Summer Reeves of Serendipitous Anachronisms is hosting her very first blogathon, France on Film. Day one, Friday, covers actual French cinema, and day two, Saturday, covers France as a subject. For the list of participants, click the button above.
My subject is Scaramouche, released 15 September 1923, directed by Rex Ingram (one of my favorite silent era directors), and starring the gorgeous Ramón Novarro (my next-favorite male actor), the underrated Alice Terry (Mr. Ingram’s wife), Lewis Stone (who’s best-remembered as Judge Hardy in the Andy Hardy series), and Lloyd Ingraham. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Rafael Sabatini. The novel has the awesome opening line “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad,” which eventually was to become the epitaph on Mr. Sabatini’s gravestone.
Though I’m normally not mad about silent costume dramas (frequently too many intertitles, and everyone looks the same in a powdered wig), I’ve adored this film from the very first time I saw it. It just pulls the viewer in, and the time goes by like nothing. I don’t even think of how much time is passing, too engrossed in the unfolding, gripping story.
Young André-Louis Moreau comes home to the village of Gavrillac after two years at law school in Paris, with his best friend Phillippe de Vilmorin, a divinity student. They discover a local man was murdered for poaching on the Marquis de la Tour d’Azyr’s estate, as a warning for others who might have the same idea. This is in violation of a decree from the National Assembly and accepted by King Louis XVI, saying nobility must stop all tyranny and oppression.
Whom but the Marquis himself should presently come to the scene of the crime, where Phillippe calls him out for what he’s done. The Marquis brushes him off, and Phillippe slaps him. This leads to a duel in which the Marquis kills Phillippe. André is consumed with heartbreak and rage, and vows revenge. Things get even worse when he goes to his godfather, Quintin de Kercadiou, only to discover the Marquis has begun courting Kercadiou’s niece Aline. André and Aline were in love when he left for Paris, and she promised to wait for him while she was away at the Versailles court.
Kercadiou thinks the idea of justice against such an important personage is madness, and additionally says there can be no trouble with him because of his relationship with Aline. Undeterred, André goes to the town of Rennes to petition the King’s Lieutenant by the Palace of Justice. At first the Lieutenant is very moved and asks who did this, but immediately turns on André when he names the guilty party. He refuses to believe such a great personage could’ve done such a thing.
André is righteously outraged, and rakes the Lieutenant over the coals for caring more about rank than blind justice. He also gets in a humorous dig at the Lieutenant’s less than attractive appearance. The Lieutenant calls for André’s arrest, but André escapes and joins a large crowd listening to a student orator. When the young radical is shot down, André bravely takes his place. He’s shortly grazed by a bullet from the Palace of Justice, and then the dragoons ride out to break up the crowd. André goes into hiding, and ends up in the company of a wandering theatre troupe headed by the vulgar Challefau Binet.
Thanks to André’s plays, the troupe becomes much more successful, eventually going all the way to an important theatre in Paris. Since he doesn’t want to divulge his true identity, he calls himself Monsieur X. At a performance of his latest play, Figaro-Scaramouche, he and Aline catch sight of one another. La Tour is also there, and flirts with Binet’s daughter, Climène. André doesn’t yet know this, and when Aline comes to beg for another chance, he claims he and Climène are engaged and that he prefers a humble woman who doesn’t care about some lofty title.
Aline is now living by a Countess Thérèse de Plougastel, and when La Tour comes into Aline’s booth, she introduces him to the Countess. It’s obvious from their body language they’ve met before and have some kind of less than pleasant history.
André ends his association with the Binets after discovering Climène has been out consorting with La Tour, and the feeling is very mutual. She has high aspirations for herself, and doesn’t think André is good enough. I love André’s line “I had begun to think you grotesque, but you are just vile—both of you!”
Around the same time, Aline tells La Tour she never wants to see him again, and after she leaves, the Countess says his old habits persist and that Aline saw him messing around with that theatre girl. At first she refuses to help them reunite, but La Tour reminds her he knows a secret from her past.
By his final theatre performance, André steps out of character and delivers a stirring speech against La Tour. The people are roused to action, and melée breaks out. After this, André first opens a fencing academy on Rue du Hazard and then is convinced to join the National Assembly as the Rennes deputy. La Tour and his fellow aristocrats silence their Assembly opponents in duels, and André is more than up to responding in kind. He finally gets his longed-for duel with La Tour, but lets him get off with just a wounded arm.
When the uprising of 10 August 1792 hits, everyone’s lives are in danger, and André goes to rescue Aline. However, in spite of his permission to come and go from Paris as he sees fit, this mission won’t be easily accomplished. I won’t spoil anything that happens in the climactic final quarter of the film!
I love a good historical drama and long film, and Scaramouche doesn’t disappoint on any level. Maybe the French Revolution is an overdone setting, but when the story is so strong and original, it shouldn’t matter how many times we’ve seen films and read books set in this time and place.