If I Were King
(1938), 100 min. b&w

Rathbone as King Louis XI

"If I were King and you were Queen..." began one of François Villon's poems, written for the beautiful Lady Katherine. Villon, a 15th century poet and rogue, was brilliantly portrayed by Ronald Colman. Rathbone played the French King Louis XI, a tyrant who was letting the citizens of Paris starve while the palace was well-provisioned. 

The Duke of Burgundy, enemy of King Louis, had besieged the city of Paris, cutting off supplies of food from the outside world. Desperate for food, the people turn to stealing and killing. They have no love for their king. King Louis, suspecting that his Grand Constable was conspiring with the Burgundians, disguises himself and waits in a tavern to catch the Grand Constable in the act of treason. The King and Tristan the Hermit (Walter Kingsford) in disguise While waiting for the Grand Constable to arrive, King Louis observes Villon and his friends sharing food stolen from the royal storehouse, and he overhears Villon bragging about what a bad job Louis is doing as king, and that if he were king, he would do so much better -- he would end the siege and feed the people. When the Grand Constable arrives, a brawl ensues and Villon kills the Grand Constable. Villon and his friends are arrested and thrown in prison. Villon, expecting to be hanged for his treasonous remarks and stealing from the royal storehouse, is amazed -- speechless, even -- when Louis explains that Villon actually did him a favor by ridding him of a traitor, and he rewards Villon by appointing him Grand Constable. King Louis challenges Villon to make good on his boasting and end the siege. If he cannot do that in one week, he will be hanged.

Ronald Colman and Rathbone
King Louis knights Villon and appoints him 
Grand Constable.
Rathbone as King Louis XI
King Louis laughs at his joke
against Villon.

Ronald Colman, Walter Kingsford and RathboneVillon dispenses justice in the King's name, causing the people to shout "God Bless Louis!" and "Long Live the King!" But he finds it impossible to make the cowardly Generals of the King's army attack the Burgundians. Near the end of his week, desperate to end the siege, Villon rallies the common people and leads them into battle against the Burgundians, defeating them. Since Villon saved the city, King Louis reluctantly commutes Villon's sentence of death to exile from Paris. Louis is disappointed at being cheated out of the pleasure of hanging Villon. And Villon admits to Louis he learned that being King is not such an easy job.

François Villon was a real person, a poet who was born in or near Paris in 1431. Born François de Montcorbier, he was later named Villon after the priest who adopted him at age 6. His poems are a frank expression of what he saw and felt, a colorful picture of life in 15th century Paris. But he also killed a priest, stole money, and was involved in illegal escapades and brawls. He was arrested and eventually banished from Paris. The character of Villon portrayed in this movie is a Hollywood hero, a Robin Hood-type character who champions the people against oppression. He's much more of a gentleman than the real François Villon.Ronald Colman and Rathbone

The real King Louis XI was a despot, who used bribery, intrigue and treachery to consolidate power. The character in the film is just like that, and also very shrewd, eccentric, and has an annoying, cackling laugh.

"If I Were King" is an outstanding movie with a first-rate cast. Colman is perfect as Villon. Rathbone's portrayal of Louis XI was one of his best performances. He was nominated for an Oscar (Best Supporting Actor), but lost to Walter Brennan (for "Kentucky"). The film also received Oscar nominations for Best Score (Richard Hageman), Best Art Direction (Hans Dreier, John B. Goodman), and Best Sound (L.L. Ryder). The Preston Sturges screenplay is excellent as well, providing Rathbone and Colman with very witty dialogue. The make-up artist should have won an Oscar -- Rathbone is nearly unrecognizable as Louis.

Other versions of the Villon story were filmed: "If I Were King" (1920), "The Beloved Rogue (1927), and "The Vagabond King" (1930, 1955).

Ifking001.jpg (162401 bytes)
King Louis questions Katherine (Frances Dee)
Ifking002.jpg (77524 bytes)
Publicity photo

Click here to see more pictures from "If I Were King."

Cast

Credits

Basil Rathbone.........................Louis XI
Ronald Colman..............Francois Villon
Frances Dee.....Katherine de Vaucelles
Ellen Drew................................Huguette
C.V. France.........................Father Villon
Henry Wilcoxon......Capt. of the Watch
Heather Thatcher..........................Queen
Stanley Ridges........Rene de Montigny
Bruce Lester.......................Neal le Jolya
Walter Kingsford.......Tristan L'Hermite
Alma Lloyd...................................Colette
Sidney Toler......................Robin Turgis
Colin Tapley.....................Jehan le Loup
Ralph Forbes....................Oliver le Dain
John Miljan...........Thibaut D'Aussigny
William Haade.....................Guy Tabarie
Adrain Morris.............Colin de Cayculx
Montagu Love....................Gen. Dudon
Lester Matthews.................Gen. Saliere
William Farnum...............Gen. Barbezier
Paul Harvey............Burgundian Herald
Barry Macollum....................Watchman
May Beatty.....................................Anna
Winter Hall.........................Major-Domo
Francis McDonald............Casin Cholet
Ann Evers....................Lady-in-Waiting
Jean Fenwick...............Lady-in-Waiting
Russ Powell.................................Ruffian
Harry Wilson...............................Beggar
John George.................... Dwarf Beggar
Stanley King.....Captain of the Archers
Henry Brandon............................Soldier
Ethel Clayton......................Old Woman
Judith King.........................................Girl
Cheryl Walker....................................Girl
Production Co. .....................Paramount
Producer..............................Frank Lloyd
Director................................Frank Lloyd
Screenplay....................Preston Sturges
      (based on the play by Justin 
      Huntly McCarthy)
Cinematographer....Theodore Sparkuhl 
Editor.................................Hugh Bennett
Music Composer.......Richard Hageman
Music Director..................Boris Morros
Art Directors..............John B. Goodman
...............................................Hans Dreier
Set Decorator................A.E. Freudeman
Special Effects............Gordon Jennings
Costume Design...................Edith Head
Make Up:.....................Wally Westmore
Sound.......................................L.L Ryder

Images on this page and page two are from the film "If I Were King," copyright Paramount Pictures.

 

 

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All original content is Marcia Jessen, 2007