Wednesday, January 16, 2019

MADE IN 1938 Blogathon: If I Were King

Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Robin of Pop Culture Reverie are hosting a blogathon tribute to the exemplary film season of 1938. Our journey begins HERE or HERE.

The Irish politician, historian and writer Justin Huntly McCarthy (1859-1936) is one of the creative minds to be inspired by the life of the poet and rabble-rouser Francois Villon (1431-1463). In 1901 McCarthy gave us the romantic novel and four-act play If I Were King

The history of If I Were King in film includes a 1912 Italian short, and a 1920 Fox feature starring William Farnum. A 1930 adaption of Rudolf Friml's operetta The Vagabond King with the Broadway star Dennis King and Jeanette MacDonald was remade by Michael Curtiz in 1956 starring Oreste Kirkop and Kathryn Grayson.

Our 1938 film was nominated for 4 Oscars: Basil Rathbone for Best Supporting Actor, Hans Drier and John B. Goodman for Best Art Direction, Loren L. Ryder for Best Sound and Richard Hageman for Best Original Score.

Ronald Colman

Ronald Colman is Francois Villon, a poet, a leader of men, a lover of women, and a thief. His foster father, a priest played by C.V. France, gave young Francois a supportive home and an excellent education. That Francois' nature was roisterous and led him to a life of questionable pursuits in no way reflects upon his upbringing. Colman brings to this role the introspection of Conway in Lost Horizon, the devil-may-care attitude of his Englishman in The Prison of Zenda and a dash of derring-do from his Bulldog Drummond of old.

Basil Rathbone

King Louis XI (1423-1483) is holed up in Paris while his political rival the Duke of Burgandy and his rebels surround the city with the hopes of starving the King into submission. It is most annoying. Adding to the annoyance is the robbery of his storehouse and the presence of a traitor is in his midst.

Basil Rathbone's Louis is played with a querulous speech, a mincing walk, and a joyful cackle at whatever tickles his fancy. His quirks almost belie a quick wit and an even quicker turn to action when deemed necessary. If the real Louis were anything like his fictional counterpart he truly deserved his nickname of "cunning."

Villon is a double-edged sword for the monarch. King Louis discovers that the poet outlaw is behind the thievery at the storehouse, but at the same time, Villon dispatches the traitor who has been bedeviling the monarch.

Villon must be punished for the thievery, yet he must be rewarded for unmasking the traitor. Having heard the boastful bandit regale his followers with what he would do if he were king, Louis puts the rogue to the test. Villon is tasked with replacing the traitorous Chief Constable and given a week to set things in Paris and the whole of France aright. Villon considers himself more than able to fulfill this task, not realizing that the king intends to hang him at the end of his, more or less parole.

Ronald Colman, Ellen Drew

We meet two of the women in Villon's life in this story. Huguette is played by Ellen Drew. She knows Villon for the dog and liar he is but loves him for the sweetness in his soul that she hears in his poetry. She is loyal and feisty, and Villon is telling her the truth when he says he does not deserve her. 

Ronald Colman, Frances Dee

Frances Dee is Lady Katherine de Vaucelles, a lady-in-waiting to the Queen. Katherine wins the poet's heart with her beauty and gains his respect for her character. She is an independent thinker whose bravery is brought to the fore by her affection.

Francois Villon uses his personal view of the world and knowledge of the lower classes for the betterment of their attitude toward the King. His efforts to rouse the generals to battle, which they are loathed to do, presents a trickier situation. Villon wants to bring the battle to the Burgundians before all of Paris is starved. The generals are of a different mind and refuse to budge. It is at this point Villon learns that his fate has always been the hangman's knot, yet he turns the situation to victory, earning the grudging respect of his sovereign.

Ronald Colman, Basil Rathbone

Louis XI: "Once more you've made everything very complicated. You have a devilish talent for seating me on the point of the sword of justice and it is becoming uncomfortable in the extreme."

Francois Villon: "I am sorry I have no cushion to offer for Your Majesty's --- comfort."

Louis XI: "Now, now please --- please spare me your witticisms. It is difficult enough trying to be King of France."

Francois Villon: "I found that out, Your Majesty."

Louis XI: "You know, that is the first nice thing you've said to me."

Ronald Colman and a cast of thousands.
And this is inside the palace. Wait until you see the climactic battle!

The romance in the story of a rogue granted an offhand wish is wonderfully told in this adaption of McCarthy's play by the Preston Sturges. More than one viewing is necessary to catch all of the droll wit tucked away in the adventurous tale. Frank Lloyd, the director of epic films such as Cavalcade and Mutiny on the Bounty, knows his way around and through a costume extravaganza. Many familiar faces from Henry Wilcoxon to Walter Kingsford to Sidney Toler and more show up to delight classic movie fans. 

If I Were King deserves acclaim as one of the great movies released in 1938. It will delight the viewer who likes their love stories and their adventures with touches of thoughtfulness and humour.

Movie trivia:

William Farnum appears in this film as General Barbezier, one of those timid generals so bothersome to both His Majesty and Francois Villon, whom Farnum played in 1920.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019


Robert E. Sherwood was an acclaimed playwright and producer who wrote classic dramas like Waterloo Bridge and classic comedies such as Tovarich. His 1935 Broadway hit The Petrified Forest ran for six months and was co-produced by its leading player, Leslie Howard.

Program notes on the actor playing Duke Mantee.

When Warner Brothers bought the film rights for a 1936 production, Leslie Howard was part of the deal. When Leslie Howard agreed to the movie, he made certain that his Broadway co-star Humphrey Bogart was also part of the deal. Bogart had been in sensation in the role of Duke Mantee, the moody and brutal murderer. Bogart took this opportunity to redeem his stalled Hollywood career.

Alan Squier, played by Leslie Howard, has a strong case of the old ennui exacerbated by the heavy mantle of early literary success and a failed marriage. Penniless, he is now roaming the world in search of something. His search has led him to a way station in the desert in the southwestern United States. Howard's performance is filled with fatalism and a self-deprecating sense of humour.

Gramp Maple, played by Charlie Grapewin is the owner of said way station, a combination gas station/lunch room. Gramp's son Jason played by Porter Hall got traveling out of his system after WWI when he had returned from France with a wife and a young daughter. The wife soon tired of the isolation and loneliness, returning to her native land.

Leslie Howard, Bette Davis

Gramps and Jason Maple were left to raise young Gabriella, played by Bette Davis. The isolation and loneliness that plagued her mother now irks Gaby. She is also a girl of imagination who yearns for adventure, for life beyond the same old thing and the same old people. Alan Squier is definitely not "the same old people." Bette is a charming, breath of fresh air in this role.

Alan is amused and touched by Gaby. Gaby is intrigued by Alan, while also seeing that he needs to be cared for. His presence ignites all of Gaby's feelings of romance and adventure. He even speaks French! Dick Foran plays Boze Hertzlinger, a footballer and mechanic at the station. He has romantic feelings or designs that could pass for romance, on Gaby. Gaby instinctively realizes that such an involvement would be disastrous.

Joe Sawyer, Humphrey Bogart, Adrian Morris

"Now just behave yourself and nobody will get hurt. This is Duke Mantee, the world-famous killer and he's hungry!"

Who knows how things would have turned out for these people without the involvement of Duke Mantee? The excitement in the locale is the police manhunt for the escaped killer played by Humphrey Bogart. Jason Maple has joined his local militia in the search, giving him a chance to wear a uniform again. Gramps is thrilled to follow the news on the radio, and hopes for a shootout.

Genevieve Tobin, Paul Harvey, John Alexander

Gramps is going to get up close to the action this night. Duke Mantee and his gang intend to hole up at the way station waiting for Duke's girlfriend and the cash he had stowed away. Love is at the root of his belief that the woman will show up. Mantee creates a night of violence and fear by holding the people we have previously met as hostages, along with a wealthy couple, Mr. and Mrs. Chisholm played by Genevieve Tobin and Paul Harvey. The couple's personal attitudes and conflicts play off of the situation created by the criminals in their midst.

There is an interesting undercurrent between two African American characters, the Chisholm's chauffeur Joseph, played by John Alexander and one of the Mantee gang played by Slim Thompson. Both actors are reprising their roles from the original Broadway production.

Leslie Howard, Dick Foran, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart

Destiny is the invisible visitor to the way station along with the intellectual hobo and the violent hood. Character is tested, dreams revealed and lives are bared open. Who will survive the night and who will be buried in the Petrified Forest?

Surprisingly, the Academy was not impressed by The Petrified Forest. The fine acting, directing by Archie Mayo, cinematography by Sol Polito, and the screenplay by Sherwood, Delmer Daves and Charles Kenyon were ignored at Oscar time. Nonetheless, the film preserves for us one of the important plays of the 20th century and a groundbreaking performance by an actor and star who still inspires.

TCM is screening The Petrified Forest on Friday, January 18th at the unimaginable hour of 6:15 a.m. and will be followed by a slate of other films from the pen of Mr. Sherwood. Maybe you haven't seen it in a while, or perhaps you only know it by reputation. At any rate, it is well worth recording for your pleasure and convenience.


The Broadway production
Broadhurst Theatre
January - June 1935

Humphrey Bogart again takes on the skin of Duke Mantee in a live television production of The Petrified Forest for Producers' Showcase in 1955. Lauren Bacall is Gaby and Henry Fonda is Alan Squier. Tad Mosel wrote the script and Delbert Mann directed.

MADE IN 1938 Blogathon: If I Were King

Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Robin of Pop Culture Reverie are hosting a blogathon tribute to the exemplary...