Friday, October 10, 2014

The Beloved Rogue

Ilveilijäin kuningas / Il poeta vagabondo.
    US 1927. PC: Feature Productions, dist: United Artists. D: Alan Crosland; P: Joseph M. Schenck; story, SC: Paul Bern, Michael Strange [Blanche Oelrichs; uncredited]; titles: Walter Anthony; DP: Joseph H. August; AD: William Cameron Menzies;
    C: John Barrymore (François Villon), Conrad Veidt (Louis XI), Marceline Day (Charlotte de Vauxcelles), Lawson Butt (John, Duke of Burgundy), Henry Victor (Thibault d’Aussigny), Slim Summerville (Jehan), Mack Swain (Nicholas), Angelo Rossitto (Beppo, a dwarf), Nigel de Brulier (astrologer), Lucy Beaumont (Villon’s mother), Otto Matiesen (Olivier, the king’s barber), Jane Winton (the Abbess), Rose Dione (Margot), Bertram Grassby (Duke of Orléans), Martha Franklin (maid), Dick Sutherland (Tristan L’Hermite, the king’s executioner);
    filmed: 1926–27 (Hollywood); première: 12.3.1927 (Mark Strand Theatre, New York); orig. l: 9264 ft (10 rl.); 35 mm, 8853 ft, 105' (22 fps); titles: ENG; print source: George Eastman House, Rochester, NY. Preserved and printed 1967.
    With e-subtitles in Italian, live music by Donald Sosin (piano) and his quartet with a harp, bass, and drums – and a computer, at Teatro Verdi (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto), Pordenone, 10 Oct 2014

Philip C. Carli (GCM Catalogue and website): "Warner Bros. had earned considerable prestige and (on the whole) substantial profits from John Barrymore’s association with them when in late 1926 Joseph Schenck offered John $352,000 plus a share in the profits for a three-picture contract with his Feature Productions organization, the films to be released through United Artists. John went straight to Schenck in a move that angered Jack Warner and would color John’s later dealings with WB when he returned to the studio in 1929. Although John was apparently an artistically appropriate and valuable acquisition for United Artists, the truth was that Schenck was always trying to fill UA’s release schedule; it was a distributor and not a production company, and he never had enough product to fill exhibitors’ needs. The prestige productions of Fairbanks, Pickford, and Chaplin were sporadic, and in order to offset their high expenses, the films Schenck provided in the UA lineup had unusually high rental fees. Schenck also spent far less on overall promotion than did M-G-M, Paramount, and Fox; thus any UA films other than those made by its founders were at best irregularly profitable, and often just lost money, sometimes disastrously (as in the case of Buster Keaton’s three UA features). In an effort to guarantee that John’s first UA production was a hit, Schenck imported the Don Juan/When a Man Loves crew from Warners, with some tweaking of personnel and cast."

"The Beloved Rogue is certainly no more historically “accurate” than Beau Brummel or Don Juan in its tale concerning medieval French poet-qua-criminal François Villon (1431-post 1462), and it is as lavish as any of John’s Warner Bros. costume films, but it takes a radically different tack: through John’s direct influence on its conception and execution, it deliberately contradicts its contemporary theatrical and cultural connections. The source that Beloved Rogue spurns was very familiar to contemporary audiences, Irish nationalist politician Justin Huntly McCarthy’s 1901 novel and play If I Were King, the stage version of which originally starred E. H. Sothern as Villon in New York and George Alexander in London. J. Gordon Edwards directed the first film version for Fox in 1920, starring William Farnum (this is now one of Edwards’ few extant films, and quite stodgy if enjoyable), and Frank Lloyd directed Ronald Colman in Paramount’s romantic 1938 sound remake. Poet Brian Hooker, who in 1923 had elegantly translated Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac into what became the standard English version, in 1925 also co-adapted If I Were King into the operetta libretto for The Vagabond King, which with a score by Rudolf Friml was one of the greatest stage successes of the 1920s. It ran 511 performances in New York and went on to London for 480 more, before being filmed in 2-color Technicolor by Ludwig Berger for Paramount in 1930, featuring Dennis King in his original stage role as Villon; Paramount released a second musical version in 1956, directed by Michael Curtiz, with the Maltese tenor Oreste Kirkop. (The operetta’s rousing “Song of the Vagabonds” remains a football fight song for the United States Military Academy at West Point, under the title “Slum and Gravy,” with new lyrics.)"

"While John was at Warners, his second wife, poet and playwright Blanche Oelrichs, had already written a more traditional Villon scenario under her pen name of “Michael Strange”, which already
deliberately avoided (most likely for copyright reasons) many of the well-known situations of If I Were King, but would fit in with John’s “Great Lover” film persona as it was then established. However, John looked at his signing with Schenck as an opportunity to broaden his potential beyond being merely a dashing romantic lead, so he wrote to Oelrichs (from whom he was then amicably separated but not yet divorced) setting out the reasons why he intended to change his approach and not use her plot. The letter is quoted in John Kobler’s 1977 biography of John, Damned in Paradise: “When this scenario was first devised … it was before I had perpetrated such arrantly ‘romantic’ movies as Don Juan and Manon Lescaut … I now wish, for this new firm I am with, to do something totally different, that I have greater sympathy with, and can get much more fun out of, and I believe achieve a more significant result, and that is with the extraordinary figure of Villon as a vehicle to rather burlesque the whole idea of romance. He was a creative artist, a poet, and everything happened in his head. When he is caught by life in these movie situations, which always demand a rather asinine, heroic activity, he is frightfully up against it, and only by his amazing dexterity and imagination can he elude them, maintain a certain whimsical integrity, and prevent himself from looking like an ass, the audience being the only person he takes into his confidence. I think the picture of Villon skipping, bounding, and crawling on his stomach through a Gothic dimension of a dying chivalry and a brutal and slightly sacerdotal materialism till almost the very end of the movie, when he is forced, through the reality of suffering, his mother’s death, etc., to a different attitude, always, however, flecked by a sort of pinched gaiety, is something that I can have genuine fun with and accomplish something real in the movies whose possibilities interest me exceedingly … I am writing to you right off the bat, just as I feel, for as you have expended a certain amount of time and energy on the formulation of a scenario, you must certainly deserve to have it explained to you clearly why the general scheme of it is not in line with the thing I have the urge to do at present.” John managed to get Schenck to pay Oelrichs $1,250 for her treatment, but Paul Bern used very little of it in his screenplay and ultimately received sole screen credit."

"The Beloved Rogue is John’s most deliberately athletic film, and his broad humor and gestures are very Fairbanksian while still being characteristic of John’s innate cynical sense of humor. However,
elements of John’s earlier costume films persist, some of them a little perverse and perhaps as in-jokes within the larger joke of the film: for instance, Crosland (possibly with John’s connivance) did seem to like to strip, oil, and flog John fairly frequently – it happens again this film, just as it did in Don Juan and When a Man Loves, except here John’s slicked-up appearance in the skimpiest of loincloths (little is left to the imagination!) is almost sneering at the censors in its excess and audacity. On the more intellectual side, and as a mark of John’s intense dedication to his art, John’s makeup as the King of Fools early in the film renders him totally unrecognizable, but it also provides him with one of the greatest pieces of film acting of his career, in his reaction to being banished from Paris – there is tremendous power and humanity that emerges through all the layers of greasepaint."

"Marceline Day, though pleasant enough, does not provide the kind of incandescent female lead evident in Mary Astor’s and Dolores Costello’s pairings with John (which were, after all, incandescent in different ways off the set as well), but the unlikely camaraderie between John and Mack Swain and Slim Summerville really works, and is tremendous fun. Rogue was also Conrad Veidt’s first film made outside Germany; Veidt was so honored to be working with John that supposedly on their first meeting he knelt and kissed John’s hands. Having Veidt’s acting style to compare with John’s certainly provides a fascinating contrast, although it could be argued that Veidt is trying to be as repulsive as John is kinetic, each having a grand old time. The film’s splendid visuals can only be properly appreciated in a good print such as we have here – Joe August’s camerawork constantly provides memorable imagery (look out for the flying food hurled by catapults!), and William Cameron Menzies’ sets are almost worth the price of admission alone in their brilliant Gothic eccentricity and atmosphere. August and Menzies also work together in how their depiction of the snow-covered streets and rooftops of medieval Paris convey both fantasy and solidity for dramatic effect (which is especially exploited by John and his two cohorts), giving a specific sense of place and space that belongs entirely to this one film, akin to the results of Menzies’ association with cinematographer Arthur Edeson on Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad three years earlier."

"All this effort and all the quality didn’t work, though – John’s idea of semi-burlesque was too sophisticated for his public, and perhaps the film’s grand scale worked against the idea being clear to 1920s audiences. The Beloved Rogue was an expensive flop on first release."

"The film’s acrobatic humor and grotesquerie overshadowed its romantic elements, confusing cinemagoers. And since audiences didn’t get the joke, it was perceived by many as a stale formulaic gambit; to them it was just another great big John Barrymore film-in-tights. Contemporary reviews were uneven and strange. Mordaunt Hall’s review in the New York Times (14 March 1927) shows how much he missed the point: “There are moments when Mr. Barrymore appears to be the real conception of Villon, and then there are times when he is just a handsome adventurer. Alan Crosland, producer of this film, delights in extravagancies, exaggerations that are presumed to have a popular appeal. This new François Villon ducks the darts from the King’s henchmen and then picks up a snowball and proves that his aim is truer than that of any archer.” Hall also preferred Fritz
Leiber’s Louis XI in the very straight 1920 Fox If I Were King to Veidt’s, describing Veidt as “that competent German character actor” whose portrayal is “perhaps a little too healthy and well-nourished in appearance.” (Hall must be the only critic in history to apply that description to Conrad Veidt.) “Rush,” reviewing the film in Variety (16 March 1927), accidentally grasped some of the concepts John had privately explained to Blanche Oelrichs in his letter, but sniffily dismissed John’s characterization by stereotyping the picture from the start, adroitly adding unintentional insult and injury along the way:"

"“Besides, as a purely romantic offering it has its defects. Much of the glamor is missing in the hero, who is for most of the time rather a disheveled sort of person – a picturesque enough rogue at all times, but not always the height of splendid romance. Briefly, this Don Juan doesn’t always glow in triumph, but often plays the underdog.”"

"The mixed responses dispirited John to the point where he publicly disavowed his own original intent; midway through a screening during its first run at the Strand Theatre in New York, where the audience sat in stolid silence, he called out from the back of a balcony, “Call yourself an actor? My God, what a ham!” Certainly John’s next film, Tempest, a Russian Revolution story, was a very different matter in every respect." – Philip C. Carli

AA: Another of John Barrymore's illustrated classics, another romp in French history metamorphosed beyond recognition into a cavalier, alternative fairy-tale version.

There are many biopics of writers in the cinema. Usually the screenwriters are in trouble because everything that is interesting in a writer's life is in the interior. François Villon's wild life is certainly an exception, and although the account of The Beloved Rogue is highly sanitized, it still conveys a sense of the poet's life in the medieval Paris underworld and his experience of utter poverty.

The Beloved Rogue is an action film which fails to convey the flavour of Villon's poetry. (His French is too difficult for me, but in Finnish there are translations by Aale Tynni, Yrjö Jylhä, and Veijo Meri.) Poetry is missing. Remains an entertaining swashbuckler.

Yesterday in Pordenone we saw Georges Méliès's film epic about Jeanne d'Arc, who was burned at the stake in 1431. The Beloved Rogue starts in the same year, 1431, when the father of François Villon, a French patriot, is also burned at the stake. His widow collects the ashes in her heart casket which becomes a key symbol for François.

As Philip C. Carli states above, the basic concept of The Beloved Rogue derives, without credit, from Justin Huntly McCarthy's well-known novel (1901) and play If I Were a King, also turned into the operetta The Vagabond King; both the play and the operetta have been filmed twice. The common concept to all, deriving from McCarthy, is that of "the two kings" Louis XI and Villon (there is no evidence they ever met). The basis is in the medieval idea of the "day of the revels". Villon, "the king of fools" may rule Paris for one night. ("Elsewhere fools reign all the time".)

Philip C. Carli also states that The Beloved Rogue is John Barrymore's most deliberately athletic film, and his swashbuckling bravado is worthy of comparison with Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. The element of sadism and masochism is striking in the torture sequence. Villon is stripped, and his oiled, well-built torso, clad only in a skimpy loincloth in Tarzan style, is flogged and burned, and he is locked in a tiny cage which is towed high up to the tower where he can only almost touch Charlotte. As Villon John Barrymore is a ham actor who often overacts.

It is interesting to compare his performance with Conrad Veidt as "the other king", Louis XI. Veidt was capable of subtle and refined performances, but this is one of his most macabre interpretations. Veidt overacts much more than Barrymore, he goes over the top. There is in Veidt's Louis XI a direct affinity with "the procession of monsters and tyrants" analyzed by Siegfried Kracauer in the German post-WWI cinema. Veidt creates a terrifying, deranged portrait of the decadent king.

Donald Sosin's quartet provided us a fine musical experience to the film.

Reportedly there is a tinted and toned print in the Mary Pickford collection. This print was ok, but I would look forward to seeing a colour print one day.

Photos: George Eastman House. Click to enlarge.

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