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In 1463, Paris is besieged by the Duke of Burgundy, arch-rival of the king, who is content to sit tight while the poor starve. But there are traitors in Paris, and King Louis goes undercover to find one, thereby meeting Francois Villon, poet, philosopher and rogue. By chance Villon kills the king's traitor and is ordered to replace him...as Grand Constable of France! But there's a catch... Written by
Rod Crawford <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Hollywood certainly had reason to thank their lucky stars that Ronald Colman's career straddled both silent and sound films, and that he was of an age where he was still believable as a romantic leading man as sound became the industry standard. Silent films had made him a major star; sound revealed that amazing, distinctive voice, oft imitated but never surpassed, that made him legendary.
Of his amazing output of classic films in the 1930s, IF I WERE KING is one of the most audience-friendly, and, with THE PRISONER OF ZENDA, stands as two of the best swashbucklers of the decade. With a wryly engaging script by the legendary Preston Sturges (based on the famous operatic play by Justin Huntly McCarthy), and the 'no frills' directorial style of veteran director Frank Lloyd (who specialized in action films), the fanciful adventures of vagabond poet François Villon (Colman) may lack the sweep of the Michael Curtiz/Errol Flynn spectacles at Warner Brothers, but makes up for it with humor, a sense of the absurd, and Colman, himself, who could act rings around the younger Flynn.
As fifteenth century Paris is besieged and slowly crushed by Burgundian armies, all that holds the city, and the dream of a united France together, is the iron will of doddering old King Louis XI (brilliantly portrayed by frequent Flynn nemesis Basil Rathbone, who is obviously having a ball in the character role). Meanwhile, the rabble of the city, victims of the corruption of the court, are stirred by the writings of poet/revolutionary Villon, who steals from the rich, dodges authorities nimbly, and is unafraid to speak the truth. While drinking stolen wine with friends at a local inn, he presents such an eloquent case of how he'd change things "If I were King", that Louis, watching in disguise, and well aware of his government's shortcomings, decides to put Villon to the test. Capturing the revelers, he surprises the poet by appointing him Lord High Chancellor for a week, daring him to improve things...and Villon delivers, demanding the Burgundians to surrender(!), opening the food coffers to the starving masses (and forcing the aristocracy out of their well-fed complacency), dispensing justice tempered with mercy, and creating among the lower classes a sense of patriotism and greater purpose towards King and Country.
As the King cackles at the turn of events, the military and aristocracy despise Villon (other than beautiful Katherine de Vaucelles, portrayed by Frances Dee, who falls in love with the Lord High Chancellor, while suspecting him to be the penniless poet who once pledged his love as she attended Mass). As the week draws to a close, and plots and machinations against Villon reach an explosive climax, the future of not only Paris but all of France will depend on the poet's quick wit, decisiveness, and ability to rouse the masses.
While the history portrayed is fanciful, Ronald Colman is the perfect embodiment of the charismatic Villon, and Rathbone's cranky gruffness offers the ideal compliment to Colman's suave persona.
If the film has a fault, it is in the print itself, which is showing signs of deterioration and aging. One hopes that it will be a candidate for restoration, soon.
IF I WERE KING should be preserved for future generations to enjoy!
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