Silent Movie Bookshelf: Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

The opening line is so famous that author Rafael Sabatini has it written on his tombstone:

“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”

The “he” in question is Andre-Louis Moreau and the mad world in this case would be revolutionary France. Scaramouche has been popular ever since it was first published in 1921.

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My copy is A Common Reader edition. However, since the novel was written in 1921, it is in the public domain and may be downloaded for free. The edition I found is sadly lacking illustrations. There is also a free public domain audio book courtesy of Librivox.

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What is is?: Andre-Louis is a clever young man of dubious parentage whose best friend is murdered by an aristocrat for spreading revolutionary ideas too eloquently. Vowing revenge, Andre-Louis takes up the revolutionary mantle even though he does not believe in it himself. Outlawed and on the run, he joins up with a troupe of actors who specialize in the Italian comedia dell’art and its stock characters. Andre-Louis takes on the persona of the black-clad Scaramouche, the little skirmisher, a rogue clown who acts as a Robin Hood figure. In this guise, he bides his time waiting for his chance at vengeance.

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My favorite part: I loved the insincerity of Andre-Louis, how he insincerely adopts revolutionary ideals in order to further his revenge. A born performer and politician, he does not believe a word of what he is saying yet he manages to sway crowds over to his side. He helps bring about a revolution that he does not care for one bit. But will it come back to bite him?

Andre-Louis explains his motive:

“It was your eloquence he feared, Philippe,” he said. “Then if I can get no justice for this deed, at least it shall be fruitless to him. The thing he feared in you, he shall fear in me. He feared that men might be swayed by your eloquence to the undoing of such things as himself. Men shall be swayed by it still. For your eloquence and your arguments shall be my heritage from you. I will make them my own. It matters nothing that I do not believe in your gospel of freedom. I know it every word of it; that is all that matters to our purpose, yours and mine. If all else fails, your thoughts shall find expression in my living tongue. Thus at least we shall have frustrated his vile aim to still the voice he feared. It shall profit him nothing to have your blood upon his soul. That voice in you would never half so relentlessly have hounded him and his as it shall in me if all else fails.”

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My least favorite part: Like all Sabatini novels, Scaramouche descends into melodrama. I do enjoy a bit of melodrama and I generally can get into the spirit of the thing but I am occasionally jarred out of the novel.

Silent movie connection: Scaramouche was adapted as a silent film in 1923. Director Rex Ingram reunited the stars of his 1922 hit The Prisoner of Zenda. Handsome Ramon Novarro took on the role of Andre-Louis and the part fit him like a glove. He was supported by Lewis Stone as the villain and Alice Terry as Aline, his aristocratic lady love. As was typical for Ingram’s films, Scaramouche featured lavish sets and costumes, colorful supporting characters and a deliberate pace.

The film was yet another hit for Ingram and cemented Ramon Novarro’s status as a popular leading man. It was their fourth film together.

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Scaramouche was remade in 1952 with Stewart Granger, Mel Ferrer and Janet Leigh in the three leading roles. This version, however, is not very faithful to the book and it lacks the character development that the silent version included. It is most famous for the long, long, long (8 minute) duel between Granger and Ferrer. This version was also financially successful.

Scaramouche has not been seen on the American big screen for a long time. In the case of this story, they certainly do not make ’em like they used to.

P.S. You are excused for immediately humming Bohemian Rhapsody when you saw the title of this novel.