François Villon is a much loved and praised fifteenth century poet but this film about the man seems largely fictional, and based on a hit play and novel by Justin Huntly McCarty which was adapted in to a film by Preston Sturges, with Sturges including some of his own translations of Villon’s poetry in the film. As his entire life story would not fit in to a five hour film let alone a 90 minutes one it just takes aspects of Villon’s life from the fact that he was often imprisoned due to various crimes and then mixes them with a real life event, though there’s no firm evidence he was actually involved in it.
That particular event is the period of time where the palace of King Louis XI (Basil Rathbone) was under siege by the Duke of Burgundy and his men, in reality all credit is given to Louis for defeating him but here a very different tale is told, where after Villon (Ronald Coleman) is involved in the robbery of one of the King’s storehouses and initially escapes, when the King goes undercover in a tavern he witnesses Villon boast about how things would be very different if he were king himself.
At this point the armed guard catches up with Villon and his fellow thieves, and a battle that then occurs where Villon is responsible for the death of the king’s Grand Constable, though it is rather fortunately quickly discovered that the man was a traitor working for the Duke of Burgundy. Impressed by Villon’s speech, even though Villon claimed “A nincompoop sits on the throne” during it, Louis decides to appoint the man as his new Grand Constable who is not only responsible for the army but all justice in the land, but there’s a catch in that Villon only has a week to defeat the Duke or he will be executed.
Ronald Coleman is charming in the lead role, and oddly how I imagine Preston Sturges might have been himself after having read his autobiography, full of sharp wit but with it delivered in a warm and often self-deprecating manner. The poems that Villon performs are fantastic as well, to the extent that I plan to check out his work very soon now, and the dialogue is so smart and so enjoyable that it made me laugh many a time. Basil Rathbone’s King Louis XI is a stranger creation as he cackles away to himself after many a comment, and reminded me slightly of Albert Steptoe in the way Rathbone carries himself and delivers pithy lines, but the character is often amusingly sardonic and provocative. It’s an actor-ly performance and perhaps not one of Rathbone’s more subtle or nuanced roles, but he and Coleman spark off of each other nicely and their unusual relationship makes for an intriguing and captivating tale.
There’s also a dash of romance with Villon flirting many a time with one of the queen’s ladies in waiting, Catherine (Frances Dee), and who provides a potential solution to Villon’s difficulties concerning motivating the army, and though she gets little screen time it’s still a strong slice of acting. The battle scenes are impressive for the period too, and are staged in a dramatic and exciting fashion. Because of the strength of the script and the performances this 1938 film really does deserve to be seen by a larger audience, even if not everything that happens in it is questionably truthful. Though Frank Lloyd wasn’t the flashiest of directors it moves at a great pace, is filled with some truly memorable dialogue, and it is easily one of Sturges’ best scripts prior to the time when he started directing his own films.