I started going to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in 2007, when I saw a film called “The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg,” a film directed by Ernst Lubitsch in 1927. This glorious film stars Ramon Navarro as the Student Prince and Norma Shearer as Kathi, the beer garden waitress he falls for while studying in Heidelberg. The play, with Sigmund Romberg’s music, opened on Broadway in 1924. If one thinks of a typical Hollywood musical with their song and dance numbers, it may seem odd that a silent movie could so successfully pull off an operetta. However, the performance included a wonderful performance on the mighty Wurlitzer organ by Dennis James, who provided the wonderful Romberg touches.
One would think MGM could build an entire Heidelberg set on their back lot, but Lubitsch filmed some of the movie in the German town. The film starts as the Prince parades through the kingdom in a fancy coach. The populace remarks on how wonderful and lucky Prince Karl Heinrich must feel to be the future king. However, when the prince arrives in Heidelberg to study, he stays at an inn and beer garden that employs Kathi. He immediately falls for her and the couple starts a discreet romance. Lubitsch films this with great charm, of course, with the best scene involving a serenade of Kathi by the Prince’s fellow students during a drinking party. Shearer, as Kathi, glows during the scene and Navarro flashes a delighted smile from an upstairs window.
Of course, a future king in Habsburg Germany cannot marry a beer garden waitress, so we know where the film is going. Despite the charming story, the story drives home the theme that maybe the Prince is not so lucky with his life after all. At the end, he can never go back to the carefree days of Old Heidelberg.