When they made The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, the director and leading stars all had something to prove. Ernst Lubitsch was already a famous director by the time he came to MGM, and was known for his sophisticated, stylish and satirical films. The Student Prince, based on the Wilhelm Meyer-Forster play Old Heidelberg, was his chance to show that he could handle a sentimental period piece which would appeal to the masses. Ramon Novarro needed a strong follow-up to his 1925 hit, Ben-Hur. And Norma Shearer, who was involved with MGM production head Irving Thalberg, needed to prove that she was more than the boss’s girlfriend.
Born in Berlin in 1892, Ernst Lubitsch entered show business in his late teens as a member of Max Reinhardt’s troupe at the Deutsches Theater, where he perfected “Meyer,” a comic, stereotypical Jewish character. After writing and directing several films featuring himself as “Meyer,” he abandoned acting, for fear of being typecast. His first international hit was The Eyes of the Mummy (1918), but it was his 1919 satire of American manners, The Oyster Princess, in which he first demonstrated what a studio publicity man would later dub “The Lubitsch Touch” – sophistication, subtle humor and light comedy.
As appealing as “The Lubitsch Touch” was for audiences, creating it was often a source of exasperation for his actors. In 1922, Mary Pickford brought Lubitsch to the United States as part of a so-called “European Invasion” of film talent to direct her in Rosita. Pickford, who poked fun at Lubitsch’s heavy German accent on set, called him a “frustrated actor.” Student Prince costars Norma Shearer and Ramon Novarro occasionally found themselves at odds with Lubitsch during the filming. Both objected to his insistence on minimal or no rehearsal for a more spontaneous effect, only to then shoot multiple takes – reportedly filming one scene in The Student Prince 102 times. The already jittery Shearer was reduced to tears after Lubitsch exploded at her in frustration, remarking that he could get a studio commissary waitress to do a better job of playing a barmaid. Shearer called on Thalberg to come to her rescue, but he reportedly told her, “Everyone has a lot to learn from Mr. Lubitsch.” Ramon Novarro had an even tougher time. Lubitsch knew of Novarro’s homosexuality and he was amused at the prudish attitudes of American men and women. In an effort to poke fun, Lubitsch forced Novarro to endure multiple takes of an ultimately deleted scene with an effeminate extra. Shearer feigned a fainting spell to put a stop to it. In spite of these problems, both actors gave performances that surpassed expectations, and the film itself was a great success.
Novarro had not had a hit since Ben-Hur two years earlier. To maintain his star status at MGM, The Student Prince needed to be a hit as well. Born Ramon Gil Samaniego in Mexico in 1899, he was the eldest of 13 children. In 1914 his family moved to Los Angeles, where Ramon tried his hand in vaudeville and as a singing waiter. By 1917 he had begun to land the odd bit part in movies, including an uncredited appearance in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). Director Rex Ingram noticed Novarro’s good looks and talent, and gave him a small role in 1922’s The Prisoner of Zenda. Ingram advised Novarro to change his name, and then launched him into stardom in Scaramouche (1923). The director and his wife Alice Terry became Novarro’s lifelong friends, and were constant in their efforts to nurture his career. Originally promoted as another Valentino, Novarro proved to be a versatile actor, playing all-American types in addition to Latin lovers. The monumental Ben-Hur (1925) was Novarro’s greatest success. The Student Prince proved to be the perfect next step.
The careers of Lubitsch, Novarro and Shearer all survived the transition to sound. Novarro appeared in several early MGM musicals and starred opposite Greta Garbo in the 1931 Mata Hari, his best-known sound film. He left MGM in 1935. His accent, which had not been an obstacle during the silent era, now limited the roles available to him. The official story for his departure from MGM was stated as “artistic differences,” but the real reason was most probably Novarro’s homosexuality. Rumors circulated that he was either caught in flagrante delicto with another man, or the studio demanded that he find a wife. An independent production company, stage work abroad, and a 1937 contract with Poverty Row studio Republic Pictures failed to revive his stardom.
In his personal life, Novarro moved in a relatively small social circle and indulged in only the occasional male romance. His greatest confidante remained his cousin, RKO star Dolores Del Rio. Novarro’s Catholic faith, which condemned his sexual orientation, and his anxiety over his fading stardom fueled an alcohol problem that provided fodder to the papers throughout the 1940s.
In 1949, Novarro entered a second, shorter stage of his career in the form of a character actor, thanks to director John Huston, who put him in the suspense thriller We Were Strangers. The role earned Novarro some of the best reviews he ever received. He appeared in a few more films, and then played character roles on television. His final feature was Heller in Pink Tights (1960), starring Sophia Loren.
On October 30, 1968, Novarro made headlines once again when he was tortured and killed by two brothers he had hired for sex who attempted to rob him. Several of Novarro’s closest friends, unaware of his homosexuality, were shocked to find he had been using male escort services for years. It was a sad postscript to a fine career that transcended the limits of the Latin Lover stereotype.
Both Norma Shearer and Ernst Lubitsch went on to greater success in the sound era. After completing The Student Prince, Shearer married Irving Thalberg and became “The Queen of the Lot” at MGM, appearing in many popular films throughout the 1930s. Widowed in 1936, she retired from films in 1942. That same year she married a young ski instructor, and they remained together until her death in 1983.
“The Lubitsch Touch” continued to delight audiences in classics such as Ninotchka (1939) with Greta Garbo, The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and To Be or Not to Be (1942). Lubitsch died in 1947 after suffering a sixth heart attack during filming of That Lady in Ermine. At the funeral, director Billy Wilder lamented to fellow director William Wyler, “No more Lubitsch,” to which Wyler famously responded, “Worse than that, no more Lubitsch pictures.”
All involved in The Student Prince achieved their goals. Novarro proved his marquee status, Shearer silenced the “just an ingénue” critics, and Lubitsch demonstrated his skill with a traditional love story. As Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times pointed out in his review of the film: “In this new offering Mr. Lubitsch lives up to all that has been written about him…the satirical shafts, the careful attention to telling details, the half-second notes and the keeping within certain bounds inform the spectator, even though the name of Lubitsch were not emblazoned on the screen, that it is the master from Berlin who has directed this splendid shadow story.”
Presented at SFSFF 2007 with live music by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer