A penniless nobleman decides to venture out into the wide world when a troupe of itinerant actors spend the night at his chateau. Chaos ensues, of course, and there is plenty of fencing, fighting, revenge, torture, chases, escapes and true love.
One of my favorite hobbies is tracking down the early performances of famous sound film players who had their beginnings in the silent era. Name a player in 1930s cinema and there is a more than decent chance that they were attached to a silent film at some point in time. Edward G. Robinson and Marlene Dietrich (both of whom denied their silent careers) are present, as are Gladys George, Alice Brady, Claudette Colbert, Walter Pidgeon, Victor McLaglen… the list is lengthy but today’s spotlight is on Charles Boyer.
Boyer’s smoldering gazes made him ideal as a sophisticated lover, an anti-hero or even a villain but he also had a talent for comedy; I particularly like him in Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown. Those same intense eyes were custom made for the silent era but he didn’t really take off in the silents. Still, he had a large enough role in the 1929 French swashbuckler Captain Fracasse to warrant top billing for its home video release.
We’ll get this off the table from the start: Boyer is the most famous member of the cast today but the hero is played by Pierre Blanchar, whom you may recognize from The Chess Player. Charles Boyer plays the baddie and he isn’t introduced until after the first act so be patient. That being said, there is much to enjoy even before Boyer shows up.
The film is based on the famous 1863 novel Capitaine Fracasse by Théophile Gautier. Its main character is the Baron de Sigognac (Pierre Blanchar), a nobleman from a proud but penniless family who is wiling away his youth in the crumbling remains of the ancestral chateau. Everything changes, though, when a troupe of itinerant performers show up at his estate to ask for a night’s lodgings. Sigognac likes them all but is particularly drawn to the romantic lead, Isabelle (Lien Deyers). After some hemming and hawing as to whether he’d rather join the actors in their wanderings or stay in his dreary chateau, Sigognac follows them to their next gig.
Isabelle is on friendly terms with Chiquita (Pola Illéry), described as a “Gypsy” and more than interested in the paste baubles that the actress wears for her romantic parts. Chiquita is bananas for Agostin (Daniel Mendaille), a bandit, killer and general ne’er-do-well, who agrees to rob and kill the acting troupe so that Chiquita can steal their doodads.
Agostin is foiled by the bravery of Sigognac and Isabelle forgives Chiquita, who generously promises not to try to kill her again. However, in the melee, the troupe’s Matamore (the man who plays braggart and bully in their performances) is dies. He is a key performer in their play and since the show must go on, Sigognac takes the part and renames himself Captain Fracasse.
(One French-English translation renders Fracasse as “smash” which tickles me more than it should. Captain Smash just has a wonderful professional wrestling cheesiness to it. Feel free to use it as your roller derby name.)
And this is where the real villain of the piece makes his entry. The Duc de Vallombreuse (Charles Boyer) spots Isabelle and becomes obsessed with her. She is not interested because she’s already well on her way to being Mrs. Baron de Sigognac but Vallombreuse will not take no for an answer and decides to hire a band of ruffians to abduct the young lady.
A swordsman named Jacquemin Lampourde is hired to murder Sigognac but he is no match for the young baron’s swordsmanship and pledges loyalty to him instead. And since Chiquita and Agostin are charged with kidnapping Isabelle, the plan falls flat when Chiquita gives a warning. Vallombreuse needs to work on his planning.
However, the second time is the charm and Isabelle is carried off to the Duke’s castle, complete with moat. It’s up to Chiquita, Sigognac and the rest of the acting troupe to save the day. Have fun storming the castle!
Okay, we’re going to get the obvious out of the way first. This film is stunning. The scenery is beautiful, the costumes are beautiful, the cast is beautiful, the cinematography is beautiful. This is an absolute feast for the eyes and the film can be recommended on that score alone.
Next, it displays the proper jaunty swagger that fans of swashbucklers expect. While the raid of the Duke’s chateau is the grand finale of the thing, the best part of the picture is easily Sigognac’s duel with Lampourde, which features all the fencing and banter one could wish for.
And THAT, my friends, is swashbuckling.
Director Alberto Cavalcanti was born in Brazil but established his career in France as a designer and then director; his most famous silent film is probably Rien que les heures (1926), a city symphony celebrating Paris. While often listed as an avant-garde director, Captain Fracasse shows that he was comfortable in the familiar and old fashioned as well. While there are enough tracking shots and point of view shots to satisfy anyone interested in the unchained camera of the 1920s, the film is also decidedly traditional. We have a good boy and a good girl and they are threatened by a bad man. (In any case, the cinematography is not nearly as extreme as that in Raymond Bernard’s The Chess Player.)
Keep in mind, traditional and old-fashioned are not insults when describing swashbucklers. The best examples of the genre embrace old school storytelling with breezy characters, fast-paced action and banter balancing matters out so the film does not feel stodgy and, as mentioned above, this is exactly what Cavalcanti accomplishes with Captain Fracasse.
The cinematography, credited to Paul Portier, also seems to have been heavily influenced by the Gustave Doré illustrations that accompanied the novel’s 1866 edition. The influence of classic illustration on the swashbuckling genre cannot be overstated (do see The Black Pirate for another excellent example) and the moody melodrama of Doré suits this production well.
There are also moments of beauty that are entire low tech. For example, Agostin is trying to escape by swimming across a moat, we see the castle reflected in the still water, which slowly ripples as the fleeing ruffian enters the frame. And then there are moments of humor. In another scene, the cattle housed in the barn where the acting troupe is performing moo as the play commences. They’re not much more than a tiny details but there are enough of these details to enrich the picture considerably.
The acting troupe in the film practices commedia dell’arte, which was a kind of ensemble performance that relied on stock characters and tropes. Nowadays, viewers pat themselves on the back when they notice patterns and personality types in films and books but fans of commedia dell’arte would find this very odd as the patterns were part of the very fabric of the art. As the name suggests, the style was started in Italy but also became popular in France.
The stock cast names may be familiar even to people who do not study the art: Columbine, Harlequin, Pantaloon, Scaramouche. The romantic heroine was often named Isabelle and the Capitaine was a spoof of the swaggering mannerisms displayed by some Spanish soldiers of the time. A blustering braggart, the Capitaine was reimagined as Scaramouche. This is appropriate as it’s pretty clear that author Rafael Sabatini borrowed more than a little from Captain Fracasse for his novel Scaramouche. (I highly recommend the silent adaptation of that book and I think it would make a great double feature with this picture.)
Like Sigognac, the protagonist of Scaramouche joins a company of commedia dell’arte players and falls for one of his fellow performers. Of course, Sabatini upped the stakes by setting his book at the start of the French Revolution and added in a revenge plot for good measure.
Théophile Gautier’s novel remained popular in France and was remade in 1942 by Abel Gance and had the inevitable mid-century adaptation starring Jean Marais. More recently, Ettore Scola directed an Italian version of story, which was released in 1990. Nowadays, swashbuckling has descended into the lower Depps but I have hope that the genre will be rediscovered and given a proper revival. If that happens, no doubt Captain Fracasse will be included.
However, despite its many strengths, this film is not perfect. Its main flaws are a pair of dim romantic leads and some rather jarring shifts in tone. Lien Deyers and Pierre Blanchar do what they can but, well, Isabelle and Sigognac were never going to split the atom. The duo walk into every trap, fall for every trick and fail to display even the slightest amount of credulousness. It’s just a good thing they are so popular because without their friends, they would have been mincemeat within the first ten minutes.
Blanchar has a bit more to do than Deyers but he was better in The Chess Player, where he still had to sport short bangs but at least he got to lead a rebellion. Deyers is probably the most famous member of the cast as viewers will likely recognize her as Kitty in Fritz Lang’s Spies. She too was a lot more fun when she had something (or someone) to sink her teeth into. Neither of them are bad in their roles, you understand, they just need a little extra something that is not there.
Alas, Charles Boyer also feels a bit flat. Now, I love my villainous Boyer as much as the next classic movie fan and I know what he is capable of when given a chance but Vallombreuse is such a cartoon that it would have been impossible to inject much depth. You could rename the character Snidely Whiplash and not really have to change his behavior or motivation. “Why am I doing this? Because I’m a villain, it’s pure and simple.”
While the character has its share of unfortunate stereotypes (sadly, this goes with the territory any time a Roma character is introduced in classic film) Chiquita is easily the smartest and most complex person in the room and Pola Illéry was clearly having fun playing her. Chiquita’s divided loyalties, quick thinking and her willingness to dive into the brawl with the boys make her a memorable second female lead. Alas, as is often the case in swashbucklers, second female lead is the best such a modern character can hope for. (If you want to see a swashbuckler with intelligent, capable women who are not either marginalized or killed, I recommend The Fighting Eagle, an underrated gem of an adventure film.)
The film’s jarring tone shifts can be partially blamed on the disparity in character development between Chiquita and the romantic leads. For example, there is a very strange juxtaposition at the end of the film (spoilers, obviously) in which we are shown the happy couple driving away to their Happily Ever After as Agostin is being tortured as a leadup to his execution but is put out of his misery by Chiquita. It’s an incredibly intense scene, especially placed as it is after the grand finale and the final shot of Isabelle and Sigognac seems oddly flippant coming on its heels.
All this being said, Captain Fracasse is a quality bit of entertainment and is easily better than many mid-century swashbucklers. The modern direction and cinematography plus intelligent deployment of beloved swashbuckling tropes make this a thoroughly fun experience and a must-see for any devotees of blood and sword stuff.
Captain Fracasse is not perfect but it is a real stunner of a picture with exciting action and a sense of fun. Come for Boyer but stay for the rest because it’s worth it.
Where can I see it?
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