GEORGE SIDNEY was one of MGM’s best directors of Musicals and Swashbucklers throughout the 1940s and 1950s. He later moved to Columbia and directed Kim Novak in three of her best roles (opposite Tyrone Power in a fine biopic The Eddy Duchin Story), then playing the title role in Jeanne Eagels, another good biopic and finally co-starring with Frank Sinatra-at his peak- and Rita Hayworth in Pal Joey. Sidney at his best was an exciting and flamboyant stylist and colourist and this was demonstrated , especially in Pal Joey.
A period film set in the lead-up to the French Revolution, Scaramouche, was for me Sidney in peak form. The boy in me continues to love the swash and buckle genre of films. By the 1950s, when I was growing up, Errol Flynn’s heyday was long gone; I saw him only in pale imitations of former glories like The Master of Ballantrae and Against All Flags at the tail-end of his career (it was only television that gave me access to The Sea Hawk, Adventures of Robin Hood, They Died with Their Boots on et al and made me aware that he was the greatest swashbuckler of them all); the only version of Robin Hood I had previously been familiar with then was Disney’s (quite decent) account with Richard Todd and Joan Rice; matinee substitutes and re-runs accounted for a few 40s and early 50s imitations with Cornel Wilde frequently playing the Son of various legendary heroes…Robin Hood, or the Musketeers, for example.
There was always the ubiquitous Burt Lancaster in his “Smilin’ Burt” phase, too. I usually found Lancaster’s acrobatics pretty heady stuff if a little too knowingly self-conscious to be completely satisfying (His Majesty O’Keefe, The Flame and the Arrow and The Crimson Pirate were all deliciously enjoyable romps, but the last-mentioned especially was very close to parody).
Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis and Alan Ladd all turned up in historical adventures of one kind or another but I liked each of these performers much better in other genres (Hudson in the Sirk weepies, Curtis in comedy, Ladd in Westerns and Films Noir).
However, at age 15, I caught a matinee screening at the local Princess Theatre in Holland Park, Brisbane that made me aware that Stewart Granger was the only actor around in the 1950s capable of taking over the Errol Flynn mantle. In Scaramouche, his flair, notwithstanding the trademark smirk, was beyond question and carried more conviction than Lancaster’s had.
He carries off the great romantic moments with a stylish swagger that recalls Flynn with De Havilland – I was captivated by his recitation of the “Aphrodite in a Ditch” doggerel to wide-eyed Janet Leigh as well as his bald-faced manipulation of fiery Eleanor Parker as his gypsy lover.
His swordplay, too, ranks with the best competition in the genre: from his first halting encounter with aristocratic villain Mel Ferrer to the thrilling and lengthy (seven and a half minutes’ screen time) climactic duel in the theatre where he at last very flamboyantly dishes out a well-deserved comeuppance to the man (Mel Ferrer) who turns out to be his brother in yet another plot twist.
George Sidney, a past master of this kind of material (The Three Musketeers – the Gene Kelly version), plunders Sabatini’s tale set in France on the eve of the Revolution for all its worth: the richly Technicolored set – pieces include lots of running inserts with stirring action following horses galloping at a breakneck-paced around misty rural estates. Dewy-eyed Janet Leigh, with whom Granger falls immediately and flamboyantly in love and who may or may not turn out to be his sister, is perfect as the innocent flower waiting to be plucked. Eleanor Parker as the experienced woman of the world is Leigh’s counterpart and delivers an all stops out theatrical portrait of a woman scorned, her eyes blazing and her long, glorious red tresses billowing.
The late eighteenth century period costumes and set designs have a kind of genre verisimilitude that constantly delights the eye. Victor Young’s score is romantic and memorable. And the Commedia dell’Arte pantomime into which Granger is inadvertently and literally plunged becomes the focal point for some opulently staged and extended theatre, including a lot of very funny slapstick. It purported to trace the beginnings of slapstick (literally). This film delights and entertains from the insouciance of its opening epigraph (“He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad”) to its very perverse final moments showing Eleanor Parker with her surprising new amatory conquest (for those who haven’t seen it, I won’t reveal the surprise and very witty final shots).
George Sidney was underrated. Besides his skill in period films like this one and The Three Musketeers – Gene Kelly version – he was additionally very much at home in Musicals: Pal Joey indeed has a stunning Rodgers and Hart score, Sinatra singing at the top of his form with Rita Hayworth providing a perfect foil against Frankie’s aggressive heel. I agree with Andrew Sarris that Sidney’s high spirits produced quite a bit of brassiness and vulgarity but it suited the universe of Pal Joey, just as it served the milieux of early screen star Jeanne Eagels, made into a biopic with Kim Novak somewhat struggling in the role but nevertheless managing to engage audience sympathy. Jupiter’s Darling, probably the most flamboyant of all the Esther Williams swimming vehicles was full of visually appealing and lengthy set-pieces.
Scaramouche, however, remains Sidney’s supreme masterpiece, an audacious comic book account of French revolutionary derring-do with interiors of startlingly rich colours. Its background takes in the beginnings of the French Revolution and sets up the relationship between Granger and aristocrat Mel Ferrer who from the outset pursues Granger as a mortal enemy to the Ancien Regime. The recreation of the extended scenes of the Estates-General is a gift from the Art Directors and provides Granger, growing in confidence to stride around the spacious set challenging various aristocrats to duels as defenders of the Regime, all of whom he despatches in short order in the hope of finally re-engaging Mel Ferrer as his swordsmanship becomes refined through his master teacher (John Dehner). The exteriors which include all the sequences of horses galloping through misty estates prolongs the tension, and contribute to the striking pace which leads into the final act. Granger’s performance with the Commedia del Arte here is staged more robustly than usual and leads directly, with extraordinary tension, to Scaramouche’s unmasking just as Mel Ferrer and Henry Wilcoxon (who have been enjoyimg the slapstick immensely) begin to leave the performance. There immediately follows the legendary final seven and a half minute encounter in the theatre where he leaps from the stage to confront Mel Ferrer (who is revealed as his brother in the penultimate plot twist).
The seven and a half minute sword fight takes in the whole theatre dress circle seats and its surrounds and has to be seen to be believed-the greatest swordplay in any swashbuckler ever. There is a visual punchline as Eleanor Parker finally concedes that Granger is hopelessly in love with his ward, Janet Leigh, and graciously gives up the race before she re-appears in the final sequence with a surprising amatory conquest. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a wonderful finale to a wonderful film.