Sunday, January 31, 2010

Bardelys the Magnificent (MGM, 1926)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually got to watch another movie from the backlog; Bardelys the Magnificent, a recently rediscovered 1926 swashbuckler from director King Vidor at MGM starring John Gilbert in the title role, a Don Juan-esque French aristocrat in the time of King Louis XIII (played in the movie by future New Orleans director Arthur Lubin, which puts Gilbert one degree of separation from Billie Holiday) who makes a bet with a fellow Great Lover at the French court, the Count de Chatellerault (Roy D’Arcy, reunited with Gilbert from the Stroheim Merry Widow the year before), that within three months he can seduce and marry the standoffish Roxalanne de Lavedan (Eleanor Boardman, who seems to have got the part more because she was then Mrs. King Vidor than from any actual acting ability).

Bardelys was long thought lost for a really quirky reason: the story came from a novel by Rafael Sabatini, and instead of selling the film rights outright to MGM Sabatini leased them for 10 years (a practice that would become common after World War II because it had tax advantages for both writer and studio, but was highly unusual in 1926). The arrangement was that if MGM wanted to continue to show the film after 1936 they would have to pay Sabatini an additional fee to renew the rights; otherwise they were contractually obliged not only to withdraw the film from circulation but to destroy the negative and all the prints. When 1936 rolled around the powers that were at MGM decided that a silent film starring a dead actor had no further commercial value, so they let the lease expire and destroyed the negative and all extant prints — and it was only in 2006 that one copy turned up in an archive in France, missing most of the third reel (which was here filled in with production stills to cover the two important plot points contained in that section of the film).

That story was told by Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne in his introduction to the film, and what was really surprising about it was that in 1935 Warner Bros. had just released Captain Blood, a remake of a Sabatini novel previously filmed as a silent — and they’d had an enormous blockbuster hit that had elevated its previously unknown lead, Errol Flynn, to instant stardom. One would have thought that MGM would not only have paid to renew their lease on their own Sabatini story but put a remake into production — perhaps even borrowing Flynn from Warners to star — but in 1936 MGM’s front-office politics were unsettled because of studio head Irving Thalberg’s ill health (he died in September of that year), and maybe the prospect of a Bardelys remake with sound and either Flynn or Ronald Colman in the lead simply fell through the cracks.

The plot of Bardelys is pretty pretextual — to get close to Roxalanne, Bardelys has to befriend her parents (Lionel Belmore and Emily Fitzroy), and since they’re part of a plot to overthrow the king, Bardelys assumes the identity of the dying René de Lesperon (Theodore von Eltz) and romances Roxalanne in that guise — including a beautiful scene in a rowboat on a lake (pretty obviously influenced by similar footage in von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives) that Vidor liked so much he included a clip from it in his 1928 comedy Show People, which for years was the only place you could see any footage from Bardelys.

His love affair comes to a screeching halt when someone at the Lavedan castle finds a letter to (the real) René from his girlfriend Lisette, and Roxalanne is so pissed off at being “the other woman” that she turns René in as a traitor; Chatellerault is a judge on the court that convicts him and sentences him to hang, and it’s only the intervention of the King, who recognizes Bardelys, that spares his life and sets up the final duel. Roxalanne reveals that she actually married Chatellerault on condition that he spare Bardelys’ life — and though the final shot of the film is John Gilbert and Eleanor Boardman in the obligatory clinch, Chatellerault’s fate is a bit ambiguous: he survives the final duel with Bardelys, is arrested by the King’s men, and then as he’s giving his sword to the people taking him into custody he puts it in front of him and falls on it. This was apparently supposed to kill him — in the next scene he’s being carried out prone — though director Vidor cuts away so quickly the glancing blow we see doesn’t seem like it could have killed anybody. At least Chatellerault’s disappearance (even if he survives the suicide attempt he’ll almost certainly be hanged) means Bardelys will be able to marry Roxalanne and get back the estates he lost to Chatellerault in their bet.

Vidor didn’t think much of this film in later years — he told Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg in The Celluloid Muse, “I was a little ashamed of it, and it wasn’t very successful” — but he certainly threw a lot of his skill into making it, livening up the pretty traditional story with vertiginous camera angles (at one point Bardelys takes a fall off a balcony and Vidor films it from above; later on there’s a long, acrobatic action scene featuring John Gilbert — or his stunt double — swinging back and forth on a long rope à la Tarzan, again filmed from above, as he engages in swordplay with various baddies; though Gilbert had to be doubled in scenes Douglas Fairbanks, the obvious model, could have done on his own, the cutting back and forth between the double’s long shots and Gilbert’s close-ups is really artful) and scenarist Dorothy Farnum approached the story with a surprisingly light touch.

I hadn’t thought anybody bothered to do a deliberately campy swashbuckler until the early 1950’s, yet here one is from a quarter-century earlier; the titles (I’m presuming Farnum wrote them as well since no title-writer is credited) are full of dry wit and the whole movie benefits from the filmmakers’ refusal to take their story too seriously. The acting isn’t all that interesting — Gilbert was a much stronger personality than he was an actor, and it didn’t help that he had the insensitive Eleanor Boardman as his leading lady instead of Shearer, Gish or Garbo — but the movie as a whole is filmed with such brio and dash it’s fun to watch and a welcome rediscovery.