Enjoyably old-fashioned Hollywood biopic, starring the master, George Arliss. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Cardinal Richelieu, the 1935 biopic from Fox starring George Arliss, Maureen O'Sullivan, Edward Arnold, Francis Lister, Douglass Dumbrille, and Cesar Romero. Based on the famous play by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Cardinal Richelieu keeps you hooked with its various well-plotted intrigues, its clever dialogue, and Arliss' quiet, cryptic, commanding performance--only the dopey O'Sullivan/Romero romance momentarily detracts. No extras for this sharp black and white fullscreen transfer.
The Vatican, 1630. French feudal lords entreat the Pope to stop King Louis XIII (Edward Arnold) from signing an edict, crafted by the King's Secretary of State, Armand Jean du Plessis, cardinal-duc de Richelieu et de Fronsac (George Arliss), that would strip the lords of their voting power and revenue. Meanwhile, back in France, Queen Marie (Violet Kemble Cooper) and Queen Anne (Katharine Alexander) plot with Huguenot Andre de Pons (Cesar Romero) to have Cardinal Richelieu removed from power--a political maneuver that almost works with the vacillating King until Richelieu emerges from a secret chamber and reasserts his quiet, diplomatic power. He easily refutes the charges that he took bribes to overlook taking lands in Normandy, and deflects criticism of taking tax money to build an even grander home than the King's by simply asserting he planned on giving the home to the King...when it's finally finished. Richelieu's goal through all of his maneuvering is clear: he wishes France to be united and strong, so as to thwart the Austro-Spanish Habsburg dynasty that threatens to overwhelm his weakened state. And the Cardinal will order the execution of anyone he deems a threat to that end. However, his resolve to live a political life over a religious one is shaken when he realizes his ward, Lenore (Maureen O'Sullivan), is in love with de Pons...who has just been sentenced to death by the Cardinal for de Pons efforts to thwart the feudal lords revenue edict. When the King takes a lusty interest in having Lenore take up residence at the palace, Richelieu knows what to do to save her. Will he have enough time, though, to enact his plot...before his enemies outwit him?
A consistently entertaining political intrigue/biopic, Cardinal Richelieu was the final Hollywood movie British star George Arliss shot with producer Darryl Zanuck, after having helped Zanuck solidify their move from Warners--where Arliss became a huge star with biopics like Disraeli, Alexander Hamilton, and Voltaire--to the newly formed Twentieth Century Pictures (soon after to merge again with Fox). Scripted by a passel of top writers--Cameron Rogers, Maude Howell, W.P. Lipscomb, and Nunnally Johnson--Cardinal Richelieu, despite some of the more obvious dated aspects of the production (the pacing is admittedly a mite slower than we would like today), is sufficiently stacked with enough conspiracies and plots and schemes to remind of us similar, more readily available palace intrigue classics such as Beckett or The Lion in Winter. Certainly many of the one-liners and rejoinders are as memorable as the ones found in those later efforts (when the King, furious at Richelieu for keeping Lenore at home, thunders, "You can't possibly keep her cooped up here," Richelieu takes a quick look around at the outrageous opulence of his abode and offers, "I think the coop is big enough,"). There's also an intriguingly modern layering to Richelieu's self-awareness that I found refreshing--slightly awed by the knowledge of his own murderous transgressions against God and the Church in his exercise of power, he unashamedly returns to wielding that political power again and again, in the service of France. Or is it for King Louis? Or for himself? The movie is sly enough to make us wonder (particularly with Arliss' help), even at the final self-sacrificing fade-out.
Directed by Rowland V. Lee (The Count of Monte Cristo, Son of Frankenstein, Tower of London, The Bridge at San Luis Rey) in that ultra-smooth, assured, completely anonymous fashion that's the hallmark of classic Hollywood genre moviemaking from those now long-forgotten studio craftsmen (the victims of the brilliant and/or phony...depending on my mood...auteur theory), Cardinal Richelieu moves like a stately ship, expertly building its story one block at a time. At the same time, Lee and the scripters counter this sedate conventionalism with a stealth morbidity, a ghoulish delight in painting Richelieu as some dreaded, feared fifth forgotten Universal Classic Monster, capped off by the opening sequence's dread as the still-unseen Richelieu's plotters tremble at the mere thought of trying to ace him out, such is his murderous reputation. Brilliantly, when Lee does introduce Arliss, he presents Richelieu like some Bourbon version of Nosferatu, creepily emerging from a secret panel, with the viewer remembering the Prince earlier crying, "He's not human!" Only when the story veers off into out-and-out fiction--the love story--does Cardinal Richelieu go a little soft around the middle...until Richelieu uses it, too, to advance his agenda.
If you're like me, George Arliss is the kind of performer that you've probably read about more than you've actually watched (I think Disraeli is the only movie I've seen of his). So at first, you aren't sure how to take his somewhat creaky style. You've read all these accounts of how popular he was with critics and the public at the time, but his style seems so removed from today's more naturalistic performing. Quickly, though, you begin to see the sly, almost feline grace he has with his lines, the deeply theatrical (but not hammy in an obvious way) delivery he employs, and before you know it, you're hooked on his smart, quietly showy performance. When he delivers a juicy throwaway like, "If your majesty wishes to love someone...love me," you can't help but appreciate the kind of old school gravitas he brings to the role--declamatory and lightly florid, but also utterly insistent of our attention...while we delight in the frequently humorous effect. Cardinal Richelieu's celebrated finale, where this cinematic Richelieu cements his Dracula connection with a convincingly menacing, "Back!" as he holds up a cross--his hole card--to his instantly trembling tormentors, is marvelously "dramatic" in an obvious way, but it works unreservedly because it's accomplished with not the slightous bit of irony or self-awareness (impossible to find today). The same can be said for the whole of the entertaining Cardinal Richelieu, for that matter.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.