This DVD release is so exciting on so many levels it is difficult to know where to begin. A big budget MGM "prestige" picture, starring their most popular male lead, John Gilbert, and directed by their best director, King Vidor. A beautifully costumed swashbuckler based on a book by the greatest writer of historical romance, Rafael Sabatini. A film missing for 80 years, known only through a brief clip in Vidor's classic comedy, Show People, and still images in movie magazines and silent film histories; FINALLY, you can see this lost feature.
As the DVD also features a documentary, Rediscovering John Gilbert, let's start with the much loved star. Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, the actor's daughter, has been campaigning for years to rehabilitate Gilbert's reputation, mainly concerning the "high voice" MYTH and his talkie career. ( As such, it is disconcerting, to say the least, to see another reviewer -a `vine voice' no less-repeat the "high pitched nasal voice" canard in "his" review. Not that I consider cutting and pasting an article from a movie web site writing a review, but there it is.) So I'll put it all in caps: THERE WAS NOTHING WRONG WITH JOHN GILBERT'S SPEAKING VOICE. Anyone who's seen "Queen Christina" or any of his other talkies knows this. Personally, as a silent film fan, I don't think Gilbert's reputation needs much boosting. He starred in what is arguably the greatest silent film ever made- one of the greatest films ever made, period-The Big Parade, and will always be the subject of scholarly scrutiny because of this and his work with Erich von Stroheim (The Merry Widow), Great Garbo (the aforementioned Queen Christina, A Woman of Affairs, Flesh and the Devil and Love) and Vidor. His `downfall" has more to do with perceptions of fantasy and reality vis-a-vis talkies /silents, and changes in public taste.
For all those "Gilbert is no Fairbanks" naysayers I'll say, "You're right." But it's equally true that Fairbanks is no Gilbert, and the part of Bardelys- an amoral ladies man who wages he can seduce a young girl- is wrong for "Doug", right for "Jack". (I might add that neither Allan Dwan nor Fred Niblo is King Vidor, either. You may prefer Errol Flynn to Tyrone Power, too, but you'll never get to see Flynn play Zorro. It is what it is.)
As stated earlier, MGM really put their money into Bardelys, and it shows. Beautiful costumes, great sets, massive crowd scenes. Vidor, Gilbert and the stunt team do indeed try to "out Fairbanks" Fairbanks in the climax, and what's wrong with that? A great show. Swashbuckler fans shouldn't hesitate on purchasing this one- you've seen (as have I) Fairbanks' eight great costume pictures from 1920 -29 ( Zorro- The Iron Mask) over and over- here's a "new" adventure romp to enjoy again and again. I've owned the Grosset and Dunlap photoplay edition of Bardelys the Magnificent for years, so I've always pictured Sabatini's hero as Gilbert, and the actor doesn't disappoint. Speaking of whom, is there a better adventure writer than Rafael Sabatini? Simply, no. Dubbed "The Modern Dumas" by his publisher's publicist, Sabatini (author of Captain Blood, Scaramouche and The Sea Hawk) is in fact the better writer. The Count of Monte Cristo, subject of the second film on this set, was plotted by Dumas' highly paid secret collaborator Auguste Maquet, who wrote the initial drafts of his most famous books. The filmed version here is serviceable enough, but lacks the flair and polish of Bardelys. It has many of those "stage set" shots found in middle period silents, where the camera is the fourth wall of a perfectly balanced scene, the lines of the floor, ceiling and two walls symmetrically receding to the central, one-point-perspective vanishing point. Lacking the fluid camera work of the Vidor -directed Bardelys, the film gets its strength from the familiar revenge story, stripped of the many digressions and sub-plots of the unabridged novel, and Gilbert's strong lead performance.
The third part of this DVD release is Rediscovering John Gilbert, a single camera shot interview with Leatrice Gilbert Fountain. While she overlaps a few of her recollections so they don't quite jive with her previously written record, her love for her father, who died 73 years ago, is palpable, and it is an important oral record. Would the filmmakers had inserted a few photos of the people she discusses, for those unfamiliar with the silent period, or provided some other supporting material. Here's a hearty recommendation for her wonderful book, Dark Star, the biography of John Gilbert, one of the best biographies of a silent star available- and I've read plenty. I'd just like to reiterate that the likelihood of her father being forgotten or dismissed from film history is highly remote. Now if Flicker Alley would only release some work by some truly hard-to-find performers, such as Milton Sills or Thomas Meighan, two other stars who also died too young. Still, Bardelys the Magnificent? Never thought I'd see it. Bought it as soon I knew it was available. You should, too. Given the talent involved I knew it had to be great, and it is better than I imagined.