A Paramount Picture - 1938
Directed by Frank Lloyd
Ronald Colman as François Villon
Basil Rathbone as King Louis XI
Frances Dee as Katherine DeVaucelles
Ellen Drew, C.V. France, Henry Wilcoxon, Heather Thatcher,
Stanley Ridges, Bruce Lester, Alma Lloyd
“...the moment I set eyes on you I said to myself, ‘There is all the beauty
in the universe, past, present and future, personified and embodied
in this exquisite creature.’”
Preston Sturges scripted this delightful comedy in which Ronald Colman speaks such fitting lines as the one above to lovely Frances.
Colman stars as François Villon, poet, vagabond and hero of the common people, who matches wits with the wily King Louis XI (Basil Rathbone, giving an incredible performance). The setting is medieval Paris. The city is besieged by the Burgundian army, bringing famine upon the increasingly desperate Parisians. Their king, who is himself comfortable and well-provisioned, does nothing to help his people through the crisis. It is left to rogues like François to ensure their survival by robbery of the royal storehouses. Such activities lead to a battle with the King's guard, in which François kills the Grand Constable. Hanging is the expected sentence for his crime. However, the Grand Constable was a traitor conspiring with the Burgundian army, and by killing him, François has rendered a service to the crown, for which King Louis feels compelled to reward him. François is appointed the new Grand Constable of Paris, and challenged to bring peace to the city.
His appointment also brings François the opportunity of courting the beautiful Lady Katherine DeVaucelles1 (Frances), to whom he, as a scruffy vagabond, had once offered his poem, "If I Were King". Lady Katherine's interest was piqued by the "gutter poet" who knelt before her, but she does not connect his face with that of the clean-shaven and resplendent Grand Constable. Unaware of his true identity, she falls in love.
If I Were King is a definite treat for Frances' fans. Our heroine is stunningly beautiful as Lady Katherine, and she plays the role with sparkle. Together, she and Ronald Colman are glorious. Both had delicious wit, enabling them to make the most of Preston Sturges' dialogue, as when François requests a rendezvous with Lady Katherine. She consents and, with a look of shy elation, adds these directions: "You might find me behind the fourth door on the left, on the third floor of the new east wing, if you can remember it."
There is also a quiet elegance about both Frances and Colman, which enhances the fairy tale quality of the romance between their characters, and makes such scenes as the rendezvous lovely indeed.
Likewise adding to the enchantment of the film are the costumes. In designing them, Edith Head gave Frances what is arguably her most beautiful screen wardrobe, including a white, fur-trimmed gown (pictured at left) that elicited applause from the cast and crew when Frances appeared on the set.2
Return to the filmography.
1 Lady Katherine's surname gets various spellings depending upon where it's seen: in the opening credits, it's "deVaucelles"; the D is capitalized in the closing credits. A space is added—"De Vaucelles"—in the original caption of the topmost photo on this page. Confusing?
As a sort of compromise, I've retained the capital D and eliminated the space when spelling Lady Katherine's last name on this site.
2 David Chierichetti, Edith Head: The Life and Times of Hollywood's Celebrated Costume Designer, p. 53.