Thursday, March 15, 2012

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

Bardelys The Magnificent 1926 poster

Lost for eighty years, "Bardelys The Magnificent" (1926) is a film adaptation of a popular book by the same name by . "Bardelys the Magnificent" was directed by King Vidor, an interesting figure in film history because he bridged the silent and sound Hollywood eras, experiencing great success in both.

Bardelys The Magnificent 1926  title card
Title card for "Bardelys The Magnificent."

Sometimes, films become treasured simply because they were lost, and 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.

Bardelys The Magnificent 1926 John Gilbert Eleanor Boardman
John Gilbert and Eleanor Boardman.

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.

Bardelys The Magnificent 1926  film poster
Theater bill for "Bardelys The Magnificent" in Italy.

For all the heavy breathing uttered by critics over this long-lost "treasure," it is fairly pedestrian except for a few key scenes. I know, easy for me to say, but lost films generally become lost for a reason. In this case, the film was lost because MGM only leased the rights to the novel for ten years, at which point they reverted to author Sabatini. MGM then destroyed the prints. Some old nitrates were discovered in a private collection in France - all but reel 3 of 4. Fortunately, that seems to have been the least significant reel. But, in any event, "Bardelys The Magnificent" is worth a look if you are interested in Hollywood history. Oh, there's a very real reason to treasure this film - it is the second to include John Wayne, who appears as an uncredited guard (he would not get billing until 1929). Lou Costello - of Abbott & Costello - also appears as an extra, though he would have been paid under his real name, Lou Cristillo.

Bardelys The Magnificent 1926  John Gilbert Eleanor Boardman
The canoe ride was edited to perfection in "Bardelys The Magnificent."

The boat scene is probably the film's most notorious moment. A last-second decision by King Vidor, the boat ride turned into marvelous metaphor for love. In it, silent screen lothario John Gilbert all but literally seduces his love interest. The camera work is terrific, the editing even better, as the female love interest 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. Gilbert was going to marry Greta Garbo at the same ceremony, but she backed out at the last minute (apparently there were no hard feelings, because Gilbert starred with Garbo in several films after that, including "Queen Christina" (1933)). Thus, the action during this production wasn't going on just in that boat. Eleanor Boardman's career did not long survive the silent film era, but she did - Boardman died in her nineties in 1991.

Bardelys The Magnificent 1926  John Gilbert Eleanor Boardman
The famous canoe ride in "Bardelys The Magnificent."

This boat scene was considered so good that it was incorporated, intact, into another film. Thus, it alone survived despite the loss of the rest of "Bardelys The Magnificent." It was the rest of the film that silent-film aficionados were awaiting, and their wish was granted - for the most part.

Bardelys The Magnificent 1926 John Gilbert Eleanor Boardman
That candle sticking out of her head amuses me. I know, I'm easily amused.

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 actors' 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.

Bardelys The Magnificent 1926  Rafael Sabatini
The book from whence the film "Bardelys The Magnificent" was begat.

The lost copy of "Bardelys the Magnificent," was found in a private collection (probably from a reel for foreign showings that was never shipped back to Hollywood due to the expense, and someone kept it as a curiosity). Its survival is a wonder and must give hope that other lost films ("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 is important. "Bardelys The Magnificent" provides a window into the past, showing why stars such as Gilbert were held 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. Thus, the rediscovery of this film helps to restore his reputation somewhat.

Bardelys The Magnificent 1926  Eleanor Boardman boat ride
Filming the famous canoe ride of "Bardelys the Magnificent" in Pasadena.

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 Bardelys in vigorous fashion, but there is nothing striking about him that would put him above other top actors of the day. Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, James Stewart, John Wayne and others did it much better just ten years later, with more style and self assurance. Good actor? For sure. Screen legend? Well....

Bardelys The Magnificent 1926  John Gilbert
Duel to the death in "Bardelys The Magnificent" between John Gilbert Roy D'Arcy.

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.

Bardelys The Magnificent 1926
The climactic escape of "Bardelys The Magnificent," with Bardelys vaulting to safety.

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.

Bardelys The Magnificent 1926 John Gilbert Eleanor Boardman

Overall, this is an enjoyable film that provides a welcome glimpse into a lost era. Well worth catching if you enjoy silent film history, otherwise you may want to watch something more recent that is complete.


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