Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Likeable… The Beloved Rogue (1927)

Conrad Veidt and John Barrymore
John Barrymore’s attempt to out-Fairbanks Douglas has met with mixed reviews over the years, not least from himself (he described himself as a “ham” after the premier) and Orson Welles who liked the film but felt his idol was “not at his best”. But, whilst Barrymore felt he missed the mark by over-playing the extravagantly-colourful lead, Francoise Villon: poet, womaniser and drinker who somehow also embodies the spirit of France… how could anyone fail to?

Based on an actual 15th century poet and patriot The Beloved Rogue includes many florid moments invented (or over-invented) to add zest to this camp fantasy. It’s an all-too-easy target and yet… there’s an extraordinary energy around the crowd scenes in particular and Alan Crosland directs with much style. The superb Conrad Veidt all but steals the show as a greasily-ambiguous Louis XI and Marceline Day uses her clear, open expression to swoon-inducing effect as his beautiful ward Charlotte de Vauxcelles.

Then there is Barrymore doing showing a different side to his style as he throws the kitchen sink at creating a character big enough to fill William Cameron Menzies’ immense sets.

In short, it’s better than I expected: “beloved” maybe not quite but certainly entertaining and very likeable. The film was believed lost until Mary Pickford revealed she had one in her archive: how would we feel about The Beloved Rogue if it were still a lost film? Count your blessings Silent People.

Set after Joan of Arc’s execution in 1431 (she came back strong after that didn’t she?) the film starts in a most un-funny way with the burning of Villon’s father at the stake… He was a patriot and fought in the name of a united France against the English and their Burgundian allies. His wife (Lucy Beaumont) prays that their son will inherit his spirit.

Young Francoise is doted on by his mother and brought up in largely female company. His early tastes are revealed after he is only pacified by drinking a mix of wine and milk… don’t try this at home.

Moving on to the 1860s, Francoise’s roguish tendencies are fully developed as he gleefully steals wine to get drunk with his friends and leads the All Fools Day street celebration as the King of Fools. This section is very well realised by Crosland who generates a visceral charge by moving his camera through the celebrating hordes as snow swirls across the city. Snow in April: Paris in the Snowtime?

Amongst the revellers is Jane Winton as The Abbess, Mack Swain and Slim Summerville as Villion’s buddies Nicholas and Jehan as well as Angelo Rossitto (later to star in Tod Browning’s Freaks) as Beppo the Dwarf.

Jane Winton
As the party gets started Francoise is in pursuit of one of his favourite things as he evades the constabulary, and comes down the rooftops to cheat an inn-keeper of some wine. He heads of linking arms and skipping with Nicholas and Jehan – there’s a lot of skipping. Jigging and general dancing for joy: how else to convey energetic adventurism in scale?

Having being crowned King of Fools, Francoise regales his rapt audience with a poem and them mounts a statue of the King  just as the Duke of Burgundy arrives for an audience with his cousin. Francoise makes merry at Burgundy’s expense, knowing him as a man of ambition who wants the crown for himself.

An audience with the King...
But King Louis, a “slave to the stars” has his judgement clouded by the advice of his astrologer and is loath to confront his rival. He comes out of the palace and has no option to support Burgundy against the crowd and ends up banishing Villon from Paris – “his life”.

Riding with him is his ward Charlotte who is appalled to finally see the reality of the poet she idolises: is the most inspiring wordsmith in France really an uncouth drunken fool? But things are about to get worse as she is promised in marriage to Burgundy’s lieutenant,  Thibault d'Aussigny (Henry Victor)… part of Burgundy’s plot to gain quick access to Paris.

Marceline Day
Meanwhile, Villon sits bored drinking and trying to write poetry from an inn just outside the city walls. He decides to hijack the King’s gifts to Burgundy and climbs the walls to use the King’s catapult to fire the food and drink at the city in order to feed the poor.

He ends up catapulting himself to avoid capture and crash lands, of course, into the rooms of Charlotte de Vauxcelles. Not recognising him without his fool makeup, it takes a while before the young noblewoman learns that he is the Francoise Villon, a man who’s words have touched her like no other.

They are rudely interrupted by Thibault and there follows an altercation involving bears in barrels, recently-deceased poultry and a heavyweight chandelier. Francoise escapes and takes Charlotte with him over the rooftops he knows so well to the safety of his mother’s house. Queue emotional reunion and the sadness of a mother deceived by her own hope: will her son ever amount to the man she wants him to be?

The route forward accelerates as the King finds it expedient to order Francoise death but the poet saves his skin by convincing Louis that their lives and death are inter-dependent: with this swift turn of phrase he guarantees his life as courtier.

Now able to influence events in the way his mother always wished, he is still a commoner which means he can never marry Charlotte, but all are soon overtaken by events as Burgundy kidnaps her and is intent on completing her marriage to his cause.

No spoilers: We both know that’s not the end don’t we dear reader? There’ll be a plan, courage under fire and a victory for true love won’t there? You’ll have to watch the breathless finale to find out. Things pick up a gear as we learn, amongst other things, that John Barrymore looked after himself: quite buff for a 45-year old!

After an attempt watching the monochrome Amazon downloadable copy I ended up ordering the Kino DVD version which is in much better quality and also comes with tints and a fun piano score composed by Alan Webber for the 1971 TV showing introduced by Mr Welles.

Yes, I do work out actually...

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