“Strange, these men never take notice of their wives until I take a fancy to them.”
I am not a huge fan of swashbucklers or period pieces. Alright maybe I lied a little, I love Gone with the Wind and The Adventures of Robin Hood and a few others period pieces but they are in no way my absolute favorite kinds of films. I find them to be stuffing and boring especially ones that take place before the 19th Century like during the French Revolution or the American Revolution. I am not really interested in learning about history before the 19th Century. Occasionally I do make exceptions and watch period pieces. I mostly have to do this with poor Olivia de Havilland who seems in her early career to have only played period roles. I had to make the exception with a once lost John Gilbert film called Bardelys the Magnificent and I absolutely loved it.
The Count de Bardely (Gilbert) is the lady’s man of 18th Century France. He takes women single or married. At a court party he is kissing another man’s wife and does not let her go even after her husband walks in the room. He goes on kissing the woman in front of her husband as if the situation was a daily occurrence. Bardelys and the husband get into a sword fight. The fight ends with Bardelys fighting the husband out the door with his wife. A young woman at the party shows two other women her necklace with what is apparently a lock of Bardelys hair in it. In her mind the woman must have thought she was very special. In reality Bardelys has given a locket just like hers to several different women, some of them even at the same party, and the lock of hair is from a wig.
Bardelys rival the Comte Chatellerault has come for a visit. The first woman he bothers is Roxalanne de Lavedon (Eleanor Boardman). He asks her to marry him as he done countless times and she says no. Angry, Chatellerault tells her to take the matter up with the king who does not trust her father’s loyalty. Roxalanne tells Chatellerault that she hated him already and now she despises him. As he is backing away from Roxalanne he falls over a footstool and gets laughed at. His pride is wounded at the laughing and at the story circulating around the whole court and especially when it reaches Bardelys. Chatellerault makes a bet with Bardelys to try to get Roxalanne to marry him. Bardelys says he can win any woman he wants but he does not want a wife. To make the bet official even though Bardelys does not want to go through with it Chatellerault draws up a contract and signs it. If he wins Bardelys has to give up his castle. Bardelys signs it out of honor more than actually wanting to go through with it. The king does not want Bardelys to take the bet because Lavedon will die by the sword. Bardelys wants to keep his honor and take the bet. The king tells him if he leaves he will have his men after him. That night Bardelys leaves the court.
On the road Bardelys comes across a wounded man in a barn. The man’s name is Rene de Lesperon. He asks Bardelys to give a girl a necklace but he dies before he can say what girl and where. Bardleys goes to an inn. The king’s knights are there and ask what his name is. Bardleys give his name as Rene de Lesperon. He fights the knights and manages to get away even though he is wounded. He comes to the Lavedon castle, Roxalanne is there. They do not know who the other is. They talk and she takes care of his wound. The knights find his sword outside of Lavedon’s castle. They go into Roxalanne’s room to question her. She has Bardelys hidden behind a curtain behind her bed. With the guards and Roxalanne’s father out of the room Bardelys decides he must leave. He kisses Roxalanne so she will not forget him. Bardelys falls off the balcony while trying to climb down. In the morning he awakens in a bed. Lavedon saved him. Roxalnne is not happy with him for kissing her the night before. Lavedon believes that Bardelys is Rene de Lesperon since he had the dead man’s papers on him. It turns out de Lesperon was head of a revolt against the king.
News comes that Bardelys is supposed to be coming to the house from his men that arrived at the house that morning. Bardelys as de Lesperon tells Lavedon to throw the men out of the castle. Lavedon is very happy to oblige. That same day a letter comes saying that Bardelys in a bet to marry Roxalanne. The whole family is upset now because her name is a subject of gossip. Bardelys takes Roxalanne on a boat to be alone. He tells her he loves her but he has to settle something and he will return to her. When they dock the boat the neighbor who is loyal to the king tells them he has found out that de Lesperon is engaged. Bardelys tells him he has never heard of the woman before. After that Bardelys leaves to go settle his debt. The neighbor comes back with a letter from de Lesperon’s fiancée. The fiancée wrote that she wants him to come home and does not mind that he has had several other women in the mean time. Roxalanne is furious with him. He tries to tell her who he really is but he does not say it in time. As he is leaving the king’s knights show up. Roxalanne calls out to the guards that Rene de Lesperon is on his horse. The knights take him away.
Bardelys is brought to trial. Chatellerault is one of the judges. He charges Bardelys as de Lesperon. Chatellerualt is the only one who knows who Bardelys really is but he does not acknowledge him. Roxalanne goes to see Bardelys in prison. She tells him she is sorry for giving him up and that she will always love him. Desperate to save Bardelys, Roxalanne goes to see Chatellerault. She is willing to sacrifice herself for Bardelys and marry Chatellerault. Fortunately Bardelys manages to get away just as the rope was to go around his neck.
The king comes just in time to identify who Bardelys really is. Bardelys finds Chatellerault alone with Roxalanne. He writes a contract that Chatellerault has won the bet and owns his castle. Chatellerault says it is too late he has already made a marriage contract with Roxalanne. The two men break out into a sword fight. The king comes in and orders Chatellerault arrested. Instead of being disgraced Chatellerault falls on his sword.
John Gilbert was amazing. I can see why he was so popular and adored. Even in his awful girlish 18th Century French costumes and bad wig he was still incredibly handsome and charming. I just completely fell in love with him the moment he came on screen. Gilbert’s facial expressions and body language were wonderful they were never over the top. Eleanor Boardman was fantastic. Like Gilbert she had great facial expressions and body language. John Gilbert and Eleanor Boardman had excellent chemistry together they were perfect.
King Vidor’s direction deserves so much credit for making this film wonderful. There were two scenes that really struck me. The first was when Bardelys fells from the balcony. I have an idea of how it was filmed but it is hard for me to explain. It is obvious that Vidor did not make John Gilbert actually fall and then keep zooming the camera as he fell. For some reason I just really liked the way that was filmed. The second is when Bardelys and Roxalanne are on the boat together. Vidor shot the scene with the boat floating through the long branches of weeping willows. The close ups of Gilbert were incredible. You can tell on his face just how much Bardelys really loves Roxalanne. Eleanor Boardman looked beautiful in this scene. What I liked most about the way this was filmed how it is as if the audience was on the boat with them. Vidor had the branches of the willow brush against the camera as if we were on the boat with the actors. Several times Gilbert had to brush the branches away. That brushing away of the branches made the scene more realistic and, to me, more beautiful. It is as though the branches and leaves added a little bit of mystery to the romance (you can watch the scene here). I also have to mention the scene where Bardelys manages to get away from the gallows. That scene was intense! Vidor got some fantastic shots. I thought it was awesome how Bardelys used the blade of a pike to climb up the stairs (you would have to see the scene it was so clever. watch the scene here).
Bardelys the Magnificent is now one of my favorite silent films I have seen. The story and the setting were alright, like I said at the beginning I am not a huge fan of period pieces. I just absolutely loved the acting and the direction. For many years Bardelys the Magnificent was thought lost. Not too long ago a copy of it was found but its third reel was missing. To compensate for the missing reel a few scenes from the trailer were added along with still photographs and scene direction from the shooting script. It is a bummer that the reel is missing but at the same time it is really cool to see how they were put together from the trailer and still photographs. The restoration makes every scene and actor look beautiful. Bardelys the Magnificent is a silent film I highly, highly recommend seeing.