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By 1926, star John Gilbert and director King Vidor were among MGM's biggest assets. Fresh off the critical and financial success of The Big Parade (1925), they had achieved an instinctive rapport after clashing on two earlier pictures. Capitalizing on a winning formula, the studio paired them again in two 1926 films, the tragic romance La Bohme, and the swashbuckler Bardelys the Magnificent.
Based on a novel by Rafael Sabatini (who also wrote Scaramouche, Captain Blood, and several other historical novels that were adapted for the screen), Bardelys the Magnificent takes place in France during the reign of Louis XIII. Gilbert plays a womanizing nobleman who makes a bet with a rival that he can seduce the aloof beauty Roxalanne de Lavedan, played by Eleanor Boardman, who married director Vidor soon after making the film. Many complications ensue, but Bardelys manages to swashbuckle his way out of them, and into true love with the fair Roxalanne. Dashingly played by Gilbert and smoothly directed by Vidor, the action sequences are exciting, but it's a languorous love scene that is the most memorable one in Bardelys.
As Vidor recalled in his memoirs, the scene was described in the script simply as "We should have a good love scene here." Vidor was on location in Pasadena at a park next to a small lake, with an entire crew and no idea how to stage the scene. "I saw a property man wading in the lake pushing an old rowboat he had brought along just in case the director asked for one. He brushed past the lone branch of a weeping willow tree hanging in the water. I asked the head grip: 'How long will it take you to make a tunnel of willow branches one hundred feet long?'" With the tunnel built and the camera mounted on the bow of the boat, Vidor and cinematographer William Daniels created a dreamy, impressionistic romantic moment. "The leaves threw a moving pattern of light and shadow which played moodily across the faces of the lovers. The arrangement, movement and lighting of the scene were in complete harmony. The total effect was one of magic." Vidor added that he was often asked about that scene. "They have forgotten the title, the actors, the author, even the melodramatic plot, but the magic of the camera made its indelible impression."
Bardelys the Magnificent was a hit with the public and the critics. According to Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times, "By his dashing portrayal of Bardelys, John Gilbert leaps into the active realms of Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore, and Mr. [Tom] Mix." Photoplay found Boardman impressive: "Eleanor Boardman acts with her brains; in spite of the beauty of her romantic scenes, there is a refreshing sharpness about her performance." Another critic wrote, "It is doubtful if anyone could have done more with the role of Bardelys than Gilbert....That man continues to be a fine actor." Gilbert himself dismissed the film, calling it "Applesauce. With one John Gilbert contributing most of the sauce."
Bardelys was the final film for the Gilbert-Vidor team. Vidor went on to direct one of his most esteemed silents, The Crowd (1928), and had a long career in talking films. Gilbert followed Bardelys with Flesh and the Devil (1927) co-starring Greta Garbo, and the two became the screen's hottest love team. Gilbert's career declined with the coming of talkies. For decades, Bardelys the Magnificent was presumed lost. The one tantalizing glimpse of the film was in Vidor's spoof of movie stardom, Show People (1928), when Marion Davies's movie-mad character watches it in a theater and swoons over the willows love scene. But in 2006, a nearly complete print was found in France. Bardelys was restored, using production stills and footage from a film trailer to fill in the missing section.
Director: King Vidor
Screenplay: Dorothy Farnum, based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Editor: Conrad Nervig
Costume Design: Andr-Ani
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Principal Cast: John Gilbert (Bardelys), Eleanor Boardman, (Roxalanne de Lavedan), Roy D'Arcy (Chatellerault), Lionel Belmore (Vicomte de Lavedan), Emily Fitzroy (Vicomtesse de Lavedan), George K. Arthur (Chevalier de St. Eustache), Arthur Lubin (King Louis XIII), Theodore von Eltz (Lesperon), Karl Dane (Rodenard), Edward Connelly (Cardinal Richelieu), Fred Malatesta (Castelroux), John T. Murray (LaFosse)