If I Were King (1938)

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If I Were King (1938) Poster

Vagabond poet François Villon rises to high office in 1463 Paris.


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4 October 2005 | bkoganbing
| Rousing the Rabble of Low Degree
Francois Villon, born 1431 was all that If I Were King makes him out to be. Poet, satirist, duelist, and consorter with the rabble of low degree as Brian Hooker's lyric from The Vagabond King, he was all this. His satire brought him some big time trouble, a death sentence. But a last minute commutation by the monarch he satirized, brought him banishment in 1463. Villon went so far into obscurity that we do not know when he died after leaving Paris.

From these facts Justin Huntly McCarthy wrote a popular romantic play that premiered in 1901 and was later made into an operetta with score by Rudolf Friml and Brian Hooker. McCarthy took into account the politics of the time in medieval France. Louis XI was only King for two years, ascending the throne in 1461. The monarchy after leading France to an ultimate victory in the Hundred Years War against the English, was leader of a shattered land with many of the lesser lords quite a bit more powerful than the king. Chief among these in France at the time was the Duke of Burgundy. Whoever held that title ruled an area about a third of modern day France.

It's those Burgundians who have Paris surrounded and are dictating terms to Louis XI when the story opens. Villon and his sidekicks have broken into one of the King's warehouses and helped themselves to some food. Taking it back to the tavern owned by Robin Turgis, Villon makes a few choice comments about Louis XI. Unbeknownst to him, Louis himself is there on a mission to ferret out a traitor among his counselors. The traitor turns out to be the Constable of Paris. When a fight breaks out, Villon kills the constable.

This puts Louis in a dilemma as he sees it. Villon has killed a traitor, but he's insulted the person of the king. Since Villon brags about how much better a job he can do, Louis makes him Constable of Paris and gives him a noble title.

No man on the silver screen ever spoke the King's English better than Ronald Colman. I could listen to that man recite the Yellow Pages. He's a perfect Villon.

Basil Rathbone was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1938 for Louis XI. Louis XI was known as the spider king because the man was the craftiest of schemers. He usually had about 5 or 6 options given any situation, most of us are lucky if we have one alternative. Dealing from weakness as he was, he had to be a man of cunning, guile, and deception.

Interesting talking about the King's English when dealing with a pair of figures from medieval France. But the contrast between the romantic Villon and the crafty Louis is what drives the film. That and the partnership of necessity they form and the later grudging respect they develop for each other. Colman and Rathbone have the classical training needed to make If I Were King work.

The two main female characters acquit themselves well. Frances Dee as noblewoman Katherine DeVaucelles and Ellen Drew as the tragic Huguette are just fine. And among the supporting cast, I particularly like Sidney Toler as tavern owner Turgis. It's quite a contrast from playing Charlie Chan.

For me watching If I Were King is like watching The Vagabond King without the music since I know where the songs go. It's like watching a production of Pygmalion after seeing My Fair Lady. You keep waiting for the songs to start.

Particularly I listen for Colman to break into the Song of the Vagabonds as he rouses the citizens of Paris. It's a great moment in both the play and the musical.

You will thrill when you hear Colman rouse that rabble of low degree even if he doesn't sing.

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