Saturday, January 19, 2013

In short: Scaramouche (1952)

France, a few years before the Revolution. Actor and charming rogue Andre Moreau (Stewart Granger doing what he does best) has to confront the more serious sides of life when the Queen's (Nina Foch) cousin, the Marquis de Maynes (Mel Ferrer), slaughters his best friend and foster brother in a duel for having written a pamphlet in praise of certain soon to be revolutionary principles. The poor boy never stood a chance against de Maynes, who isn't just the best duelist in France but also a man quite willing to use his abilities to get rid of any political enemy he can provoke into a fight.

Not being a swordsman himself Andre barely escapes with his life when he attempts to avenge his brother right on the spot. From this point onward, Andre dedicates his life to taking revenge on de Maynes, learning the art of fencing from the man's own fencing teacher and getting in trouble. On the way, our hero stumbles into the commedia dell'arte role of Scaramouche.

Further complications ensue because of love, for Andre has fallen for de Maynes's ward Aline de Gavrillac (Janet Leigh), as does de Maynes himself soon enough. Aline actually reciprocates Andre's feelings, alas, Andre thinks she is his half-sister (it's complicated), so the romance is rather a no-go for him, and he spends most of his time on a rather complicated (obviously) relationship with the actress Lenore (Eleanor Parker). It's a wonder all these - and more - plot lines will get tied up in less than two hours of running time.

As every fool knows, the swashbuckling genre was one of the things 40s and 50s Hollywood was particularly good at, which comes as no surprise when one keeps in mind how exactly the mixture of a colourful view of the past, grand emotions, and light consequences many swashbucklers prefer also is what the studio movies at the time were particularly good at; in that sense, one can see the swashbuckling adventure as the slightly more violent sister to the musical. With that sentence, I've done my duty of giving film historians apoplexy.

George Sidney's Scaramouche (of course based on Rafael Sabatini's novel) is a particularly fine example of the form with a particularly deft hand at gliding from high melodrama to silliness to fine quipping in front of eye-poppingly colourful backgrounds and back again in a most organic way that does remind me of dancing; again, I think there's an obvious parallel to musicals and the wuxia film here, though that may just be me. Be that as it may, I don't think it's any question its flow creates large parts of Scaramouche's impressive charms as a film in a genre that is all about the flow.

Apart from this, there are of course also some fine moments of old-style Hollywood acting by Granger, Leigh, Parker and Ferrer to praise, fanciful art direction to admire, swashbuckling deeds to thrill at, and so on, and so forth, until the sympathetic viewer will be left with the happiest of grins on her face; or so I, and quite obviously the film itself also, hope. As a bonus, Scaramouche is one of those swashbucklers where the female characters - even though they don't buckle any swashes - have a certain degree of personality and agency. It's even one where the "bad" (not that the film moralizes at her) girl may let the hero go into the arms of the "good" girl but where she doesn't have to run into a sword for him, instead finding better prospects of a kind.

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

It's a great fun movie.