The Prince and the Pauper (1937)

Based on a book by Mark Twain, The Prince and the Pauper is a movie about two little boys that look very much alike, even born on the same day:  one is Tom Canty, a beggar; the other is Edward Tudor, Prince of Wales.  Just for fun, they exchange clothes, but before they can make the switch back, Edward, thought to be a beggar, is expelled from the castle, while Tom is forced to take his place and possibly become the king.  Eventually, Edward, with the aid of Miles Hendon (Errol Flynn), is restored to his position just in time to be crowned king of England.

In real life, Edward, as the son of Henry VIII, would eventually become Edward VI when he was just nine years old.  When he was fifteen years old, he became ill and died.  I found this to be a little depressing.  How much fun are we supposed to have watching a movie about a child that dies?  Sure, we don’t see the death in the movie, but we know it’s coming.

One of his playmates is Lady Jane Grey.  Yikes!  She got to be queen for nine days while still just a teenager, was deposed, and had her head chopped off by Queen Mary.  Boy, what fun imagining those two children playing together!

Anyway, we are supposed to care that the beggar, Tom Canty, will be crowned king, and Edward will be forced to spend the rest of his days as a beggar in the slums of London, while being beaten regularly by Tom’s father, John Canty (Barton MacClane).  I say that we are supposed to care, but I didn’t.

When a child becomes king, someone else gets to make all the decisions and rule for him until he reaches his majority, which Edward never did.  In fact, the movie makes reference to a Lord High Protector that will be ruling for Edward.  Therefore, that Lord High Protector will make the same decisions and rulings regardless of whichever little boy sits on the throne.  In the novel, and to a certain extent the movie, a great deal is made of how Edward is so outraged by the suffering and injustice that he witnesses, that he resolves to abolish the unjust laws and rule with mercy.  But it all comes to naught, since he died before any of those fine sentiments were able to yield a practical result.

The people that produced the movie probably had the same feeling of indifference that I did, for they changed the story so that it would seem to matter who sat on the throne.  In the movie, if Tom Canty is crowned king, the Earl of Hertford (Claude Rains), who is evil and has figured out that Tom is an imposter, will be the Lord High Protector; whereas if Edward is crowned king, the Duke of Norfolk (Henry Stephenson), who is good, will be the Lord High Protector.  So, what we really care about is which Lord High Protector will rule England while Tom or Edward is still just a child.  Of course, Norfolk remained locked up in the Tower of London while Edward was king, so I don’t really understand how that was supposed to work.

But wouldn’t it be an injustice for Tom to sit on the throne while Edward is forced into being a beggar?  Not really.  Edward has no more right to be a king than Tom does for the simple reason that no one has a right to be a king.  So, while it would be sad to think that Edward would be forced to live in poverty and be beaten by John Canty, it would be just as sad to think of Tom having to return to that fate.  In the novel and the movie both, however, this question as to who has to spend his life in poverty is resolved when Edward, upon becoming king, makes Tom a ward of the crown.  But that comes only at the end.  Up till then, I watched the movie not caring which child would have to be a beggar, so the happy ending resolves something I had not cared about for over an hour.

In general, this movie would be easier to watch if you didn’t know anything about British history.  But as it is, I kept being jerked back and forth between what really happened regarding Edward and what happens to him in this story.  How happy can we be that Tom Canty escapes poverty by becoming a ward of the crown when we know that there was no such person, while countless British subjects did continue to live in abject poverty and suffer the injustice of cruel tyranny, something that no facile happy ending in the movie can make us forget.

Now, I realize that it is at this point that many people will take exception.  Although we fought a revolution to get out from under the rule of George III, establishing a democracy for ourselves, I often get the sense that a lot of Americans still hanker after monarchy.  They are mesmerized by stories about the British royal family, wishing they could bow and scrape before a majesty or a highness right here at home.

Back when people were making a big deal about Princess Diana, I remember Cokie Roberts saying how it is every little girl’s dream to be a princess.  As Thackery noted in Vanity Fair, “if Harry the Eighth or Bluebeard were alive now, and wanted a tenth wife, do you suppose he could not get the prettiest girl that shall be presented this season?”  I certainly never had a dream about being a prince, so I thought this might be a girl thing.  But in the novel, Tom Canty dreams of such.

By and by, Tom’s reading and dreaming about princely life wrought such a strong effect upon him that he began to act the prince, unconsciously.  His speech and manners became curiously ceremonious and courtly, to the vast admiration and amusement of his intimates.  But Tom’s influence among these young people began to grow now, day by day; and in time he came to be looked up to by them with a sort of wondering awe, as a superior being.  He seemed to know so much! and he could do and say such marvellous things! and withal, he was so deep and wise!  Tom’s remarks, and Tom’s performances, were reported by the boys to their elders; and these, also, presently began to discuss Tom Canty, and to regard him as a most gifted and extraordinary creature.  Full-grown people brought their perplexities to Tom for solution, and were often astonished at the wit and wisdom of his decisions.  In fact he was become a hero to all who knew him except his own family—these, only, saw nothing in him.

Privately, after a while, Tom organised a royal court!  He was the prince; his special comrades were guards, chamberlains, equerries, lords and ladies in waiting, and the royal family.  Daily the mock prince was received with elaborate ceremonials borrowed by Tom from his romantic readings; daily the great affairs of the mimic kingdom were discussed in the royal council, and daily his mimic highness issued decrees to his imaginary armies, navies, and viceroyalties.

So, I guess there are both boys and girls that fantasize about being princes and princesses, and when they grow up, they follow the doings of British royalty with some of that longing still in their hearts.  In their minds, whatever miseries were suffered by the common folk, the privilege of living in a kingdom and being ruled over by a monarch must have made it all worthwhile.  For such people, this story in The Prince and the Pauper might grip them.  To them, it would be a great injustice if the rightful heir to the throne should be denied his seat upon it.

For me, it was a complete matter of indifference.  That Edward’s father, Henry VIII, was a cruel and murderous tyrant drives home just how terrible it can be to live in a country ruled by a king.  Just as Henry VIII chopped off the heads of tens of thousands of people, including a couple of wives that were inconvenient to him; so too did Queen Mary chop off the head of Lady Jane Grey because she was inconvenient, in addition to burning lots of people at the stake; and so too did Queen Elizabeth chop off the head of Mary, Queen of Scots, because she was inconvenient, along with many others that she had put to death.  I could go on, but you get the picture:  these people were a bunch of psychopaths.  Are we supposed to imagine that Edward VI, had he lived to be an adult, would not have chopped off lots of heads himself just because they turned out to be inconvenient?  In the novel and the movie, Edward’s experience as a beggar supposedly made him wise and merciful, but we can believe that only because he never got to be old enough to be vain and tyrannical like the rest of his family.

And so it is that it is only because Edward never lived past his childhood that this story has appeal, for it would have us imagine that the adult Edward would somehow retain the innocence and goodness of Edward when he was a child, just as we imagine in general that the world would be a better place if adults could somehow be like children.  Jesus fell prey to this illusion himself when he said, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).  But as St. Augustine pointed out in his Confessions, it is only because children are weak that we speak of them as innocent, for if babies had the size and strength of adults, they would be monsters.