MGM’s “Queen of the Lot” Co-Stars with Gay Hollywood Royalty, Latin Lover Ramón Novarro in THE STUDENT PRINCE IN OLD HEIDELBERG (1927)

NORMA SHEARER – Leading Lady of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Copyright © 2007 San Francisco Sentinel

Opening at the majestic Castro Theatre on Friday night, July 13th is the 1927 silent classic THE STUDENT PRINCE IN OLD HEIDELBERG. Directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch, the film capitalized on the fantastic success of the Broadway musical by Sigmund Romberg. Based on the 1903 play by Wilhelm Meyer-Förster, the still-popular operetta opened at Jolson’s 59th Street Theatre in December 1924, ran more than 600 performances and closed mid-May 1926. MGM picked up the rights and under the watchful eyes of “Boy Wonder” producer Irving Thalberg, released the film September 21, 1927. Eight days later Thalberg married the film’s leading lady – lovely and sophisticated catalyst to women’s emerging sexual freedoms – Norma Shearer.

Mr. and Mrs. Irving Thalberg

THE STUDENT PRINCE IN OLD HEIDELBERG is a 5-star melodramatic tear-jerker. It is the romantic tale of an unrequited love between a beautiful tavern maid and an unavailable prince (and future king). It is also a remarkable chapter in the history of Hollywood’s greatest studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Thalberg had catapulted the studio to the top of the totem with BEN–HUR (also starring Ramón Novarro) in 1925. Now he applies his unparalleled genius to both Art (for Art’s sake) and Marketing (for Capital’s sake) by hiring Ernst Lubitsch in place of Erich von Stroheim whose treatment of Franz Lehar’s operetta, The Merry Widow (1925), went way beyond budget and bordered on the perverse.

Throughout THE STUDENT PRINCE film buffs will recognize Mr. Thalberg’s command to give his performers “The Star Treatment”. Production Designers such as Cedric Gibbons applied their art to the vivacious and lovely Norma Shearer. Director Ernst Lubitsch applied his steadfast attention to detail – “The Lubitsch Touch”. Lubitsch must have pressed rather hard on the very lithe and ebullient Ramón Novarro. A native of Durango, Mexico, the sexually boyish charms of Mr. Novarro (coming in just under 5′ 6″) were explained away with terms such as “exotic”. The conflicting struggles and tragic death of one of MGM’s most popular Leading Men would eventually fling open the doors to the not-so-silent truths within Hollywood’s Gay underworld.


Dennis James has been given the honor of accompanying the film on the Castro’s Mighty Wurlitzer theatre organ. Count on the very popular Mr. James to provide just the right kicker for the Students’ rollicking tavern scene and a rich wafting smoothness to the longing and nostalgia of lost love. For Last season’s SHOW PEOPLE (1928) he provided glimmering insight to the comic antics and tender exchanges between (the very powerful) Marion Davies and (the very Out) William Haines. Thus, with one eye toward the society of MGM and the other on director Lubitsch’s romantic satin touches (observe his obsession with doors!) Dennis James’ will deliver a score that will echo deep in your heart. If you should find yourself in Washington, DC on Friday (May 5th) – run to the National Gallery of Art. It’s a World Premiere. Mr. James will present his new score at the screening of the 1927 classic of Classics – SEVENTH HEAVEN, starring Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor. And the w eek before we have him at The Castro he will be in Bainbridge, at the Lynwood Theatre, accompanying Douglas Fairbanks’ swashbuckler from 1926, THE BLACK PIRATE. Some of us are longing already.

Executive Director Stacey Wisnia and Artistic Director Stephen Salmons have announced other cinematic treasures for this year’s Festival:

Beggars of Life (1928) Fresh from directing WINGS – recipient of the first Best Picture Oscar – William Wellman made this gritty, unsentimental look at society’s outcasts: the hobos who hop rides on freight trains in search of a day’s pay and a square meal. Richard Arlen keep on-the-run Louise Brooks out of the cops’ hands, but it’s Wallace Beery as “Oklahoma Red” who steals the show.

A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) A psychological thriller fully the equal of Hitchcock, by the great British director Anthony Asquith. A lovelorn barber’s assistant attempts to court the shop manicurist, but he’s driven to a jealous rage when a rival suitor appears on the scene. Bursts of rapid-fire editing and off-kilter cinematography fuel the suspense, as the story builds to a surprising climax.

The Godless Girl (1929) Cecil B. DeMille pulls out all the stops in this tale of wild youth and institutional abuse. Judy, the school atheist, locks horns with Bob, class president and believer. Tragedy strikes, and both are sent to a notorious reform school where a guard known as “The Brute” awaits. Conceived as a searing exposé, it’s part parody, part high voltage melodrama.

Watch this column for more about The 12th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival

ERNST LUBITSCH’S – The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg (1928)

Coming up on Seán’s Column:
A Conversation with Festival Directors – STACEY WISNIA and STEPHEN SALMONS

Suggested Videos and Recordings:
VHS: The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1928)
DVD: The Student Prince (1954)

CDs – THE STUDENT PRINCE – Music by Sigmund Romberg:
The Student Prince – Robert Rounseville and Dorothy Kirsten
The Student Prince – Featuring Lauritz Melchior and Gloria Lane
Mario Lanza – Songs from The Student Prince/The Desert Song

CDs featuring Clark Wilson, Organist:
Clark Wilson At the Ohio
Extravaganza 9
Clark Wilson: Upstairs / Downstairs

See Seán’s recent articles and reviews:

LA VIE EN ROSE (La Môme) – Biography of Edith Piaf A Sensation at the 50th San Francisco International Film Festival
SPIDER-MAN 3, An All-American Cinematic Marvel
RIGOLETTO – SF OPERA Broadcasts on Classical 102.1 KDFC
DON QUIXOTE – An Impossible Dream at SF Ballet
THE DAMNATION OF FAUST – Absolute Heaven at Davies Symphony Hall
JEANETTE MacDONALD – First Lady of “San Francisco”
An Interview with PASCAL MOLAT – Principal Soloist, San Francisco Ballet
TERRA HAUTE – An Interview with The Stars, John Hutchinson and Elias Escobedo

San Francisco Sentinel’s Fine Arts Critic Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Ask him a question on . If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at:

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