The Vagabond King (1930)


CREDITS
BACKGROUND
PLOT
COMMENTARY
REVIEWS
RECORDINGS
MUSIC IN THE FILM


Paramount.
New York premiere Feb. 18, 1930
Released April 19, 1930.
Produced and directed by Ludwig Berger.
Retakes directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
104 minutes.
Two-strip Technicolor.

French version title: Le Roi des Vagabonds (King of the Vagabonds)

Based on the 1925 hit operetta The Vagabond King by Rudolf Friml, William H. Post, and Brian Hooker, which was, in turn, adapted from an earlier stage version of the novel If I Were King by Justin Huntly McCarthy. Adaptation and dialogue: Herman J. Mankiewicz. Photography: Henry Gerrard and Ray Rennahan. Art Director: Häns Dreier. Editor: Merrill White. Color Consultant: Natalie Kalmus. Wardrobe: Travis Banton. Sound: Franklin Hansen. Movietone Recording.

If I Were King and its various descendants offer a highly romanticized biography of the 15th century French poet, François Villon. A non-musical stage version of If I Were Kingopened in New York in 1901. The operetta version opened at the Casino Theatre on September 21, 1925, starring Dennis King as Villon with Caroline Thomas as Katherine. If I Were King was filmed by Fox in 1920 with William Farnum and by Paramount in 1938 with Ronald Colman and Frances Dee. John Barrymore appeared in another film biography of the poet François Villon, The Beloved Rogue (United Artists) in 1927. The operetta was filmed again in 1956 for Paramount with Kathryn Grayson and Oreste. (Brian Hooker, the lyricist, is best known for his superb translation of Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac.)

Dennis King (François Villon)
Jeanette MacDonald (Katherine de Vaucelles)
O.P. Heggie (King Louis XI)
Lillian Roth (Huguette)
Warner Oland (Thibault)
Arthur Stone (Olivier the Barber)
Thomas [Tom] Ricketts (The Astrologer)
Lawford Davidson (Tristan, the Major Domo)
Christian J. Frank (Executioner)
Elda Voelkel (Girl)
Dorothy Davis (Brunette)
Thora Waverly (Brunette)
Cecile Cameron (“Raven Hair”)
Jean Douglas (Blonde)
Eugenia Woodbury (Blonde)
Rae Murray (Blonde)
Blanche Saunders (Blonde)
Frances Waverly (Blonde)
Gloria Faith (Page)
Theresa Allen (Page)
Sue Patterson (Page)
Virginia Bruce (Tavern Wench)

Foreign language versions: After the generally poor reception for musicals dubbed into other languages, The Vagabond King was issued in foreign markets as a silent film with titles and background music during dialogue sequences plus the original English sound­track during songs. (The Rogue Song with Lawrence Tibbett had enjoyed considerable popularity overseas in this form.) Later a German language version was dubbed, using German actors. The French version was called Le Roi des Vagabonds.

Dashing Dennis King repeated his stage rôle as the even more dashing Friml hero. King’s impressive Broadway career included the starring roles in Friml’s Rose-Marie and The Three Musketeers, Kern’s Show Boat, and Rodgers and Hart’s I Married an AngelRose-Marie and Angel became film vehicles for MacDonald and Eddy.

Restoration: The Vagabond King, like many of the 1929/1930 musicals, was filmed in two-strip Techni­color. For almost fifty years, only dark, murky black and white prints of The Vagabond King were avai­able, and film historians had pretty much written off the film as a stiff and stodgy adaptation of the stage operetta. A few scenes in the original two-strip Tech­nicolor were shown occasionally by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, hinting at visual glories, but the complete color print at the U.C.L.A. Film Archive had become shrunken and brittle to screen. It was only a matter of time before the nitrate stock turned to powder or goo.

Before time ran out, U.C.L.A. managed to allo­cate funds to preserve the only known existing print by rephotographing each frame, one at a time. This restored print was screened on 7/21/91 at U.C.L.A., and for the first time in many decades, audiences were able to appreciate the stunning color canvas created by director Berger and Art Director Häns Dreier to support Friml’s lush score. We discover what the grey blurs of the existing black and white prints concealed: the flickering reflections of torches on rough stone, the red explosions of battle, the shimmer of candlelight on gilt and jewels, and the intricate patterns of dancers in brocaded gowns. Each establishing shot is a superb composition of light, shade, and color. Seeing the restored Vagabond King elevates it from an historical curiosity to a viscerally exciting film.


Background

Jeanette MacDonald’s second film was as typical of the early musicals as The Love Parade was not. At first glance, it seemed to have everything going for it. The Vagabond King, a romantic musicalization of the life of the fifteenth-century poet, François Villon, had been a big hit on Broadway in 1925. Dennis King was lured to Hollywood to star in the rôle of the dashing poet-scoundrel that he created on the stage. The Rudolf Friml score was one of his best, haunting and fresh to this day despite endless repetitions by amateur vocalists. A neater, more filmic script was fashioned by Herman J. Mankiewicz, and, best of all, the film would be in Technicolor.

Color films had existed from the birth of the motion picture, first in hand-colored prints and then in early Kinemacolor (1909) and Prizma Color (1916). Two-color Technicolor had been on the neighborhood movie screens for several years, mainly as special inserts and finales, but also in features like The Black Pirate (1926) with Douglas Fairbanks. 1929-30 saw no less than seventeen complete Technicolor musicals plus color musical sequences in many others.

The marriage of color and music was so perfect that, had there been no Depression, there might never have been another black and white musical. However, a color film cost more than three times what a black and white film did. Making quality prints was slow and difficult, so that it was hard to produce a large enough quantity to supply the smaller theatres. If the lab erred, colors would fluctuate during a scene. Two-color Technicolor required side-by-side cameras, photographing the same scene through red or green filters onto black and white film stock, then  running the film through two dye baths, red-orange and blue-green. While a true blue or yellow could not be obtained, an astonishing range of tones could. Anyone who has ever been privileged to see a perfectly preserved color print of this period can testify to its beauty and dramatic excitement.

Tragically, the very nature of film, its unstable nitrate base, has brought about the loss of many early musical films. As sound techniques progressed rapidly in the early thirties, these early “primitive” films were relegated to storage where the nitrate began to deteriorate. When TV made a potential new market for some of these forgotten treasures, the studios found they had either cans of jelly or a black and white film with the color musical inserts past saving. Slowly, black and white copies are turning up and color prints are emerging from European film vaults where they were lovingly preserved, but much has been lost forever.

Ludwig Berger, director of The Vagabond King, was, like Lubitsch, another “German invader” of the twenties. The popularity of his German silent, The Waltz Dream (1926), brought him to Hollywood where he did two silents before directing his first sound film, The Vagabond King. He did one more American film, Playboy of Paris (1930) with Maurice Chevalier, and returned to Europe where he continued doing musicals. He was no Lubitsch and both The Vagabond King and Playboy of Paris suffer from what may be either “Germanic heaviness” or the loss of fluidity that temporarily afflicted so many directors. (Interestingly, Lubitsch directed the American sound version of The Waltz Dream, The Smiling Lieutenant, 1931, with Maurice Chevalier and Claudette Colbert.)

The camera is mostly immobile, but there are a few instances when it moves. François Villon scrambles over the roofs of Paris in a scene surpassing the same sequence in John Barrymore’s silent Villon biography, The Beloved Rogue, three years earlier. There is a nice tracking shot of people swirling down a curved staircase in the outlaws’ tavern and the scenes of Paris on the march against the Burgundians are stirring. But there are also scenes where the principals are clearly hindered by a stationary mike. In one, Warner Olandstands 3/4 turned to the camera, addressing three cutthroats who mirror his posture on the other side of the screen. While they all gesture violently, no one moves a toe, so conscious are they of the camera and microphone. This is the type of scene that later films liked to spoof, and The Vagabond King abounds in them.

Dennis King came to Hollywood directly from his stage rôle of d’Artagnan in Friml’s The Three Musketeers to recreate his stage triumph as François Villon. It is a stage performance in every sense with no attempt made to play to the camera rather than the balcony. Perhaps Berger was too occupied with technical considerations or too in awe of the famous Mr. King to suggest altering what had been so successful on stage, or perhaps King was too nervous in the new medium to give up gestures and intonations that had already brought him acclaim. In any case, the performance is at once incredibly irritating and tremendously exciting.

Jeanette MacDonald was required only to sing, wear exquisite costumes (whose clinging lines made them closer to a 1930s nightclub than a Gothic palace), and intone her lines in the standard operetta speech of the day, an elaborate monotone that sounded like (and frequently is) the cue for a song. The stilted quality of her performance after her ease and warmth in The Love Parade is astonishing. If The Vagabond King had been her first and last picture, she would be forgotten today.

Lillian Roth at first seems miscast as the hoyden Huguette (who, in the stage version, wears men’s clothes and has an affair with an effeminate courtier). However, she brings womanly depth to the rôle. Her haunting rendition of “Huguette’s Waltz” and her death scene are dramatic high points of the film.

Warner Oland, later famous as the benign Charlie Chan (he was actually Swedish) continues in his early villain rôles as the evil Thibault. O.P. Heggie, who was a master at portraying kindly, avuncular characters, here attempts the amoral and crafty King Louis, mainly by squinting and cackling.


Plot

Behind the credits we see a dramatically lit  Gothic archway. A title tells us that the Paris of Louis XI is a city surrounded by Burgundians and wolves. (Explanatory titles were a continu­ing feature of early sound films and are still resorted to occasionally even today  to establish locale.)

The dregs of Paris are gathering in the cellar of the Tavern of the Vagabonds to forget their hunger, cold, and fear in wine and lechery. Through the noise and confusion comes a clear, strong voice. It is François Villon (Dennis King), sitting cross-legged on a planked table reciting a mocking diatribe against the king.

The king’s soldiers interrupt his sport and he flees over the roofs of Paris to find sanctuary in nearby Notre Dame. (Although it is night, shafts of golden light stream down from the vaulted roof above.) Clutching his gritty cap in even dirtier fingers, he slips among the worshipers, thinking more of purses than prayers.

Suddenly as the choir voices rise in a beautiful hymn, he sees a vision. Behind the filigreed screen of a small chapel, a golden-haired lady in hooded satin cloak is lighting a candle. The lights seem to make a halo about her head. She finishes her prayer and leaves. Enraptured, Villon follows—just in time to rescue her from three villains.

She is Katherine de Vaucelles (Jeanette), niece of the king. She thanks Villon and continues on her way, but he pursues her with flowery speeches. She suggests that courage rather than rich words are needed to save Paris. Where is the man that will dare all for France? If there were such a man, all her heart and all her love would be his.

Villon can’t resist an offer like that. He follows her to the palace and scales a wall to catch a glimpse of her as she sings of the man who will save Paris and win her heart: “Some Day.” He is moved to respond with a stirring musical version of the classic Villon poem, “If I Were King,” written for the film.
The beggar-poet François Villon (Dennis King) dares to admire Princess Katherine (Jeanette MacDonald). Fate is about to make him her equal.

The traitorous Grand Marshall of France, Thibault (Warner Oland), has promised the Burgundians to deliver the King’s niece as a hostage. In the “mirror image” sequence described above, he berates his hirelings for being foiled by a single man. Perhaps, before their next try, they had better get rid of Villon.

On a castle battlement, Louis XI (O.P. Heggie) is consulting his astrologer (Thomas Ricketts), as his niece Katherine looks on. Of a more practical mind, she trains the astrologer’s telescope on the Burgundian troops. The camera tracks in a complete circle, taking in the red camp fires that completely ring the city. The astrologer predicts that someone will come from the depths to save Louis’s throne. Louis is astounded, for he has had a similar dream. In it, he was a pig rooting in the gutter where he found a priceless pearl. This must symbolize the man he is looking for. But where will he find him? Where?

The Tavern of the Vagabonds is a riot of singing and dancing when Louis and his chamberlain, Tristan (Lawford Davidson), arrive, disguised as merchants. As luck would have it, Villon is leading the people in a decidedly uncomplimentary ballad “What France Needs Is a King.” Behind his cowl, Louis’s eyes glitter with hate. Villon will hang—but not just yet.

Several of the “ladies” present, including Huguette (Lillian Roth), engage in a hair-pulling match for the favors of Villon. Graciously he separates them and tells them of his new love, an angel he has seen in church. His poetic images are so eloquent that even Huguette forgets to be angry. Poetry is thirsty work, and Villon cadges drinks from the two “merchants” at a corner table. One of them questions Villon, who readily admits he’d make a better king than old Louis. “A patriot?” inquires the disguised Louis.

“Just a poor fool with a heart too big for his body,” Villon rhapsodizes. He grows more and more eloquent in describing the life of a vagabond until, leaping on a table, he leads the crowd in the rousing “Song of the Vagabonds.”

To Louis’s surprise, Grand Marshall Thibault arrives with a brigade of soldiers to arrest Villon. In the scuffle, Villon runs Thibault through. The king reveals himself and orders Villon taken to the palace prison. Louis will be revenged.

The stage is set for Villon’s punishment. In a scene that is an actor’s dream, he awakens from drugged slumber in a canopied bed to find himself washed, shaved, and dressed in an exquisite tunic. He stands before the mirror of his chamber in a scene at once heavily theatrical and utterly delightful. When groups of courtiers, pages, and chefs, all carefully rehearsed, come in to greet him, the wiliness of the gutter replaces the wonder of the poet in his eyes. Louis watches from a curtained balcony, enjoying the spectacle. Perhaps, however, Tristan has overdone it. “This is every beggar’s dream of a royal awakening,” Tristan assures him.

Villon learns that he is now the “Count of Montcorbier” and that, under his new appointment as Grand Marshall, he is to judge some vagabonds arrested the night before in a tavern riot. They are, of course, his friends. He glories in their awe of the new Grand Marshall, telling each some secret known only to Villon until they are convinced he is a wizard. Louis summons the Lady Katherine to his lofty hiding place to see this new Grand Marshall.

Huguette begs the Grand Marshall for news of Villon and is assured of his safety. Katherine recognizes the name of her rescuer and wants to plead for his release too, but Louis tells her there will be time enough later.

The vagabonds are released, and Louis descends to confront Villon. The King of France and the king of the vagabonds face each other. Louis wonders if Villon still feels he’d make a better king. He offers him a choice. Villon can return to the gutter—or he can be king for seven days. At the end of that time, he will hang. Villon hesitates. A page announces that the Lady Katherine requests an audience with the new Grand Marshall. “I accept the hazard!” cries Villon.

It is the dead of winter, but fortunately there is a nearby garden with rose bushes in full bloom. There Katherine echoes Huguette’s plea for the life of Villon. In his new guise, Villon again woos the lady with flowery speeches. He does not meet with refusal, but her heart is still set on a savior of France. He pledges to be that man, and, as a token, she gives him “Only a Rose.” (Because all songs in the film were recorded live on the set, with several cameras shooting at once, Miss MacDonald’s closeups include a small portion of Mr. King, who accidentally or deliberately leaned into the shot. Thus this number became known among her fans as “Only a Nose.”)

A Burgundian messenger arrives at court to demand the surrender of Paris. Before the entire court, Villon answers his threats with poetic fervor: “When we who drink are dry, when we who glow are frozen, when we who eat are hungry, our answer to rebellious Burgundy will be the same!” He hurls the Burgundian banner at the herald’s feet. Katherine realizes she has found her man. She stands on the grand staircase and reprises “Some Day” as the courtiers join her and the church bells chime the news of the savior of France.

Behind the Burgundian lines, the treacherous Thibault, very much alive, tells the Burgundians that he has failed to kidnap the King’s niece. Before dawn, he will have a better prize for them—the King himself.

In the Tavern of the Vagabonds, Huguette is waiting for news of the search for Villon. Several men offer to console her, but she wants none of them. She sings of her way of love in the haunting “Huguette’s Waltz.” Thibault arrives and recruits the willing vagabonds, including Huguette, to “free Villon” by capturing the new Grand Marshall.

Villon’s seven days are up tomorrow, but the sword may claim him before the noose. Tomorrow he rides into battle against the Burgundians, but tonight he tells Katherine of his love: “Love Me Tonight.” A masquerade fete is held on this, his last night. Louis wonders that François doesn’t fear his coming death. VilIon replies that he is too happy just being alive. The courtiers are dancing with wild abandon when Huguette and Thibault slip in. Villon spots Thibault behind his monk’s hood, but loses him in the snake-dancing throng. Another suspicious monk passes and Villon grabs the tiny wrist. It is Huguette who finally recognizes Villon without his beard. She tells him of Thibault’s alleged plan and Villonnods pensively.

Thibault sends word to the King that a new astrologer desires to speak with him. When the aged King shuffles in, they seize him, only to find they have Villon instead. In the ensuing struggle, Huguette throws herself in front of Thibault’s sword to save Villon. The King and his soldiers arrive to capture the traitors, and Villon takes the dying Huguette in his arms. Many have loved her, she tells him, but only one ever took her heart. Cradling her limp body, he speaks her epitaph in the poetry of the original Villon:

The young and yare, the fond and fair.
Oh, God, where are the snows of yesteryear?

There are no more troops to fight the Burgundians. The Grand Marshall furiously orders the prison doors be thrown open. As François Villon, he will lead the thieves, beggars, and women of the streets against the enemy. Lady Katherine witnesses his unmasking and shrinks from him in horror. With nothing to lose, Villon and the rabble of the streets surge to battle, singing the “Song of the Vagabonds.” In a thrilling montage, we see them marching and fighting, the women taking up the crude weapons as their men fall. Villon is at their head, his vivid red tunic slashed until he is naked to the waist.

In Notre Dame, the nobility cower, waiting to learn their fate. Over their chants of “Miserere” comes the jubilant sound of the “Song of the Vagabonds.” Villon, bloody but triumphant, leads his army of beggars into the square before the cathedral and drops the vanquished Burgundians’ banners at Louis’s feet. Villon is the hero of France.

The King has a problem. If he orders Villon’s death, he will face a riot. If Villon lives, his popularity is a threat to the King. Villon solves the dilemma. In his own capacity as Grand Marshall, he orders himself hanged and then surrenders to the King’s guard. The crowd is outraged and turns on the King.

François Villon on the scaffold bids adieu to Katherine de Vaucelles.
(Dennis King, Jeanette)

The crafty Louis offers to spare Villon if someone else will step forward to take his place on the gallows. The crowd falls back, silent. “It is no news to me, Sire,” Villon comments, “that men love the dear habit of living.” To a tolling of bells and a dirgelike song, he is marched to the gallows.

But Katherine has heard of his fate. As the rope is placed around his neck, she rushes forward to offer herself in his place. The king cannot hang his own niece, and so Villon must go free. The lovers are reunited on the gallows. Tenderly they embrace and pledge their love in “Only a Rose” as the entire city of Paris joins in and the sky behind them glows gold.


Commentary

The Vagabond King was respectfully received by critics and public. The color and the music made any dramatic shortcomings seem less grievous, and there were enough stirring and amusing moments to cancel out some of the heavy staginess. Fortunately for Miss MacDonald, her next film but one would return her to the masterful hands of Ernst Lubitsch.


Reviews

Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times found the film “beautiful and often quite stirring” but “lethargic.” He praised the efforts of director Berger but noted, “He has not succeeded in eliciting from Miss MacDonald much in the way of acting, and her enunciation never gives the slightest suspicion of belonging to the period….She, however, sings charmingly.”

Outside New York, critics were not so hard to please. Mildred Martin in the Philadelphia Inquirer called it “the most successful film operetta to be made so far.” She found Berger’s direction “outstanding,” but Miss MacDonald “somewhat disappointing.” She noted that “[MacDonald’s] singing voice is pleasing, but her spoken lines are delivered self consciously.”

Outlook Magazine liked the picture and predicted a battle between Dennis King and Lawrence Tibbett for future eminence in musical films. They did experience some discomfort, however, and assigned the blame accordingly: “The only real trouble with The Vagabond King is a completely blah performance by Jeanette MacDonald, the leading lady, who evidently thinks she is back on Broadway where you can run through musical comedy love scenes as though you were reciting Latin verbs. The movie public wants love scenes it can take seriously.” It would not be the last time that Jeanette took the blame for a bad picture.


Recordings

(See Discography for further information)

“Only a Rose” (MacDonald)
“If I Were King” (King)
“Song of the Vagabonds” (King)

Although one of the high points of the film is Lillian Roth’s poignant delivery of “Huguette’s Waltz,” Roth’s Paramount contract amazingly prohibited her from recording her successful Paramount songs! However, the song was recorded in 1955 by Susan Hayward who played Roth in the film version of Roth’s autobiography, I’ll Cry Tomorrow.


Music in the Film

All music by Rudolf Friml and lyrics by Brian Hooker except where noted. (In listing performers after each title, “and” denotes a genuine duet, while commas between names indicate a sequence of singers.)

Overture: “Song of the Vagabonds” (male chorus)
“King Louie” (Dennis King) by Sam Coslow, Newell Chase, and Leo Robin
“Mary, Queen of Heaven” (chorus) by Coslow, Chase, and Robin
“Some Day” (MacDonald)
“If I Were King” (King) by Coslow, Chase, and Robin
“What France Needs” (King, chorus) by Robin and Chase
“Song of the Vagabonds, (King, chorus)
“Only a Rose” (MacDonald, King)
“Some Day” reprise (male chorus)
“King Louie” reprise (chorus) INTO:
“Huguette’s Waltz” also called “The Vagabond King Waltz” (Roth)
“Love Me Tonight” (MacDonald and King)
“Nocturne” also called “In the Night” (chorus)
“Song of the Vagabonds” reprise (King and chorus)
“Death March” (Gene Wolff) by Robin and Chase
Finale: “Only a Rose” (MacDonald and King with chorus)

Songs from the stage production that were used in the film are “Song of the Vagabonds,” “Some Day,” “Only a Rose,” “Huguette’s Waltz,” “Love Me Tonight,” and “Nocturne.”