Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Beloved Rogue (United Artists, 1927)

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

The film was The Beloved Rogue, a 1927 United Artists production starring John Barrymore as François Villon in a quirky costume drama about 15th century France directed by Alan Crosland (who had directed Barrymore the year before in Don Juan, the first silent film released with a synchronized Vitaphone music and effects soundtrack) and produced by Joseph M. Schenck for Feature Productions. The source for this DVD release, one of the four films in Kino’s Barrymore boxed set (along with the 1920 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the 1922 Sherlock Holmes, and the 1928 Tempest), was a version prepared for TV showings in the 1970’s based on a print owned by Paul Killiam, who produced the Silents Please syndicated TV series that showed half-hour condensations of the great silent films, and it came with the TV credits and intro and outro segments by, of all people, Orson Welles.

Welles introduced himself as a good friend and co-worker with John Barrymore, and while that’s a bit of an exaggeration they were on record as having performed together at least once, on a radio show in which they did a scene from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. He also said Beloved Rogue was not one of Barrymore’s better films, and as things turned out it isn’t. I had seen it when this version originally aired on PBS in the 1970’s and had remembered it as better than it now seems — the opening sequence, showing Villon’s father being burned at the stake, was the part that most stuck in my mind, and it’s a wonderful dramatic opening for a film that through most of its length is actually more a comedy than anything else. Villon’s father is depicted as a French aristocrat who was executed either by the English or the Burgundians, who were ruling large chunks of France at the time, for standing up for the rights of the hereditary French kings, and when Villon mere is trying to get Villon fils to drink his baby formula, the baby (played by the infant Dickie Moore) smashes the bottle to the floor and is only satisfied when his nurse gets a wine bottle from the shelf, mixes the milk with it and feeds him that. “If that’s the way John Barrymore was raised, no wonder he became an alcoholic!” I joked.

A title tells us that 25 years have passed and Villon has grown up to be John Barrymore — a considerably more athletic version than we’re used to, courtesy of stunt double Paul Malvern (who later became a producer at Universal in the 1940’s); obviously Schenck was going for the appeal of the Douglas Fairbanks swashbucklers that, along with Mary Pickford’s films, were making United Artists most of its money just then, and possibly also grooming him as a replacement for Rudolph Valentino, who had made his two last films for Schenck’s unit at UA before his sudden death in 1926. The Beloved Rogue features Villon as a romantic revolutionary fighting for the interests of King Louis XI (Conrad Veidt, in his first American film, playing the king much the way he played Ivan the Terrible in the German film Waxworks three years earlier) even though Louis has exiled him from Paris and sentenced him to death should he ever return to the city. Love rears its head in the person of the King’s ward, Charlotte de Vauxcelles (Marceline Day), whom the king plans to marry to Thibault d’Aussigny (Henry Victor), close friend of the king’s cousin Charles of Burgundy (Lawson Butt), who’s planning to take over France by stealth, surrounding Paris with his army and forcing the king to abdicate in his favor.

Of course when Charlotte actually meets Thibault it’s hate at first sight, and she turns out to be a fan of Villon’s poetry (she has one of his books) but still has a hard time believing the scapegrace who’s rescued her is Villon himself. Villon is also shown with a couple of comic sidekicks, Jehan (Slim Summerville) and Nicholas (Mack Swain), and when they’re together they come off like a beta version of the Three Stooges; and he gets to reign over the Feast of Fools, the ancestor of our April Fool’s Day and a celebration in which for one day a year the usual social orders are overturned and a King of Fools is crowned to reign over the Paris carnival. For this purpose Barrymore is made up to look like a clown, with a pepper-pot “crown” on his head, and his moves and gestures in the role seem deliberately copied from Chaplin (well, when you’re going to steal, steal from the best!). The best part of Beloved Rogue is the absolutely stunning visual look, courtesy of art director William Cameron Menzies, who worked on even more amazing films later but whose designs here are still awesome, full of glass paintings and other bits of artifice that make the sets look even more substantial than they are.

The script, based on a story by Paul Bern — the future MGM producer who was found dead under mysterious circumstances shortly after marrying Jean Harlow in 1932 (MGM worked with the police to make it look like suicide, but the modern consensus is that Bern was murdered by a common-law wife he’d jilted years before but who nonetheless had a jealous hissy-fit over his much-publicized marriage to Harlow) — with titles by George F. Marion, Jr. and Walter Anthony, is little more than a pretext for big action and romantic set-pieces. The movie is aiming for the insouciance of Barrymore’s Don Juan the year before, but though he’s perfectly credible in the lead (and Crosland’s direction and Hal Kern’s editing are artful enough that the transitions between Barrymore and Malvern are virtually seamless), and the film overall is a load of artless fun, darker roles in the Barrymore canon like Jekyll/Hyde, Ahab and Svengali showed him off better. (So did the modern-dress roles in films like A Bill of Divorcement and Dinner at Eight that seemed like oblique comments on Barrymore’s own alcohol-fueled self-destruction.) The film was remade in 1938 as If I Were King with Ronald Colman as Villon and Basil Rathbone (playing in a surprisingly mincing, queeny manner) as Louis XI, and I remember that one as being better than this — or would that, too, be a film that would disappoint me if I saw it again?