This submission is for the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Check out the site for most Barrymore-themed posts!
While he had a prolific stage career and starred in more than a few sound pictures, I have always associated John Barrymore with silent film. His turn as the tormented Dr. Jekyll and the lecherous Mr. Hyde is his most famous performance in this medium, but Barrymore also dabbled in his fair share of escapist historical flicks, such as Beau Brummel and Don Juan. But my favorite of the lot has to be The Beloved Rogue, a masterpiece of ham and swashbuckling.
Barrymore plays Francois Villon, a thirteenth century French poet who also specializes in lovemaking, partying, and general mayhem. However, his prankster nature gets him in trouble with the erratic Louis XI (Conrad Veidt in his campy-licious American film debut) and the treacherous Duke of Burgundy (Lawson Butt), the former of which proceeds to banish Francois from his beloved Paris for undermining royal authority. Francois gets over his heartbreak quickly and starts plotting to get back at the king and his cronies, whilst also falling in love with the beautiful Charlotte de Vauxcelles (Marceline Day), an ardent fan of his poetry. His desire for revenge and Charlotte intersect when the unwilling young woman is betrothed to Burgundy himself.
The Beloved Rogue is a lark, offering the best of old-school Hollywood escapism: the swashbuckling action, good humor, fun characters, and romance under the starlight. In the traditional MGM fashion, the production values are sublime. Essentially, all the good stuff in pure, unfiltered form. The supporting cast is fabulous all around. The lovely Marceline Day makes a good contrast to Barrymore’s intense energy with her character’s reserved nature. Or maybe that’s just me being nice about her rather wooden acting. At any rate, her performance is inoffensive and she’s lovely to look at in her grand costumes. Mack Swain and Slim Summerville are great fun as Barrymore’s clownish lackeys. And then there’s Conrad Veidt, who plays the creepy Louis XI, a character whose danger to Francois ebbs and flows with his paranoia and good humor.
But of course, the one who steals the show is Barrymore himself. Ah the ham that is this performance, the delightful ham! As Villon, he leaps through Paris with the gusto of Douglas Fairbanks. He’s unafraid to troll anyone, including the king, and generally acts like an imp. That is, until he shares the frame with Marceline Day. I do confess that I wish his character had retained his sense of mischief when courting his lady love; he changes on a dime to an ardent wooer once the two are alone together. Ah well, it’s John Barrymore in his prime doing love scenes—who am I to complain?
The only flaw of the picture would be the climax, which features Barrymore being tortured in a manner more befitting a drama than a swashbuckler. It’s unpleasant and ruins the fun. But otherwise, The Beloved Rogue is awesome, an example of Hollywood excess done right and Barrymore ham cooked to perfection.