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If I Were King (1938)

Having made a successful transition from the silent era to the talkies, who better than Ronald Colman to headline If I Were King? A film that sees the smooth talking Colman as a man who is quick with his wit bestowing verse and poetry upon the people of Paris during the reign of King Louis the XI as played by an Oscar nominated Basil Rathbone just one year prior to his career defining role as Sherlock Holmes.

Colman stars as Francois Villon, a scruffy thief and vagabond well known amongst the people of Paris. He’s somewhat of a Robin Hood stealing food from the King’s storage houses and distributing it amongst the poor. From the outset of the film he’s on the run which includes a nasty fall from an inn that if I didn’t know better was a stunt performed by Colman himself. Sure looked like him as I replayed it a couple of times. He’ll seek refuge with his surrogate father, C.V. Vance who is a man of the cloth and will recount for us the sins of his wayward son. It’s off to the church to repent which brings Colman face to face with his leading lady, the stunning Frances Dee as a Lady in Waiting to the Queen, Heather Thatcher.

While Vance offer his prayers, Colman, offers poetry to Miss Dee. She gets caught up in his devilish verse but he wins a smile and an alibi when she vouches for his being in church to the guards that seize him for the theft of the King’s goods. No doubt, they’ll be seeing more of each other over the course of the film’s 102 minute running time.

For King Basil, his popularity amongst the common man is at an all time low. The people are starving and Paris is surrounded by an invading army, cut off from supplies to replenish their cupboards. Basil knows there is treachery in the court and will boldly follow a lead into a tavern while incognito run by Sidney Toler. Here Basil will meet Ellen Drew and a host of other street urchins feasting on the King’s meats when Colman turns up with the stolen goods in hand. This all leads to an amusing scene when Colman is questioned by the hooded stranger as to what he would do if he were King.

Hence the title, If I Were King. Colman goes into verse but it will all come to a halt when the King’s Guard storms the tavern and Basil unveils himself as the King. The participants are rounded up and off to the dungeon but Basil has a warped sense of humor and to amuse himself will give Colman a title and place him in charge of his armies giving him one week to play Lord and solve the problems of the throne. If not then it’s off to the hangman and the noose.

Now that Colman is among the Court he’ll have the opportunity to romance Miss Dee first hand while at the same time attempt to raise Basil’s standing in the street where the commoner is to be found. With each act of kindness he bestows upon the people cries of “Long Live the King” can be heard.

Colman will continually raise the temper of Basil as the two verbally spar for the balance of Colman’s week in office.

Basil, “If it is so easy to be king, how would you begin?”

Colman. “First, by eating… my next step would be to clean house. The vermin who infest the palace I’d hang in clusters.”

Basil, “What would you do next?”

Colman, “Try to know my subjects and try to earn their devotion and loyalty instead of their loathing.”

Basil, “By abolishing taxes, I suppose?”

Now on this final quote from Colman, can’t you just hear that wonderful voice of his as he delivers this line that seems to be tailor made for his vocal talent  ….

Colman, “No! By abolishing despair and substituting hope. By knowing the longings in their hearts as a man of the people would, seeing them as they are and admitting that their vices are as deep rooted as their virtues. I’d treat them as my children instead of as my enemies, so by knowing the worst in them, I’d bring out the best in them.”

It’s a week that we shouldn’t be surprised to see come to an end as one might expect.

Never having seen this Frank Lloyd production that had him doing double duty as both producer and director, this proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable adventure with the splendor of a major production thanks to the glorious sets used as the backdrop of Paris. Colman is again excellent in this period piece and was just coming off his 1937 success, The Prisoner of Zenda. When it comes to Basil Rathbone, I can’t make my mind up whether or not I liked him in this role. While he is amusing at times, his high pitched delivery combined with his slow gait comes off as if he’s playing an old hag. Almost as if he’s his alter ego Sherlock Holmes in disguise sweeping an inn floor. Still, Rathbone scored the second Oscar nomination of his career as King Louis XI. His earlier Oscar nod came for 1936’s Romeo and Juliet. Trivia hounds should note that Basil lost both Oscars to the same man, Walter Brennan.

Frances Dee’s beauty caught me off guard here and being decked out in Edith Head costumes she had this film begging for a technicolor production. This was the second consecutive film that Dee worked on for director Lloyd. The other title being Wells Fargo that cast her opposite real life hubby, Joel McCrea. Also in the cast besides eventual Charlie Chan, Sidney Toler, was William Farnum as one of Basil’s cowardly Generals. Mr. Farnum actually played the Colman role in the 1920 silent film version. I guess this proves that having an actor who starred in an earlier version of a movie appear in the remake isn’t something as new as today’s audiences might think it is. Click here for an example.

I picked up this title thanks to the Universal Vault series and can easily recommend it to all those who have a love for both Ronald Colman and the classic films of yesteryear.

9 Comments »

  1. I’m with you. I thoroughly enjoyed this one. I believe Preston Sturges wrote it, and I really enjoyed the added wit. Colman was good, and I have to admit I think I rather liked Rathbone because it felt atypical for him.

    • Yes I saw Sturges name in the credits. Colman had such an easy going presence and that voice! I’m a big fan of Basil and I’ll probably come around to taking a shine to him here but has cackling performance really caught me off guard.

  2. I prefer his The Prisoner of Zenda myself, but I remember enjoying this on TCM one night about 2 years ago. Coleman had quite the dashing class to him, and he was super well spoken. I have a book on Silent Film leading men he was in, and somewhere it was said they weren’t sure he’d make it in sound film, how wrong they were thankfully.

    • The mention of that book reminds me to go and thumb through my stack of McFarland books. I have a Colman book from the publisher I picked up in a rummage sale a few years ago and had forgotten about. I’ve yet to see his Zenda so will have to make the effort. I have the double bill DVD with the Granger version. Cheers’.

  3. I like the idea of Ronald Colman being given the chance to be King for a week…a guy proving himself and making a point by doing good. And just an hour ago I was reading about the many different versions of ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’, so now I guess I have TWO Colman movies to add to my list.

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