Bardelys the Magnificent was King Vidor’s third John Gilbert film in a row, following on the heels of The Big Parade (1925) and La Boheme (1926), but this is the first of the three that deserves the dubious label of “star vehicle”. Based on a novel by historical romance author Rafael Sabatini (author of books that would someday be adapted into deathless classics like Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk), it’s a swashbuckling adventure in the Douglas Fairbanks tradition. Long considered a “lost film” (MGM was forced, by the terms of their agreement with Sabatini, to destroy all of their copies of the movie when their distribution rights lapsed in 1936), the piece was rediscovered (minus one reel) in a French vault a few years ago. But for my money, it’s still a lost film – or, at any rate, largely a lost opportunity for its director.
That’s not to say that it’s a bad film — far from it, in fact — but there’s not a whole lot in Bardelys the Magnificent to suggest the guiding hand of the cinematic Transcendentalist/feminist whose career I’ve been examining. You can’t get your way all of the time, not in Studio Age Hollywood anyway, and watching John Gilbert smile and frown and careen his way through these lush MGM sets and crowds, you can almost picture King Vidor closing his mind’s eye and thinking of The Crowd. Still, there are “Vidorian elements” to be found, if you exert yourself! I’ve argued that all of Vidor’s protagonists are “artists” of one sort or another – and usually not the sort that paints, sings, writes or dances. Call them willful visionaries if you like. Better still, call them open air directors. That description fits our Bardelys (John Gilbert), who delights in staging reality dramas for his own private amusement (with a dash of noblesse oblige in the bargain).
Case in point, the seemingly sordid little affair that takes up much of the first reel. Gilbert is introduced as a Don Juan type, a silver tongued seducer who deflects his ladies’ legitimate concerns with the formula phrase: “Dark/Fair/Red-Headed(?) Enchantress, can you doubt me?” Apparently they can’t, despite the photographic proof (see above) that, as a counterfeit lover, he isn’t exactly a method actor. He always has one eye trained on the world beyond the stage – a wise move, it would seem, in a land of irate sword-wielding husbands.
Vidor and Gilbert never ask us to take this fight seriously (look at that smile), but for two of the three people involved in the melee, it is indeed a life and death matter. The wife (our erstwhile “dark enchantress”) has (in the parlance of the times) thrown away her “honor” and the husband has had his own dignity snatched from him by a man who doesn’t even seem to have had the decency to have been genuinely present at the scene of the crime. Nor is he really inhabiting this fight scene; he’s hovering above it, making sure the actors hit their marks, trying to come up with a good dramatic twist that will save him from the boring task of executing another cuckold.
He finds it by ribaldly reinterpretating the husband’s awkward lunges as the valiant strokes of virile and worthy lover:
The husband takes this as a compliment (although he doesn’t stop lunging), and the wife jumps back on the marriage bandwagon. Soon, everyone is in on the joke, and Gilbert blesses their reunion by giving them the good-natured bum’s rush:
This is Bardelys’ solipsistic habitus at the beginning of the film. Like the Jack-Knife Man puttering away with the clocks on his barge, our privileged protagonist busies himself by toying with the delicate mechanism of 17th century French society – and he even fixes a few things, occasionally. Of course, it’s the plot’s job to force him out of this comfort zone and into a more challenging directorial assignment – and it achieves that end beautifully, due in large part to the (mostly unwitting) efforts of Roxalanne de Lavedan, whom we first meet in an appealing conference with her cat.
Played by the lustrous Eleanor Boardman (previously seen in Wine of Youth), the director clearly wants to make something interesting of this character. In a truly Vidorian piece, she would have vaulted onto center stage and stayed there. Unfortunately, that enterprise is almost completely steamrolled by the inane workings of Sabatini’s mechanistic plot (not to mention the callow logic of the Fairbanks formula itself), which thoroughly violates the integrity of Boardman’s character, reducing her to a carrot/stick to be tossed back and forth between Bardelys and his “rival in fashion and love” Chatellerault (played by the menacingly mugging Roy D’Arcy):
When he threatens her family with violent reprisals (it seems they belong to the aristocratic faction that strove to oppose the consolidation of French state power under Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu during the first half of the 17th century – we’re in Three Musketeers territory here), she flashes even more of that proto-Ruby Gentry steel, replying “I had only disliked you before, now I must despise you.” Her radiant self-possession is so palpable that it sends Chatellerault reeling – quite literally, as he backs into a snarling pratfall that soon becomes the talk of a very small-minded kingdom.
Vidor’s disgust with class-ridden Europe comes across in every tittering tableau:
Only in this vapid social environment could anything as foolish as the film’s most artificial plot device have come into being. Bardelys and his pals are having a good laugh at Chatellerault’s expense, until the latter turns their jeers against them, demanding, in effect, that our protagonist put his manhood where his mouth is. Chatellerault is no great shakes with the ladies, but he knows his way around this fleur-de-lys-scented locker room, cunningly manipulating confirmed bachelor Gilbert into wagering his entire fortune that he can sweep la belle Boardman off her feet and marry her within three months. I have no idea how this scene plays out in the novel, but I suspect that Sabatini’s Bardelys is more a victim of own hubris than of peer pressure. Vidor’s film communicates a very different (and very characteristic) horror of inauthenticity, as the net of social expectation slowly ensnares Gilbert’s will. Ordered to remain at court by King Louis XIII (played by future talking equine impresario Arthur Lubin!), Gilbert exclaims: “my life is yours, Sire, but Bardelys’ honor is his own”, but the truth is something closer to the reverse. For Vidor, “honor” is a monstrous joint stock company with too many interfering ninnies on its board of directors. The rest of the movie will largely concern itself with examining the dire consequences of signing away one’s right to (as Emerson would say) “write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim”.
Many finely crafted scenes, detailing the misadventures of our hero as he goes undercover (as a dead anti-Bourbon leader named Lesperon) to defy the King’s orders and insinuate himself into the good graces of the rebellious De Lavedan family, follow upon its heels, but, for Vidor’s purposes, Bardelys is in prison from the moment he signs Chatellerault’s document – it just takes the plot about an hour to catch up:
During this span, Boardman doesn’t get a chance to do much more than contort her mood and her mug to suit the haphazard dictates of Sabatini’s snakes-and-ladders plot, but she and Gilbert do perform well together in a lavishly shot love scene on the river:
Those obscurantist leaves make nice stand-ins for the problematic elements of this harebrained tale, which effectively prevent Boardman from ever truly making common cause with Gilbert in his quest for subjectivity. She does launch one spirited counterstrike against the moronic exigencies of the plot, when she ambushes the still-incognito Bardelys (and the entire genre) with some impromptu sacralizing before a self-serve altar in the wilderness:
But this is a swashbuckler, not a love story, and we’d never have gotten our swordfights and derring-do if Gilbert had simply come clean with Boardman in this scene. Instead, he pulls away from her, setting into motion a chain of events that will eventually call for her to petulantly denounce Bardelys as a traitor in the presence of the King’s soldiers. This leads to an amusing courtroom scene in which Gilbert is tried for the crimes of the man he replaced en route to his rendezvous with inauthentic romance. Bardelys, it seems, isn’t magnificent enough for anyone in the court to recognize him – except, of course, for head magistrate Chatellerault, who fairly basks in his rival’s plight when the latter begs him to set this question of mistaken identity straight.
This is amusing stuff, and the saturnine D’Arcy gets a lot of mileage out of his Mephistophelean position as the contractual owner of Bardelys’ soul. Not to worry though, after a brief brush with imprisonment and an abortive ride to the gallows, our man Faust breaks loose through a series of brilliantly filmed stunts that stand in for his vertiginous escape from the hell of other peoples’ expectations.
Back in charge of his identity and his destiny, Bardelys gives the devil his due, ceding his property to Chatellerault, since it is the latter who has managed to marry Roxalanne (she accepts his second proposal in exchange for his false promise to pardon her true love). Then Bardelys gets back everything he lost (including Eleanor Boardman, whom he can now woo as a purified version of his former self) by shaming his antagonist into falling on his sword (by defeating him in single combat and by making sure his pal the King knows the full extent of Chatellerault’s villainy).
It’s a thoroughly magnificent win-win-win scenario, and, thankfully, there won’t be much of that nonsense in the truly Vidorian films on our horizon.
Our next entry is The Crowd. I hope you’ll join me!