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The Student Prince (In Old Heidelberg)

The Student Prince (In Old Heidelberg)

Since for me the Polish-German master Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947), once internationally famous for his “Lubitsch Touch,” is high among the ten best and most influential picture-makers of the western world–one to whose work I gravitate even more as I get older–it follows that if there happens to be a Lubitsch film on TV (more than likely TCM), it’s almost automatically the best movie of the week.  Based on the famous Sigmund Romberg operetta, 1927’s THE STUDENT PRINCE (In Old Heidelberg) [available, shamefully, only on VHS], one of Lubitsch’s last silent pictures, is not really typical of him–being neither a romantic comedy nor an historical drama–but rather an extremely moving sad love story. But the “Touch” is so present throughout, no one else could have made this picture: a lightly told and devastating romantic heartbreaker. It is an underappreciated work of Lubitsch’s, yet it is among his very best, coming just at the end of the glorious silent era. As Charlie Chaplin said of that lost period: “Just when we got it right, it was over.”

Still, nothing stopped Lubitsch: he jumped right in and made as his first talkie the first “all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing” book musical of the American screen, The Love Parade (1929), followed in rapid succession by four more original musicals (four available in DVD on Criterion) that remain among the finest examples of how best to do a movie musical where the suspension of disbelief is granted so willingly. Who wouldn’t want to live in Lubitsch’s world? He himself put it most succinctly when he famously said: “I’ve been to Paris, France, and I’ve been to Paris, Paramount. I think I prefer Paris, Paramount.” (More on Lubitsch at our Special Links: 5/4/11.)

When I first saw The Student Prince forty-two years ago, I top-rated it in my movie-card file as “Exceptional,” adding:  “Typically sublime visit to the beautiful world of Lubitsch and his royal kingdoms, about a crown prince who falls in love with a barmaid and cannot marry her.  Full-bodied and eloquent performances by Norma Shearer, Ramon Novarro, Jean Hersholt and the rest of the cast.  A lovely movie and a minor masterpiece.” Today I would certainly remove the patronizing “minor.”

About fifteen years later (after I myself had been through a tragic love affair), I saw The Student Prince again and it killed me.  I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a picture that as brilliantly (without words, remember) captures the intoxicated, overpowering feeling of two people falling in love as the first few scenes between Shearer’s tavern maid and Novarro’s title character.  The gestures, body language and looks that pass from one to the other are astonishingly fresh and evocative–superbly modulated, choreographed, photographed and edited by the master at the top of his game.

This is the picture that moved the status of Norma Shearer (1900-1982) substantially upward; within three years she would win a Best Actress Oscar (for 1930’s dismal The Divorcee) as well as five more Academy nominations in the same decade.  Absolutely her most beguiling and emotional work, however, is in The Student Prince.  Just as this Lubitsch portrait of turn-of-the-century Old Heidelberg is also the zenith in the career of Mexican-born Ramon Novarro (1899-1968).  A 1920’s heartthrob in the Valentino vein, his biggest success was in the original Ben-Hur (1926), but he never before or since displayed the sensitive range and subtlety of his work for Lubitsch.

As for Danish character-man Jean Hersholt (1886-1956), his name today may only be familiar because the Academy annually (since 1956) presents a Special Oscar called the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, named to commemorate the actor’s outstanding humanitarian activities.  If any performance sums up this Hersholt image, it’s here as the self-effacing, benevolently loving tutor to the crown prince. All three stars don’t seem to be acting in this movie; their characters’ actual existence becomes palpable.

One sequence Lubitsch didn’t shoot was inserted at the insistence of MGM chief L.B. Mayer, who felt there needed to be a more obvious romantic interlude, Lubitsch’s version being more circuitous and understated.  This scene, directed by later weepies veteran John M. Stahl (who had considerable distinction), brings Shearer and Novarro for a tryst onto a pretty obviously fake hill of budding, rustling flowers.   Although the sequence seems totally out of character for the film–and nearly an archetypal example of Kitschy silent-movie sentimentality–one’s affection for Shearer and Novarro is so strong by this point in the movie that you don’t really mind too much.

While he bewitchingly conveys the heady beauty of blossoming love, Lubitsch also quite devastatingly expresses the crushing anguish of lovers’ parting and loss.  Seeing The Student Prince brings with it a kind of shock of recognition:  Yes, the movies really can tell you so much about human beings without the use of words.  How to describe the delight in watching Shearer innocently edge all the way around behind Novarro when she’s first looking him over, or the way she walks purposefully but with no reason about his room before leaving the first time?  Lubitsch reminds us that once upon a time pictures were about feelings, and they had a heart.

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Blake Lucas

I watched this again just within the last year and for me, too, it's an extraordinarily beautiful and moving film, one of Lubitsch's masterpieces and I personally rate it among my top five of his movies–since the other four are comedies (though THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER is a film of mixed moods and also emotionally affecting), that makes this one very special. What you said was quite touching–I'm betting there are a lot of us out here that are pierced by the movie emotionally as well as responding to its artistry.

I was also especially interested in reading about that "flowers on the hill" love scene because I didn't know this was a reshoot, but watching it, especially this last time, it did seem very "out of key" to me, even though on its own it played well (I actually love John M. Stahl–and it makes sense that he did it). So thanks for explaining why it just seemed not like the rest of the film–it only shows that Lubitsch's style is very distinctive, though often subtly so.

Nothing much to say here really–I just deeply love that movie. If I thought there was any chance anyone was making anything like this now, I'd still be going out to movies every week looking for it.


I love this film, not only is it one of my favorites from Lubitsch but it is also one of my favorite silents. And probably along with Sjöström's "The Wind" it is the silent I most want to see on home video release.

I am hoping Criterion will get the rights to it, after all they have a pretty extensive Lubitsch catalog so it would fit perfectly into their collection.

I also didn't know that about Stahl's contribution. I actually really do like that scene in the film (maybe I am just overly sentimental). But my favorite scene is when Shearer drinks with the men in the pub. That scene is just magic to me. I am a girl but I can completely see how Novarro became enchanted with her.

Anyways thanks for highlighting this underrated gem.


Truly, Shearer & Novarro are revelations in this film. And the final scene is so unexpectedly powerful.
Too bad the M-G-M print comes with a sub-par music track. We need the full Carl Davis orchestral treatment! Calling Kevin Brownlow/BBC.
(Heard with a live piano using generous samplings from the Romberg operetta adaptation – thanks to Steve Stern @W Film Forum – was a tremendous experience. The long beer garden sequence, where Shearer is introduced, was unforgettable. Steve did variations on the famous 'Drink, Drink, Drink' refrain until he was blue in the face . . . and it was wonderful.

It should be noted that Scott Eyman (in his fine Lubitsch bio/LAUGHTER IN PARADISE) quotes (asst) director Andrew Marton who worked on the film as saying that Lubitsch did the love-scene reshoot himself, not Stahl. They had to rebuild the already struck meadow set to redo it. It is different in character, but very effective in its own way.
And right before this scene is the funniest, naughtiest Lubitsch Touch of all time. I won't spoil it . . . but look quick or you'll miss the dachshund.

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