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Writing in the New York Times, critic Frank S. Nugent dubbed Freddie Bartholomew and Victor McLaglen "the most amazing co-starring team in screen history." Certainly nobody would have expected the delicate British child star and the rugged ex-boxer to mesh so effectively on screen, but mesh they did, thanks largely to the fanciful story by Damon Runyon on which the 1935 adventure comedy Professional Soldier was based.
A master of uneasy pairings like the adorable orphan and the bookie in "Markie," filmed as Little Miss Maker (1934), and the Salvation Army sergeant and the professional gambler in "The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown," the source of Guys and Dolls (1955), Runyon had worked his magic in the same vein with "Gentlemen, the King!" The story told of a group of big-hearted gangsters who bond with the boy king they've been hired to kidnap. By the time the story reached the screen, the gangsters had been turned into a soldier of fortune (McLaglen) whom boy king Bartholomew mistakes for gangsters come to recruit him because of his formidable crap-shooting skills. The young man's openness wins McLaglen over to his side, setting the stage for a final shoot out as McLaglen fights to restore the king to his throne. Even with those changes, the author's popularity was strong enough that 20th Century-Fox originally billed the film as "Damon Runyon's Professional Soldier."
Darryl F. Zanuck had picked up the story's rights shortly after creating 20th Century Films. When he first announced the project in 1933, he had hoped to sign Gregory La Cava to direct and Franchot Tone to play Donovan, the mercenary. After the merger that created 20th Century-Fox, his focus shifted to another MGM star, and he arranged to borrow Wallace Beery. Then he decided instead to use Beery for A Message to Garcia (1936) and go with long-time contract player McLaglen in the lead. By then he had also changed his directorial choice, first to John Ford, then to Tay Garnett, whose breezy, fast-paced style and skill at concocting running gags would serve the film well. He also arranged to borrow a new player from MGM, Bartholomew.
The young actor had burst on the MGM scene in 1935 when producer David O. Selznick brought him over from London to play the title role in David Copperfield (1935). The film's success would quickly establish his image as the most patrician of child actors, skilled at playing children of the wealthy and titled. The studio immediately put him to work as Greta Garbo's son in Anna Karenina (1935). His loan to Fox for Professional Soldier added another dimension to his screen image. With his acting skills and playful nature, Bartholomew could effectively portray his pampered characters' transitions to more rough-and-tumble images of childhood, as when Donovan teaches King Peter to play ball. It was a trope that would reappear in his most popular later films.
McLaglen was a natural for military parts like his leading role in Professional Soldier. As a young man, he had run away from home in South Africa at 14 in an attempt to fight for England in the Boer War (his father, an influential minister, secured his release from military service). In later years, he distinguished himself as the star of military stories like What Price Glory (1926) and its two sequels, and he headed his own private cavalry brigade, the California Light Horse Troop, in Hollywood, though their main activities would appear to have been playing polo and dressing up to go out drinking.
For the final fight scenes in Professional Soldier, Fox hired sharpshooter Sydney Jordan, a silent film cowboy star who had started supervising stunt work in 1916. That was a wise choice, as the practice at the time was to use live ammunition during filming. It took a professional like Jordan to guarantee that stars like McLaglen and Bartholomew, whose characters were caught in the crossfire, survived to make other films.
The film's supporting cast included Gloria Stuart, a leading lady of the '30s who would achieve her greatest fame as the elderly Rose in Titanic (1997), and, in his film debut, Michael Whalen. The former stage actor would become one of Fox's most reliable B movie stars of the era, most notably as crime-solving reporter Barney Callahan in a trio of low-budget mysteries starting with Time Out for Murder (1938), also opposite Stuart. Viewers with a quick eye can watch for two future leading ladies in small roles as gypsy dancers. Lynn Bari would go on to become Queen of the Bs at Fox, while Rita Hayworth would only become a star after leaving the studio for Columbia, where she would reign as one of Hollywood's greatest sex symbols.
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: Tay Garnett
Screenplay: Gene Fowler, Howard Ellis Smith
Based on the story "Gentlemen, the King!" by Damon Runyon
Cinematography: Rudolph Mate
Score: R.H. Bassett
Cast: Victor McLaglen (Colonel Michael Donovan), Freddie Bartholomew (King Peter), Gloria Stuart (Countess Sonia), Constance Collier (Lady Augusta), Michael Whalen (George Foster), Pedro de Cordoba (Stefan Bernaldo), Lumsden Hare (Paul Valdis), Dixie Dunbar (Entertainer), Lynn Bari, Rita Hayworth (Gypsy Dancers).
by Frank Miller