It’s a nearly perfect tale of identity swaps and royal intrigues: Ronald Colman’s voice is velvet smooth as the poet-rogue François Villon, who uses his wits when dealing with Basil Rathbone’s (very strangely played) Louis XI. The real charm comes with lady-in-waiting Frances Dee (swoon) and the peasant firebrand Ellen Drew (double swoon). And don’t forget the sophisticated, semi-satirical screenplay by Preston Sturges. The refreshing Blu-ray discovery comes with a commentary by Julie Kirgo.
If I Were King
KL Studio Classics
1938 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 101 min. / Street Date February 7, 2023 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: Ronald Colman, Basil Rathbone, Frances Dee, Ellen Drew, C.V. France, Henry Wilcoxon, Heather Thatcher, Stanley Ridges, Alma Lloyd, Sidney Toler, John Miljan, Montagu Love, May Beatty, Henry Brandon, Darryl Hickman.
Cinematography: Theodore Sparkuhl
Costumer: Edith Head
Art Directors: Hans Drier, John Goodman
Film Editor: Hugh Bennett
Visual Effects: Gordon Jennings
Original Music: Richard Hageman
Written by Preston Sturges from a play by Justin Huntly McCarthy
Produced and Directed by Frank Lloyd
We know, the title reads like something from 1910. The storyline could belong to an operetta about ‘pleasant peasants’ — which in an earlier incarnation this was, starring Jeanette MacDonald. But the magic words Preston Sturges Comedy change our expectations 100%. Paramount’s bright costume picture delivers 100 minutes of fine light entertainment.
Directed by Frank Lloyd of Mutiny on the Bounty, 1938’s If I Were King probably got lost in the wake of Warners’ The Adventures of Robin Hood, released the same year. But it’s a little gem that rewards favorite Ronald Colman with a finely tailored role. Colman over-achieved in more serious dramas, trying to avoid the guillotine and finding transcendence in a flaky Utopia. This is one of his Charming Rogue parts, as in his 1944 Kismet. Colman plays the historical personage François Villon, a poet-thief of the 15th century.
If I Were King had been filmed twice before, with Franklin Farnum in 1920, and in 1930 as a 2-Color Technicolor musical, The Vagabond King. This version ix-nays the ong-says but wisely retains two dazzling leading ladies for Colman to woo. A number of fine rhyming speeches roll from François Villon’s tongue; he’s sort of a late-Medieval rapper.
Preston Sturges’ witty, endearing screenplay makes Villon a light-hearted Parisian rogue who hangs out with thieves and smugglers. Paris is presently under siege by Burgundians. The general populace starves because the city’s food supply has been reserved to feed the royals and the army.
François Villon (Ronald Colman) responds to the crisis by helping leading his fellow crooks steal from a royal comestibles storehouse. The cynical despot Louis XI (Basil Rathbone) solves all issues by hanging somebody, but everybody takes such behavior as the accepted state of affairs. Louis seeks out the rebel thieves by disguising himself and dropping in at the Fir Cone Tavern, a smugglers’ hangout in the Court of Miracles. Louis therefore gets an earful when Villon arrives to distribute stolen bread, wine, and jolly insults aimed at the King. He’s bragging about what he’d do if he were in charge, etc., when the civil guard arrests Villon’s entire crew of thieves. Louis doesn’t know how to handle Villon. The poet is a rebel, but he just happens to have rid Louis of a traitor, the Grand Constable.
“My next step would be to clean house. The vermin who infest the palace I’d hang in clusters.”
Intrigued by Villon’s sense of humor, Louis dubs him the replacement Grand Constable, with the assumed name of Count de Montcorbier. Villon/Montcorbier is now the law in Paris, but Louis gives him only one week to find a way to rescue the city from the Burgundians, before the gallows is put to use. Hiding his new identity from his old cohorts, Villon uses his new office to pardon all of them. Louis is amused to hear something entirely new: his lowly subjects praising his name.
Cleaned up and installed at Court, Villon/Montcorbier immediately finds time to woo Katherine DeVaucelles (Frances Dee), a lady-in-waiting he encountered earlier, while evading capture. ↑ Katherine also does not realize that Montcorbier is Villon, and is taken with his poetic advances and his optimistic ideas about saving Paris. Unfortunately, the generals refuse to attack the Burgundians. They think Louis should surrender, preferably after chopping off the head of his new Grand Constable. Katherine inspires Villon with a strategy to force the army to act: if he distributes the royal food stores to the populace, the generals will no longer be able to stall, unless they want to starve as well.
The entertaining If I Were King flits from one clever, resourceful scene to the next, thanks to the Ronald Colman’s star power and limitless charisma as. → His François Villon is always on the move. He’s an everyman lover and dreamer, charming all with his good humor and self-confident airs. Villon’s eloquent speeches win him friends and female admirers in both the underworld and at court. He’s also a master of mischievous behavior. Involuntarily praying in the cathedral with his father, a monk (C.V. France), Villon slips away to pursue and chat up the enticing Katherine. He avoids arrest by the royal guard, and then slips back into place before Dad realizes he’s gone.
← Basil Rathbone is almost unrecognizable as Louis XI. It’s a near-grotesque characterization — Louis carries himself in a clownish way and laughs at his own jokes in a falsetto cackle. He is cynical about torture and executions but in this less serious context is not a full-on villain like his Sir Guy of Gisbourne in Robin Hood. Obeying a twisted sense of fairness, Louis had difficulty deciding whether his next step should be to hang Villon, or reward him. It’s as if he recognizes François as the only truly honest man at court. Rathbone’s odd performance serves the movie well but probably did nothing for his career. In this show, he carries the joke as well as anyone.
→ Villon’s main girlfriend in the underworld is Hugette, played by Ellen Drew. The Paramount contract player has a fine time with the saucy, spirited woman, a typical gal-on-the-barricades type. Hugette dotes on Villon, who teases her even as he appreciates her devotion. In movies only three years, Drew had already appeared in over 30 features; If I Were King finally earned her some special attention, perhaps because director Lloyd takes so many close-ups of her sparkling eyes. Writer Preston Sturges would tap Ms. Drew for the lead in his delightful comedy Christmas in July.
← The official leading lady is the delightful Frances Dee, another first-rank favorite in the affections of fans. With her honest intelligence and good humor, Dee graced special films — So Ends Our Night, I Walked With a Zombie, Four Faces West. Her well-written role in If I Were King gives a new twist to the standard ‘Maid Marian’- royal dame type. Katherine DeVaucelles shows her amusement at Villon’s fresh advances by responding with a terrific selection of double-takes and eye-rolls. Yet she remains a lady and the tone never slips into farce. Katherine’s heart-a-flutter sincerity works well with Villon’s games of amorous deception. Preston Sturges’ script also gives the final scene to Katherine, a generous touch.
Frances Dee was admired and respected for her part in one of Hollywood’s most successful marriages, to Joel McCrea. We wonder if the actress’s ‘nice’ image helped Katherine De Vaucelles get away with such a surprisingly low neckline for one particular gown. The Production Code closely policed the sirens of the day — Dietrich, etc., even in costume pictures.
If I Were King showcases some lavish period sets, some of them augmented wit excellent matte paintings — Paramount must have had quite a collection of palace interiors, vintage Parisian streets, giant cathedrals. Numerous scenes employ enormous crowds, yet the film doesn’t try to sell itself as a vast epic. It’s great fun as a ‘Once Upon A Time’ story with witty speeches and amusing characterizations. Ronald Colman sets the tone, and everybody involved seems to be having a great time making the thing.
The show lifts the spirits, which at the moment ought to be a major endorsement for any movie fan.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of If I Were King sources this vintage Paramount Picture through its rights holder, Universal. The film elements must have been stored in an ideal vault shelf, for the new remaster looks flawless. The film’s light tone is established with elaborate main titles that display the credits on handsome miniatures of the roofs of Paris. Cinematographer Theodore Sparkuhl would later shoot the moody noirs Among the Living, The Glass Key and Street of Chance.
Favorite film writer Julie Kirgo must have a special liking for If I Were King, as she fills her audio commentary with praise for a gem that fully deserves rediscovery. Ronald Colman’s approach to suave rogue-ery is different from that of Errol Flynn — François Villon’s charm is based on a velvet delivery of poetic lines, with a less aggressive kind of knowing attitude.
We must admit that we hadn’t encountered If I Were King before this disc release — my website host recommended it to me. Neither it nor its director are even listed by Andrew Sarris in his American Cinema book. I previously knew the title only as an excellent example of the proper use of the subjunctive. Marry a grammarian, and you’ll end up thinking in those terms.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
If I Were King
Supplements: Commentary by Julie Kirgo, trailers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: February 17, 2023
Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson