outstanding release!

A.L. Hern

The period of the film’s production inevitably dictated the limitations in the quality of the score’s recording. “The Prince and the Pauper” was one of the last films Warners made before their Sound Department adopted the so-called “push-pull” method of sound recording that increased the dynamic range of optical sound. The difference between scores recorded in 1937 and those done in 1938 is quite noticeable.

PS: Are you the same Brendan Carroll who wrote the biography of E.W. Korngold, “The Last Prodigy”?

Last edited 5 months ago by A.L. Hern
A.L. Hern

Re “Though it’s probably unfair to view this superbly-mounted bit of escapism as a mere warm-up for The Adventures of Robin Hood, the notion is inescapable.”

It was on the basis of this film that Warners production head Hal Wallis assigned William Keighley to direct “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” only to decide after Keighley’s early footage for the latter film started to come in that he was in fact not the man for the job, as Wallis felt Keighley’s approach to be too whimsical and that “Robin Hood”s action sequences demanded the vigor and dynamism of the studio’s top director, Michael Curtiz.

In the end, enough of what Keighley shot remains in the film for its credits to bear both his name and Curtiz’s.

Last edited 5 months ago by A.L. Hern

[…] classic pix with the WB pantheon of stars. The WAC follwed it up with William Keighley’s The Prince and the Pauper, another more conventional Errol Flynn […]

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