The Beloved Rogue (1927) is probably John Barrymore’s greatest silent film, with the possible exception of the previous year’s Don Juan. It’s as worthy a representation of the Great Profile in the silent era as Svengali and Twentieth Century are in the age of sound pictures. Likewise, it’s a reminder that the great Barrymore was once a swashbuckling hero of much the same caliber as Douglas Fairbanks — and without that annoying, show-off grin that sometimes made you want to slap Doug silly!
One of the many fascinating things about Barrymore was that he never took his matinee-idol status very seriously. That he was almost unbelievably handsome and boasted an athlete’s body (before drink dissipated both attributes) was of little interest to him, and he delighted in covering his features with grotesque makeups (if the role didn’t allow for that, he would make faces whenever possible) and poking fun at himself. Of course, this only made him all the more attractive!
And nowhere is this more obvious than in The Beloved Rogue, a wild historical romp depicting the life of French poet Francois Villon (Barrymore) and his trials with King Louis XI (Conrad Veidt in his Hollywood debut). This film may also be the one time where Barrymore let another actor nearly steal his thunder: Veidt’s Louis XI is an intensely macabre performance that Barrymore himself might have envied (and which Basil Rathbone would more than slightly copy when the story was remade in 1938 as If I Were King).
Though always a generous performer, it was rare that Barrymore would let anyone walk off with the grotesquerie honors, as he does here. The Beloved Rogue is also a film truly worthy of him — a big, beautifully designed production by the great William Cameron Menzies that was directed by the also great — and sadly neglected — Alan Crosland.
Crosland is one of those unfortunate filmmakers whose name is attached to one movie of such historical importance that it overshadows the rest of his career. In his case, it was The Jazz Singer — a double whammy, since the movie’s importance as a document of history far outweighs its quality. Crosland is deserving of a major revisionary look these days. Try this film and Don Juan, and also check out his early musical On With the Show! (where Ethel Waters introduced “Am I Blue?”), or his other Jolson outing, Big Boy. Or even try some of his last films — mysteries like The Case of the Howling Dog and The White Cockatoo.
There’s a lot more to Crosland than The Jazz Singer! But then I’m probably the only person you’re likely to meet who has a Swedish poster for the director’s 1935 Edmund Lowe comedy-mystery, Mr. Dynamite, on one of his walls. So, admittedly, I’m a little prejudiced. Still, don’t miss The Beloved Rogue for both its director and its star at their peaks.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[Cinema in the Park will screen The Beloved Rogue at dark (about 8:30 p.m.) on Saturday Sept. 25 in Pritchard Park.]