Monday, January 18, 2016

SCARAMOUCHE (MGM 1952) Warner Home Video

Few motion pictures are as majestically tricked out in all the finery on display in George Sidney’s lavishly appointed remake of Scaramouche (1952); one of the best, if, in fact, not the best swashbucklers ever made; a huge thing, exhilarating in Technicolor, with ferociously opulent art direction by Cedric Gibbons and Hans Peters, cribbing from Metro’s huge consignment of props and costumes amassed nearly two decades before, for producer, Irving Thalberg’s as mind-bogglingly decadent Marie Antoinette (1938). The resultant spectacle is a thrilling adventure yarn, revamped by screenwriters, Ronald Millar and George Froeschel and based on the lurid Raphael Sabatini tale. Scaramouche possesses all the vim and vigor of an untamed lion let loose from its cage; a noble beast of immaculate pedigree and breeding, and, with an all-star cast to boot. Better known and regarded for his musicals, director, George Sidney nevertheless brings a manly vitality to this prudent piece of film fantasy, unseen since screen legend, Ramón Novarro set female hearts aflutter in the silent version from 1923. The 52’ remake stars beefy, Stewart Granger (whose real name was James Stewart); considered – then – as something of a response, or perhaps successor, to the cod piece, lacy undershirts and tights retired by Errol Flynn over at Warner Brothers.
Indeed, Scaramouche was something of a hand-me-down for Granger, who came to the role thrice denied him; first assigned to Gene Kelly, then Fernando Lamas, and finally, Ricardo Montalban. It seems only Kelly was ever taken seriously by Metro’s front offices. As early as 1938, MGM had plotted to retell their exuberant silent feature about a pauper who discovers the French aristocrat he most readily despises – and conspires to destroy in a climactic duel – is none other than his estranged brother. With Kelly as the lead, the plans were to co-star Ava Gardner as the sultry Lenore and Elizabeth Taylor as the winsome Aline. Taylor had already completed another faux historical epic, Ivanhoe (1952) – ravishing as the epitomized incarnation of Sir Walter Scott’s heroine, Rebecca and garnering rave reviews for her acting too. Even better, MGM was experiencing something of a minor cultural renaissance in costume epics; a sub-genre, thought to be dead after the war. Alas, the fallow period of the early forties had deprived audiences of such spectacles; changing tastes once more veering toward the proverbial cast of thousands, indulging in some daring do from days gone by.
It all came together rather spectacularly in Scaramouche; Granger’s devil-may-care cast opposite the deliciously sinful, Eleanor Parker (Metro’s Henna-headed answer to Maureen O’Hara) and their own homegrown virgin-esque/doe-eyed beauty, Janet Leigh. Scaramouche also sports a formidable villain in Mel Ferrer, superbly cast as the unscrupulous Noel, the Marquis de Maynes. In the part of the elder statesman, Georges de Valmorin, Metro turned to an inspired choice: veteran, Lewis Stone, who had played the Marquis in the silent version; long since gone on to become a beloved ‘father-figure’ in the Andy Hardy movies. Casting aside, Scaramouche is an immense achievement in other ways: Millar and Froeschel’s fast-paced screenplay – indulging in light comedy and high melodrama, capped off by a mesmerizing eight and a half minute clash of crossed swords; composer, Victor Young’s exuberant underscore – almost as exhilarating as the action and Charles Rosher’s spellbinding cinematography (absolutely gorgeous). In short, Scaramouche attained its mantel of quality from top to bottom unsurpassed; a supreme exemplar of the in-house style Metro was capable of when all its multifaceted departments were conspiring in unison to scale even greater heights in screen entertainment.
In retrospect, Scaramouche marks a rather sad farewell to the big and showy costume epic – one of the last all-out investments Metro would make, and, at a time when costs were skyrocketing, while profits were decidedly on the wane. A glimmer of anxiety had already begun to permeate MGM’s New York offices; the abrupt ousting of founding father, L.B. Mayer by Loewe’s Incorporated President, Nick Schenck in 1950, and, the inevitable appointment and impact of his replacement, Dore Schary; mildly disturbing to the studio’s time-honored edicts for peerless glamour above all else. In hindsight, Schary’s as Mayer’s successor was rather poor casting; Schary’s liberalism, as well as his penchant for B-budgeted quick and dirty film noirs and crime thrillers, decidedly at odds with the ole glam-bam the studio was duly noted for and much celebrated in its prime. Still, it might have worked out. Times were changing. As Schary’s forte was neither the musical (a genre on which MGM had built something of an unimpeachable reputation through the years) or superficially glossy costume pictures and adventure yarns like Scaramouche, the newly appointed President gave every indication he would step aside and allow the creative brain trust responsible for such grandiosity to toil at will. For a time, Metro’s successes in these genres belied the fact Mayer had been unceremoniously deposed. Scaramouche is exactly the sort of movie Mayer would have green lit and championed from the sidelines. However, Schary’s verve and focus were never telescopically focused on ‘improving’ the studio or maintaining its status quo. In fact, he rather despised a goodly number of Metro’s high-priced stars – viewed with quiet contempt as spoiled children in need of a good shake up.
By the early fifties, even the old-timers lingering around the backlot were aware the age of prosperity Metro had enjoyed throughout the war years was fast coming to an end; the klieg lights already begun to dim, thanks in part to HUAC’s investigation of their most sacred cows; also, the introduction of television and subsequent rapid decline in theater attendance – to say nothing of the government’s Consent Decrees, forcing a divestiture of all remaining studio assets including the venerable ‘star system’. Schary had no stomach for stars anyway. He neither cared for long-term contracts, nor did he aspire to become a star maker in Mayer’s league. Interestingly, by the end of the decade, Schary would find himself in the proverbial ‘hot seat’ over MGM’s most lavishly produced costume spectacle to date; 1957’s Raintree County – a picture he had emphatically signed off on to overcompensate for his own misfires along the way, but whose fiscal implosion at the box office effectively – and prematurely – put a period to his reign.   
Originally published in 1921, Raphael Sabatini's Scaramouche became something of an instant literary classic. Born from the author's fertile imagination, the novel ingeniously intertwines fictional characters with real-life intrigues surrounding the French Revolution.  In retrospect, it is easy to see why Sabatini’s artful manipulations translated so well into Hollywood’s own mythologized folklore readily being peddled as ‘history’. The ’23 version of Scaramouche was, in fact, a colossal smash hit; one of Metro’s earliest period epics. Alas, today the merits of this silent version have been all but eclipsed by George Sidney's more perfumed confection.  Regrettably lost in translation are Sabatini’s darker elements; his brooding and lusty flavor, replaced by a striking use of Technicolor. Indeed, 1938’s Marie Antoinette had been conceived by Thalberg as an early Technicolor masterpiece, its sets and costumes all designed to take full advantage of its spectrum of rainbow hues; the decision to shoot that picture in B&W instead, Mayer’s after Thalberg’s untimely death in 1936, to keep the already skyrocketing costs down. In visual terms, Scaramouche is an embarrassment of riches; the real benefactor of Thalberg’s meticulous planning.
In the novel, Andre Moreau is an educated lawyer; embittered, cynical and living with his godfather, M. de Kercadiou, who seeks to keep from his young charge the true identity of his parentage. In the ’52 revamp, Moreau (Stewart Granger) is more or less on his own; a rather light-hearted scamp whose long-standing engagement to travelling stage performer, Lenore (Eleanor Parker) is something of an ongoing joke. Commitment shy to a fault, Moreau skillfully eludes any and all of Lenore's plotting entrapment. This, of course, leads to considerable friction in their relationship but never to any vial deceptions or enduring ill will and mistrust. As in the novel, Moreau has an idealist for a best friend; Phillipe de Valmorin (Richard Anderson) who is as pure of spirit and filled with romanticized optimism as Moreau has become life’s most wily – if open-hearted – cynic. Their boyhood friendship is doomed to tragedy however; Philippe, part of the revolution, having incurred the Queen’s displeasure and challenged by her sadistic cousin, Noel, Marquis de Maynes (Mel Ferrer) to a duel at a local tavern. Noel delights in toying with Phillipe, affording him a few hollow victories at the point of his sword before slaying Phillipe under the guise of striking down a traitor to the crown.
The Marquis is first cousin to Marie Antoinette (Nina Foch) and currently courting one of the Queen's youngest balletic protégés, Aline de Gavrillic (Janet Leigh) who, through a series of misconceptions, Moreau comes to mistake as his sister - thus wounding his burgeoning affections toward her. De Valmorin's father, Georges (Lewis Stone) keeps a watchful eye on Moreau, whom he regards with the same affection as his late son. But Moreau's burning desire is to avenge Phillipe’s murder. Moreau is branded a traitor to the crown, forcing him into exile. To conceal his identity from Noel and his guardsman, Chevallier de Chambrillaine (Henry Wilcoxon), Moreau disguises himself as Scaramouche - a travelling performer with the Commedia dell'Arte, who, presumably, is so hideously fantastic he must perpetually hide behind a pointy-nosed mask. Lenore keeps Moreau's secret, hoping their now close working relationship will end in a marriage proposal. However, in his time away from performances at the theatre, Moreau attends daily training to perfect his art of swordsmanship, studying with Mayne’s tutor, Doutreval (John Dehner) and later, Perigore (Richard Hale); the man who taught Doutreval – systemically honing skills for his own planned hour of revenge against Noel.
The Millar/Froeschel screenplay considerably simplifies the novel's third act, choosing to focus on the ever-constricting romantic intrigues involving Leonore, Aline and Moreau. In fact, the novel's last third - detailing the deluge of the French Revolution (which was depicted in the 23’ version) is entirely dropped from this remake. Lenore, who has good reason to be jealous of Aline - realizing she is in love with Moreau and vice versa - convinces Aline (who is engaged to Noel) to stay away from Moreau for his own safety. The ruse works, except Aline finds excuses why Noel should remain at her side rather than entertain Moreau's demands for satisfaction in a public duel. Noel sends various guardsmen in his stead to settle the score in rather clandestine rendezvous. But Noel has underestimated Andre’s resolve as well as all the skills he has acquired with a sword since their last confrontation. Time and again, Moreau dispatches with Noel’s seconds – even, Chambrillaine, whom he merely wounds in battle.  Some of the others are not nearly as lucky.
Exasperated, Noel declares he will challenge Moreau on his own terms. Once more, Aline intervenes, first by feigning a fainting spell, then, by begging her fiancée to attend the theatre as he had promised earlier, unaware Scaramouche is performing that very evening. Regrettably, Aline discovers this too late from their opera box. Moreau removes his mask, stopping the performance and openly challenging Noel to a duel to the death. In the resulting clash of swords, Moreau proves a formidable foe, wounding Noel in both shoulders before preparing to finish him off. At the last possible moment, a queer sense of honor – or perhaps, acute chivalry intervenes in Andre’s well-laid plans. He cannot finish Noel off, casting the tip of his sword into the floor boards before storming off. Some hours later, the theater cleared of its onlookers, Moreau returns to mope, Georges, who has been waiting for his return, revealing to Andre that his real father was the late Marquis de Mayne. He and Noel are, in fact, brothers.  The truth of their long secret parentage exposed, Moreau is elated to realize he and Aline are not, as he once supposed, brother and sister. As Andre is now free to pursue Aline as his wife, Lenore noble steps aside. In the final moments, Aline and Moreau are glimpsed aboard their wedding carriage. Lenore tosses the happy couple a bouquet of flowers from her balcony window; Moreau drawing nearer to indulge in their fragrance, only to have a small, though harmless, explosive device powder his face in black soot. Laughing off the insult as ultimately well deserved, Moreau bids a fond farewell to Lenore, and she to him, before giving a flirtatious nod to her new suitor in training; none other than Napoleon Bonaparte (Aram Katcher).
In these final moments of light-hearted screwball badinage, Scaramouche – the movie – betrays the conclusion to Raphael Sabatini’s rather dark and harrowing novel. Yet, it retains Sabatini’s flair for flamboyance. And, it thoroughly satisfies as only a romantic fantasy made by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in its heyday can. Indeed, George Sidney’s training in the musical mélange is a perfect fit for this effervescent rendering of the classic tale; imbued with a sense of the miraculous in the everyday and a light, gentle touch, immeasurably augmented by Metro’s shimmering patina of silken gloss. Like other movies similarly set in MGM’s ersatz facsimile of ancient France, Scaramouche benefits immensely from Thalberg's massive consignment of sets, props and costumes first acquired for Marie Antoinette. The unprecedented authenticity of display is one of the film’s best features. The theater hosting Moreau and Noel’s penultimate duel is an amalgam of rooms and antechambers redressed from the palace sets; also the oft used theater set, best utilized in 1936’s San Francisco; herein draped in elegant silk bunting, with urns of ferns and flaming red drapes and carpets; its upper boxes and ceiling a clever amalgam of miniatures and matte paintings; the courtiers and courtesans all wearing Marie Antoinette’s 1938 hand-me-downs. Keen eyes will also recognize the B&W spandex costume Moreau wears during this battle royale as attire first worn by Gene Kelly for the artist's ball sequence in An American In Paris (1950). If all - or at least, most - of Scaramouche's trappings come to this picture second best, it matters not; the movie truly one of the biggest, splashiest adventure yarns ever produced by MGM. 
Outstanding performances dominate. Stewart Granger has never been better. He moves with the agility of a jungle cat. For Granger, the athletically challenging fencing sequences were an aesthetic hard won during rehearsals when costar, Mel Ferrer, accidentally wounded him with his sword. Ferrer was not the accomplished fencer; learning these routines as a dancer might study his choreography – on beats. Granger, however, came to the cause with formidable training from the English stage. He could duel and ride a horse with ease; both skills readily on display in the final edit. As Lenore, Eleanor Parker is a vibrant temptress - a quality the actress, regrettably, never exercised so richly elsewhere in her film career. There is a mouthwatering adversarial quality to her romantic sparring with Granger; an even more noble – if enterprising - banter established between Lenore and Janet Leigh’s immaculately attired ingénue. We can believe in all of these conflicted relationships because the actors are giving everything to the cause and vice versa; the script, tightly woven around their lover’s triangles with the Shakespearean-styled revenge/tragedy thrown in for good measure.
Director George Sidney, primarily known for his work on some of MGM’s best-loved musicals, delivers a potent, adroit and eye-popping spectacle par excellence. No expense has been spared. Even more impressive, the stunt work is all full scale, done without the aid of doubles; Ferrer and Granger doing all of their own fencing, clinging desperately to the edges of a third story balcony ledge without the benefit of a safety net. In all, Scaramouche remains immensely satisfying. It breathes in the magnificence of two bygone eras; Sabatini’s re-envisioning of the French Court and, alas (and perhaps even more bitter-sweetly) the prematurely retirement of Metro-Goldwyn-magic. This movie has aged as fine wine and art ought; expelled with sumptuousness and a bubbly excitement; a rollicking adventure that continues to tantalize beyond the footlights. Point blank: Scaramouche is just one hell of a good show. It deserves our renewed viewing and admiration.
Warner Home Video has merely given us an adequate DVD. I am going to champion support herein for Scaramouche to make the leap to Blu-ray via the Warner Archive. Of late, I have been impressed with Warner’s commitment to classics in hi-def via the archive and can find no good reason not to nominate this picture next for equal consideration. Besides, Scaramouche could certainly benefit from the upgrade. First off: Warner will need to do some serious clean-up on the original elements. On the DVD, virtually no attempt has been made to eradicate age-related artifacts. The steadfastness of the original Technicolor dyes retains richly saturated hues. Black levels are velvety dark. Whites are, on the whole, very clean. Alas, occasional shrinkage of the three-strip color negative has creates some very disturbing – if, temporary – halos. These instances need to be corrected before Scaramouche can make the leap to hi-def. Let’s hope someone at Warner is listening and seriously considering as much. Thankfully, digital anomalies (pixelization, edge enhancement, aliasing and shimmering) are mostly absent from this DVD transfer. Apart from the aforementioned shortcomings, this is a very smooth visual presentation. The audio is mono but nicely balanced. Extras include Mel Ferrer’s brief recollections on the making of the film, an essay on swordplay, a Tom and Jerry cartoon short and Scaramouche's original theatrical trailer. If Warner ever decides to revisit this title in hi-def it would be prudent to include the original silent classic as a double feature. We’ll recommend the DVD for now, but sincerely wait in the hope of better things.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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