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|Index||14 reviews in total|
Ronald Colman and Basil Rathbone, two wonderful actors having the time
of their careers playing wittily written opposites who are also
spiritual soulmates -- Francois Villon, the poetic rebel, born into
poverty with a noble soul, and Louis XI, King of France, born into
privilege but with a rebel's iconoclasm. Add a witty script by that
poetic comedic rebel Preston Sturges, who hits all the crowd-pleasing
buttons without condescension and no-nonsense direction by Frank Lloyd,
and you have a top Hollywood product -- a crowd pleaser with
Rathbone is a particular delight. Pre-Holmes, he revels in playing an unprepossessing cynic to whom everyone must bow because he happens to be the king. Colman is doing what he does best, playing an intelligent, superior man, without losing the common touch. A delight all the way around.
Francois Villon, born 1431 was all that If I Were King makes him out to
be. Poet, satirist, duelist, and consorter with the rabble of low
degree as Brian Hooker's lyric from The Vagabond King, he was all this.
His satire brought him some big time trouble, a death sentence. But a
last minute commutation by the monarch he satirized, brought him
banishment in 1463. Villon went so far into obscurity that we do not
know when he died after leaving Paris.
From these facts Justin Huntly McCarthy wrote a popular romantic play that premiered in 1901 and was later made into an operetta with score by Rudolf Friml and Brian Hooker. McCarthy took into account the politics of the time in medieval France. Louis XI was only King for two years, ascending the throne in 1461. The monarchy after leading France to an ultimate victory in the Hundred Years War against the English, was leader of a shattered land with many of the lesser lords quite a bit more powerful than the king. Chief among these in France at the time was the Duke of Burgundy. Whoever held that title ruled an area about a third of modern day France.
It's those Burgundians who have Paris surrounded and are dictating terms to Louis XI when the story opens. Villon and his sidekicks have broken into one of the King's warehouses and helped themselves to some food. Taking it back to the tavern owned by Robin Turgis, Villon makes a few choice comments about Louis XI. Unbeknownst to him, Louis himself is there on a mission to ferret out a traitor among his counselors. The traitor turns out to be the Constable of Paris. When a fight breaks out, Villon kills the constable.
This puts Louis in a dilemma as he sees it. Villon has killed a traitor, but he's insulted the person of the king. Since Villon brags about how much better a job he can do, Louis makes him Constable of Paris and gives him a noble title.
No man on the silver screen ever spoke the King's English better than Ronald Colman. I could listen to that man recite the Yellow Pages. He's a perfect Villon.
Basil Rathbone was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1938 for Louis XI. Louis XI was known as the spider king because the man was the craftiest of schemers. He usually had about 5 or 6 options given any situation, most of us are lucky if we have one alternative. Dealing from weakness as he was, he had to be a man of cunning, guile, and deception.
Interesting talking about the King's English when dealing with a pair of figures from medieval France. But the contrast between the romantic Villon and the crafty Louis is what drives the film. That and the partnership of necessity they form and the later grudging respect they develop for each other. Colman and Rathbone have the classical training needed to make If I Were King work.
The two main female characters acquit themselves well. Frances Dee as noblewoman Katherine DeVaucelles and Ellen Drew as the tragic Huguette are just fine. And among the supporting cast, I particularly like Sidney Toler as tavern owner Turgis. It's quite a contrast from playing Charlie Chan.
For me watching If I Were King is like watching The Vagabond King without the music since I know where the songs go. It's like watching a production of Pygmalion after seeing My Fair Lady. You keep waiting for the songs to start.
Particularly I listen for Colman to break into the Song of the Vagabonds as he rouses the citizens of Paris. It's a great moment in both the play and the musical.
You will thrill when you hear Colman rouse that rabble of low degree even if he doesn't sing.
Ronald Colman gets his wish in "If I Were King," a 1938 film also
starring Basil Rathbone and Francis Dee. Colman plays the vagabond poet
Francois Villon, who is overheard by the disguised King (Basil
Rathbone) criticizing His Highness and talking about what he would do
if given the chance. He and his entire party are arrested, and Louis
makes Villon the Lord High Chancellor. Villon gets to work immediately
and elevates the king's reputation among the people. He opens up the
stores of food at the palace and gives it to the citizens - they have
no food because the city is being held by the Burgundians. The
sentences he passes out to anyone arrested are merciful and fair. It
seems as if he has succeeded. But what the King has failed to inform
Villon is that he is only Chancellor for a week - and he has that week
to convince the French army, who are refusing to fight the Burgundian
army, to do so and win.
"If I Were King" is a great deal of fun, and Ronald Colman is delightful as Villon. But first, in response to a previous post, a word about accents. The previous poster asks if there was a vocal coach available, as there were people speaking in British and American accents - no French accents. Hollywood often confuses the accent issue of films set in foreign lands by casting one or two people who have some type of accent while the rest do not. The rule in acting is that no accent is necessary when doing a film or a play set in a foreign country. Why? Because the people of that country are not speaking English. They are speaking their own language. They are NOT walking around France speaking English with a French accent. This is why when actors perform Russian plays, or Hollywood did films set in Nazi Germany, Budapest, Spain or anywhere else, the actors did not have to use an accent of that country. An accent would only be necessary if a German were in America speaking English, for instance.
To get back to the cast, led by the wonderful Colman, Basil Rathbone is excellent as the hated Louis, and Frances Dee is lovely as Katherine de Vaucelles, who falls in love with the Lord High Chancellor.
Someone complained because Errol Flynn did not play this role. Flynn would have been marvelous, as he was a very charismatic actor, but I think Colman is marvelous. His Louis is not only energetic and charming, but highly intelligent, and Colman is able to shade the role in a way that Flynn, who tended to be much more superficial in his characterizations, could not.
An enchanting film, highly recommended.
A cunning king of France allows a rapscallion poet to become Lord High
Chancellor - for the space of only one week...
IF I WERE KING is a fascinating film based on the fictionalized lives of two very real personages, Louis XI and François Villon. The performances are impeccable, Preston Sturges' script is literate and Paramount Studios provided excellent production values.
As Villon, Ronald Colman makes full use of his most magnificent talent - his beautiful speaking voice. Like honey flowing over velvet, it caresses the dialogue & adds emotional heft to the lines of Villon's poetry used in the film. While perhaps a bit mature to swashbuckle altogether convincingly, he plays the lover very creditably in the romantic scenes.
Obviously determined not to acquiesce the entire film to Colman, Basil Rathbone is hilarious as King Louis. Gaunt, wizened & cackling like a crone, he effortlessly steals his every scene. Eschewing the use of his own superb speaking voice, Rathbone plays a character that will remind some viewers of the disguises the actor would use shortly as Sherlock Holmes. The sequences between Rathbone & Colman are very enjoyable, especially since in their only other joint appearance, A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1935), they had no scenes together.
The two women involved in Villon's life are portrayed by Frances Dee & Ellen Drew, one an aristocrat, the other a wench - lovely ladies both. Smaller roles are filled by fine character actors Henry Wilcoxon, Walter Kingsford, Sidney Toler, John Miljan & Montague Love. Way down the cast list is the always reliable Ralph Forbes, playing the king's toady.
Movie mavens will spot an uncredited Lionel Belmore playing the Chief Steward of the royal palace.
Fat & ugly, Louis XI (1423-1483) was nicknamed 'the Spider' as a grudging tribute to his remarkable skills at plotting & scheming. Although he showed talent in administration from an early age, he also was quite adept at angering his father, Charles VII, and ultimately had to take refuge at the Burgundian court until the time of his succession to the throne. Almost universally unpopular, he set up an elaborate spy network which kept him informed as to nearly all that went on in his kingdom. His overriding mission was to crush the power of the great nobles, especially Burgundy - now ruled by the successor to Louis' former protector - and this he was largely able to do, thanks to his policy of encouraging the minor nobles and the middle class. The might of the French crown was significantly strengthened during his despotic reign.
François Villon (1431-1463?) was both France's greatest lyric poet and a complete scoundrel & ruffian. Raised by a chaplain, Villon absorbed none of the virtues of the Church, consorting with the basest of companions and involving himself in numerous scrapes, misdeeds & robberies. His murder of a priest during a street brawl was but one of several outrages. Imprisoned many times both in Paris and other French municipalities, Villon was almost preternaturally fortunate in being able to take advantage of various pardons & amnesties - all undeserved. After one final clemency, he was banished from Paris for life - whereupon he completely disappears from the historical record.
Although stained by a most unsavory reputation, critics have long admired Villon's poetry and have extolled both the exquisite imagery of his tender verses and the unremitting detail in the poems describing his coarser experiences.
The bulk of the tale told in IF I WERE KING is a complete fantasy. There is no indication that Louis XI & Villon ever even met.
This is a legendary story about François Villon, the mediaeval French poet
and adventurer probably best known in English for his line, « Mais où sont
les neiges d'antan? » / "But where are the snows of yesteryear?" Some may
recognize the line from Joseph Heller's Catch-22 take-off, "Where are the
Snowdens of yesteryear?"
As I first began watching this, my immediate reaction was, "What an obvious attempt to cash in on The Hunchback of Notre Dame!", the film whose look and feel most closely resemble this one. But my chronology was backwards. The Laughton Hunchback is 1939. If you have ever seen the Chaney Hunchback from 1923, you may have been struck by how different many of the characterizations are from the more familiar version, especially that of the King. The 1923 French King is a nasty piece of work, just the sort of thinly disguised Napoleon III that Victor Hugo would conceive of. So where did the doddering but dear-hearted 1939 King played by sweet old Harry Davenport come from then? Well, that's easy. From Basil Rathbone's King in this film. They even look the same!
Rathbone, by the way, is completely unrecognizable. If he's played an impish character elsewhere, I've never seen it. He gets most of Preston Sturges's best and most typical lines of dialogue.
Sturges is the reason I was watching the film in the first place. Telltale signs are everywhere in the script, but we definitely do not get effervescent dialogue issuing forth from every mouth the way we expect from the later, classic Sturges films.
I am not a great fan of Ronald Colman ordinarily but he brings a lot of spirit to his part, even if he doesn't have quite the dash of an Errol Flynn. But he does have a lot to do with this film's overall success.
Frances Dee demonstrates once again that she is quite probably the best-looking American actress of the 1930's, although she has all the acting prowess of an Andie MacDowell. (If you insist on talent with your set decoration, then you probably would have preferred to see Paulette Goddard playing the part of the lady-in-waiting who catches Villon's eye.)
If English Medieval history is unevenly shown in Hollywood films (see my
comment on YOUNG BESS), French Medieval history is non-existant. The sole
real centers of films on France from 1000 to 1500 are those dealing with
Joan of Arc and those dealing with that contemporary pair of Louis XI (the
"Spider King") and Francois Villon, the great vagabond poet. In short, the
period of roughly 1429-1431 (with a brief look into the future, via George
Bernard Shaw, into the 1450s), and 1471 - 1477). The rest of the fifteenth
century is ignored. As for preceeding eras, BECKET, THE LION IN WINTER, and
THE CRUSADES all deal with the tangle of French and English politics in the
years 1160 - 1199, and the two films of HENRY V do deal with the invasion of
France in 1415, and the battle of Agincourt (but no films about Crecy or
Louis XI was one of the most astute, crafty monarchs of France or any other nation in history. He is not a loveable figure (as his nickname of "Spider King" shows). But loveability was not a viable policy for any French monarch. England was a constant threat, even after the final defeat of the English in the Hundred Years War in the 1450s (long after Joan of Arc was burned). The monarchs would insist on keeping the Kingdom of France among their titles (after England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland) into the 18th Century. There were dynastic marriages between the Burgundian royal house (modern day Belgium and Holland and the Rhineland make up what was Burgundy) and the British. Louis had to constantly balance friendly relations with realism about British aims (and Burgundian aims for that matter). Things came to a head in 1470 when Phillip of Burgundy, a wise leader, died and his son Charles the Bold (more accurately "the Rash") became Prince of Burgundy. Because of certain French lands near Paris owned by the Burgundians, Charles was a subject of Louis. But Louis's government was poorer than Charles's and he kept toying with either breaking his liege position with Louis or seizing the French throne. This latter policy led to a series of wars, including a siege of Paris. Remarkably, due to superior leadership qualities, Louis beat Charles - or rather Charles beat himself. In 1477 Charles died in a battle against another target - the Swiss republics. Louis died in 1483, the first really great modern French monarch or leader.
He was suspicious, and ever ready to use torture. But given the general standards of his period (the same time as the Wars of the Roses, and of the likes of Cesare Borgia) his use of torture was actually consistant with his contemporaries. Louis popped up in other stories aside from IF I WERE KING - he was the king in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (in the 1939 film played, more kindly, by Walter Hampden). In a silent version of IF I WERE KING, BELOVED ROGUE (with John Barrymore as Villon)Conrad Veidt played him as more crafty and dangerous - and superstitious. He would also show up as the monarch fighting Charles the Rash in the film of QUENTIN DURWARD (after the novel of Sir Walter Scott) that starred Robert Taylor. In the present film he is played by Basil Rathbone, for once not tied down to sleuthing or to using a sword against Tyrone Power or Errol Flynn. He is able to demonstrate the frustration of a wise monarch, hampered by traitors and by a lack of popular support. The screenplay by Preston Sturges gives him some good lines of humor as well (he was a capable comic actor - see his pompous dried-out composer in RHTHYM ON THE RIVER, or even his greedy relative in WE'RE NO ANGELS). The make-up on his face makes his eyes look constantly rhumey and nearly unrecognizeable.
Villon is a great poet, of whom we know much but not enough. We don't know when he was born or when he died. We know he was a criminal (a thief and a murderer) but was able to avoid the scaffold - at least in known recorded history. In this film and BELOVED ROGUE he is forced to come to the aid of France, taking over the key job of High Constable (the previous High Constable, whom he killed, was a traitor to Louis). As this is a fiction, we are led to believe Villon manages within a week to instill spririt into the people of Paris, and to lead them to defeat the Burgundian army. Actually it was Louis who did that, with Charles's incomparably bad choices helping him. Still it makes a good story, and an enjoyable historical fantasy. The only thing missing is the Rudolph Friml score from Friml's operetta version, THE VAGABOND KING which did not appear until 1954 on screen. But even without that music it was enjoyable.
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!
I knew I was in for a treat when I saw Preston Sturges was scriptwriter for this film, which was clever and energetic, but I didn't expect such wonderful performances from both Basil Rathbone (who received an Oscar nomination) and Ronald Colman. I always felt Colman didn't pick up his lines fast enough (at least in his later years), but he's perfect playing the poet François Villon. Colman sounds like a poet whenever he speaks in all his roles! You've never seen Rathbone in any role quite like that of Louis XI. He sounds at first almost childlike, but it is a mask - he's pretty wily and knows what he is doing all the time. The script, of course, is pure hokum. You can't imagine for one moment that a king would make Grand Constable a man who was caught stealing food from the royal storehouse. As Grand Constable, he runs France! The extended scene where he, while hidden, metes out sentences to his friends who were also caught stealing, is pure delight, and very worthy of Sturges. I found fault with Villon's earlier escape, as it was too easy, and with the casting of Ellen Drew in the role of one of the wenches at the Fir Cone tavern, and who loves Villon. There was too much to enjoy in the film so those were easy to forgive. His other love is Frances Dee, playing one of the nobles at court, and she is always stunningly dressed in Edith Head's costumes. The rest of the cast was all first rate, and the Oscar-nominated sets were excellent. Curiously, the film is set in 1463, the approximate year that Villon died at the age of 32. Also, William Farnum, who plays General Barbezier in this film, played Villon in the 1920 silent of the same name as this film.
I found this movie by happy accident when looking for another title at
Video Vault. What a fortunate find, an excellent Middle Ages romp made
by multi-Oscar master filmmaker Frank Lloyd.
Dealing with a fictional encounter between Louis XI of France and a rouge Villain, these two roles are wonderfully played by Ronald Colman and Basil Rathbone --- possibly the best roles these two great actors ever did. With Paris surrounded by the army of the Dukes of Burgundy and slowly being starved into submission, the king's plans are falling short of success --- with battle-shy generals and no back-up plan. Into this mess comes the rogue Villain with a different approach......
There isn't a dull minute in this fine production and the reproduction of French architecture, costumes, et cetera, is beyond perfect.
It isn't easy to see this movie; it's a Paramount Picture released on VHS long ago by Universal/MCA. That means you can find it eventually, either at a specialty video store or by tenacious search on eBay.
Colman was not only good looking, suave, sophisticated, and dashing,
but he had a lyrical voice, an absolute necessity for a great actor.
Recall the speech and voices of Peter O'Toole, James Mason, Richard
Burton, Laurence Olivier: when they spoke, it was not mere prose but
verse. So who better to play the poet, Francois Villon, than Ronald
Colman, who possessed the voice of a poet.
Ronald Colman is my favorite actor of all time. I loved his performance in this film as well as his performances in "Random Harvest", "The Prisoner of Zenda", "The Lost Horizon", and "The Talk of the Town".
There were other great performances in this film besides that of Ronald Colman. Basil Rathbone's performance as King Louis XI is perhaps one of his finest, and deserving of an Academy Award as best supporting actor, while Frances Dee's performance as Villon's beloved is mesmerizing, the images to relive forever in one's dreams: the perfection of beauty and femininity. And Ellen Drew's portrayal of Huguette is touching without being maudlin.
Great film, great performances. Hollywood at its very best.
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