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DVD SAVANT

Prince Valiant


Prince Valiant
Fox Home Entertainment
1954 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 100 min. / Street Date May 11, 2004 / 14.98
Starring James Mason, Janet Leigh, Robert Wagner, Debra Paget, Sterling Hayden, Victor McLaglen, Donald Crisp, Brian Aherne, Tom Conway, Neville Brand, Primo Carnera, Don Megowan
Cinematography Lucien Ballard
Art Direction Mark-Lee Kirk, Lyle Wheeler
Film Editor Robert Simpson
Original Music Franz Waxman
Written by Dudley Nichols from the comic by Hal Foster
Produced by Robert L. Jacks
Directed by Henry Hathaway

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This early CinemaScope feature is an action-matinee Camelot story that plays as a very enjoyable cornball comic book. Prestige subject material it's not, but Fox gives Prince Valiant good production values and a fine cast, starting of course with James Mason slumming as the slimy villain. Kids love the spirited Valiant and his gymnastic fight scenes, and there's at least one action set-piece to rival the clever swashbucklers of Burt Lancaster.

Synopsis:

Christian Viking Prince Valiant (Robert Wagner) travels to Camelot and becomes a squire for Sir Gawain (Sterling Hayden), not knowing that the scurvy traitor who has sold his father King Aguar to the pagan King Sligon (Primo Carnera) is none other than Sir Brack (James Mason), the most respected knight at King Arthur's Round Table. Val's problems are worsened when Sir Gawain gets his damsels crossed and thinks that lovely Ilene (Debra Paget) loves Val and glorious Princess Aleta (Janet Leigh) loves Gawain, instead of the other way around!

The models for this kind of escapist entertainment in 1954 were probably Warners' The Adventures of Robin Hood and MGM's much more recent Ivanhoe. Prince Valiant is an example of a comic book (or, more accurately, comic strip) translated to the screen as good and simple fun. Franz Waxman's fine score has a few cues reminiscent of Korngold's original for the Errol Flynn movie, and is certainly used similarly. Although the story of squire Valiant earning his armor isn't as dynamic as the Sir Walter Scott tale, Dudley Nichols' script keeps the action coming and the talk to a minimum. Valiant is always being ambushed or betrayed and there's scarcely time for a few bedside chats with wounded knights or a couple of breathy clinches with golden-tressed Janet Leigh. She's introduced in an amusing shot that frames her with a chandelier of candles to serve as an angel's halo.

The dialog for this opus is strictly comic-book, but it's all delivered with a gusto that lets us know that everyone's enjoying themselves mightily. Robert Wagner soon surrendered the "young varlet rebel" roles (and Leigh) to Tony Curtis, but the Hollywood High flatness of his acting style is as endearing as the page-boy hairdo he wears. It was required to make him match the hero in the Hal Foster Sunday comix feature.

Agreeable James Mason works way beneath his level and gives the smooth-talking Sir Brack the proper air of villainy. Perhaps he decided that the only role worth having here was the more colorful bad guy. 1 Sterling Hayden is no better a choice for a Knight of the Round table than Slim Pickens would be but he works overtime trying to fill the role, fretting like a fool and blurting out exclamations like "By my stars!" at every opportunity. His mixup of Paget and Leigh is sheer nonsense. Prince Valiant is too unpretentious to worry about such things.

Debra Paget gets pretty high billing but is practically written out of the picture to favor Leigh. Paget's not even present in the big "everybody's gonna get married" ending. The show rushes through a one-angle knight-dubbing scene, an abbreviated ending that feels right. A modern entertainment would cram in 3 more false climaxes in desperation to impress the jaded action audience. If Valiant were made today as a vehicle for someone like Tom Cruise it would be bloated with star-flattering extra scenes and "sensitive moments."

Leigh and Paget gazelle about Camelot like Betty and Veronica, without a princess-ly air between them. They're decorations in what is essentially an action film - no demure Audrey Hepburn poise is required. It's great watching them fret over their addle-brained father's attempts to marry them off to any suit of chain mail that's handy. Janet Leigh is a vision as always and showed up in many a costume drama requiring a heavy-breathing blonde with an exaggerated figure - Scaramouche, The Black Shield of Falsworth, The Vikings. Fox contract beauty Debra Paget (Belles on Their Toes) never got the plum roles that Leigh did and her abruptly-curtailed presence here almost looks like favoritism. The best showcase for Paget's voluptous class, classy voluptuosity - ah, sex appeal is the intoxicating Fritz Lang double feature The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb.

An unrecognizable Victor McLaglen almost seems to be hiding in the role of Boltar, Christian Viking. Likewise, Brian Aherne, Donald Crisp, Basil Ruysdael, John Dierkes and Gene Roth phone in their roles behind beards. In keeping with the comic book looks, the Vikings (who live in the kingdom of Scandia, which sounds like a restaurant) are all fat-gutted louts wearing heavy furs and horns far too big to come from anything except an African wildebeest. Their castle isn't very Nordic but it provides the film's set-piece battle that's clearly meant to top the castle seige in Ivanhoe. It makes up for the early scenes of Valiant foolishly rowing himself to Camelot, on a piece of wood that looks like an oversized salad bowl.

Valiant scrambles atop the ramparts, turning the castle's defenses against the Vikings. As befitting his status as an untried but precocious warrior, Val doesn't do much swordfighting, preferring clever stunts and nimble footwork. He makes a flying leap into the folds of a large curtain, turning it into an instant hiding place. It's a nifty trick worthy of Douglas Fairbanks.

When Valiant and his Singing TM Sword finally return to Camelot to redeem his honor, we get a rousing bash-a-thon swordfight with Mason. It's the kind of noisy thrashing us kids would immediately run out and imitate with trash can lids and broomsticks, and it's good puerile fun.

The IMDB identifies the Round Table's Sir Lancelot as Don Megowan, the actor who played the Gill Man in The Creature Walks Among Us. It looks like someone else to me, but I can't figure out who. Also, the IMDB lists a very suspicious entry for Janet Leigh - is that a joke, or what?  2


Fox's DVD of Prince Valiant is a good transfer of must have been marginal elements. When it's good it looks great, but shots involving opticals tend to be grainy and less colorful. After seeing The Robe from the same general era, I have to think the blame should go to the unstable film stock of the time. The many matte shots still look fine. Most of the special effects are used to blend a few special UK location shots with exteriors shot in the dry eucalyptus groves of Malibu Canyon. This film was in the original CinemaScope ratio of 2:55 to 1, which accounts for the frequent compositions where characters crowd the extremes of the frame left and right. It's obviously been reformatted to today's standard 2:35.

The audio is English stereo, but only 2 track so it's very possibly a Chace-style conversion and not the original mix. Perhaps someone with a full 5.1 system can tell for sure.

The original trailer touts CinemaScope to the heavens while showing the action and stars. It includes not one word of dialogue, as if the studio were embarassed by the movie. Nothing's changed; the DVD cover ignores comic book action to present an unrelated image of a foggy castle over a long shot of the round table. I'll lay odds that some fashion-conscious Fox marketing exec saw Robert Wagner in his Little Lulu hairdo and scotched an image of the main character. There is a postage stamp-sized portrait of Wagner on the spine, however. This very special Camelot romp will look like a generic nothing on the DVD racks, and its only audience will be informed adventure fans and Franz Waxman addicts. The title is written on the cover in silver letters that look like the name emblem on a Chrysler Valiant automobile.

Someone should have shown the marketing folk the Prince Valiant takeoff from Mad magazine back when the film was new. It shows Val's singing sword (with a little head on it that sings) turning opponents into mincemeat as he happily carves up Camelot like a juvenile delinquent in a Bettie Page wig. The cartoon lampoon's title? Prince Violent.

Fox is to be applauded for its new wave of classic DVD releases. I hope they bring out their other cool early CinemScope films Hell and High Water, Garden of Evil and House of Bamboo.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Prince Valiant rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Union display newsreel, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 23, 2004


Footnote:

1. Mason is of course a wonderful suave villain in North by Northwest. We saw the 1965 Lord Jim at the Cinematheque in 70mm a couple of years ago. The awkwardly-structured movie doesn't bring in Mason until the end, but he's terrific as a bowler hatted, black-hearted criminal.
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2. A helpful bit of info from Fred Rappaport 4/25/04: Glenn,

On Don Megowan as Sir Lancelot: You're probably thinking that it looks like Rod Cameron, which was poor Don Megowan's cross to bear throughout his oddball thirty year acting career. But it's Don (soon to be Colonel Travis in DAVY CROCKETT AT THE ALAMO) Megowan, all right.

The "joke" Janet Leigh IMDB entry: No joke. Early in his Hollywood career, total filmmaker Jerry Lewis made a series of goofy home movies featuring his new Tinsel Town pals, which he would edit and score and later screen at Lewis soirees. HERNIA was one of 'em (although I do believe the "release" date listed is inaccurate).

For more details, read THE KING OF COMEDY, Shawn Levy's remarkable biography of Jerry Lewis. Cheers, Fred Rappaport
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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