Prior to the success of Scaramouche in 1952, many in Hollywood felt that the big-budget “swashbuckler” film was no longer a safe investment. While such motion pictures as MGM’s version of The Three Musketeers (directed by George Sidney, 1948) and Twentieth Century Fox’s version of Rafael Sabatini’s The Black Swan (Henry King, 1942) were hugely successful, the various studios decreed that such comparatively costly efforts were highly impractical in the costconscious postwar years.
It came as no surprise, therefore, that when the idea of remaking Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1923 silent version of Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche was first proposed at a projected cost of $3.5 million, many M-G-M executives were apprehensive. When one compares the proposed budget for Scaramouche to other MGM budgets of that time (An American in Paris—$2.7 million; Show Boat—$2.3 million; Singin’ in the Rain—$2.5 million), one can appreciate the executives’ concerns.
Once given the grudging goahead, MGM threw caution to the wind and spared no expense in bringing to life the delightfully witty script of Ronald Millar and George Froeschel. Eye-popping color photography (in lush three-strip Technicolor) by Charles Rosher, magnificent eighteenth-century sets by Cedric Gibbons and Hans Peters and costumes by Gile Steele, and a buoyantly melodic score by Victor Young (borrowed from Paramount)—all were utilized to full effect under the splendid direction of George Sidney, whose sense of movement and visual flair reached its peak with this production.
The cast would seem impossible to improve upon, yet it is interesting to note that Scaramouche was first conceived as a vehicle for Gene Kelly. At a later point, it was announced that Stewart Granger would play both the lead and the role of the Marquis. A few months later, it was announced that Fernando Lamas and Ricardo Montalban would assume the respective parts instead, with Ava Gardner as Lenore and Elizabeth Taylor as Aline.
As it fortuitously turned out, Stewart Granger ultimately played Andre Moreau, and with such brilliance and flair that he reintroduced and redefined the concept of the superstar swashbuckler. Eleanor Parker (previously a Warner Brothers star) played the sultry Lenore so convincingly that her performance resulted in an MGM contract.
The careers of Janet Leigh and Mel Ferrer were given a considerable boost by their laudable portrayals of the beauteous Aline and the icy Marquis de Maynes.
The excellent supporting cast includes Nina Foch as the stunningly sardonic Marie Antoinette, Henry Wilcoxon as the cold and calculating Captain of the Guard, Robert Coote as the buffoonish theatrical manager, and Lewis Stone (who starred as the Marquis in MGM’s silent version of Scaramouche) as the warm and avuncular guardian of our hero. (The only case of possible miscasting, though an amusing one, would be Richard Anderson, who appears, to some, uncomfortable in costume as the young Philippe.)
No comments about Scaramouche would be complete, however, without mentioning the final duel, the longest and most elaborate in film history. Running an unprecedented six-and-a-half minutes, it was supervised and staged by Jean Heremans, who at the time was the fencing master at the Los Angeles Athletic Club.
This bravura set piece is an unparalleled accomplishment in the annals of cinema swashbuckling. Sidney’s fluid camera tracks hero and villain as they fence each other along the edges of the theatre boxes, down the main staircase, through the foyer, into the auditorium and onto the stage—in the process demolishing virtually every prop in sight. Not a note of background score distracts us, as the soundtrack reverberates with the sound of clashing steel. (It should be noted that with the exception of one fall from a balcony onto a couch, Mr. Granger performed the sequence without the use of a double.)
Scaramouche opened at Radio City Music Hall on June 26, 1952 to rapturous reviews and resounding box office. As a result, Stewart Granger officially joined the ranks of that select group of film stars (Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore, Errol Flynn and Ronald Colman) whose on-screen personas embodied and perpetuated the myth of the “swashbuckler.”
Today, the romantic gesture, the clownish vivacity, the balletic grace blended with a swaggering sense of style and flair, the championing of all the important virtues—everything incarnate within the swashbuckling hero—may be considered anachronistic by some. But that doesn’t stop many of us from reliving the exhilaration we feel when we watch Scaramouche.