John Barrymore plays Francois Villon, the medieval French poet/thief who runs afoul of the eccentric King Louis XI (Conrad Veidt). But when the kingdom is threatened by the Duke of Burgundy, it is up to Villon to save the day. Oh, and there is naturally a lovely damsel. The most fun you can have in the Douglas Fairbanks manner without actually having Douglas Fairbanks participating.
The King of Vagabonds vs. the Spider King
Nowadays, medieval films are either a vehicle for gory combat (or, worse, Kung Fu) or a Bergman-esque wallow in Black Death. I like martial arts action and Igmar Bergman as much as the next movie fan but enough already!
What I enjoy most is a good old-fashioned medieval swashbuckler. When sword fights were based on fencing, not Hong Kong action films and leading men went about in Van Dyke beards and wore funny hats. More authentic? Not really. More fun? You’d better believe it!
The Beloved Rogue is every inch the swashbuckling picture. The sort of thing Errol Flynn would excel in during the 1930’s and 40’s. The king of swashbucklers in the 20’s was Douglas Fairbanks but in this film, John Barrymore frankly steals his lunch. Helped by a clever script, an enviable supporting cast and some still-impressive stunts, Barrymore’s film is the quintessential silent swashbuckler.
Most of all, though, Barrymore is helped by history. Francois Villon, the main character of The Beloved Rogue, was a historical figure who had “movie” written all over him. Poet, thief, rogue, killer, lover; he lived a life of crime punctuated by beautiful verse and disappears from historical record in 1463, at the age of 32. Dubbed “the Vagabond King”, Villon was a popular figure in the English-speaking world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, although his alleged acts of priest-murdering and church-robbing were generally glossed over.
The king of France at the time, Louis XI (aka the Spider King), was more than Villon’s equal in eccentricity and film-worthiness. Fiercely intelligent, crafty and secretive, Louis successfully and ruthlessly put down rebellion, uniting France under a strong monarchy. Though there is no historical record of the two men meeting, the temptation to put the Spider King in the same scene as the King of the Vagabonds was too great.
Not based directly on but clearly influenced by the stage play If I Were King, The Beloved Rogue presents Villon less as a church robber and more as a Robin Hood figure who is the Vagabond King of Paris. John Barrymore steps back into the swashbuckler mode that he displayed so well in 1926’s Don Juan.
Villon is the son of a martyred patriot who goes about “loving France earnestly, Frenchwomen excessively, French wine exclusively.” Meanwhile, the shady King Louis XI (Conrad Veidt, who is an absolute delight in this role) has been advised by his seers to make peace with the rebellious Duke of Burgundy (Lawson Butt).
Problems begin when the patriotic Villon insults Burgundy. To smooth matters over with his ally, Louis banished Villon from Paris, a fate worse than execution for a man like him. Cowed at first, Villon is soon seething with resentment against Burgundy. He makes his headquarters just outside the walls of Paris and plans his next move.
Burgundy has his own plans in Paris. He asks Louis to grant the hand of Charlotte Vauxcelles (Marceline Day) to one of his lackies. It is a strategic alliance that will give Burgundy the lands he needs to strike at Paris. At the urging of his seer, Louis grants to request.
But someone throws a monkey wrench into Burgundy’s plans. Three guesses who!
The Beloved Rogue is the sort of light-hearted swashbuckler that Douglas Fairbanks had made before he chose to pursue mega-epics like The Thief of Bagdad. The huge sets and fancy intertitles crushed the charismatic star under their weight. Barrymore fares better in The Beloved Rogue.
Aged forty-five and playing a character two decades younger, Barrymore had reached the cheesecloth stage of his career but his chops as a theatrical ham serve him well. I do wish, though, they had not so prominently claimed the character was in his twenties. Barrymore mugs and dances about at the beginning of the film but gradually evolves into the patriotic, heroic figure that the audience expects from him. He is able to carry the weight of the fancy sets and historical plot through his ability and his considerable screen presence.
That’s why it is so surprising, then, that there is a fairly nasty flogging scene at the climax of the picture. John Barrymore loved his scenes of torment but this film had been so light prior to the climax that the flogging comes off more unpleasant than it otherwise would.
In fact, the whole movie loses a bit of steam in the third act. At that point in the story, Villon has been cleaned up and is acting like the troubadour lover. No doubt intended to send the ladies’ hearts aquiver, I preferred him as a vagabond. For the most part, Barrymore’s best scenes are in the first act: His horror at being banished from Paris, his mischievous attempts at revenge, tricking his way back into the King’s good graces. He plays his part of grace, charm and the slightest hint of tongue-in-cheek.
The real treat of the film, however, is Conrad Veidt. Imported from Germany specifically for this film (Barrymore had admired Veidt’s performance as Ivan the Terrible in Waxworks), Veidt’s casting proved to be an inspired choice. Surprised by Veidt’s tall frame, the filmmakers insisted on him stooping almost double for the role. Veidt makes the most of this contorted behavior. He creeps, crawls, picks his nose and cackles maniacally. Greasy hair, greasy clothes, he is a memorably gross goblin of a man.
He is also a rather sympathetic character. Like Villon, Louis is completely lacking in scruples. His pragmatic nature is a refreshing change from the usual portrayal of monarch in film: either pure as snow or truly evil. Even Barrymore has trouble keeping Veidt from stealing his scenes. This was my first exposure to Conrad Veidt’s silent work and, needless to say, I was beyond impressed. It remains one of my favorite performances.
Poor Marceline Day never had a chance. A lovely woman and a wooden actress, she is crushed between two slabs of ham and never really comes into her own. Unfortunately, almost every scene she is in features either Veidt or Barrymore prominently. Mary Astor, Barrymore’s co-star in Don Juan, would have been a much better choice. It is probably fortunate that the character of Charlotte is merely a breathing plot device.
Keystone veterans Slim Summerville and Mack Swain hold their own quite well as Villon’s fellow rogues. Their talent at physical comedy add an extra layer of fun to an already fun film. The humor is enough for the audience to enjoy but not so much that it becomes annoying.
Alan Crosland ably directs. He would go on to direct The Jazz Singer, the film that popularized the talking picture. The sets were borrowed fromThe Hunchback of Notre Dame and Crosland makes the most of their stylized rooftops and snowy streets.
The Beloved Rogue is the sort of movie that makes you stop and think “they don’t make movies like this anymore!” In spite of a few slow passages, it is a fast, smart and funny film. A little something for everyone. To to borrow a quote from another famous medieval swashbuckler, The Beloved Rogue has “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, chases, escapes, true love, miracles… ”
This is definitely one to add to your collection.