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I have seen The Vagabond King (1930) twice on the big screen, in the restored two-strip Technicolor version and it is gorgeous. It is like a Rembrandt painting which moves, with lots of dark, muted colors which evoke the medieval setting. The smaller size of the film studio orchestras at this time (compared with symphonic proportions later on), and the stage-bound camera-work typical of early talkies, combine with the acting style of Dennis King and the rest of the cast, to give the modern viewer a sense of seeing this great musical on stage. In fact, a film such as this, I believe ought to be compared to stage productions or other films of the period, more than to later films. Dennis King's Shakepearian delivery and legitimate baritone singing voice would seem out of place in a later film, where subtlety would reign. How fortunate, then, that we have such a fine document from the Broadway creator of the role. Jeanette MacDonald fairly glows in this, her second film, and gives a haunting delivery of Only a Rose. As a fan of early stage and film musicals and the 1920s era in general, I highly recommend this film in the color version.
Considering the major names involved (in addition to the performers, it
was an early screen adaptation from Herman J.
Mankiewicz!) in this fine reflection of the popular 1925 operetta, it's high time we had a good Technicolor restoration done and issued on DVD.
Jeanette MacDonald as the female lead is, perforce, secondary to the slightly "over the top" Dennis King recreating his starring Broadway role (511 performances at the Casino Theatre), but she gives a pure portrait of the King's niece much more honest and appealing than her later over blown "acting" in the Nelson Eddy screen operettas of the late 30's and 40's.
Lillian Roth's Huguette is more throaty than many familiar with the character's beautiful Rudolf Friml music may be used to, but her acting is impeccable and quite moving. Additionally, the chance to see 20th Century Fox's first major "Charlie Chan," Swedish actor Werner Oland, in another perspective entirely as Thibault, is not to be missed for any fan of Earl Derr Biggers' famous sleuth.
While, after the painful Hollywood custom, much of the rousing score has been sacrificed in the film's fast moving 104 minutes (only 100 surviving in the TV print I've seen), most of the best, "Some Day," "Only A Rose," "Huguette Waltz" and of course, "Song of the Vagabond" are here in fine form. Certainly preferable in this relatively faithful form than the bland 1956 remake. It's an exciting alternative to the fine (if music-less) 1938 Ronald Colman film drawn from The Vagabond King's source material: "If I Were King."
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The early sound films were in one sense a step forward and in another
sense two steps back. If you look at the late silent films, like
Chaplin's "A Woman Of Paris" or Murnau's "Sunrise" the stories are
sophisticated, as is the acting and the directing techniques. But the
films are mimed plays - we don't hear any dialog (we may hear musical
accompaniment). Then comes 1927 and "The Jazz Singer". Finally we hear
something,and it is worthwhile (it's Al Jolson's voice - talking and
singing). But even there huge parts of that first talkie are silent
(the Warner Brothers were not willing to destroy everyone at once). By
1930, except for Chaplin (constructing "City Lights"), most of
Hollywood was switched to talkies. But the early problems of acoustics
and sound recording make many of these films difficult for modern
audiences. Also, a reluctance to trust voices of established stars led
to over reliance on stage performers.
Dennis King happened to be an exceptionally talented actor and singer. Oddly enough (due to his own choice) he decided to stick to stage work until television came into it's own (and then he willingly got into that new medium). This is fine, because it leaves a record of his acting abilities (and of his singing). But he only made a few movies in Hollywood, and the best known one is not his initial film "The Vagabond King", but his supporting turn as comic villain and lover in "The Devil's Brother" / "Fra Diavalo" with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. It's ironic that that performance is recalled, but understandable given the alternative two (although both are good performances). His gentle vicar in "Between Two Worlds" has a moving scene where he leads the passengers on that odd ocean liner into a quiet, childlike prayer - a very fine sequence, by the way. And his performance as the brilliant gutter poet of the 15th Century France, Francois Villon, is preserved in "The Vagabond King", one of the leading American operetta of the 1920s. But the former part is not the lead role of "Between Two Worlds", and the productions standards of "The Vagabond King" are hopelessly dated today.
Still "The Vagabond King" has much going for it: four top performances by King, Jeannette MacDonald as Katherine (the King's niece), O.P. Heggie as the crafty old "Spider King" Louis IX of France, and Lillian Roth as Villone's girlfriend and (ultimately) savior Huguette. Given the datedness of the dialog (from Justin McCarthy's turn of the century play, "If I Were King", the leads manage to squeeze every drop of value out of it. Sometimes without the dialog (look at the scene where a shaved Villon awakes in a royal bedroom, and slowly realizes things have changed). Look at Roth's moment singing of her love for Villon in the tavern (when he is missing and considered in custody). MacDonald has to play a "perfection" part - a perfect princess who Villon falls quickly in love with and who slowly falls for him (when he is made respectable by the King's whims). It is a thankless role (she can't have much fun being perfect) but she radiates charm, and her singing songs like "Only a rose" (that one in duet with King) reminds the viewer of things to come in her future when her partners were named Maurice or Nelson, not Dennis. Heggie's King does not sing in the film, but he gets the craftiness of the "Spider King". But not quite the brilliance of the political genius of that sinister man. Catch Basil Rathbone's version in the Ronald Colman version of IF I WERE KING later on to see that. However Heggie does capture Louis' least likable trait - he was one of the most vindictive men of his age.
Fighting against them is the sound equipment and direction. Some aspects of the stage production were saved. The different types of servants serving Villon in the palace (fat men as waiters bringing breakfast), ladies in waiting to amuse him, and dwarfs to help dress him) must have been in the original Broadway production. Another positive thing is the amount of Friml's score (at least three of his best songs are in the film, including the celebrated "Sons of Toil and Danger". But the sound quality is awful, and the director at times fails to show any talent at all (like his failure to show two duel scenes between King and his enemy the Grand Marshal of France (a somewhat wasted Warner Oland - did part of his part end up being cut?)).
It's interesting to note that only three years later (1933) King appeared in "The Devil's Brother". Tendencies to emote which he had in 1930 (another failure of the director of "The Vagabond King" to control) were replaced by a more relaxed style, and the sound quality improved remarkably well too. Therefore it's another plus for the Laurel & Hardy comedy (as King's best performance on film) as opposed to the historically more important Villon in the current movie. All of which is terribly ironic. But for the strength of his performance, as well as his three leading co-stars (I wish Oland's was as good as theirs were), and the Friml score, the film is worthy of an "8" out of "10".
This 1930 talkie is a bit creaky and director Berger doesn't seem to have the skills to really bring it to life. Still, one can see the great production values, the sets, costumes -- the staging is often quite impressive and the camera has occasional fluidity. MacDonald is singing in what I refer to as the "early Jeanette voice" -- not as full and rich as in her MGM films, but still lovely and sweet on the high notes. She seems to still be learning her screen acting technique (this is only her second film) -- she's not the great emotional actress she became later on. I imagine if one could see this film in the original two-toned technicolor it could be quite mesmerizing. Dennis King is a bit strident in the lead. Lillian Roth has the look of Huguette, but doesn't have the style of singing to pull of "The Vagabond Waltz". Highlights and Jeanette's renditions of "Only and Rose" and "Someday".
The chance to see a major Broadway star recreate his role for the
screen is an opportunity not to be missed. It's sad though that Dennis
King was not given proper direction for the screen in his performance.
Of course he and Jeanette MacDonald sing the Rudolf Friml-Brian Hooker songs beautifully. We even get a bonus of Lillian Roth singing the Waltz Hugette which was a big hit for her. If you remember in the biographical film, I'll Cry Tomorrow, Susan Hayward as Roth sings that song among others identified with Roth on the soundtrack.
Probably a lot more of you remember the straight dramatic version of Justin Huntly McCarthy's play If I Were King that starred Ronald Colman eight years later. Seeing both I know where all the songs are, it's like seeing Pygmalion after you've seen My Fair Lady. The Colman version had a much lighter touch to it though. Dennis King played it as a stalwart hero, a little less of the rogue that Colman was.
O.P. Heggie was also a far more serious Louis XI than Basil Rathbone was, though I saw aspects in Heggie's performance that Rathbone no doubt imitated.
Probably The Vagabond King was done just a tad too early. The early sound recording techniques don't help and in a few years King would have learned to dial it down a bit for the screen. Take a look at his dramatic non-singing role as the country vicar in Between Two Worlds.
King was Rudolf Friml's favorite Broadway leading man. He was the original Mountie in Rose Marie for those of you thought the part originated with Nelson Eddy and besides The Vagabond King he also starred as D'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers. For some reason that operetta was never made into a film and I wish it had. Even Dennis King playing it like he would for the stage would have been better than that awful thing with Don Ameche and the Ritz Brothers.
The Vagabond King is certainly a film for Jeanette's legion of fans and it is a chance to see a Broadway star recreate his role for the screen despite the flaws.
Does anyone know when shooting on this film started? I know that films
in this era took only a short time to film. Was this one standard in
production, or did it take longer? Anyone who knows the background of
this film, I would like to talk to you. I don't have anything else to
say. So, in order to reach the ten lines I have to add ballast So, this
is ballast Any information is appreciated Any hints on how I might view
this film in Technicolor are appreciated. I think this may be one of
those films held hostage. Why those who love these films, preserve
them, restore them, save them, object so strenuously to people seeing
the results of their efforts.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Only a year after "The Love Parade", Paramount failed to repeat the
success with this film version of the successful Rudolph Friml
operetta. Whether a hit at the box office or not, it fails to stand the
test of time when compared to the Jeanette MacDonald/Maurice Chevalier
operettas (and even MacDonald's others with different leading men)
because of poor direction and an even worse performance by its leading
man, Broadway tenor Dennis King.
I have to honesty tell movie musical fans to avoid this one first and go straight to the 1956 Kathryn Grayson/Oreste color remake, or even the 1938 non-musical "If I Were King" with Ronald Colman and Frances Dee. Made to look like Svengali or Rasputin in his peasant gear, King frightfully overacts, and in close-ups, his profile is up there with the ugly hag in Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". The score is pleasantly sung, but even MacDonald later referred to King's big love song, "Only a Rose" as "Only a Nose".
The second lead is played by Lillian Roth who was a comic scene stealer in "The Love Parade" and plays basically the same role that Myrna Loy did in the original film version of "The Desert Song" the year before and in the same part that Rita Moreno would essay 26 years later. She is pretty much wasted. The villains are all one-note, and MacDonald is lacking the iron butterfly feistiness that would make her a major success in the series of films she did with Chevalier and much later at MGM with Nelson Eddy. The Friml songs are good, but not as memorable as his score for "Rose Marie" which MacDonald of course did only six years later with better success.
I was 8 in 1930 so I saw it when it came out and it was exciting and even had a bit of color in it at the end; which no one had seen before. So from that vantage point, I love the fighting, right wins in the end, and huge crowd fighting. Where could an 8 year old see this? Frimyl isn't a total loss either. Remember there are only Friml, DeKoven, Herbert and Romberg in America when it comes to operettas.
This is a terrible early talkie with a flamboyant 19th century ham
performance by Dennis King in the lead and a nondescript one from
Jeannette MacDonald. It was filmed entirely in 2 strip Technicolor,
which makes up for some of its failings. A restored print is housed at
UCLA and it is the only known surviving color print. The elaborate art
direction deservedly earned an Oscar nomination.
It is available on DVD from Loving the Classics, which uses an old battered 16 mm black and white television print (MCA-TV), which is 3/4 screen, blurry, washed out and with poor sound. The silence surrounding the dialogue is full of white noise.
There is the lovely score - MacDonald has three numbers: Someday, Only A Rose and Love Me Tonight.
Act One: 1:08:10
King Louis - King Hymn - Chorus SOMEDAY sung by MacDonald If I Were King - King What France Needs - King Song of the Vagabonds King ONLY A ROSE sung by MacDonald, joined at end by King SOMEDAY reprise sung by MacDonald Huguette's Waltz - sung by Roth LOVE ME TONIGHT sung by MacDonald and King
Act Two: 36:30
Pool Procession - Chorus Song of the Vagabonds reprise King Requiem Chorus ONLY A ROSE reprise finale sung by Macdonald and King
This is for die-hard fans of Rudolf Friml (composer) and Jeannette MacDonald.
MacDonald scenes: 11
Act One: Church Interior, Street, King's Observatory, Observing Villon's transformation, Palace Walk, Balcony Scene, Observing Villon and Herald from Burgundy; Act Two: Garden, Huguette's Death Scene, Church, Gallows.
I make allowances for early talkies, trying to concentrate on the intent of the artists involved, not the limitations of the budding medium. However, this film is by every standard perfectly awful. The acting is atrocious, there is no direction, and the pacing is positively funereal. Dennis King delivers one of the very worst performances ever put on film, hamming it up like a bad nineteenth century melodramatic from the sticks. Jeannette MacDonald looks bewildered. The art direction did earn an Oscar nom and it is the only good thing in the film. One of the most excruciating experiences I've ever sat through. Less than half a dozen of the original numbers are included with three more written for the film. Avoid this like the plague.
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