Predating the badass Elizabethan poets and playwrights by more than a century, Francois Villon may be the true OG, the first to combine thug life and art. In the 1930s he was a sort of pulp hero, the protagonist of a series of short stories in Liberty, one of the popular general-interest weekly magazines of the era, by John Erskine. As rendered by screenwriter Preston Sturges, adapting a hoary old play that had already been filmed in 1920, and directed by Frank Lloyd of Cavalcade infamy (and more recent acclaim for Mutiny on the Bounty), Villon (Ronald Colman) is a cross between Robin Hood and Moses. In his primary role as poet-thief, Villon looks like a scruffier Robin down to the feathered cap, and in general 15th century France seems to have been everyone's model for what Robin and his men of the turn of the 13th century looked like. It's a cool look that made an alternate silent version of the Villon legend, Alan Crosland's The Beloved Rogue, sometimes look like a Maxfield Parrish painting come to life. It suits Colman, who had played another noble thief, the "amateur cracksman" Raffles, a few years earlier. He proves equally suited to higher fashion when the main story kicks in. Villon, after robbing a government food storehouse, has made the mistake of badmouthing King Louis XI and boasting of what he would do if he were king -- he has a whole poem, mainly romantic, on the subject -- in the incognito presence of the monarch himself (Basil Rathbone). Impressed by Villon's bravado, and grateful that he's killed a high-ranking traitor during a tavern brawl, the curmudgeonly king challenges the poet to live up to his boast by making him the Constable of France, complete with fake title, a bath and a shave that renders Villon unrecognizable, at first, to the lady Katherine (Frances Dee), who had snubbed the impertinent writer in church shortly before. Villon's main task is to maintain morale in Paris and defend the city from the besieging Burgundians, but the poet's SJW approach to these problems -- lenience for his fellow thieves and further looting of the government storehouses -- annoys the establishment and puts the new Constable, thanks to some retroactive sentencing, in mortal peril.
This is unmistakably a Colman star vehicle, but that doesn't stop Basil Rathbone from stealing it with one of the most eccentric performances of his career. By 1938, a year before he started playing Sherlock Holmes, I assume people knew what to expect from Rathbone: vicious villainy backed, if the period permitted it, with masterly swordplay. I assume that people seeing Rathbone's name expected a "Basil Rathbone" performance, and that they, as I, were blindsided by what he actually gave them. Pop culture in those days apparently had a pretty specific idea of what Louis XI, the "spider king," was like, perhaps because character actors had been barnstorming through the part in stage versions of If I Were King since 1901. You get a somewhat more benign version of the character from Henry Davenport in William Dieterle's The Hunchback of Notre Dame a year later: intelligent but lacking in imagination, almost unpretentious in his frankness, smarter than he looks but probably not as smart as he thinks he is. As scripted by Sturges, soon to make his mark as a director of high wit, Rathbone's king often gets the better of Villon -- or so I think modern audiences will think -- with various sardonic zingers. But Rathbone plays the man as if Ebeneezer Scrooge had usurped the throne of France and was having the time of his life doddering about arrogantly with the power of life and death and hee-heeing through the picture as if history were his private, royal joke. It's the funniest stuff from Rathbone I've ever seen, and now that I think of it I don't know why it surprised me. If he routinely went over the top dramatically (see Son of Frankenstein) why shouldn't he go over the top comically as well?
Given the year and the proximity to World War II, I can't help wondering whether Sturges had a message for Depression America by showing Villon strengthening France to face an enemy onslaught through the redistribution of wealth, or at least of food. Whether he did or not, If I Were King gains a certain timelessness by portraying Villon as a kind of comic Moses, an impostor elevated to great power who raids the granaries and is denied the promised land at the end. Grateful that Villon has led the people to turn back the Burgundians, but still resentful of the poet's thefts and impertinence, Louis spares Villon's life but banishes him from Paris, allowing him the run of the rest of France but denying him the city that was his life. In history, this banishment (for mere theft, the king having nothing to do with it) was Villon's cue to vanish from history. In the movie, it sets up a happy ending as Katherine follows him luxuriously into exile. Villon had a girlfriend among the rabble (Ellen Drew) who was portrayed so sympathetically that I thought the poet might ditch Katherine for her, until the brave guttersnipe died fighting the invaders. So much for social justice. It's still a fun, light historical entertainment made especially entertaining by Rathbone's one-of-a-kind performance and Colman's effortless panache.