Political Responsibility And Poetic Striving In Preston Sturges-penned Swashbuckler



Kings, rascals, noble and not-so-noble ladies and gentlemen get their counter-intuitively democratic due in Paramount Studio’s, director Frank Lloyd’s, and scriptwriter Preston Sturges’s rousing swashbuckler, lifting and leveling those feudal categories to a commonality born of political responsibility and poetic striving. Based on a 1901 novel and play by Irish politician Justin Huntly McCarthy, adapted for both stage and screen many times before and many times since, this 1938 filming, starring Ronald Colman as historical thief and poet Francois Villon and Basil Rathbone as King Louis XI, remains unmatched for its strong sense of adventure, to say nothing of its massive scale and screen-filling spectacle, but most of all for the surprising intimacy of its story and the audience-involving nature of its storytelling. A romantic epic in the true sense of the descriptor, Kino Lorber Studio Classics gives us a new look at a grand old classic this early February on Blu-ray.

Opening on a daring nighttime raid of the royal storehouse, loquacious scoundrel Francois Villon (Colman) leads his fellow denizens of the downtrodden, castle-adjacent slum the Court of Miracles towards diverting a needed portion of the grain and meat to the empty bellies of those who produced it. Caught in the act by the king’s guards, Villon is pursued through the streets to the refuge of his protector and foster father, Father Villon (C.V. France), where he manages to elude his pursuers, but not before they learn the gangleader Villon’s identity. Now a marked man, Villon is apprehended by the king’s chief constable (John Miljan) the very next morning at church, but is released due to the intercession of both his priestly foster father and a beautiful attendant to the queen, Lady Katherine (Frances Dee), whom Villon managed to charm with his poetry.

Meanwhile, King Louis XI (Rathbone), in the second year of his troubled reign, uncovers a plot near to his throne connected to the city-and-castle-surrounding Burgundian forces of renegade noblemen, who are even now attempting to starve out the king, his court, and his subjects in order to overtake Paris for themselves. Disguised as a pilgrim, the king and his chief minister (Walter Kingsford) repair to a lowly inn in the Court of Miracles run by the shady Robin Turgis (Sidney Toler), where they hope to catch the traitor. As coincidence would have it, Villon and his gang are also at the inn, very much in their cups – particularly apparent in Villon’s amusing and near-seditious comic monologue on the present mis-rule of France – and are presently drunken sitting targets for the chief constable, who it turns out is none other than the traitor the king and his minister are searching for. In the bar-brawl that ensues, Villon inadvertently serves the crown by running the traitorous constable through with his sword.

Now imprisoned along with his band in the castle dungeon, Villon, after nervelessly composing his own epitaph, is surprisingly summoned to the king’s private chambers, where we learn the sarcastic if pragmatic ruler was both insulted and intrigued by Villon’s caustic yet undeniably witty criticism of feudal rule back at Turgis’s Inn. Figuring he has nothing much else to lose with traitors in his court, invaders at his gate, and starving subjects baying for his blood, King Louis mischievously re-dubs Villon “Count de Montcordier” and gives his newly-named chief constable five days before the court’s execution of one Francois Villon, for his killing of the former chief constable, in order for the temporary count to put his poetic principles to state, people, and nation-governing test.

Eminently satisfying fans of derring-do heroics, magnificent period sets, grandly-designed and elaborate costumes, steel-flashing swordplay, and a “cast of thousands” running hither-and-yon onscreen, If I Were King certainly buckles all its swashes while also adding depth to its plot and especially its characters. Director Frank Lloyd, also a powerful producer in this period, had amassed recent worthy credits including The Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and Cavalcade (1933), with a career that stretched back to (and full-decade preceded) the original silent-screen spectacle The Sea Hawk (1924), and was able to utilize all those aforementioned elements to maximum screen effect. But it’s the story’s complex, teasing, mutually wary and frustrating yet admiring and respectful central relationship, between the charismatic, low-born but refined Villon and his wheedling, scowling yet shrewd and intelligent king, which in many ways transcends its genre. With his magnificent voice and impeccable delivery, Ronald Colman is screen suavedom personified, never remote or less than relatable, and always inviting the keenest audience identification with his confidence and daring; while Basil Rathbone is simply magnificent, and as equally surprising, in brilliantly essaying a comic character role, his irritability in tone and exasperation in delivery as indelible as his stoop-shouldered gait and high-pitched, cackling laugh.

That these two opposing personalities find common ground in the realpolitik demands of the story adds a certain sparkling screen frisson whenever they appear together, which is a testament to the many contributions of screenwriter Preston Sturges. Adding further layers to the story in terms of hitherto unmentioned Court of Miracles’ “mistress” Huguette, played sympathetically and ultimately heroically by the effervescent Ellen Drew, Sturges also gives the usual “clotheshorse” role of the swashbuckler, in the elegant Lady Katherine, complexity and conscience, even when said Miss Frances Dee is dressed by none other than a young Edith Head (If I Were King being among the soon legendary costumer’s earliest credits at Paramount), through the character’s considerable social awareness and keen political intelligence expressed beneath the dress-sense. In addition to making strong, three-dimensional women intrinsic to the plot, Sturges refines, reduces, and intensifies the language to a period-appropriate pitch while injecting the spirit of slang-expression to well-drawn characters up-and-down the social ladder.

While stopping just short of saying these pompous guards, blustering generals, simpering courtiers, pampered ladies-in-waiting, along with their equally clueless gentlemen-of-leisure, should be thrown out on their ears, the unmistakable Sturgesian sympathy for trollops, conmen, louts, rogues, rapscallions, and the generally punchdrunk and disreputable is borne out in the higher-pitched, philosophical battle-of-wills between ruler and ruled. Evincing a certain understandably romantic preference for the open road in Villon’s inevitable banishment at film’s end, despite his lady fair following closely with a luxury coach and a retinue of servants, one could scarcely imagine France’s King Louis XI not wanting to trade places with his lowliest subject. (Or at least this particularly poetic vagabond.)

Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is advertised as a “brand new 2K Master”, yet shows a certain amount of grainy wear-and-tear, especially evident in a thin vertical-line appearing on the far left of the screen throughout the first reel. A minor quibble, as it’s barely noticeable unless you’re looking for it, and the transfer otherwise strongly supports the beautifully-constructed sets, renders the equally lovely matte-work in advantageous detail, and even allows the sharp-eyed viewer several frames by which to enjoy, say, the elaborate embroidery on Frances Dee’s procession of gowns. Finally, film historian and writer Julie Kirgo offers an appreciative commentary-track delving into both the contemporary and historical context and the personalities both behind and in front of the camera. Adding equal parts depth and insight to the film’s genesis, making, and impact, one may finish listening convinced one has just seen a film anomaly one might have otherwise never have expected to see: a swashbuckler by none other than Preston Sturges.

The images in this review are used only as a reference to the film and do not reflect the quality of Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray.