Musical Monday: The Student Prince (1954)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
The Student Prince – Musical #467

Studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director: Richard Thorpe

Ann Blyth, Edmund Purdom, John Ericson, Louis Calhern, Edmund Gwenn, S.Z. Sakall, Betta St. John, John Williams, Evelyn Varden, Richard Anderson, John Hoyt, John Qualen, Mario Lanza (singing voice)

Prince Karl Franz (Purdom) is set to marry Princess Johanna (St. John) to help his kingdom financially. When the princess finds Prince Karl to be stuffy and unfeeling, he is sent by the King (Calhern) to Heidelberg to study and also learn how to be a human being. While at the university, Prince Karl falls in love with a barmaid, Kathy (Blyth), he has to choose between love and duty.

• Mario Lanza was originally set to star in the film, but due to his behavior, was dismissed from MGM. Shooting for the film was to begin in 1952, but Lanza did not show up the first time and again after being given a chance, according to a Turner Classic Movies article by Jeremy Arnold. The production was all together canceled, and then MGM decided to try again in 1953. However, Lanza had already recorded the songs for the film, so Mario Lanza dubs Edmund Purdom’s singing voice. Lanza receives mention in the credits: “And The Singing Voice of Mario Lanza as The Student Prince.”
• Mario Lanza sued over the use of his singing voice, but the judge ruled in favor of MGM.
• Last film of S.Z. Sakall, who died in 1955.
• MGM announced the project in 1951 and Vic Damone, Jane Powell and Ricardo Montalban were all considered for the lead roles.
• Others originally announced in the cast included Janice Rule, John Abbott, Florence Bates, Gig Young, Robert Burton and Steve Forrest, but none of them were in the final film.
• Reports in 1952 were that Farley Granger or Stewart Granger would replace Mario Lanza.
• Ann Blyth was on loan from Universal.
• Produced by Joe Pasternak
• MGM previously produced the same story in 1927 with the title “The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg” starring Norma Shearer and Ramon Novarro and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. The stories are based on Sigmund Romberg’s 1924 operetta.
• Filmed in CinemaScope and Ansco Color

Ann Blyth and Edmund Purdom.

• The Technicolor cinematography

Notable Songs:
• “Serenade” performed by Edmond Purdom dubbed by Mario Lanza
• “Summertime in Heidelberg” performed by Ann Blyth
• “Deep In My Heart, Dear” performed by Ann Blyth and Edmond Purdom dubbed by Mario Lanza

My review:
It isn’t a new plot: the royal falls in love with a commoner. Do they marry their betrothed and continue on with their duty or true love. That is a general plot of “The Student Prince.”

However, the backstory of this film is a little more unique.

Mario Lanza was a top musical star at MGM after his career launched with his first film in 1950. But he was involved in his downfall only three years later. Due to his behavior, weight gain and cursing out studio heads, Lanza was dismissed from his contract.

Mario Lanza isn’t in “The Student Prince,” but it’s impossible to discuss this movie without talking about him.

This all happened right as he was preparing for the lead in “The Student Prince,” which would reteam him with Ann Blyth, who co-starred with Lanza in “The Great Caruso” (1951). Shortly after “The Great Caruso” was released, producer Joe Pasternak said he thought “The Student Prince” would be a great follow-up, which excited Lanza, according to the biography Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy by Armando Cesari.

However, Pasternak chose to postpone filming, which disappointed Lanza, according to Cesari’s book. While waiting, Lanza made “Because You’re Mine” (1952). When it finally came to start filming, Lanza recorded the songs first in June 1952 and filming would start in August 1952. According to Cesari’s biography, Lanza was excited about the film, happy to work with Ann Blyth again who he respected, and loved the story and music. However, his biographer notes that Lanza arrived the first day of rehearsals and immediately clashed with director Curtis Bernhardt, particularly when Bernhardt argued with Lanza about how to interpret the songs, then stormed off the set, and told Pasternak that he couldn’t work with Bernhardt.

Pasternak could not replace Bernhardt, as Lanza had hoped, and wanted Lanza to stick it out. So Lanza left Pasternak’s office and did not show up on set the next day, according to Cesari’s biography and Jeremy Arnold’s article. Lanza did return to complete recording the songs. Problems continued and came to a head when MGM bigwigs Dory Schary, Eddie Mannix and Nicholas Schenck had a meeting with Lanza. Lanza called them stooges, told them to go to hell and walked out after they said he needed to go home. By the end of August, Lanza had not shown up on set and by Sept. 4, 1952, the film was canceled and Lanza’s contract was eventually dropped, according to Cesari’s book.

While Lanza may have been difficult to work with, he also was inexperienced and rose to fame quickly. You have to wonder if it was just too much too soon.

Now that you have the backstory, I can proceed with the review. Though Lanza was no longer with MGM … he was still a part of the film.

“The Student Prince” proceeded a year later and released in 1954, now with handsome English actor Edmond Purdom as the lead. Purdom could play the role well of a pompous royal, but he couldn’t sing. Lucky for MGM that they didn’t need to find someone to dub Purdom – they had Lanza’s recordings. (Lanza sued over this and lost.)

It’s really strange watching English Edmond Purdom sing with the Italian tenor’s voice, but somehow … I don’t hate it. It isn’t as distracting as operettic Ann Blyth dubbed with Gogi Grant’s voice in “The Helen Morgan Story,” somehow.

While “The Student Prince” may not be a unique plot, it is a colorful and fun movie. Even New York Times critic Bosley Crowther liked it! Ann Blyth is blond, which threw me off, but she is as lovely as ever and has many songs! Edmond Purdom is handsome and adequate as the prince.

The supporting cast is the real treat! Louis Calhern plays Purdom’s grandfather the king, Edmond Gwenn is his tutor who is up to no good, and S. Z. Sakall is Blyth’s uncle. I almost feel cheated that we never got a buddy film with this trio! Can you imagine? “The Student Prince” was Sakall’s last film when he died a year later.

Also in the supporting cast is MGM newcomer John Ericson, who strangely gets third billing as a fellow student. Ericson was part of a new post-war breed of actors who started at MGM in 1951. He only has a few scenes in this film.

I really enjoyed “The Student Prince” with its color and beautiful music. I will admit, however, that I felt a bit sad thinking of the outcome of Mario Lanza, who desperately wanted to be in this film. I wonder how the fates for him would have changed had he been able to complete “The Student Prince.” One last depressing fact: The film ended up having the director he wanted – Richard Thorpe.

Ann Blyth in “The Student Prince”

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