Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Vagabond King (Paramount, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I ran Charles an intriguing movie I’d been curious about since I read Edward Baron Turk’s biography of Jeanette MacDonald: her second film, the 1930 version of Rudolf Friml’s operetta The Vagabond King, an oft-filmed tale (both musical and non-musical versions) loosely based on the life of François Villon. Villon was a scapegrace poet, beggar and thief in 15th Century Paris; he’s known to have been born in 1431 (the year Joan of Arc was executed) but no one knows when he died — there’s no mention of him after 1463, when he published Le Grand Testament, his most significant work. It’s also possible his real name was François de Montcorbier or François des Loges, and in 1461 he was released from prison as part of a general amnesty ordered by the newly crowned French king, Louis XI. Villon was a role model for Bertolt Brecht, who reportedly based the central character of his first play, Baal (1917), on Villon and ripped off some of Villon’s poems for the lyrics for The Threepenny Opera. In 1901 playwright and Irish politician Justin Huntly McCarthy wrote a fantasy novel about Villon (“fantasy” not in the sense of physically impossible but in the sense of writing a totally fictitious account of a character bearing the name of a real person) called If I Were King, in which Louis XI, faced with an impending invasion of Paris by the rebel Duke of Burgundy, goes out and about among the Parisian lowlife, runs into Villon and hears Villon sing an insulting song in which he says the real villain threatening France is not the Duke of Burgundy but Louis XI himself, a weak king more interested in astrology than organizing a defense of Paris against the invaders.

Louis has Villon captured and taken to the palace (capturing Villon is relatively easy because McCarthy’s fictional Villon, like the real one, is an alcoholic and is easily “put under” by being fed drugged wine), and when he comes to he’s in a room of the palace, he’s been shaved and put into nice clothes, and he’s told he’s really the Baron de Montcorbier. The only people in the palace who know who Villon really is are the king and the royal barber who shaved and re-dressed him. The king says Villon can live like a nobleman and govern France for seven days, but will be hanged at the end of that time; either that, or they will throw him back into the gutters and let him live as long as nature, his fellow scoundrels and his alcohol consumption let him. During that week he successfully organizes Paris’s defense against the Duke of Burgundy’s army, wins the heart of the king’s niece, and ultimately bluffs his way into a royal pardon. McCarthy’s story, which he later rewrote as a play, got turned into an operetta by Brian Hooker and William H. Post, with music by Rudolf Friml, and both the non-musical and musical versions have been filmed several times. There was a silent version of If I Were King in 1920 (preceded by a 1914 short called The Oubliette) and another in 1927, retitled Beloved Rogue, starring John Barrymore. Paramount bought the rights to the operetta and made this version in 1930, starring Dennis King (who’s billed over the title and specified as “By Arrangement with Florenz Ziegfeld”) and Jeanette MacDonald (in her second film, after Ernst Lubitsch’s The Love Parade). They assigned a German director named Ludwig Berger and filmed the whole thing in two-strip Technicolor, but though a Technicolor print exists and is in the vaults of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, currently circulating prints are only in black-and-white. (At least this film holds up better in monochrome than some of the Warners’ films in two-strip — the characters look relatively natural and it doesn’t seem as if all the actors, including the males, are wearing black lipstick.) In 1938 Paramount did a non-musical version under the title If I Were King, with Ronald Colman as Villon and Basil Rathbone as the king, and after a 1945 film called simply François Villon, the operetta was remade with Kathryn Grayson (a not-bad choice) and Oreste Kirkop (who?).

The 1930 version is a problematic film because some things are done really well and others aren’t; Dennis King is an overbearing screen presence — it’s true he’s up against the competition of John Barrymore and Ronald Colman, but his gravelly speaking voice (he seemed to be trying to speak his lines in imitation of Barrymore, even though Barrymore’s version had been silent) and stentorian singing voice lack the sort of roguish charm Villon has to have for the plot to work. Jeanette MacDonald couldn’t stand him; he kept trying to upstage her by sticking his face (including his quite prominent nose) into her close-ups, and at one point she bitterly joked that their big duet, “Only a Rose,” should be renamed “Only a Nose.” The parts that do work are MacDonald, Lillian Roth (I had downloaded this movie largely as a Roth item because I was trying to grab as many of her actual film in the wake of having seen I’ll Cry Tomorrow, the Roth biopic in which Susan Hayward played her) — even though Roth is way too modern a “type” to be believable as a street wench and (it’s obliquely hinted) prostitute in medieval Paris — and the magnificent ensemble scenes, including a virtual ballet number among the people waiting on Villon as he wakes up in nobleman’s guise. That’s the one part of the movie where I really missed the original color (UCLA has a fully restored Technicolor print but, like Fafner in Wagner’s Ring, it’s one of the treasures they are sitting on that remain frustratingly unavailable on home video or DVD, along with the restored, non-splicy print of Anthony Mann’s great 1945 film noir The Great Flamarion); otherwise the movie actually looks pretty good in black-and-white and Charles said the color version might look like we’re watching a St. Patrick’s Day parade go on in the background behind the main action. Berger’s direction is spotty; it’s refreshingly free of those long, annoying pauses between lines that afflicted many early talkies, but he’s unable to get his actors to abandon their stagy deliveries, as if they’re aiming to be heard beyond the footlights and don’t have a clue that film acting demands a quieter, more intimate delivery of dialogue. Even Jeanette MacDonald seems more stage-bound here than she did in The Love Parade, while Warner Oland as the villain of the piece, Thibault (Louis XI’s prime minister, whom Villon bests in a swordfight and thinks he’s killed, and who’s really a secret agent of the Duke of Burgundy), for some reason speaks his lines in the same halting cadences and pidgin accent he used in his much more famous role as Charlie Chan. For some reason Turk’s MacDonald biography made Berger seem like a stage director who’d never made a film before, even though his imdb.com page lists directorial credits dating back to 1920, both silent and sound and both in his native Germany and in the U.S.

Much of The Vagabond King seems like a pretty plainly staged 1920’s stage musical (by coincidence Charles had asked me over dinner if anyone in the early days of sound had just taken cameras and equipment into a Broadway theatre and filmed a performance of a stage musical, and The Vagabond King is about as close as anyone came to doing just that: though it and other similar early musicals, like Marilyn Miller’s Sally and Sunny and the 1929 Rio Rita, were filmed in movie studios and not always with the same players as the stage productions, they were nonetheless pretty accurate reconstructions of the stage originals — as were the Marx Brothers’ first two movies, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers), but there are also some surprisingly spectacular action sequences, including a chilling climax in which the Duke of Burgundy’s armies launch their long-threatened invasion of Paris and Villon organizers the beggars, thieves and street people to resist them, that contains a German-expressionist image of a soldier charging the camera with a fearsome, bestial look on his face that reminded me of the painting of cannoneer Löwe in the San Diego Museum of Art — a striking image indeed for a 1930 operetta film! I had assumed that these action scenes redeemed Berger as director from the relative dullness of much of the rest of the movie, but according to an imdb.com “Trivia” poster, they were actually ghost-directed by Ernst Lubitsch, which may explain why they seem like so much more assured filmmaking than Berger’s scenes (though that marvelous levée in the palace bedroom when Villon wakes up in noble guise is also quite striking — unless that, too, was ghost-directed by Lubitsch). If Lubitsch was indeed involved in making this film (or any part thereof), it stands as an early credit for him on a color film 13 years before he made his first all-color movie, Heaven Can Wait. The Vagabond King is one of those frustrating movies that could have been considerably better than it was, especially with a more personable male lead … but who? Charles Boyer couldn’t sing, Maurice Chevalier couldn’t have negotiated Friml’s music that well, and Nelson Eddy (whom the part actually might have suited) was still singing and recording art music, including playing in productions like the U.S. premiere of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck in 1930 and a concert performance of Wagner’s Parsifal in 1931, both conducted by Leopold Stokowski — both inconceivable credits to anyone who knows Eddy only from the eight films he did make with MacDonald and the warmed-over operetta and faux-opera material he sang in them!