When M. Beaucaire, a handsome barber, catches the Duke of Winterset cheating at gambling, Beaucaire exacts Winterset's cooperation in sneaking Beaucaire into a great ball, disguised as the ...
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When M. Beaucaire, a handsome barber, catches the Duke of Winterset cheating at gambling, Beaucaire exacts Winterset's cooperation in sneaking Beaucaire into a great ball, disguised as the Duke de Chartres, and to introduce him to the beautiful Lady Mary. The disguised barber successfully pulls off the masquerade and is soon the toast of society. But Winterset is embittered at having been blackmailed so, and he sets out to destroy Beaucaire if he can do so without revealing his own duplicity.Written by
Jim Beaver <email@example.com>
From the looks of it you'd think that this film was based on a story by a European playwright of the 18th century, the place and time of its setting, but in fact 'Monsieur Beaucaire' started life as a popular American novel of 1900, written by the Indianapolis-born author Booth Tarkington. The plot was entirely a product of the author's imagination (though some of the characters were based on real-life counterparts), while the milieu of the French royals and their aristocratic courtiers was the product of authorial research. Costume pictures were in vogue in the Hollywood of the mid-1920s, and the ultra-lavish court of King Louis XV offered splendid opportunities for studio costume and scenic designers. Paramount obviously didn't stint on the budget of this sumptuous film version, but the movie was costly in another sense of the word: leading man Rudolph Valentino took a lot of flak, even ridicule, over this project, and it's said that it caused his reputation lasting damage. Why? Largely because the publicity photos and posters that display him dressed as the Duke of Chartres, the "Prince of the Blood" he portrays—complete with knee breeches, lace ruffles, satin jacket, and powdered wig—make him look like a fop, and those critics and columnists who disliked him in the first place took this opportunity to cast aspersions on his masculinity. It was an ugly and unfair charge, but the most effective refutation can be found in the star's performance in the movie itself: the finery worn by the French nobility of this period was ornate and theatrical, but Rudy wears his outfits with a natural, casual elegance, with dignity and a touch of humor. In short, he does NOT come off as a fop! (No one gave John Barrymore a hard time when he dolled himself up to play Beau Brummel the same year, but then, Barrymore's sexuality was never in doubt, while there was always a hint of mystery concerning Valentino's private life that drew hostility from some quarters.) The problem with this movie isn't Valentino's performance and it certainly isn't his wardrobe, it's the antiquated directorial technique on display; that is, technique that was already antiquated when the film was made.
Director Sidney Olcott was a film pioneer whose directing career dated back to 1907. His best remembered work is From the Manger to the Cross, a film on the life of Christ which was produced in Palestine in 1912 near the original locations. That early feature survives and holds up remarkably well today, but it appears that by the mid-1920s Olcott's cinematic skill was falling behind that of more innovative directors. Unfortunately, Monsieur Beaucaire looks stodgy and old-fashioned compared to concurrent works by rising talents such as Ernst Lubitsch. (Lubitsch had already demonstrated by this time that costume pictures can be stylish, sexy and fun.) Olcott makes a rather half-hearted attempt to be 'modern' in his staging of the first sword-fight sequence, when he limits the camera's viewpoint to a bystander's facial reaction while showing only the tips of the fighter's swords in the foreground, but the effect is gimmicky and unsatisfying: we don't want tricky camera angles, we want to see what's happening! The second fight sequence is a considerable improvement, and also reveals that, fancy duds notwithstanding, Valentino could handle swordplay. During this second sequence Olcott breaks down the fourth wall for a moment as Rudy lunges directly at the camera. Otherwise, however, the directorial approach is uninspired.
Perhaps the biggest problem here is clutter: there are too many title cards, the cards themselves are too wordy, and too many supporting characters are introduced who have little or nothing to do with the central plot. For all the unnecessary embellishments the story is a fairly straightforward one: Valentino is the Duke of Chartres, a member of the King's court and a royal favorite. He's interested in Princess Henriette (Bebe Daniels), but she's put off by his reputation and his closeness to the King's mistress. After defying a direct order from the King to marry Henriette, the Duke finds it expedient to flee the court for England. In Bath he assumes the identity of a humble barber. He becomes intrigued with Lady Mary, the Belle of Bath (Doris Kenyon), but she's put off by his lowly status. (It's always something!) Eventually, he returns to the French court and to Henriette, newly appreciative that she loves him for himself. That's the gist of it, but the screenwriters who adapted Tarkington's novel failed to streamline the story for the requirements of silent cinema, and Olcott lacked Lubitsch's facility for conveying plot points with witty visual ideas. The first section in the French court is especially draggy, but the tempo improves once Rudy reaches England and assumes his barber disguise. Eventually the story becomes more engaging, but over all the film falls short of the cinematic treat it could have been.
Valentino carries the proceedings with his undeniable charisma, but the numerous supporting players have little to do except pose in their fancy costumes; even such estimable talents as Bebe Daniels and Lowell Sherman are reduced to brief moments, while other characters register only as dress extras. It's a particular shame that Bebe's character is so relentlessly serious, since she had such a gift for comedy, and more humor would have given this production a boost. Monsieur Beaucaire has never had a very high reputation among silent film buffs, in part perhaps because it compares poorly to the two costume dramas Rudy made in the last year of his life, The Eagle and The Son of the Shiek, both of which were crafted with so much more flair and playful humor. Interestingly, when Monsieur Beaucaire itself was remade in the 1940s it was reworked as an outright comedy, and Valentino's role was assigned to the most unlikely successor imaginable: Bob Hope!
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