By MATTHEW BAKER
The Beloved Rogue (1927)
Directed by Alan Crosland
When you hear that John Barrymore is cast as a carefree but admired artist whose greatest loves are strong drink and beautiful women, you are tempted to yell “Typecasting!” And you’d be right. Nevertheless, The Beloved Rogue is the Great Profile’s greatest work in his career in silent film. Though passionate, intense, heartfelt, and romantic, the glamorous star is unafraid to look weak, slovenly, and even ridiculous when the scene calls for it. In an early sequence, when he is crowned King of Fools (much like Lon Chaney’s Quasimodo before him), Barrymore literally dons the trappings of a clown.
The oft-told story is well known. Barrymore plays Francois Villon, the widely loved poet of Paris whose fierce but unorthodox patriotism gets him in trouble with King Louis XI (Conrad Veidt), whom he freely criticizes. Under sentence of death, he redeems himself in the eyes of the crown by leading the fight against the traitorous Duke of Burgundy (Lawson Butt) who seeks to usurp the throne. In the process, Villon falls in love with the beautiful but straightlaced Charlotte de Vauxcelles (Marceline Day) and their romance plays out as modern audiences might expect.
The most famous incarnation of this story is Rudolf Friml’s operetta The Vagabond King, which was filmed in 1930 with Players President Dennis King as Francois Villon, and again in 1956 with Players President Walter Hampden as King Louis XI. The tale was also told in the 1938 movie If I Were King, starring Ronald Colman and Basil Rathbone, both playing somewhat against type. But it is Barrymore’s Villon that lingers in the memory. Taking his buffoonery too far and getting into trouble with the king’s men, his weeping at the thought of being exiled from his beloved Paris, his tenderness at visiting his mother for the first time in years, his agony at being captured and tortured by Burgundy’s troops, all reveal the many layers of this remarkable actor.
Barrymore rarely showed such range or such depth on screen, often hiding it underneath several slices of ham. Perhaps the stage veteran was uncomfortable with the camera. Perhaps his drinking habits hampered his discipline. Who knows? But he brought all his craft and talent to bear in his sweepingly vulnerable performance in The Beloved Rogue, a name that could easily have been applied to the actor himself.
The Beloved Rogue runs one hour and 38 minutes and can be viewed on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jKUs-VCFS8M.
Matthew Baker is a New York City historian and tour guide, newsletter editor for the National Federation of Tourist Guide Associations, and producer of the annual GANYC Apple Awards. A Player since 2000, he is artistic director of Poetry At The Players. His "Players On Screen" posts feature lesser-known appearances by our members.