If I Were King (1938)

Toronto Film Society presented If I Were King (1938) on Monday, July 23, 1984 in a double bill with Love Me Tonight as part of the Season 37 Summer Series, Programme 3.

Production Company: Paramount.  Producer: Frank Lloyd.  Director: Frank Lloyd.  Associate Producer: Lou Smith.  Screenplay: Preston Sturges, based on the play by Justin Huntly McCarthy.  Camera: Theodore Sparkuhl.  Special Effects: Gordon Jennings.  Editor: High Bennett.  Assistant Directors: William Tummel and Harry Scott.

Cast:  Ronald Colman (Francois Villon), Basil Rathbone (Louis XI), Frances Dee (Katherine de Vaucelles), Ellen Drew (Hughette), C.V. France (Father Villon), Henry Wilcoxon (Captain of the Guard), Heather Thatcher (The Queen), Stanley Ridges (Rene de Montigny), Bruce Lester (Noel de Jolys), Walter Kingsford (Tristan L’Hermite), Alma Lloyd (Colette), Sidney Toler (Robin Turgis), Colin Tapley (Jehan Le Loup), Ralph Forbes (Oliver le Dain), John Miljan (Tribaut D’Aussigny), William Haade (Guy Tabarie), Adrian Morris (Colin de Cayeux), Montagu Love (General Dudon), Lester Matthews (General Saliere), William Farnum (General Barbezier), Paul Harvey (Burgundian Herald).

Justin McCarthy’s historical play about Francois Villon was first filmed in 1920 starring William Farnum as the roguish poet.  The year 1926 found John Barrymore essaying the part in The Beloved Rogue.  Rudolph Friml’s operetta, The Vagabond King, based on McCarthy’s play, was made into a movie in 1930 with Dennis King and Jeanette MacDonald, then remade with Oreste Kirkop and Kathryn Grayson in 1955 (William Farnum, incidentally, has a minor role in tonight’s film also).

Francois Villon lived in the fifteenth-century Paris of the sly and wily Louis XI, and the film nicely captures the atmosphere.  The plot is dressed up with marvellously fey banter, graceful swashbuckling, a stylish and appropriately poetic performance by Ronald Colman, and a wonderfully saturnine and crafty one by Basil Rathbone as the sly and cackling old king.  While Colman was excellent as Villon when it came to reciting verse (few actors are better), he was too much of a gentleman to be a completely convincing rogue.  However, his performance is charming and carefree, whether wooing Frances Dee, all elegance and grace, or verbally fencing with the king with a slyness spiritually as saturnine as Rathbone’s own.  But the true virtuoso performance is given by Rathbone as a monarch who trusts no one, but understands the principles of good government.  It is one of Rathbone’s finest screen performances, a character completely unlike anything he had ever done before (or since).  His scenes with Colman are the best in the film, and the Academy Award should have been his that year, but he lost out to Walter Brennan for Kentucky.

It was said of director Frank Lloyd (1889-1960), by none other than opera singer Geraldine Farrar, that he was better with ships than with people (Miss Farrar starred in Lloyd’s 1921 film, The World and Its Women).  It’s true that Lloyd was noted for his sea pictures; he made the 1924 version of Sabatini’s The Sea Hawk with Milton Sills.  He also directed The Devine Lady (1929), the story of Nelson’s sea battles, and the famous Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) with Laughton and Gable.  He made a number of less notable sea pictures, including The Eagle of the Sea (1926), with Florence Vidor and Ricardo Cortez, and Rulers of the Sea (1940), with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Margaret Lockwood.

But in fact Lloyd made every kind of picture, directing more than seventy features and hundreds of shorts in his long career.  His films always combined good action with excellent sets that displayed his cast to good advantage.  He won two Academy Awards for best direction, one for The Divine Lady, and one for Cavalcade (1933)–and only the first was a sea picture, although both were “Hail Britannia” type films!

Notes by Barry Chapman

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