In the small principality of Rutania, young Karl Heinrich (Francis Carpenter) leads a miserable life. He’s a prince and the heir apparent to the Rutanian throne (occupied by his father, who spends so much of the movie in conference with his cabinet his death in battle sneaks by you)…but Karl spends most of his time in the palace, cut off from interacting with other children. Even a brief interlude of playing with kids his own age—where he meets a young girl, Katie Ruder—is interrupted by the individuals charged with his supervision. His only friend is Dr. Juttner (Karl Formes), who is as fond of Prince Karl as if he were his own son.
As Prince Karl grows to manhood (where he is now played by Wallace Reid), he attends the university in Heidelberg and makes friends among his peers while furthering his romantical attention to Katie (Dorothy Gish). Alas, these are not good times in Rutania; the political atmosphere in the country escalates toward war with a neighboring country…and Prince Karl may have to marry someone other than his true love to prevent it.
Alpha Video Classics recently released the 1915 production of Old Heidelberg to DVD (October 23), the first silver screen adaptation of Wilhelm Meyer-Förster’s 1902 novel/play Karl Heinrich. I was interested in checking out this film (thanks to Brian Krey for the screener) because I had already seen the better-known version, 1927’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg—directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer. (The material was also the basis for the 1954 musical The Student Prince with Ann Blyth, Edmund Purdom…and Mario Lanza as Purdom’s singing voice.)
The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg is clearly the superior film in this group—an example of how remakes are not always a bad idea. I really wanted to like Old Heidelberg; the casting of silent screen icons Wallace Reid and Dorothy Gish sounded most intriguing…but there’s really not much romantic chemistry between the pair. D.W. Griffith was the producer on this film and I’m curious as to whether he might have made it more interesting—director John Emerson starts out well (the early scenes with the young Carpenter longing to play with kids his own age are quite engaging) but just seems to falter as the film continues on its way. Griffith fashioned Heidelberg as kind of an anti-WWI polemic; Katie’s father loses an arm in an earlier war—requiring him to operate a hand organ for his livelihood—and he’s one of several veterans interviewed by Prince Karl in his deliberation as to whether to plunge Rutania into another conflict. It’s an interesting sentiment that I wish Emerson would have expanded a bit more.
I did, however, get a kick out of seeing this actor:
That’s Erich von Stroheim on the left as one of Prince Karl’s “handlers”; Old Heidelberg was one of Stroheim’s first credited screen appearances and he apparently also served as an assistant director and technical advisor on the movie. The Alpha Video release of Old Heidelberg has been paired with a short that did feature Griffith’s direction: 1909’s Resurrection, which humorously distills Leo Tolstoy’s novel into one reel as a peasant girl, Katusha (Florence Lawrence), falls for Prince Dmitri (Arthur V. Johnson). Alas, with their respective stations their love can never be. Halfway through the reel, Katusha has apparently taken the road to perdition working in a “low tavern”…and she’s arrested; Dmitri attempts to intervene on her behalf but she rebuffs his actions. It’s short and sweet (and heavy on the moralizing), and if you look sharply, you’ll spot “King of Comedy” Mack Sennett in a scene or two.