Bardelys the Magnificent (1926) Directed by King Vidor. John Gilbert, Eleanor Boardman, Roy D’Arcy (90 min).
The Marquis of Bardelys is a rake and a libertine. He unwisely accepts a wager that will result, should he lose, in the forfeit of all his properties. He must woo the imperious Roxalanne to wife, while in reluctant mufti as a rebel against his king, Louis XIII of France. Bardelys the Magnificent (1905) is a minor work of Rafael Sabatini, the author of the rip-roaring exploits of Captain Blood, Scaramouche and The Sea Hawk. The1926 silent film adaptation of his novel is relatively faithful, but adds welcome slashes of wit, well-choreographed thrills, and deftly condenses Sabatini’s meandering climax for crowd-pleasing effect.
Sabatini’s novels, and the silent historical adventure films of Douglas Fairbanks, provide bedrock for the entire genre of cinema swashbucklers. Fairbanks is, of course, the best. I could (and have) watched The Thief of Bagdad, The Mark of Zorro, and The Black Pirate, among others, over and over. I’ve never seen the silent version of Captain Blood (the 1935 version with Errol Flynn remains the best pirate movie of all time) but Scaramouche with Ramon Novarro and The Sea Hawk with Milton Sills, while rousing films with high production values, pale in comparison to John Gilbert’s derring-do here. Add Eleanor Boardman’s unfussy, rather plain and decidedly non-simpering heroine, plus the directing prowess of King Vidor, one of the undisputed masters of the silent screen, and you have a thoroughly satisfying adventure.
Amazingly, Bardelys the Magnificent, lost for over 70 years, has reappeared. Like so many silent films, its survival was accidental, and its preservation dependent on passionate collectors. MGM purchased the rights to Sabatini’s novel for ten years, beginning in 1926, and at the end of that time, rather than repurchase the rights, contractually, all prints, including the negative, were destroyed. Although silent films were dead as a doornail in the mid-30s, it is interesting that neither MGM, nor Warner Brothers, with their newly minted and highly profitable action hero Errol Flynn, were interested in a remake. At any rate, Bardelys, except for an intriguing sequence shown in King Vidor’s affectionate ode to silent movies, Show People, vanished.
In 2006, Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange of Lobster films purchased a large lot of nitrate films, and miraculously found a battered 35mm print with French intertitles. Part of the third reel was missing, and the second reel contained, instead, a title describing the missing story…quite important, since it explains how Bardelys ends up masquerading as the rebel de Lesperon! The narrative gap in the restored print was filled in by still photos from the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, plus a bit of the trailer preserved by Blackhawk Films. The original titles were restored thanks to a continuity script in the collection of University of Southern California, and thoughtfully set in Pascal, the font used by MGM for all their silent films at the time. There is, of this writing, still no money for a restored 35mm print (the film was shown digitally at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival), but really…what an unexpected treat! The DVD was produced by Jeffrey Masino of Flicker Alley and David Shepard of Film Preservations Associates.
“John Gilbert as Bardelys and Eleanor Boardman as Roxalanne” The frontispiece of the Photoplay edition of the novel.
John Gilbert, one of the great leading men of the silent screen, was for many years memorialized as one of the talkies greatest casualties. Yet, if he had made no other films than King Vidor’s magnificent The Big Parade, he should be remembered as one of the 1920s greatest actors. His tempestuous romance with Greta Garbo, on screen for all to see in the scorching hot love scenes in Flesh and the Devil, and his blithe Prince Danilo in the Erich von Stroheim’s wicked version of The Merry Widow is a delight; and these are some of the most frequently revived silent films. Yet, his reputation was tossed in the trash after the poor recording techniques and creaky dialogue of His Glorious Night deep-sixed his career in 1929. This recently rediscovered performance as dashing Marcel de Bardelys will surely continue to burnish his memory. Although, unlike Douglas Fairbanks, who famously did all his own stunts, some of Gilbert’s most extreme feats are clearly doubled, (here is a heretical opinion) Gilbert’s acting never falls into the theatrical gesturing of which Fairbanks is occasionally guilty.
“King Louis the Just, quaffs from a golden goblet while Bardelys attends him.”
The publication of Leatrice Gilbert Fountain’s biography of her father, Dark Star, was the first step in the reassessment of Gilbert’s career and is essential reading for anyone interested in his story. Gilbert was born in 1899, unwanted and unloved, to a small-time actress named Ida Adair, and her husband, John Pringle, and named John Cecil. He had a miserable childhood, spent sometimes with his neglectful mother, migrating from one shabby stock company to another, and sometimes with an assortment of relatives and acquaintances. When he was 8 years old, his mother married a comedian named Walter Gilbert, and her son, now called Jack, took his last name. The boy virtually raised himself, learning to read from discarded scripts backstage. When he was 14, his mother died of tuberculosis, and his stepfather gave him $10.00, his mother’s make-up case and clippings, and told him he was on his own. But, after a couple of dispiriting years at odd jobs, Walter Gilbert did write him a letter of introduction that secured him a $15.00/week job as an extra at Thomas Ince’s movie studio, Inceville. Working long hours, John later wrote “I rode cow ponies for Ince and made no impression on the directors…but I collected my extra’s wages at the end of each day and carried them home…even though I was not succeeding quite as I’d hoped, I was happy. For the first time, I belonged” (Fountain 23).
“Bardelys receives the confession of the dying Lesperon, in the presence of his servant.” This scene is missing from the extant film.
His roles got bigger, and then, in 1917, he was finally cast as a leading man in Princess of the Dark. He also wrote scenarios and directed films in the teens, loving every moment of his long, grueling days at various studios. He was briefly married and divorced, and then fell in love with Leatrice Joy, with whom he had a daughter. Leatrice’s star began to rise when Cecil B. De. Mille starred her in a series of sophisticated sex comedies, and DeMille demanded her completely loyalty, creating an estrangement from her husband. About the same time, Gilbert starred in John Ford’s Cameo Kirby, and Gilbert’s career, too, was on the ascendant. In 1924, he would be one of the first actors signed by the newly formed studio, MGM.
There he would star in a string of excellent films, beginning with the racy Eleanor Glynn romance His Hour, a bit of romantic fluff directed by King Vidor about a passionate encounter between two Russian aristocrats. Gilbert thought it was “a piece of trash” and producer Irving Thalberg agreed. “Of course, it’s trash, but it’s what the public wants. Do this role and you’ll get some of the best exposure of your career. Afterwards, we’ll see if we can find something more interesting for you” (Fountain 93). Glynn, who considered herself the “High Priestess of Romance” and, along with MGM’s visionary Thalberg and director Vidor, helped convert Gilbert into first a rival, and then a successor to the screen’s great lover, Rudolph Valentino. The strategy worked. Gilbert made exceptional films during the 1920s by anyone’s definition, including Lon Chaney’s He Who Get Slapped, The Big Parade, La Boheme (with Lillian Gish) and several films with the great love of his life, Greta Garbo. Garbo demanded he co-star with her in Queen Christina (1933) his one undisputedly excellent talking picture. But his career was virtually finished, for whatever reasons, by the talkies. Despairing of his career, and suffering from alcoholism, he died of a heart attack–or of a broken heart, as some would have it–at the age of 36.
“Bardelys fights off the servants of the King.” This scene is also missing.
Gilbert was a matinee idol, an actor who played fiery lovers capable of tender passions with a rare conviction that has gone out of style. He commanded the screen as a sex symbol who didn’t feel the need of modern-day irony to assert his masculinity. As Jeanine Basinger says in her thoughtful profile of him in Silent Stars, “The revivals of his movies can put the lie to much that has been said about him, because in them he remains splendid, vibrant and romantic, handsome and untouched by time” (398).
“Roxalanne tenderly bathes the wounds of Bardelys.”
Gilbert’s co-star is Eleanor Boardman. She was born into an upper middle-class family in Philadelphia, and after high school studied art and design at the Academy of Fine Arts. She had theatrical aspirations, largely unrequited, but she did some modeling, and was featured in full page ads as the “Eastman Kodak Girl.” This attracted the attention of the Goldwyn Pictures casting director, and she was put under contract. Powerhouse novelist and playwright Rupert Hughes was a writer, director and producer on the Goldwyn lot. He cast Boardman as the heroine (her name: Remember Steddon!) in his latest best-seller, Souls for Sale. It was a smash hit, and her grooming for stardom then began in earnest.
“Saint Eustache denounces Bardelys to Roxalanne.” Sneering Roy D’Arcy as Saint Eustache is one of the film’s delights.
Director King Vidor selected her to star in the first of several films, Three Wise Fools, as his marriage to Florence Vidor was coming apart. Vidor and Boardman’s professional collaborations soon turned to love. They would marry shortly after completing Bardelys the Magnificent. About her performance, Photoplay wrote, “Eleanor Boardman acts with her brains; in spite of the beauty of her romantic scenes, there is a refreshing sharpness about her performance” (Bodeen 598). The couple’s wedding was planned for September 1926, and it was meant to be a double ceremony with John Gilbert marrying his lover, Greta Garbo. Garbo never appeared, and Gilbert appears stunned in the photos of the wedding party. In fact, Gilbert had a violent altercation with Louis B. Mayer about Garbo’s disappearance, which may have set the stage for the mogul’s sabotage of his career. Boardman would go on to make Tell it to the Marines with Lon Chaney, and then King Vidor’s revolutionary naturalistic The Crowd, the film for which she is best remembered. She and Vidor were divorced in 1933. After a few talking films, she retired from the screen. She remarried French director Harry d’Abbadie D’Arrast and lived in Europe for many years before she passed away in 1991; she was over 90 years old.
Eleanor Boardman in a page from a 1928 movie star scrapbook, with color photos cut out of the Chicago Herald Tribune. The caption reads, “Eleanor Boardman wears this creation, fashioned of a Spanish shawl, in her picture Wife of the Centaur.” Strangely, this film is from four years earlier, 1924. Her co-star was John Gilbert.
“Bardelys pleads for his life, while Chatellerault looks on and refuses to aid him.”
Director King Vidor poo-poo’s most of Bardelys the Magnificent in his autobiography, “…we tried to put John Gilbert into a Douglas Fairbanks part. The experiment was none too successful.” But, there was one scene that lingered fondly in his memory, as it will for all those who see the film.
“At one point in the script there appeared this most encompassing sentence: ‘We should have a good love scene here.’ The setting was eighteenth century (sic) France. Our whole outfit of trucks, equipment, cast and crew had arrived at a Pasadena location surrounding a small lake. I had thought the lake shore might make a good spot for a love scene, but that was as far as I had been able to proceed. What would I have Eleanor Boardman and John Gilbert do? Sit on the bank and have Eleanor fall back in a field of daisies while John hovers over her in a threatening posture that ends in a kiss? It had been used too often, and there were no daisies.
“I saw a property man wading in the lake, pushing an old rowboat that he had brought along just in case the director asked for one. He brushed past the lone branch of a weeping willow tree hanging in the water. I asked the head grip ‘How long will it take you to make a tunnel of willow branches a hundred feet long? They should just caress the surface of the water.’ As he made his answer, he was already under way with his helpers fashioning a framework of lumber and wires. He knew from experience that a director’s question is a polite way of saying, ‘get to work.’
We mounted a camera in the bow of the rowboat and were soon gliding along through a corridor of willow branches that passed tenderly over the camera lens across the reclining forms of Jack and Eleanor. So close to the lens that the formed out-of-focus kaleidoscopic designs, the willow leaves moved gently along the hands and arms of the lovers, then fell behind a white parasol in back of them. Through the sheer covering of the parasol the leaves threw a moving pattern of light and shadow which played moodily across the faces of the lovers. The arrangement, movement and lighting of the scene were in complete harmony. The total effect was one of magic” (Vidor 105-106).
“Surrounded by mons, Bardelys bids his beloved Roxalanne farewell forever.”
In fact, it is this very scene in Show People which kindled my desire to see this film, a film which many authors have felt free to express an opinion about without having seen it, or at least since 1926. Iin his 1977 overview of swashbuckling cinema (Swordsmen of the Screen, an excellent book, by the way) Jeffrey Richards states, “Bardelys, the novel and stage play by Rafael Sabatini, was adapted for the screen by Metro in an obvious bid to emulate the films of Douglas Fairbanks. As directed by King Vidor, it did just that, even to the extent of being overlong and overfilled with court intrigue. John Gilbert, at ease in period costume, cut a fine Fairbanksian figure as the hero, ably supported by Eleanor Boardman as the charming heroine, and Roy D’Arcy as the sinister by polished villain. Lavish sets, fine photography and well-handled action scenes made it a good example of the big-budget silent costume picture. But it is forgotten today, and no known copies survive” (Richards 126-7).
Roxalanne hides Bardelys from her father.
John Baxter takes a somewhat dimmer view, “With Gilbert’s collusion and perhaps with covert encouragement from (Louis B.) Mayer, who disliked his immoral lifestyle and sensed that the era of the matinee idol was dying, Vidor used Sabatini’s story to show Gilbert in a new and unflattering light, that of an action star a la Douglas Fairbanks. Cutting a poor figure as a fencer and relying on stunt men for such spectacular coups as an escape from his own execution on a parachute improvised from an awning, Gilbert is comfortable only in the love scenes, particularly the much-quoted river sequence in which he and Eleanor Boardman glide under drooping willow boughs” (28). It’s important to remember that both these authors, working from either memory or hearsay could not evaluate the film properly, yet felt free to express their opinions the service of biography, if not scholarship.
Bardelys zips along aided, in large part, by the skillful adaptation and witty intertitles by Dorothy Farnum. Was she related to silent actors William and Dustin Farnum? She wrote adaptations, scenarios and intertitles for MGM, mostly in the 1920s. Her resumé lists prestigious literary adaptations, but also the earliest Hollywood films of Greta Garbo, which helped to create her cinematic mystique. There were many women working behind the camera in the silent era, and Miss Farnum, unmentioned in many reference books on women film pioneers, is clearly demands some research. Cari Beauchamp writes of Frances Marion’s tenure at MGM: “Over a quarter of the scenario writers were women and many of them were already friends, including June Mathis, Agnes Christine Johnson, Dorothy Farnum, Gladys Unger and Winifred Eaton Reeve. Most had entered the business at a time when a one-page synopsis of action could be turned into a two reeler, but they had grown with the industry and were now well paid and highly valued for their abilities. The women were as likely to write jungle films or swashbucklers as tales of female angst and Thalberg maintained that his preference for women writers was a commercial one” (Beauchamp 199).
The costumes are by Andre-Ani, with an assist by Lucia Coulter. Set during the reign of Louis XIII of France (1610-1643), this was also the era of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. As always in the silent era, the men’s clothes are relatively accurate for the 17th century (although Gilbert’s are shorn of fussy detail) but the women’s clothes are influenced by 1920s fashions. They do not have the stiff underpinnings of corsetry and petticoats, and instead reference the slim lines of the Jazz Age. Eleanor Boardman does not have exaggerated 1920s style make-up, though, which adds to the period flavor. Clement Andre-Ani worked at MGM from 1925-1928, arriving with the master of Art Deco fantasy, Erté. Andre-Ani provided both on screen and personal wardrobes for the studio’s major female stars and is perhaps best remembered for creating Greta Garbo’s gowns, and thus, her exotic image, when she arrived at the studio in 1925. He designed his last costumes for the screen in 1930.
Thanks to Flicker Alley, Bardelys the Magnificent no longer must survive on rumor, alone. I saw the film at the 2009 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and even surrounded by the festival’s customary excellent and unusual selection of films, Bardelys was, by far my favorite. The film is a worthy entry both in the catalogue of filmed versions of the works of Rafael Sabatini, as well as in the career of its hero, John Gilbert.
Deaccessioned from the Cleveland Public Library
You can buy the movie at: www.flickeralley.com
All pictures from the Photoplay edition of Bardelys the Magnificent by Rafael Sabatini, except the scrapbook photo, and the still of Boardman in bed from the December, 1973 Films in Review. Sources include Dark Star: The untold story of the meteoric rise and fall of John Gilbert by Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, “John Gilbert” by Lawrence J. Quirk in the March 1956 Films in Review, “Eleanor Boardman” by DeWitt Bodeen in the December, 1973 Films in Review, The Wampas Baby Stars: A biographical dictionary, 1922-1934 by Roy Liebman, A Tree is a Tree by King Vidor, King Vidor on Film Making, Swordsmen of the Screen by Jeffrey Richards, King Vidor by John Baxter, Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood by Cari Beauchamp, Costume Design in the Movies by Elizabeth Leese.