Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Made in the years of desperation, when replacement studio chief Dore Schary was trying to
brace a failing, old-fashioned studio system, Scaramouche was one of MGM's
more entertaining features. Big glossy Technicolored movie stars breathing
heavily and fighting with swords still worked, mainly because the original story (filmed before
as a silent) is a good variation on the 'royal rascal' kind of theatrical capers lampooned
by Freed's musical unit the year before in
Singin' in the Rain. Good
direction, spirited playing, and gaudy color do the rest.
Revolution is in the air, and Marie Antoinette (Nina Foch) asks sadistic duellist
de Maynes (Mel Ferrer) to stop slaying liberal notables long enough to find the pamphleteer
Marcus Brutus. He does, in the person of young Phillipe de Valmorin (Richard Anderson), who he
slays in a trumped-up duel of honor. Witness to the murder is Phillipe's adopted brother Andre
Moreau (Stewart Granger), who drops his playboy habits of chasing the skirts of actress Lenore
(Eleanor Parker) and Aline de Gavrillac de Bourbon (Janet Leigh) to devote himself to de Maynes'
destruction. A poor swordsman, he studies with Doutreval (John Dehner) to master new skills, and
when the King's spies come to arrest him, takes on the disguise of Scaramouche, the masked star of
a variety show.
It's difficult to flub anything written by Alexandre Dumas or Rafael Sabatini, writers who surely
would have become bigtime action producers if they lived today. Scaramouche is a core
swashbuckler, that dependable subgenre requiring a dashing carefree hero, several wilting damsels,
an exciting historical setting and lots of furious fencing.
This George Sidney production lays on the talent and the glamour just as if the Golden Age of
Hollywood were still going strong, and succeeds. The plot is just sober enough to work, with a
comedic attitude that can turn serious whenever the hero furrows his eyebrows. Stewart
Granger was no great actor or romantic star, but he's serviceable and certainly up to the demands
of the action. It's just that he doesn't generate enough heat to motivate the mademoiselles
played by shy but drop-dead
gorgeous Janet Leigh, and the more directly sensual Eleanor Parker.
Janet Leigh is the favored actress, and is given choker closeups that fill the screen with her
flawless pink flesh and giant eyes. She must have begged director Sidney to give her the
treatment George Stevens gave Elizabeth Taylor in the previous year's
A Place in the Sun. Eleanor Parker is
every bit as appealing, but is let down by a script that needed an extra brush-up - most of her
dialogue isn't as clever as it wants to be. A few lines are properly provocative (Suitor: "I give
you this priceless bracelet to honor your eyes" Parker: "We'll have to get you interested in
the rest of me") but Parker has to work too hard most of the time.
The old story still plays like a gem, with Scarmouche given no end of amusing chases, confrontations,
and humorous moments with the leading ladies. There's a
neat section where various members of the National Assembly are eliminating each other in after-hours
duels. The cynical delight when the winners announce that the losers won't be returning -
permanently - is nicely done.
Andre Moreau is a rogue consumed by a vendetta, and thus is too busy to seduce Lenore. In a clever
twist of 'who's related to who', he also finds out he's Aline's half brother, just as he's making
some major moves on her. Both romances are frustrated, and the interest rises accordingly.
Mel Ferrer became stiff as a board in his later work, but in both Scaramouche and
the next year's Lili he shows great promise. Granger and Ferrer never make it to the status
of Flynn and Rathbone, but they aren't bad.
The highlight of the film is an exciting sword battle in the middle of a fancy theater, with Moreau
and de Maynes balancing on the edge of the balcony while trading fancy fencing moves. It's nicely
blocked and does indeed often look dangerous. It fits just under the best
battles in The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, The Mark of Zorro,
The Duellists, and Rob Roy. Technically, the fencing in Scaramouche is said
to be very fine, and that's what counts.
Nina Foch is a purring, pampered Marie Antoinette. Richard Anderson seems to be aboard to keep
the contract players working. John Dehner, notable as a rough type in later Westerns like
Man of the West, is smooth and
convincing as a master sword instructor. Barrie Chase is said to be in there somewhere, and we
get a chance to see actor Rex Reason (This Island Earth) in a short bit where we can
hear his strange, too-perfect voice.
Warner's DVD of Scaramouche looks great, with Technicolor hues that hang together very well.
I only noticed some inadequate encoding, on a door early on behind Nina Foch. Some odd scenes
with fringing around
the actors are a side-effect of imperfect travelling mattes; those and a few forced cutaways to the
femme leads during the Assembly scenes (where no women seem to be present) attest to possible
last-minute editorial reorganizing.
The main extra is an interview with an elderly but focused Mel Ferrer, who talks about the film
mostly in publicity terms. He perhaps overstates the dangers in filming the swordfights, but
one has to admit that it must be all too easy to lose an eye or get a nasty gash while filming
that stuff. The best thing he tells us is how actor Lewis Stone, playing an old man here,
was Andre Moreau in the original silent. We get to see a couple of clips from the old version, too.
Also included is a text rundown on fencing movies, that's mostly a list of titles. There's a
trailer for the movie with a tuxedo'ed Leo the MGM Lion, that's both odd and not very effective.
The show comes with a French track that turns it into an instant French film, and subs in English,
French and Spanish.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: Interview with Mel Ferrer,text essay on swordfighting in movies,
trailer, animated TV spot.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson