Friday, 28 October 2011

Great Gilbert! Bardelys the Magnificent (1926)

The best tribute you can pay to any work of art is to stop thinking about it and just respond. This is the problem faced when watching Shakespeare, listening to Mahler or looking at a Vermeer... you have a huge amount of baggage to deal with before you can just go with it. You have what you know, what you've been told and what you are - at that moment - experiencing. This is certainly true of old films... you view in "watching silent movie" mode and with the reputations of those involved getting in the way of your appreciation of their work.

So...John Gilbert, sad Garbo sidekick, major victim of the talkies and tragic alcoholic? Or...John Gilbert, great movie star, handsome as hell and one fine actor!

Watching Bardelys the Magnificent you have to plump, overwhelmingly, for the latter.
Made in the same year as The Black Pirate and Don Juan, Bardelys could be expected to be a straight-ahead romantic swashbuckler, with dashing heroics, plush costumery and evil beards... It is all of these things but deliberately so, being a wry send up of the genre that succeeds in being funny as well as exciting.

Gilbert is the Marquis de Bardleys, a nobleman at the court of Louise XIII who is "envied, elegant and superior... known to his world as 'The Magnificent'". Bardleys is a total playboy who is so adept at womanising he has a production line of assistants making up lockets of his hair to hand out to his admirers - there's a great scene when the camera pans along a line of courtesans who all open their lockets in succession.
But he is forced into defending his honour by the challenge of the Comte Châtellerault (rascally Roy D'Arcy) who, having failed to woo the beauteous Roxalanne de Lavedan (elegant Eleanor Boardman), bets Bardleys his estate that he won't be able to win her over. Against the King's wishes, Bardleys sets off to win the wager.

En route he encounters a dying man, René de Lesperon, who has been leading a rebellion against the King. Bardleys takes on Lesperon's identity as he ends up having to fight his way to Lavedan's castle.
Roxalanne hides Bardleys from his pursuers and nurses him back to health as he plays along seeing a chance to secure his prize. But Bardleys begins to fall genuinely for his helper and wonders how he can right the wrong he has done and truly win her heart. Revealed to the kings men by a jealous neighbour, Bardleys is unable to lie any longer to Roxalanne and she gives him up. Now protesting his real name, Bardleys goes unrecognised by all but the scheming Châtellerault, who sentences him to be hanged.

Things really hot up for the closing scenes as Bardleys heads to the gallows and Roxalanne tries to save him. Are we going to get a happy ending?
King Vidor directs with aplomb and provides a truly outstanding scene when the lovers push their boat through the willows, the branches keep brushing over the actors' heads as they act out their love and you get lost in the gently conflicting motion as they move together and between the leaves. It's quite lovely and almost surreal - just some heavier branches away from Buñuel...
The action sequences at the films' conclusion are also highly entertaining, a tribute to Fairbanks, with Gilbert seemingly swinging off castle walls, climbing them with inventive use of a pike and floating down on a parachute of curtains. Dynamic and funny.

But it's the acting that carries the film - you need to be skilled to do this kind of pastiche seriously. Eleanor Boardman is excellent, as usual, as the girl who actually knows her own mind (and has a mind to know...) and works well with Gilbert. It's great to see a decent quality print of her work: I dream of a remastered Boardman box set with The Crowd, Souls for Sale, Proud Flesh and others.
It's on John Gilbert though that the story most depends and he shows a lot of skill in portraying the light-hearted hero who finds his heart. The scene where he cannot match Roxalanne's pledge of their love in front of God is great - no intertitles are required - as we see his realisation that he has to be true to this woman in every sense. He's a rounded, believable hero, with a twinkle in his eye and the range to show the serious changes in the character's development.
Gilbert worked with Vidor (no mug in his choice of the talent...) on a number of films including the monumental The Big Parade, he was one half of the most successful romantic pairing in silent history with Garbo and here he shows a superior comedic sensibility. The Flicker Alley DVD comes with a poignant interview with his daughter, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, who has campaigned for his reputation as an actor. On this evidence, she has every reason to do so.

Whatever the reasons for his downfall, Gilbert was a versatile actor as well as a true star. He made good films and has every right to be regarded as "envied, elegant and superior... known to his world as 'The Magnificent'"!

The Flicker Alley DVD also comes with Monte Cristo (1922) and is available here. I got mine from those nice people at the BFI.

"Whatever your faults, Bardelys, you're never dull! Come drive with me - tell me all about it!"