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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Bardelys the Magnificent (1926) - Moi? John Gilbert as One of Hollywood's First Action Heroes

Lost for eighty years, this is the film of a popular book by the same name by Rafael Sabatini. "Bardelys the Magnificent" was directed by King Vidor, an interesting figure in film history because he bridged the silent and sound Hollywood eras, with success in both.

Sometimes, films become treasured simply because they were lost, but then found.  Usually, the lost prints are found in some foreign country, in the basement of some long-shuttered theater or some obscure archive or other.

I'm not going to lie and say that this is the best film ever made.  I'm also not going to mislead you and say that it is the best silent film.  It simply is a good adaptation of a then-popular book which since has been all but forgotten.  For all the heavy breathing uttered by critics over this long-lost "treasure," it is fairly pedestrian except for a few key scenes.

The boat scene is probably the film's most notorious moment.  In it, silent screen lothario John Gilbert all but seduces his love interest.  The camera work is terrific, the editing even better, as the poor woman practically climaxes on camera.  She was Eleanor Boardman, who married director King Vidor a few weeks before the film opened and subsequently had two children with him.  Thus, all the action during this production wasn't going on in that boat.  Her career did not long survive the silent film era, but she did - she died in her nineties in 1991.

This scene was considered so good that it was incorporated, intact, into another film.  Thus, it survived.  It was the rest of the film that silent-film afficionados were awaiting, and their wish was granted.

That candle sticking out of her head amuses me

John Gilbert stars in this tale set in medieval France as Bardelys, a friend of the King who is renowned as a great lover. King Vidor directs, Roy D'Arcy plays the heavy, and Eleanor Boardman plays Bardelys' love interest Roxalanne. If you aren't too familiar with any of these names, you surely are not alone, as all made their mark primarily in the silent era, and much of their work is long forgotten or even largely lost.

The book from whence the film was begat

"Bardelys the Magnificent," in fact, was considered lost, too. A copy was found overseas in a private collection (probably from a foreign reel that was never shipped back to Hollywood due to the expense).  It is intact but for the third reel.  Its survival is a wonder and must give hope that other lost gems ("London After Midnight" springs to mind) might also be found. The world will still go 'round if films such as "Bardelys" remain lost, but for fans of the silent era, their recovery helps explain why some in the past held these stars in such high esteem. Gilbert in particular has been almost forgotten, though at the time he was considered the top screen lover, at the level of Valentino or even higher.

So, what does "Bardelys" tell us about the people involved? The standards of the day must have been quite different than ours, because Gilbert has an attractive face but some surprisingly fey mannerisms. He plays Barelys in vigorous fashion, but this reviewer could not see anything striking about him that would put him above other top actors of the day. Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, Carey Grant, James Stewart, John Wayne and others did it much better ten years later, with more style and self assurance. Good actor? For sure. Screen legend? Well....

Duel to the death

As for the others, Boardman plays the subject of Bardelys' romantic pursuit, which takes the old, old "woo the girl to win a bet" route. She is striking in several scenes, particularly the famous boat scene when she writhes in climactic ecstasy as Gilbert attends her. Roy D'Arcy also stands out in a marvelously hammy performance as the man who bets Bardelys that he can't win the girl. At one point, he is the judge at a trial to condemn Bardelys to death for being a rebel in a case of mistaken identity, and he also happens to be the only person who recognizes that the defendant in fact is the King's friend. Bardelys demands that D'Arcy acknowledge his true identity, also thereby allowing Bardelys to win the bet, and in response D'Arcy smirks, leans forward and goes (lip-reading this), "Moi?" He gets several hammy moments like this and provides some welcome comic relief.

The climactic escape

As for director Vidor, there are some great action sequences which even today are thrilling. Bardelys' escape at the climax rivals anything in "Indiana Jones," with some great camera angles and what looks like some kind of slow-motion camera-work. Vidor lasted decades into the sound era, and one can see why, he was a real talent.  Gilbert, alas, could not handle the talkies era and appeared in only a few such films before sadly dying in 1936 of a heart attack.

Overall, this is an enjoyable film that provides a welcome glimpse into a lost era. Well worth catching if you enjoy silent films.


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