16 February, 2016


            Commedia dell'arte. 

“The comedy of craft;”  the birth of improvisation. 
Its first record is from Rome in 1551.  A traveling troupe played outside on temporary stages, relying on props and costumes, usually masked.  The characters were devious servants, harlequins and foolish old men playing themes of sex and jealousy, often dangerously parodying current events.  When troupes began to unite as a guild, they adopted as their symbol the two-faced Roman god Janus;  championing their comings and goings as travelers, and the dual nature of Actor as Character.

                    Someone else underneath.

One of the crowd-favorites was a scheming rogue buffoon.  Literally “The Little Skirmisher,” Scaramuccia -- or, in France, Scaramouche -- could be clever or stupid, pious or egotistical, however the actor chose to portray him;  and he often went back-and-forth within a performance to escape those dangerous parodies (again championing the beloved Janus).

A number of famous works have versions of the character including Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Moliere’s Les Fourberies de Scapin, Mozart’s The Magic Flute (and The Marriage Of Figaro and his seminal Don Giovanni), Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Stravinski’s Pulcinella.  Scaramouche was an iconic figure in the Punch And Judy puppet shows, and you’ve probably sung the famous line in Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, “… will you do the fandango?”

We touched on the author of today’s story -- Rafael Sabatini -- in the Tyrone Power Black Swan write-up;  that movie also based on a Sabatini novel.  Scaramouche was first published in 1921 and, simply put, tells of Andre Moreau who seeks to avenge the death of his friend, murdered by The Marquis, at the onset of The French Revolution.  To hide from The Marquis as he trains with the sword, Moreau joins a troupe of travelling actors, taking on the role of our eponymous scheming rogue.  In wonderful Romantic Adventure fashion -- even foreshadowing the likes of Rick Blaine -- Moreau transforms from cynic to idealist … and not without falling in love.

It was Sabatini’s first really big success.  It didn’t hurt that Captain Blood was next (1922) therefore his earlier works were rushed into print.  [Interestingly this included The Sea Hawk (1915) which, while not a success in its original run, would become Sabatini’s biggest.]  Scaramouche was such a success that, all but immediately, the first film version was produced in 1923.  But it’s our version today that cements the legend;  and wait until we get to its -- to this day -- record-holding climactic swordfight.

Of all that’s been written about the character, Sabatini himself handled him best.  This line opens the novel and today’s film, so there’s no better way to jump in: 

“He was born with a gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad.” 
Scaramouche (1952)
w Ronald Millar and George Froeschel from the novel by Rafael Sabatini
d George Sidney

                  There are a few movies that still surprise me when I realize they’re not as popular as they should be.  Ghost Breakers isn’t in your Top 10?  I get it.  I’m talking about today’s movie;  a perfect example.  I often mention Scaramouche to someone and they’ve never heard of it.  And it does surprise me.  It’s not just a matter of it being sixty-plus years old.  It was a huge hit, both critically and commercially.  A hit sixty-plus years ago?  Sure, okay, but I saw it again recently and man does it hold up.  No, it doesn’t “hold up.”  Scaramouche is a great movie.

Our old friend Bosley Crowther at The New York Times wrote in 1952, in part:

The shades of another era, both of history and of movie romance, are being revived with extraordinary richness … A cheekier attitude toward romance and a great deal more play with the swords are in this latter-day whip-up, and these are the things that make it fun … Now they have a spirited hero enlisted in the cause of liberté, égalité et fraternité, not to mention love, lined up against a highhanded Bourbon who is 120 proof with the sword … With blades ringing in the crowded theatre and blood spurting red from time to time, it makes a mighty pretty picture.  Doggone exciting too … Mr. Granger appears to sense completely that he is not playing history.  Mr. Ferrer, too … And in the low-gowns-and-powdered-wigs department, Janet Leigh looks mighty good as the Bourbon doll and Nina Foch is exceedingly flattering to Marie Antoinette.  But it is really Eleanor Parker who wins the female prize as the red-headed fire-brand of the theatre who keeps our hero on the go … And certainly no less would be worthy of MGM.

                    Scaramouche is an Action Film, a Political Drama and a Love Story (actually three Love Stories, wonderfully interwoven);  all of it told as a Swashbuckler.  Truth be told, it’s not unlike an Opera, because there’s indeed a theatricality at play.  Not just in how the story’s told, but Theatre is the running theme.  That’s where Moreau hides from The Marquis, where he finds sanctuary and the foundation of his idealist evolve.  Throughout the story he’s rarely not “on stage,” including the training of the sword, and addressing The National Assembly.  And it had to be in a theatre that Moreau and The Marquis finally face each other in their climactic swordfight.

It’s a Swashbuckler to be sure.  But where it stands apart from, say, The Black Swan is, while it borders High Adventure, it never trips on that tightrope.  [Incidentally our Director today, George Sidney, had done the same with the Gene Kelly-starrer The Three Musketeers (1948).  Gene Kelly and Stewart Granger were both trained as fencers by Jean Hermans, and Hermans would go on to do Prince Valiant (1954), that movie next in our Top 5.  But I digress.]  “The shades of another era,” as Mr. Crowther wrote.  Remember, we’re twelve years after Errol Flynn’s heyday;  ten after Ty in The Black Swan.  So of course The Swashbuckler would mature.  Sure, Granger is our “hero,” Parker is “sexy,” Leigh “vigilant,” Ferrer “evil,” Foch “melodramatic” (and Scaramouche himself “slapstick funny”) but they aren't caricatures.  We accept, understand, even empathize-with their relationships;  including Moreau’s and de Maynes’ which -- by the climax -- could trip into trite yet doesn’t.  This is big, broad, wonderful Opera.  As much fun as today’s movie is -- and it is -- because the characters remain grounded, so do we.

                And here we’ll focus a moment on our leading lady, Miss Janet Leigh.  I didn’t go into this in Holiday Affair because (while it’s in that film too) I think it’s better highlighted in today’s.  I think it prevails in all her work, and why she was a success:  simply, few actresses showed such a wholesome strength as Miss Leigh.  I use “wholesome” specifically, without treading into the likes of Doris Day or Julie Andrews;  and “strength” doesn’t have to mean Bette Davis or Katherine Hepburn.  If anyone is similar it’s Olivia de Havilland but indeed Miss Leigh had a unique way of blending the two.  In Holiday Affair, we accept her as both a single mother and a woman who wants to fall in love.  And in Scaramouche we see her as quiet and humble but still coolly strong;  a mirror, of course, to Eleanor Parker’s fiery-red street-smarts without diminishing either character.  No doubt The Shower Movie will pop up as we talk about Miss Leigh, and this is a perfect example:  we buy Marion Crane’s stealing the money and making a run for it but -- just as important to that character -- it’s her wholesomeness that guts us when Norman walks into the bathroom.  (Another perfect example?  While Touch Of Evil doesn't show it to us yet, we know she'll walk again, head held high, after what the gang does to her in that motel room.  But more on that in that film's write-up.)  In all her roles -- I just think it shines in Scaramouche because it’s Period where a woman could be clichéd “less” -- Miss Leigh exudes wholesome strength, making her a very Modern Woman.  Beautiful, kind, smart, even sexy in Aline’s own way -- and, sure, vulnerable (aren’t we all) -- but never anything less.

                    Now, let’s take a look at our Writers today.  Sir Ronald Millar was an English writer who led an atypically Hollywood life.  While he started as an Actor and wrote Plays, he served in The Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve during World War II and eventually became the Speech Writer for three consecutive Prime Ministers:  Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major.  For Miss Thatcher -- who Knighted him -- he wrote her famous line, “The lady's not for turning.”  His political mind helped him well with his screenplays such as ours today and Never Let Me Go (1953) and Betrayed (1954);  those two with Clark Gable.  He wrote often with his co-writer today, George Froeschel, an Austrian.  A novelist by trade, Froeschel was signed by MGM in 1939 where he worked for the next seventeen years on such big dramas as Mrs. Miniver (1942) for which he won The Academy Award, The Story Of Three Loves and Command Decision (1953), the latter also with Clark Gable.  It’s interesting to see these two Writers on Scaramouche.  Certainly the “heaviness" of "The Political Opera" is theirs.  But what about "The Comedic Swashbuckler?"

                  That could very well be from our Director today, George Sidney, who was best known for his Musicals from Anchors Aweigh (1945) through Viva Las Vegas (1964).  His father was a Broadway Producer, his mother a Stage Performer;  he was a child in Vaudeville before starting at MGM as a messenger.  He got his start behind the camera shooting Our Gang Shorts in the late 30s and would go on to a truly stunning career (including Judy Garland in The Harvey Girls).  In 1946 he was the first to photograph Red Skelton’s famous “Guzzler’s Gin” sketch (for Ziegfeld’s Follies).  And in his off-time?  He was President of The DGA from ’51-’56 and --  ready for this? --  co-founded Hanna-Barbera in 1957 (and was that company’s President for ten years). 

(A quick digression, if I may.  Hanna-Barbera had created Tom & Jerry for MGM in 1940 which was the beginning of the Hanna-Barbera-Sidney relationship.  When Disney turned MGM down for Gene Kelly to dance with Mickey Mouse in Anchors Aweigh, Jerry The Mouse got the job.  Sidney would later feature Hanna-Barbera's Fred Flintstone, Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear in his Bye Bye Birdie, that film also starring Janet Leigh.)

                 (Sorry, one more digression;  quickly, I promise.  Only mentioning the great Supporting Cast hardly does them justice, but that's Nina Foch as Marie Antoinette.  She pops up in so many fun things, from Boston Blackie's Rendezvous to Spartacus, but I always think of her as Milo in An American In Paris.  And that's John Litel as Dubuque in The National Assembly;  one of my favorite character actors.  We talked about him in They Died With Their Boots On and San Antonio.  And then there's Lewis Stone;  de Valmorin Sr. in our film today.  Not only did he have a truly amazing career in his own right -- not just as Judge Hardy in that famous series -- but he was also in the 1923 Scaramouche where he played The Marquis.)  
                 Now, finally, a word on Jimmy Stewart.  Sort of.  Remember, our hero today was born James Lablanche Stewart but there was already a Jimmy Stewart in Hollywood so our guy took his grandmother’s maiden name, tacked it on, and Stewart Granger was born.  He made his film debut in England as an extra in 1933, then followed it up with years of Theatre work.  In World War II, he enlisted in The Gordon Highlanders, transferring to The Black Watch with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant.  Invalided out of service, he returned to acting and, in 1943, became a star in The Man In Grey.  Through the rest of the 40s he topped England’s box office … finally attracting Hollywood’s attention. 

In 1949 he made Adam And Evelyne co-starring Jean Simmons.  The story, about an older man and a teenager whom he gradually realizes is no longer a child, had obvious parallels to their real lives.  They married the following year in a ceremony “produced” by Howard Hughes.  And it was in 1949 that he got his break, in MGM’s King Solomon’s Mines (a role offered-to but turned-down-by Errol Flynn;  and you remember how highly Mr. Granger thought of Mr. Flynn from our Robin Hood write-up).  It’s a famous -- and true -- story that Granger personally requested a remake of Scaramouche as part of his contract.  MGM acquiesced, though -- Gene Kelly’s The Three Musketeers being such a hit three years before -- after having conversations with Kelly, Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor for our film today (but that really would be a digression, so …).  The one-two-punch success of King Solomon’s Mines and Scaramouche launched a decade wave of stardom for Mr. Granger who took over the mantle as Hollywood’s Swashbuckler. 

By the early 60s -- losing A Star Is Born (1954) to James Mason and turning down Messala in Ben-Hur (1959) -- Granger became a successful cattle rancher, and left Hollywood in the wake of divorcing Miss Simmons (his second of three marriages).  He then had a very successful German film career before returning to Hollywood in the early 70s on Television, including playing Sherlock Holmes in The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1972) with William Shatner as Stapleton.  Mr. Granger’s last great role returned him to The Theatre in the ’89-’90 Broadway production of Somerset Maugham’s The Circle opposite Rex Harrison and Glynis Johns (who you remember from our The Court Jester write-up).

                 Of course, it’s a small miracle he made it through today’s movie at all.  I’ll explain.

                 A lot of stars say they do their own stunts -- their publicists certainly do -- but Granger did more than most, and a famous story during Scaramouche is the falling chandelier.  You remember it, right?  de Maynes discovers Doutreval has been training Moreau in the sword, and de Maynes and Moreau have their first duel.  de Maynes cuts the rope and the chandelier drops, Moreau rolling out to continue fighting.  An elaborate rig was built to stop the chandelier a foot from the floor.  Granger, no fool, asked to see it work before laying underneath.  George Sidney assured him it was fine;  besides, it would take an hour to reset.  Granger remained adamant.  Sidney complied, launched it, and the chandelier embedded itself two inches into the stage.  Sidney (a good man) went and threw up.  Granger (also a good man) went and had a drink. 

                And this is as good a time as any to dissolve to the incredible end swordfight.  Moreau could barely hold a sword when he and de Maynes first met but, when he saw his best friend murdered, he promised to kill de Maynes the same way:  by the sword.  de Maynes can’t help but smile at the preposterousness.  But then it’s Scaramouche on stage who spots de Maynes in the audience, stops the show, removes his mask, and challenges him then and there.  And is it a duel.  Perhaps the movie duel as they fight all over the theatre for six and a half minutes;  to this day the longest swordfight ever filmed (and, incidentally, without music).  There are great swordfights, from Fairbanks to Flynn, Kelly in The Three Musketeers (1948), all the way to Seven Samurai and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon … and, yes, even The Princess Bride, The Mask Of Zorro (1998), Kill Bill and beyond.  But this is it.  There are a few times I tell you how much I love one of these movies, or laugh at one of the jokes, but this goes back to my genuinely being surprised Scaramouche isn’t as big a hit today as it was then.  ‘Cause this climax?

                  Nope, not overselling it at all.

                  Remember how the Sabatini novel and our movie today opens?  “He was born with a gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad.”  A great line for a Story, sure, but it would also become the author’s epitaph, appearing on Rafael Sabatini's gravestone in Adelboden, Switzerland.

                  Up next?  Miss Leigh travels to King Arthur’s Court in the famed Comic come to life, Prince Valiant!