Film Title: Bardelys the Magnificent
Studio: Metro Goldwyn Mayer
Silent or Talkie: Silent
- John Gilbert
- Eleanor Boardman
- Roy D’Arcy
- Karl Dane
By 1926 several screen adaptations of the novels of Rafael Sabatini had proven enormously successful, notably: Scaramouche (1923) starring Ramon Novarro, The Sea Hawk (1924) starring Milton Sills, and Captain Blood (1924), starring J. Warren Kerrigan. Also by 1926, MGM had the top male romantic screen star in the world, John Gilbert, under contract. Gilbert and director King Vidor had made four pictures together and had just finished back-to-back productions of The Big Parade (1925) and La Bohème (1926). MGM decided to pair them again and in 1926 licensed the rights for a ten-year period to Sabatini’s Bardelys The Magnificent. Production commenced March 22, 1926.
Flash Forward 10 Years – MGM’s original license of the rights to Sabatini’s novel expired in 1936. Contractually, MGM was required to renew it with a payment to Sabatini or to destroy all the film elements of Bardelys The Magnificent. By 1936 MGM had no use for a silent action/adventure film. Gilbert’s career was sadly over (he would die in January, 1936), and they could see no further commercial prospects for the property. So they chose to destroy all remaining prints and film elements to Bardelys The Magnificent including the original negative. Thus began Bardelys reputation as one of the most famous “lost films” of the silent era. Tantalizingly, a few moments survived in Vidor’s Show People (1928) as Marion Davies and William Haines are shown in a theater watching the grand love scene from Bardelys featuring Gilbert and leading lady Eleanor Boardman.
Flash Forward 70 years – In 2006 Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange of Lobster Films in Paris discovered an original nitrate print of Bardelys The Magnificent as part of a large collection of films they had purchased from a collector. The print was in poor condition and the third reel of the film (approximately 10 minutes) was missing. Lobster Films quickly began preserving the deteriorating elements, and set about reconstructing the missing third reel of the film with still photographs and footage from the film’s extant promotional trailer. All title cards were in French, but by referencing the preserved cutting continuity script, the original English titles were reproduced and inserted. Eighty years after its premiere, and seventy years after its official destruction, Bardelys The Magnificent can once again be seen by audiences around the world.
The film is set during the reign of King Louis XIII of France (Arthur Lubin) in the early seventeenth century. “In an age of light loves and lively scandals, a certain gentleman of France excelled in getting himself talked about – -” In Bardelys apartment we see his servant Rodenard (Karl Dane) admit a distressed paramour of Bardelys. She must see him or die! “That will please him,” Rodenard assures her. Enter Bardelys: “Envied, elegant and superior – – the Marquis de Bardelys, known to his world as ‘The Magnificent’ (John Gilbert).” He reassures the young woman with caresses, kisses, and sweet words when who should burst through the door but the woman’s husband! Without missing a beat, Bardelys unsheathes his sword, continues to make verbal love to the young lady, parries the blows of the cuckold, eventually reconciles the couple, and continues dueling them out the door. As soon as they’re gone, another beautiful young woman enters seeking the same reassurances from Bardelys. Later that evening, a third young lovely at his side, Bardleys presents her with a locket containing a lock of his hair to assure her that his affections lay solely with her. Meanwhile the camera shows many other such ladies clutching identical lockets, and further we see Rodenard constructing dozens of others behind the scenes. Yes, Bardelys is a cad, but as portrayed by John Gilbert he is also Magnificent!
Meanwhile at the country estate of the Vicomte de Lavedan (Lionel Belmore), the dastardly Comte Chatellerault (Roy D’Arcy) “Bardelys’ rival in fashion and love” is putting the moves on Lavedan’s lovely young daughter Roxalanne (Eleanor Boardman), but he “had met with another defeat.” Gently threatening Roxalanne with using his power at court against her father she replies, “I had only disliked you before, now I must despise you.” When Chatellerault returns to Paris he finds that his humiliation and defeat at the hands of Roxalanne is the amusing story of the moment. In a pique, he challenges Bardelys to win the fair Roxalanne for himself. All present agree that Bardelys could win the hand of any young lady in France, but Bardelys insists that he doesn’t want a wife. Chatellerault ups the stakes by insisting that, should Bardelys fail, Chatellerault would gain possession of all his property. This is such an affront to the honor of a rogue like Bardelys that the challenge must be met. Even Louis XIII’s order that Bardelys remain at court, is disobeyed. Bardleys explains to Louis that his life belongs to his king, but his honor belongs to himself alone.
Bardelys and his faithful Rodenard sneak away from court and begin their journey to Lavedan’s country estate. Along the way they encounter Lesperon (Theodore von Eltz), a mortally wounded young man. He dies in Bardelys arms before he can say much of anything about his situation. In his pockets are some letters and a locket containing a miniature painting of a young woman. That night at the inn some of the king’s soldiers challenge Bardelys, and thinking the king has sent them after him, he declares his identity as Lesperon. Whoops, Lesperon is wanted as a traitor! Bardelys makes his getaway but is wounded in the altercation. He arrives at Lavedan’s estate and faints at Roxalanne’s feet. She tends to his wounds and, when he wakes up, he is smitten. The king’s soldiers burst in looking for Lesperon, but Roxalanne hides him. Once the soldiers depart Roxalanne, cautious after her run in with Chatellerault, orders him away. He is too weak however and falls from a wall. When Bardelys awakens the next morning, he finds himself in bed at Lavedan’s and everyone assumes that he is Lesperon. From there he makes a remarkably slow recovery as he and Roxalanne find themselves more and more attracted to one another. But a jealous neighbor, St. Eustache (George K. Arthur), thinks there’s something fishy about this Lesperon and is determined to get to the bottom of the situation.
Bardelys The Magnificent is not a masterpiece. However, it is a highly entertaining film with so many of the people involved in its production at the peak of their artistry and popularity. Vidor and Gilbert’s incredibly successful The Big Parade of the previous year had not only catapulted them into the top ranks of the industry but had provided MGM with the cachet to compete with the top studios of the day. MGM producer Irving Thalberg recognized talent and committed the studio’s resources to make Bardelys The Magnificent one of the studio’s major productions of the year. John Gilbert, after a ten-year apprenticeship in dozens of films, had finally become a major movie star after appearing in both Erich von Stroheim’s The Merry Widow and Vidor’s The Big Parade the previous year. He and Vidor teamed again with La Bohème in 1926, then Bardelys, and his next film, also released that year, would be his first teaming with the Swedish sensation Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil. By the end of the decade King Vidor could arguably be said to have eclipsed D.W. Griffith as the master American director with his films The Crowd (1928), The Patsy (1928), Show People (1928) and Hallelujah (1929).
Also released in 1926 were the similarly themed Don Juan featuring John Barrymore and The Black Pirate with Douglas Fairbanks. One can see in Bardelys The Magnificent an attempt to not only capitalize on a successful genre, but one-up Fairbanks and Barrymore. The final action piece of the film has Gilbert doing all kinds of amazing death-defying maneuvers a la Fairbanks. It is a dizzying, exhilarating sequence and, if not better, then certainly as much fun as anything Fairbanks ever did. Gilbert’s opening scene seems to throw down the romantic gauntlet at Barrymore’s feet with a “Come on, can you do this?” sort of attitude. As Photoplay magazine stated in a contemporary review, “So long as King Vidor and John Gilbert take Rafael Sabatini’s story seriously, this picture remains just another costume production, smoothly told, artfully acted, but not guaranteed to give any ticket-seller a nervous breakdown. But when star and director say, ‘Come, come, enough of this seventeenth century intrigue. Let’s make a comic movie,’ then it snaps into great entertainment.” Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg concurred, “You are comfortable either way you take it, as a gorgeous romance or a sly and thrilling satire on romance.”
One must also make mention of the lovely Eleanor Boardman as Roxalanne. She and Vidor were married soon after this picture was completed (in a ceremony that was planned as a double wedding that was also to include John Gilbert and Greta Garbo). She is probably best remembered as Mary in King Vidor’s The Crowd in 1928. She also appeared with Gilbert again in Fred Niblo’s Redemption (1930), but by then both of their careers were on the wane. In Bardelys she is very beautiful but in a contemporary sort of way. She underplays her role, and both she and Gilbert deliver really very modern performances. On the other side of the performance spectrum is Roy D’Arcy’s Chatellerault, a nasty villain if ever there was one. His performance is over-the-top but in the very best possible way. Karl Dane and George K. Arthur handle their comedic roles with panache. The two do not appear on screen together in Bardelys, but were teamed in a successful series of comedic films of the day. Able support was also given by Lionel Belmore and Emily Fitzroy as Papa and Mama Lavedan, and Arthur Lubin makes a wonderfully foppish King Louis XIII.
I was amazed that Bardelys The Magnificent looks as good as it does considering the age of the sole remaining print. Of course there is some wear evident, but the print looks surprisingly clear and crisp. The contrast has bled somewhat, but still this is a remarkably viewable print. A few scenes have been artfully tinted in keeping with the period and there are no evident jumps in the picture. The recreated English title cards are integrated seamlessly into the presentation and even look like title cards of the studio and period. The reconstructed reel three is very well done and does not take one out of the film. The film is presented at a projection speed of twenty frames-per-second sparing us the jerky, sped-up abomination which is the bane of all silent film enthusiasts. A nice orchestral score has been compiled by Rodney Sauer and performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. An alternate piano score composed and played by Antonio Coppola is also available.
Flicker Alley produced this two-disc DVD set called The Lost Films of John Gilbert: 2 Rediscovered Silent Classics. Besides Bardelys The Magnificent Disc One also contains:
• A choice of two musical scores
• An audio commentary by Flicker Alley’s Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta. I’m not usually a big fan of commentary, but this one is very well done. Vance and Maietta relate stories of the production, the players and crew, and the reconstruction and restoration of the film. It moves along nicely, both are engaging speakers, and it presents lots of information.
• A photo gallery that runs about nine minutes if viewed as a slideshow.
• Rediscovering John Gilbert (2009) – this new 30 minute taped interview with John Gilbert’s daughter and biographer Leatrice Gilbert Fountain is amazing. Fountain narrates her father’s life, reflects on his career and its demise, tackles the myths surrounding Gilbert, and most remarkably shares her own memories of her father. She offers articulate analysis of the man and the time in which he worked and heartfelt and well-spoken memories of her short time with him. I’ve read Fountain’s incredible book (Dark Star, St. Martin’s Press, 1985) and it is such a treat to actually see and hear her talk about her father.
• The set also includes a twenty-page booklet titled Rediscovering John Gilbert by Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta. It is handsomely produced and is full of commentary about John Gilbert, the two films and their restoration, and complete credits for both film productions. There are also a good number of finely reproduced photographs.
• Disc Two includes the feature Monte Cristo, a film Gilbert made for Fox Studios in 1922 and additional special features. It is reviewed separately on this site.
Fans of John Gilbert, King Vidor, silent films, or just classic Hollywood films in general should rejoice at this release. After more than seventy years both Bardleys and Monte Cristo are available to be seen and appreciated. The packaging is first rate, the booklet is very well produced, the extras are way above par, and the films have been preserved and presented in the best possible manner. Why wouldn’t you want this two-disc set on your shelves?
Click HERE to purchase this DVD!