The Beloved Rogue (1927)
Director: Alan Crosland
Cast: John Barrymore, Conrad Veidt, Marceline Day
Synopsis: FranÃ§ois Villon, in his lifetime the most renowned poet in France, is also a prankster, an occasional criminal, and an ardent patriot.
John Barrymore strays into Douglas Fairbanks territory with largely positive results in this fictionalised account of the life and times of Francois Villon. I’d never heard of him either, but apparently he was a prominent French poet of the late Middle Ages. Barrymore was 45 when the film was released, and his best years were probably behind him, but he still manages to deliver an endearing and athletic performance as a kind of roguish Robin Hood character which is far removed from the real Villon, who was something of a ne’er-do-well by all accounts.
The film doesn’t deny Villon’s criminal background and liking for the ladies — ‘loving France earnestly, Frenchwomen excessively, French wine exclusively’ trumpets his introductory intertitle — but passes them off as the mischievous exuberance of a wayward youth. After stealing a large urn of wine from a bartender we see Villon and his two friends skipping gaily through the streets of Paris. So beloved is Villon that he is crowned the ‘King of Fools’ by its townspeople. It’s when he’s celebrating his coronation that he falls foul of the Duke of Burgundy (Lawson Butt). The Duke has his eye on the throne of France, currently occupied by the stooped and weaselly King Louis XI, who’s played by a nearly unrecognisable Conrad Veidt in his first Hollywood role. He looks more like Richard III than Louis XI, but seems to be having a lot of fun in the role.
The king is ‘a slave to the stars’ which doesn’t mean he’s some kind of early media junkie but in thrall to the arts of the astrologer (Nigel De Brulier) who guides him on all major decisions. The stars decree that the King must stay on the Duke’s good side, which means he banishes Villon as a sop to the Duke. But it’s not long before Villon’s not only sneaking back within the city walls, but wooing his ward (Charlotte de Vauxcelles) whom the King has betrothed to the Duke’s mate Thibault d’Aussigny (Henry Victor).
The Beloved Rogue is a whole load of straightforward, unpretentious fun, strengthened by confident and imaginative direction from Alan Crosland (best known today as the director of The Jazz Singer in the same year that this movie was released) and the performance of Barrymore and his supporting cast. Medieval Paris, blanketed in a carpet of snow, has a fairy tale quality about it and makes good use of sets left over from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). The comedy element is also pretty strong, in particular atop a snowy rooftop when Villon throws a well-aimed snowball at a hapless guard who has missed his target with no fewer than six crossbow arrows. The Beloved Rogue might play fast and loose with the facts, but it delivers a consistently entertaining spectacle that has worn the test of time surprisingly well.
(Reviewed 21st August 2013)