Scaramouche (1923) A Silent Film Review

Featuring the famous opening line, “he was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad,” Scaramouche is the tale of Andre-Louis,  a young lawyer (Ramon Novarro) who seeks to revenge the murder of his best friend at the hands a heartless aristocrat (Lewis Stone). To further his ends, Andre-Louis becomes an actor, a fencing master and, finally, an architect of the French Revolution.

Bonus: I will also be reviewing the 1952 version. Click here to skip to the talkie review.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world.

After the rousing success of The Prisoner of Zenda, Rex Ingram and his merry band of actors were ready to take on another swashbuckler. This time, they adapted Scaramouche, a 1921 French Revolution tale written by Rafael Sabatini of Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk fame.

You will recall that in Zenda, Lewis Stone was the gallant hero while Ramon Novarro was the aristocratic villain. In Scaramouche, the casting is reversed. Novarro plays Andre-Louis Moreau, a mild-tempered young lawyer of ambiguous lineage. He would have likely lived a quiet life of lawsuits if he had not been pushed too far.

Ramon Novarro demonstrates that famous “gift of laughter.”
Ramon Novarro demonstrates that famous “gift of laughter.”

Like many of his contemporaries, Rex Ingram liked to employ the same cast in all his films and so the main roles of Scaramouche remained very much in the family. Stone takes an uncharacteristically villainous role as the debauched Marquis de la Tour d’Azyr, an aging aristocrat who will stop at nothing, even murder, to preserve the patrician hold on power. Alice Terry is once again the heroine of the tale, Aline de Kercadiou, the niece of Andre-Louis’s guardian and the romantic object of both our hero and villain.

The story begins when calls for revolution are just starting to spread across France. Andre-Louis Moreau (Ramon Novarro) is a law student who considers both the revolutionaries and the aristocrats to be mildly ridiculous. His best friend, Philippe (Otto Matieson), is a student of divinity and he has embraced the revolution with open arms.

First, they took our combs and I said nothing…

As a trained orator, Philippe is able to effectively share his revolutionary ideas with the peasantry. This does not sit well with the Marquis de la Tour d’Azyr (Lewis Stone), a deadly swordsman and infamous womanizer. He challenges Philippe to a duel. As a would-be priest, Philippe has never learned to use a sword but his honor cannot allow him to refuse. Andre-Louis is worried but not unduly so. He expects the duel to be to the first blood. He is shocked when, rather than merely wounding him, the Marquis runs Philippe through.

The Marquis coolly tells Andre-Louis that Philippe was too eloquent to live. This confession is the root of revenge for Andre-Louis and it shapes his motivation. He will adopt Philippe’s revolutionary speech even though he does not believe it himself. It will not bring Philippe back to life but it will prevent his killer from profiting from his death.

He said my beauty mark looked like a stale raisin. He had to go.
He said my beauty mark looked like a stale raisin. He had to go.

With his morning’s work done, the Marquis turns his attention to more pleasant pursuits. Andre-Louis has been raised by Quintin de Kercadiou (Lloyd Ingraham), who also has a beautiful niece, Aline (Alice Terry), under his care. Aline is clever and ambitious. She means to parlay her beauty into a high position at court. She is more than pleased to accept the attentions of the Marquis. In spite of being old enough to be her father, the Marquis has never married. However, he is completely charmed by young Aline and it looks like wedding bells are set for the near future. Andre-Louis once had similar hopes but Aline’s head has been turned with dreams of the power and influence she will wield as the wife of the Marquis.

Sorry, I was just laughing because your beauty mark reminds me of a stale raisin.
Sorry, I was just laughing because your beauty mark reminds me of a stale raisin.

Andre-Louis returns home to find his guardian sympathetic but unable to condemn the man who will make his niece a great lady. Andre-Louis storms off and runs into Aline. She is still fond of Andre-Louis but she does not view him as an equal or a lover. Now knowing that he can expect no help from his friends and family, Andre-Louis determines to get justice for Philippe on his own.

The justice he seeks can be found in the nearby town of Rennes. The officials are moved by Andre-Louis’s story of a murdered seminary student… until they hear that the villain is the Marquis. Who dares to speak against the Marquis? Andre-Louis narrowly escapes arrest and  then takes revenge by inciting a crowd to riot with revolutionary rhetoric. This adventure renders him an outlaw and he is forced to flee with the soldiers hot on his heels.

It was either this or run for congress and I wanted a job with some dignity.
It was either this or run for congress and I wanted a job with some dignity.

Andre-Louis escapes (with some help from the quick-thinking Aline) but is now a fugitive. A chance encounter with a troupe of actors gives him a ticket out of town and a new identity: Scaramouche.

Who or what is Scaramouche? Glad you asked.

The acting troupe that Andre-Louis joins is one trained in Commedia dell’Arte, or, the Italian Comedy. This style of performance involved improvisation by the actors. Each performer would play a stock character with distinct dress and mannerisms. For example, Pantaloon was always a greedy miser who is mocked by other characters. Columbine was always a saucy servant girl. Harlequin was high-spirited, clever and amorous.

You've got some nerve, showing up in a fluffier collar than me.
You’ve got some nerve, showing up in a fluffier collar than me.

And Scaramouche? Well, he isn’t called “the little skirmisher” for nothing! The black-clad character is too clever by half. As the Britannica puts it, “His affinity for intrigue often landed him in difficult situations, yet he always managed to extricate himself, usually leaving an innocent bystander as his victim.”

The character suits Andre to a T and his talent and ambition soon help elevate the troupe to performing in the best theaters in Paris. He even finds a new love interest in the form on Climene Binet (Edith Allen), the leading lady. Revenge seems to be losing its urgency for Andre-Louis.

Let's see, you're a blackmailing creep. Why did we break up again? And why is there a stale raisin on your cheek?
Let’s see, you’re a blackmailing creep. Why did we break up again? And why is there a stale raisin on your cheek?

Meanwhile, Aline is staying in Paris with the Countess de Plougastel (Julia Swayne Gordon), a dear friend of her uncle’s and (secretly) one of the Marquis’s many discarded lovers. The Marquis is also in Paris and he happens to be attending the theater at the same time as the ladies.

Oh, and it’s also theater where Andre-Louis and Climene are performing.

I can't imagine what will come of this.
I can’t imagine what will come of this.

The Marquis eyes the minimally-masked Climene and likes what he sees. The fully-masked Andre-Louis observes his enemy with Aline and his sense of revenge comes back to life.

It’s actor against aristocrat. Who will come out the winner? You will have to see Scaramouche to find out.

In the time between The Prisoner of Zenda and Scaramouche, Ramon Novarro had made two more pictures with Rex Ingram, one featuring Alice Terry and one featuring Lewis Stone. The actors and the director are very comfortable with each other and clearly confident in their abilities. Novarro’s acting improved markedly in the short space of a year.

When it comes to costume pictures, this kid knows his onions.
When it comes to costume pictures, this kid knows his onions.

Ramon Novarro was on the road to stardom and the leading role of Scaramouche suited him well. He was not a rough-and-tumble leading man like Jack Holt or Milton Sills. He was not a smoldering-dangerously kind of guy like Rudolph Valentino. He wasn’t a smooth-as-silk sophisticate like Ronald Colman or Adolphe Menjou. He wasn’t a breezy go-getter like William Haines or William Boyd.

What Novarro did very, very well was impishness. His best characters were bright young fellows who get thrown in the soup and must use cunning and charm to escape. However, his roles also had depth and soulfulness. This persona matched perfectly with the Andre-Louis of the novel. Novarro even looked the part. Andre-Louis is described as 24 years old, short, dark and homely. Novarro had three out of four. Come on, we can’t expect a romantic Hollywood character to be less than attractive, can we?

I've got it! We'll PRETEND he's ugly!
I’ve got it! We’ll PRETEND he’s ugly!

If The Prisoner of Zenda showed his potential, Scaramouche is that potential realized. Novarro’s character is smart and not naive by any means. However, he has his few illusions peeled painfully away. His character is driven on by personal revenge against the Marquis but he is also waging war against an insane world. Having been born out-of-wedlock but raised by the aristocracy, he is allowed to mingle with polite society but not allowed the full membership benefits. Everything he wants is either made unattainable or snatched away by a social system that he cannot bring himself to truly hate. He defends himself with sarcasm and barbed jests but he is hurting under the mask of a wit. In a way, Andre-Louis was always Scaramouche even before he donned the costume.

Looks, acting talent, the ability to rock a tri-corner hat... This kid's got it all!
Looks, acting talent, the ability to rock a tri-corner hat… This kid’s got it all!

Novarro expertly portrays this confusion, showing Andre-Louis’s despair, hope and buried rage. He acts mostly with his eyes, which Rex Ingram films in luscious close-ups. Novarro does occasionally overdo his gestures but he is generally flawless in a performance that would prove to be a career best.

Lewis Stone dips his toes in villainy for this role and the results are better than one might expect. To be honest, I was not too impressed with his performance when I saw this film the first few times. He was okay but not outstanding. However, as I was going through the DVD making screen grabs for the review, I began to notice all these subtle movements he was using to add layers to his characterization. What I’m saying is this man is good at what he does. For example, after he murders Philippe, the Marquis is triumphant but Lewis Stone is also able to convey a shred of regret with a flicker of sadness about the eyes, a too-quick anger at being called a murderer. The Marquis is not merely a sadist or a psychopath. He is something far more interesting, a man who has a rigid moral code and honor system and who views his villainy as an act of patriotism.

Aww, c'mon. I only tried to kill you for France.
Aww, c’mon. I only tried to kill you for France.

Alice Terry is fine but, once again, she is not called on to do much more than look flattered or frightened. Aline is intelligent and resourceful but she is pretty much reduced to being one more resource that Andre-Louis and the Marquis are in rivalry for. What saves the character from being wholly trite is the mercenary streak that makes her throw aside Andre-Louis for the powerful Marquis at the beginning of the film.

Climene (Edith Allen) is similarly pushed to the sidelines. According to Photoplay, Miss Allen was vocally disappointed that she was not given a bigger role in this, her film debut. If that is true, it is no wonder that she only made one more credited screen appearance. Diva behavior will be tolerated from stars but not from newbies. That being said, Allen is quite good as the grasping actress who attracts the attention of both Andre-Louis and the Marquis.

Hand overplayed, methinks, Miss Allen.
Hand overplayed, methinks, Miss Allen.

The most interesting female character is the Countess de Plougastel (Julia Swayne Gordon), a noblewoman whose husband is off in Austria trying to get support to head off the revolution. The Countess’s shady past with the Marquis and her not-so-ambiguous relationship to Andre-Louis are interesting but she is also an important character in her own right. She is the one person who keeps her head while everyone else is dashing around swinging swords, starting duels and breaking engagements.

A talented veteran and the popular newcomer-- always a good combination.
A talented veteran and the popular newcomer– always a good combination.

The adaptation of the novel is skillful. The film manages to get in all the main points of the story without feeling rushed or disjointed. The intertitles retain the flavor of the original writing but are not wordy. Snappy and smart, the titles do much to add to the viewing experience. There are just three aspects of the adaption that I did not think worked.

First, the sword-fighting. Andre-Louis, after he is once again on the run, takes a job as an assistant sword-master and he spends many months honing his skills and developing his unique and ruthless fighting method. The movie just shows Andre-Louis as a sudden master swordsman with no explanation or indication that enough time has passed for his skills to develop.

I am a great swordsman because... reasons!
I am a great swordsman because… reasons!

Second, after Aline discovers the Marquis having a fling with Climene, she dumps him. The Marquis wants Aline back (it’s not cheating if he didn’t like the other girl!) and asks the Countess for help. She refuses him. He threatens to expose her affair with him if she does not give her assistance. The Marquis has a curious and ruthless code of honor but he follows it rigidly. This blackmail just rings false to me. In any case, there is no payoff to it as the Countess is not shown trying to persuade Aline and Aline refuses to take the Marquis back.

Whoopsy! Why have what you might call a conflict.
Whoopsy! Why have what you might call a conflict.

Third (and this is a huge spoiler so please skip ahead to the next paragraph if you want to be surprised), at the grand finale, when Andre-Louis has returned to Paris and discovers that the Countess is his mother and the Marquis is his father, it is all too friendly. In the book, Andre-Louis and the Marquis call a very grudging truce and then slink to their respective corners. The Marquis escapes and continues to work for the aristocracy. The film has the two men being all palsy-walsy and Andre-Louis even gives the Marquis his sword. The Marquis then marches off and dies charging the sans-culottes. This change may have been to please the censors, as Andre-Louis’s hatred of his father and the villain getting off scot-free would not be smiled on.

Generally speaking, however, the adaptation is masterful and I could not be happier with it.

Ingram knew his way around sets and lighting.
Ingram knew his way around sets and lighting.

Finally, let’s talk about the real star of the show: Rex Ingram’s direction. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that in the world of silent films, Rex Ingram movies are the beauty queens. Scaramouche is a breathtakingly gorgeous film. Ingram and cinematographer John F. Seitz produced some of the most stunning images in movieland.

Actually, “beauty” doesn’t really cover everything. Ingram’s films were not ostentatious like the films of, say, D.W. Griffith or Cecil B. DeMille. Yes, the sets could be big and fancy. But they were photographed with an understated richness. The camera did not linger over the large buildings and crowds more than was needed to establish the scene. Gorgeous shadows, smoke and sunlight are employed in the background but don’t call attention to themselves for their own sake.

The nerve of this pipsqueak! He said I was funny looking.
The nerve of this pipsqueak! He said I was funny looking.

One quirk that Ingram does indulge is his continued love of grotesques. As in The Prisoner of Zenda, Ingram allows his camera to focus on actors in putty noses, padded bellies and exaggerated scars. Most directors reserved close-ups for the beautiful and the famous. Ingram (like Sergio Leone) awarded loving close-ups to his leads, of course, but he was always ready to allow a whimsical or bizarre face to fill the screen.

Ingram is absolutely in his element when the French Revolution begins in earnest. Mad crowds, drunk with glee at their successful revolt, dance around fires, wave swords, sing wild songs… Palaces are stormed, bodies thrown, limbs hacked. It is violent, anarchic and strangely beautiful.

Gorgeous chaos.
Gorgeous chaos.

Scaramouche is easily one of Rex Ingram’s best films. It is big, bold and beautiful yet it never loses sight of its characters. Their hopes, dreams and hatreds work in tandem with history to drive the plot steadily onward. And, unlike some of Ingram’s works, it is never slow-moving. This is historical spectacle done right. You owe it to yourself to check this film out.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★½

Where can I see it?

Warner Archive has released a beautiful print of this film on DVD-R. It has a rousing full-orchestra score Jeffrey Mark Silverman.

1-scaramouche-silents-vs-talkies1

Ladies and gentlemen, in this corner we have Ramon Novarro, silent cinema’s impish Latin Lover and real-life pianist, in the 1923 French Revolution picture Scaramouche and in that corner we have Stewart Granger, English heart-throb and real-life cattle rancher, in the lavish 1952 remake. Which “little skirmisher” will be named champion? Let the fight begin!

The Talkie Challenger: Scaramouche (1952)
Home Media Availability: Available on DVD and via streaming.

Before I start this review, I think I need to make a huge disclaimer. 1950 is an important year for me. It was a year of amazing films. BUT! It is also the last year in which Hollywood’s general output fascinated me.

Gaahh!! So bright!!! Lord, give me vengeance for one of my two eyes!
Gaahh!! So bright!!! Lord, give me vengeance for one of my two eyes!

1950 and before? I like most anything. After that year, my taste starts to head toward arty and foreign. Oh, I still like some Hollywood films but I am no longer a complete fanatic for them. Maybe it’s because of all those snide movies about the silent era that the fifties put out. Maybe I have an aversion to crinoline. Maybe it’s those weird pointy bras. Maybe it’s because adult men spanking adult women is seen as either proper mastery over the home or just a cute thing to do. The point is, the fifties and I don’t get along, onscreen or off.

To make matters worse, I have a particular dislike for fifties remakes of classic swashbucklers. The colors are garish, the stunts have no oomph and there are those darn pointy bras again. (They confused me so when I was a little girl.)

I say this because you deserve to know that this 1952 movie is not going to get a fair trial.

Here we go again...
Here we go again…

The movie opens with the Marquis de Maynes (Mel Ferrer) running a few people through. He is then summoned to Marie Antoinette’s (Nina Foch) private rooms where he learns that a certain revolutionary has been sneaking pamphlets into the palace. Can he, you know, take care of it? The Marquis is more than happy to try (the Queen is his cousin, his kissing cousin) and off he goes, pausing to give Aline (Janet Leigh) the glad eye.

The author of the pamphlet is Philippe de Valmorin (Richard Anderson), a young idealist. His best friend is Andre Moreau (Stewart Granger), a party-hardy kinda guy who is currently knee-deep in an affair with an actress named Lenore (Eleanor Parker). Philippe’s father, Georges (played by our very own silent movie Marquis, Lewis Stone), is worried about his son but Andre promises to look after him.

Don't go, Lewis! Stay! Save us!
Don’t go, Lewis! Stay! Save us!

That does not stop him, however, from taking time off of his mission to flirt with Aline. He is about to make a move when he discovers that she is a Gavrillac. He has recently learned the name of his mysterious father. You guessed it: He was about to romance his half-sister. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

Anyway, Andre thoroughly botches his mission, the Marquis runs Philippe through and Andre vows revenge. He goes into hiding with Lenore’s acting troupe and takes on the persona of Scaramouche. And he is also learning to fence, blah blah blah blah…

It all climaxes with one of the longest (yet somehow underwhelming) swordfights in cinema history.

And the winner is…

THE SILENT

I know that this film still has quite a following and I know I am risking the wrath of the interwebs but I have to say that this was not a contest. Not even close. It was a rout, a slaughter, a blowout. Here are a few reasons why:

The 1952 script is dreadful.

The manic pixie dream lady-in-waiting.
The manic pixie dream lady-in-waiting.

Andre has been supported on the allowance of a gentleman and he is not a lawyer. He is clearly athletic and his wenching surely would have gotten him into tight corners in his 30+ years. Why, then, did he not study swordsmanship, even a little? Because the film called for him not to know how to fight, that’s why! Never mind that there was a ready-made explanation in the book. And then he just happens to run into a guy who knows the Marquis’s fencing instructor. Such convenience!

And then there is the rather… uncomfortable relationship between Andre and Aline (not to mention the Marquis and the Queen). I wonder how the story meetings went for this film. “Fantastic novel, it will make a great picture but do you know what it needs more of? Incest!”

Always with the incest. Whyyyyy?
Always with the incest. Whyyyyy?

The are-they aren’t-they subplot with Andre and Aline seems to have been cooked up as an artificial means of keeping the couple apart. As opposed to actually giving Aline her own motivations and having her contemplate a marriage of convenience because she is ambitious. Aline of the novel and 1923 version was a good person with a mercenary streak. Aline of 1952 is just a ditz, a living doll for hero and villain to fight over.

Andre’s abusive relationship with Lenore is another element that makes me cringe. Lenore is given a much, much larger part than she (as Climene) had in either the novel or the 1923 version. This unbalances the whole plot since she actually is given as much (if not more) screen time as Aline. And does every love scene between Lenore and Andre have to involve violence? And it is played for laughs. Ha ha?

No! Bad movie! Bad, bad movie!
No! Bad movie! Bad, bad movie!

The character of Andre was, I found, quite unlikable. He is a bully, a braggart and a philanderer. I’m not saying that a hero cannot have flaws, I prefer a hero with lots of flaws, but Andre has no visible redeeming characteristics to offset them. And yet every character (except Lenore) goes about singing his praises. Who are they trying to convince, themselves or me?

The 1923 version wastes so much time on things like character development and historical details. Oh those creaky silent films, when will they ever learn?

Never, that's when!
Never, that’s when!

It is hard to beat Rex Ingram when it comes to cinematic beauty. In this case, again, there is no contest at all. The sets are sterile and the outdoor scenes are just ugly with backgrounds clumsily inserted. The costumes (the ones not borrowed from 1938’s Marie Antoinette, anyway) are garish and the hair is appalling. And don’t even get me started on those stupid pointy brassieres!

In all fairness, Stewart didn't mind.
In all fairness, Stewart didn’t mind.

Okay, now I have to say nice things. I liked Henry Wilcoxon’s evil right-hand-man character, even if he is buried under a mountain of fussy gear. And Lewis Stone is a welcome presence in any picture. It was fun to see our old villainous Marquis as the father of poor doomed Philippe. The film also does a better job of establishing how Andre achieved his fencing skills, even if he manages to gain them in just a few weeks (!) and the sword-action in this movie does look great.

The film’s main claim to fame is the fencing and the elaborate climactic duel. While I enjoyed the fencing, I was a bit disappointed in the final duel. The filmmakers seem to have been caught up in the technical aspect of the stunts rather than the characters.  Things don’t get really interesting until near the end, when both fighters get more vicious and the fight becomes more personal.

Personally, I didn't give two figs by this point.
Personally, I didn’t give two figs by this point.

And now, dear readers, I am going to do some major spoiling. You can sign off now if you want to be surprised.

Here is the set-up: Andre has the Marquis exactly where he wants him, pinned to the wall. But he cannot bring himself to run him through. Why? Andre wonders this loudly. Then Lewis Stone’s character comes up and helpfully says that the Marquis is really Andre’s brother.

Okay, if the brotherly connection was so strong, why did Andre not notice it, you know, the other hundred times he was trying to kill him? And why did Mr. Stone just stand there while the interminable duel was going on and not mention anything? Come to think of it, why didn’t he mention it to Andre during all those weeks when Andre was conspiring to kill the Marquis? Andre was serving on a public committee, he wasn’t exactly hard to find and he was openly saying that he wanted to fight the Marquis.

You don't get any of this. None. All you get are pointy bras and Stewart Granger in sparkly tights.
You don’t get any of this. None. All you get are pointy bras and Stewart Granger in sparkly tights.

Also, the film does not show us the aftermath of the revelation. The Marquis wanders off before the relationship is revealed. But Andre doesn’t mind as he is just so thrilled that Aline is not his sister! Hurrah! Incest averted!

The final scene of the film features the wedding of Andre and Aline. Lenore watches from her balcony  Her new companion is a very short officer who has the habit of placing his hand in his vest… So we are basically going from National Assembly to Napoleon without any of that icky reign of terror stuff.

So now I am cheated out of my Bastille storming. Sigh.

The only Scaramouche we need.
The only Scaramouche we need.

Once again, I know that this is a beloved classic but for the life of me I cannot understand why. Many apologies to the fans of this film but I am going to have to give it a big thumbs down.