THE BELOVED ROGUE, in which John Barrymore embodies swashbuckling poet François Villon, had haunted my imagination for almost thirty years when I finally saw it. My earliest definite encounter with the movie was in Brownlow and Gill’s epic documentary series Hollywood, where one episode examined the art of special effects in the twenties, and dissected a marvelous stunt where Barrymore is apparently catapulted across the rooftops of Paris and into his romantic interest’s bedroom. I was entranced by the panache and the artifice — amazing sets by William Cameron Menzies, presenting a skewed, expressionistic medieval city like something out of a Maurice Noble Bugs Bunny background, and zesty performances from a cluster of extreme physical types.
Now, I have an even earlier memory which may relate to this film: as a kid, I was excited by an extract from a silent adventure movie which featured a group of heroes of varying physical dimensions_- I think one was a dwarf. As I grooved to Barrymore’s athletic romp, I started to suspect that this movie, released by the Killiam Collection, was the source of that that same long-forgotten clip: Killiam did create a TV series out of sequences from notable silent movies… But I can’t be sure.
Barrymore’s buddies in his Robin Hoodesque capers are played by Slim Summerville (slim), Mack Swain (fat) and Angelo Rossitto (short), three noteworthy thesps with striking bodies and striking bodies of work. Slim made his debut as a Keystone Cop and racked up two hundred pictures, including outings for John Ford and Fritz Lang. Swain was Chaplin’s co-star in THE GOLD RUSH, sharing a meal made from a boot, the role for which he’ll always be remembered, but he too had a long history at Keystone, continuing into talkies as a but-part player. Angelo Rossitto is most celebrated for his work in FREAKS, where he seems to be the leader of the troupe, although this is more to do with his natural authority than with any textual evidence to be found in the script. He certainly has more authority than you’d expect in a man of 2’11 in height, with legs curved fantastically outwards as if his bean-shaped torso rested upon a horseshoe. Discovered for the movies by Barrymore, he makes his debit here aged 19, and would keep acting until 1987, although he had to support himself most of that time by running a newsstand.
This startling gang of misfits are given nothing to work with save their outlandish appearances, and serve basically to support the dashing Barrymore and make him look more handsome. And Barrymore IS startlingly impressive as a leading man, before cynicism and alcohol got the better of him: not only a Great profile, but a Great Physique.
Every player in the movie is a beautifully designed caricature, from the charming Marceline Day, who even manages to project innocent allure while wearing a hat that looks like a cross between a tea-cosy and a wasp’s face. The slender but inventive plot involves Villon protecting Paris from the depredations of the Duke of Burgundy (Lawson Butt), but his real enemy is the King whose interests he protects. As Louis XI, Conrad Veidt does such a great job of portraying a craven halfwit in thrall to superstition that he risks capsizing the whole movie — it’s impossible to care about the political issues covered in the story since it’s almost certain that France would be in safer hands with the sadistic Burgundy in charge rather than the moronic Louis. But one can’t begrudge Veidt his fervid overplaying, which makes all his scenes thrilling and neurotically warped. His entrance, a long tracking shot in which he creeps forward into the shadowy and tilting set, sporting a creepy centre-parting of the kind favoured by the late John Cazale, has a crazy splendour.
Remarkable how a combination of unnecessarily gargantuan talents (at least three geniuses: Barrymore, Veidt, Menzies), voluminous production values, and sheer energy, can rescue a pretty straightahead cut-and-paste job in which highlights from the Dwan-Fairbanks ROBIN HOOD jostle with set-pieces from THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (the Feast of Fools, the Court of Miracles). I mean, such a cheeky combo was always going to be fun, but this movie is like a Superman comic drawn by Daumier.