If I Were King Blu-ray Review

4 Stars Witty comic adventure tale based on a classic play.
If I Were King Screenshot

Poet and king face off for a battle of wits and witticisms in Frank Lloyd’s If I Were King, the 1938 remake of Justin Huntly McCarthy’s much filmed play with rogue poet François Villon and King Louis XI of France as principal protagonist and antagonist.

If I Were King (1938)
Released: 11 Nov 1938
Rated: Passed
Runtime: 101 min
Director: Frank Lloyd
Genre: Adventure, History
Cast: Ronald Colman, Basil Rathbone, Frances Dee
Writer(s): Justin Huntly McCarthy, Lou Smith, Preston Sturges
Plot: Vagabond poet François Villon rises to high office in 1463 Paris.
IMDB rating: 7.1
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Paramount
Distributed By: Kino Lorber
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 41 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: keep case
Disc Type: BD25 (single layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 02/07/2023
MSRP: $24.95

The Production: 4.5/5

Poet and king face off for a battle of wits and witticisms in Frank Lloyd’s If I Were King, the 1938 remake of Justin Huntly McCarthy’s much filmed and much performed play with rogue poet François Villon and King Louis XI of France as principal protagonist and antagonist. There were several silent versions of the comic drama and two operetta versions with tunes by Rudolf Friml made almost three decades apart, but Lloyd’s 1938 sound version is its definitive rendition with a splendid cast of legendary actors and all of the style and substance that Paramount had at its command during Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Surrounded by a mammoth Burgundian army, Paris has been under siege for weeks with the French army outnumbered and the people beginning to starve when King Louis XI (Basil Rathbone) learns that his reigning Grand Constable (John Miljan) has been a traitor to France and has been killed in a skirmish of soldiers and peasants by vagabond poet François Villon (Ronald Colman). Louis had overheard Villon bragging about being able to govern better than the king himself, so he’s brought to the palace and dubbed the Count de Montcorbier, the new Grand Constable completely in charge of making legal decisions about ruling Paris while the king will evaluate his work in deciding whether he lives or dies. Villon’s charitable kindness instantly makes new friends for the king who has waited a long time to hear anyone in his kingdom chant, “God save the King!” But there is still the problem of the invading Burgundians, and with a completely uncooperative army, Villon only has five days in which to save the city or find his head on a gibbet.

Two-time Oscar winning director Frank Lloyd is at the helm of this slick, smoothly flowing entertainment, but it’s screenwriter Preston Sturges, soon to be a director in his own right, who can lay claim to making the oft-familiar narrative something fresh and special with his sparkling, ingratiating screenplay. The natty poems and sly witticisms that he’s imbued his leading man with are sheer delight, and he’s done just as well by the crafty, cackling king who’s himself something of a rascal, obviously delighted to find a kindred spirit in the roguish Villon. The lavish sets are often breathtaking to view, and Paramount’s “continental style” of the era makes them even more showpieces to be celebrated, abetted nicely by Edith Head’s costumes, lavish for the royals and tattered for the peasants. Lloyd’s direction of the film’s two main action set pieces, the first encounter of the soldiers with the peasants raiding the king’s food storehouses and the climactic battle between the army and the Burgundians when the peasants of Paris manage to turn the tide in the city’s favor, aren’t particularly distinctive; Lloyd didn’t seem to instinctually focus on certain characters to see the fortunes of the fighting rise and fall, but he otherwise handles other sequences with some panache.

Ronald Colman was born to play François Villon. With that mellifluous voice he possessed and his charming, charismatic screen presence (as well as a swarthy way with a sword), he’s a natural for the vagabond scoundrel able to woo the ladies with great aplomb and make hearty friends with all of the nearby males. Basil Rathbone steals every scene he’s in as King Louis, cackling and ambling about stooped over but ever on guard against fools and foolishness. He earned an Oscar nomination for his performance and should have won the award; alas, Walter Brennan’s friends in the Screen Extras Guild who were allowed to vote then swept him to his second Oscar victory in three years. Both of Villon’s love interests merit a word. Frances Dee is lovely and sincere as the gracious Lady Katherine DeVaucelles, but she’s overshadowed by Ellen Drew’s gritty, amorous Huguette, the film’s best female performance. C.V. France makes an earnest and loving Father Villon, François’s foster father, while Walter Kingsford and Ralph Forbes add delicious fun to the proceedings as the king’s loyal assistants. Heather Thatcher has a hilarious moment as the Queen who’s flummoxed by the idea of no eggs for breakfast while Cecil B. DeMille favorite Henry Wilcoxon has a moment or two in the spotlight as the Captain of the Watch. Montagu Love, Lester Matthews, and William Farnum (who’d played Villon himself in one of the silent versions) make a trio of despicably cowardly generals.

Video: 3.5/5

3D Rating: NA

Billed as a new 2K master, the 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully executed in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. Universal engineers haven’t done their best with the transfer leaving untouched several small scratches and one lengthy one along the left side of the frame that lasts for several minutes at the start of the movie. There are some emulsion fluctuations, too, that give momentary pause as well though the image itself is nicely sharp and detailed. The movie has been divided into 8 chapters.

Audio: 4.5/5

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix has a bit of tinniness about it though dialogue is certainly easy to discern. Richard Hageman’s background music and the various sound effects have been neatly combined into the single track, and there is no hiss, crackle, pops, or flutter to distract from the listening experience.

Special Features: 2/5

Audio Commentary: film historian Julie Kirgo provides a chatty and comforting commentary identifying the leading players and giving background on their careers. It’s odd in mentioning all of the versions of this story that she didn’t mention the two sound musical versions (the last made in VistaVision in 1956, still under Paramount’s control) though she does have quite a lot to talk about during the film’s running time.

Theatrical Trailer (2:10, SD)

Kino Trailers: Beau Geste, Union Pacific, Arabian Nights, Reap the Wild Wind, Against All Flags.

Overall: 4/5

Frank Lloyd’s 1938 version of If I Were King is the definitive film version of this notable and oft-filmed tale. Fans of the stars or the story will likely be delighted with this Kino Lorber Blu-ray edition.

Matt has been reviewing films and television professionally since 1974 and has been a member of Home Theater Forum’s reviewing staff since 2007, his reviews now numbering close to three thousand. During those years, he has also been a junior and senior high school English teacher earning numerous entries into Who’s Who Among America’s Educators and spent many years treading the community theater boards as an actor in everything from Agatha Christie mysteries to Stephen Sondheim musicals.

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Indy Guy

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Tony Baxter
Excellent review! I viewed the blu ray last night and agreed with everything you detailed about the transfer and the story content.
As I watched, I couldn't help but think of the potential to musicalize the story, and your review mentions that this was actually done...
Since Paramount has not released that musical VistaVision version called "The Vagabond King," it must have been a major misfire. Has anyone seen the film to know if this is true?
 

PODER

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PETER JABLONSKI
Excellent review! I viewed the blu ray last night and agreed with everything you detailed about the transfer and the story content.
As I watched, I couldn't help but think of the potential to musicalize the story, and your review mentions that this was actually done...
Since Paramount has not released that musical VistaVision version called "The Vagabond King," it must have been a major misfire. Has anyone seen the film to know if this is true?
Both the 1930 and the 1956 version are covered at some length on IMDb. The '56 version had Oreste Kirkop, one of those One Film Wonders, as Villon. Kathryn Grayson and Rita Morena are the female stars. Neither version has yet received a legal DVD issue, although DVDr versions are available from the usual sources.
 

Matt Hough

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The 1956 The Vagabond King was a box-office flop, but if you like the operetta genre, it's an enjoyable watch, and the score is gloriously sung. I have it on a VHS tape (open matte, of course). If I'm not mistaken, the 1930 version was also a disappontment at the box-office.
 

Indy Guy

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Tony Baxter
The 1956 The Vagabond King was a box-office flop, but if you like the operetta genre, it's an enjoyable watch, and the score is gloriously sung. I have it on a VHS tape (open matte, of course). If I'm not mistaken, the 1930 version was also a disappontment at the box-office.
Thanks for the info!
I found a bad YouTube print...(less than 90 minutes?) It was interesting by comparison to the earlier Colman film. For a frothy musical it felt less comical and more labored than the brilliant banter in this earlier version.
 
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