If I Were King (1938): Frank Lloyd’s Oscar-Nominated Adventure, Adapted by Preston Sturges, Starring Basil Rathbone

Inspired by the legend of the rebel poet François Villon, If I Were King, Frank Lloyd’s Oscar-nominated adventure tale, is set in 14th century France during the reign of Louis XI.

Well produced, this amusing swashbuckler, based on a play by Justin McCarthy, was wittily adapted to the screen by Preston Sturges.

The source materials, Villon’s exploits, were exploited by Hollywood numerous times: They were filmed as “The Beloved Rogue” (1927) with John Barrymore, and later as the musical “The Vagabond King” on Broadway and onscreen.
The costume drama opens with Paris surrounded by the forces of the Duke of Burgundy, whose armies have laid siege to the city, aiming to starve out King Louis XI (Basil Rathbone, in a riveting, Oscar-nominated performance), a wily, cruel monarch.
Burgundy has succeeded in forcing Louis to hunker down and in starving the common people of Paris. The one man in Paris with the right courage is François Villon (Ronald Colman), a gifted poet and speaker who understands the needs and wishes of the common people.

When first meet, he is leading a raid on the king’s storehouse for sorely needed food and wine. Pursued by the king’s guards, he accidentally crosses paths with Louis himself — trying to uncover a nest of traitors — at a tavern, and is captured. Louis would normally have Villon put to death without a second thought, but the rebel poet has done him the service of killing a treasonous officer, and has also piqued the king’s interest with his notion of inspiring loyalty rather than fear in his subjects. The king wishes to show Villon that it isn’t always easy, even with all of the power of the crown on one’s side, to rule a kingdom, or even the capitol city of a kingdom. Louis appoints Villon to the post of Constable of France, in command of military and police authorities, and in charge of the army.

Villon dispenses justice in a way that makes his followers love the king. But he is less successful at getting the titled nobility on his side, or the generals to rally their armies for breaking the siege; he is also distracted from his task by his romantic entanglements, with Ellen Drew as the girl of the streets who loves Villon, and Frances Dee as the lady-in-waiting to the queen.

Director Frank Lloyd, better known for his 1935 Oscar winner “Mutiny on the Bounty,” tells vigorously a lusty and witty tale, from a smart screenplay by Sturges, before he himself became a director.

Sturges added translations of Villon’s poetry to the original script. But the real interest and fun for most viewers were the witty and juicy performances of Colman and Rathbone as the antagonists, each trying to outsmart the other. In the end, Villon realizes that he must save Paris in order to keep from losing his head.

Oscar Nominations: 4

Supporting Actor: Basil Rathbone
Interior Decoration: Hans Dreier and John Goodman
Sound Recording: Loren L. Ryder
Original Score: Richard Hageman

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:
The winner of the Supporting Actor Oscar was Walter Brennan for “Kentucky.”
The Art Direction Oscar went to Carl J. Weyl for “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” which also won Original Score for Wolfgang Korngold.
Thomas Moulton won the Sound Oscar for “The Cowboy and the Lady.”

Running time: 100 Minutes.
Directed by Frank Lloyd
Written by Justin Huntly McCarthy, Preston Sturges
Released: November 11, 1938.
DVD: August 4, 1998