Sunday, April 14, 2013

Bardelys the Magnificent (1926)

Director: King Vidor                                    Writer: Dorothy Farnum
Film Score: R.H. Bassett                            Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Starring: John Gilbert, Eleanor Boardman, Lionel Belmore and Arthur Lubin

There’s been an unfortunate trend in recent silent film restoration, that of casting aside the original titles and substituting modern, digital titles. To me, this has a very negative effect in watching the film. We go from the obvious motion of film in a camera and then cut to the completely static and sterile title cards and back again. I find it too disjointed and it disrupts the film in a way that makes it impossible to enjoy in the way that it was intended. This is certainly the case in Bardelys the Magnificent with John Gilbert, and the film suffers for it, though through no fault of its own. There are also some sections missing in the film because the original negative was destroyed by MGM rather than renew their rights to the work.

The film was based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini, and begins as a fairly standard costume drama set during the reign of Louis the XIII with Gilbert as a Don Juan character. After teasing on of the counts of the court because he couldn’t get Eleanor Boardman to marry him, the count challenges Gilbert to a wager, betting his entire estate that Gilbert can’t get her to marry him. Gilbert has no intention of getting married, but his pride gets the better of him and he accepts--even over the express orders of the king not to. I had never seen a Gilbert film before, but was prompted after reading parts of his brilliant biography by Eve Golden. One discovery I made right from the beginning of the picture: Gilbert is a much better actor than Douglas Fairbanks. He is far more expressive and less histrionic, and despite the stylized acting of the period, is more interesting in close-ups.

Another factor than no doubt helps the film is the direction of King Vidor, who brought his wife, Eleanor Boardman into the project. Of course the two worked together on the critically acclaimed The Crowd, but she is a tremendous talent on her own and one wishes that she could have made the transition to sound and had a lengthy career similar to that of Lillian Gish. Also, Vidor had previously worked with Gilbert on the box office smash, The Big Parade. He would have done better to team them in a modern piece, instead of a costume drama, but it’s still a very good picture. It’s a myth that Gilbert’s voice is what killed him in the sound era. What did it is his insipid dialogue; you can tell he’s just saying whatever comes to mind in the film and it has nothing to do with the script. But it didn’t really matter in silent films. In sound, however, it did

The restoration in nicely done, except for the aforementioned titles, with a single blue tint for night scenes and a rich black-and-white for day. It would have been nice to have a larger orchestra for on the soundtrack, especially on a historical piece like this--one gets spoiled listening to Carl Davis--but it works. The lost sections are filled out with still photographs, zoomed in and panned in the manner of Ken Burns, and it works much better than simply leaving those sections out. The story is also rather terrific, and provides lots of entertainment and suspense. The one area where Gilbert is weak in is the fencing scenes, and Fairbanks has him beat by a long way in that respect. But overall, Bardelys the Magnificent is an entertaining silent film, and a wonderful introduction to John Gilbert.

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