For any of you who have heard that this version of The Vagabond King is terrible, that simply isn't so. It's not the best production of a classic operetta ever brought to the screen, but it's far from terrible. The only thing that was happening was that movie musicals themselves were slowly dying out and operettas were a thing of the past. This Paramount production, a remake of the 1929 version the studio did with Dennis King and Jeanette MacDonald was really the last operetta ever done for the big screen.
Today's audiences probably know the straight dramatic version of Justin Huntly McCarthy's play If I Were King, done on the silent screen by John Barrymore and for sound by Ronald Colman. Rudolf Friml's original operetta adaption premiered in 1923 on Broadway with lyrics by Brian Hooker.
The main songs from that score plus several new ones composed for this version by Friml with lyrics by Johnny Burke. This was the last movie score done by Burke, he and his partner Jimmy Van Heusen had come to a parting a couple of years earlier. Nothing memorable in the new songs, but they are interpolated nicely into the story.
This was a farewell for many people. This was Kathryn Grayson's last film, it was also the last for Walter Hampden who played Louis XI. It was the first and last for her leading man, Maltese tenor Oreste. Originally Paramount was going to get Mario Lanza, but Kathryn Grayson whom he did two films with and didn't get along with balked. Lanza himself was proving difficult at that time so Paramount used Oreste himself. Oreste isn't bad as the dashing Francois Villon, but public tastes were changing and operetta parts just weren't to be had any more.
This romantic tale of the beggar/poet who saves Paris from invasion by the Duke of Burgandy was fashioned by Rudolf Friml and Brian Hooker into one of operetta's best loved scores. No more romantic melodies were ever written than the plaintive Some Day or the appealing duet Only A Rose. And operetta never had a better song to rouse the populace than the Song Of The Vagabonds. Friml was at his career height when he wrote this score.
Rita Moreno is also in this film and she plays Hugette, the tavern girl crushing out big time on Francois Villon, who has eyes only for the royal ward Katherine Vaucelles who Grayson plays. Her number is the Waltz Hugette which enjoyed something of a revival that year because it was sung by Susan Hayward in I'll Cry Tomorrow. If you'll remember Hayward played Lillian Roth in that film and the Waltz Hugette was one of several of Roth's songs that she sang in that film and made a record of. Roth played Hugette in the 1929 Paramount version of The Vagabond King.
Operetta is gone now, no one writes soaring melodies of love, romance, and derring do any more. But if you like the art form with the sappy plots and all as I do, than you can't go wrong with this version of The Vagabond King.
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