If I Were King

1938, Movie, NR, 100 mins


Colman is without peer in his portrayal of the famous French poet and ne'er-do-well Francois Villon, who lived among the rabble of 15th century Paris. During a tavern brawl, he kills the oppressive Grand Constable of Paris. and the intellectual troublemaker is brought before the cunning King Louis XI (Rathbone). In a shrewd move, Rathbone thinks to satisfy his downtrodden people by elevating their champion to an all-powerful post, one where he can improve conditions he has so loudly condemned. If he fails, he will be executed for his past transgressions. He only has a week to perform the miracle. While at court, strutting in his new princely finery, Colman meets and falls in love with noblewoman Dee. He soon wins her heart, but he is still likely to lose his head. An army of Burgundians advancing on Paris provides a respite. When the royal army fails to stop the invaders, Colman rallies the peasants of Paris and leads them into battle, routing the would-be conquerors. A grateful Rathbone pardons Colman for his past sins against the crown and sends him into exile instead of to the headsman. He is also given Dee's hand in marriage.

This opulently produced film, with its thousands of extras and wonderful sets and costuming, is well directed by Lloyd. Sturges' screenplay sparkles with penetrating wit and sly badinage, particularly in the verbal duels between Colman and Rathbone. Their scenes together are spellbinding: Colman is the upstanding moralist using his wits to survive a monarch's wrath, and Rathbone is a reptilian tyrant attempting to entrap his arrogant victim. Rathbone's makeup was elaborately crafted to hide his razor sharp features, thoroughly disguising the actor. He renders a hideous, almost heinous portrait equaling any evil ever brought to the screen. The historical play authored by McCarthy was first filmed in 1920, starring William Farnum (who has a small role in this version), and was made again in a second silent version, THE BELOVED ROGUE (1927), with John Barrymore flamboyantly playing the Villon role. Rudolph Friml adapted the play as an operetta which was filmed as THE VAGABOND KING in 1930, starring Dennis King and Jeanette MacDonald, and was remade in 1955 with Oreste Kirkop and Kathryn Grayson. Writer Sturges always pointed to the script of this film as one of his finest achievements, and it truly is a superb screenplay. Sturges lightened the somber, deformed Louis by giving Rathbone deliciously wicked, funny lines. The black humor is never more in evidence than in the macabre response Rathbone delivers when entering his torture chamber early in the film. Crinkling his nose and sniffing the air, he quips, "Nasty smell in here. You'd almost think the cook had burned the roast!" Sturges, of course, would go on to write and direct some of the funniest films ever made: THE GREAT McGINTY (1940), THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK (1944), and HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO (1944). IF I WERE KING was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor (Rathbone), Best Score, Best Interior Decoration, and Best Sound. leave a comment

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