Monday, September 17, 2012


Here's another historical figure I know nothing about except what this movie has told me, so Voltaire buffs, beware. In 1762, so we're told, France, under Louis XV, is corrupt and the people unsettled. The writings of the philosopher Voltaire whip up the poor against the King and the policies of the state, but because of Madame Pompadour, he remains a favored figure at court. However, the royal advisors, led by Count de Sarnac, lead the King to believe that Voltaire is planning on betraying French secrets to Russia. Voltaire champions the case of the unjustly imprisoned Jean Calas, but Calas is executed anyway. His daughter Nanette, who has a price on her head, escapes and finds refuge with the sympathetic Voltaire who, despite being out of Louis' favor, is still allowed to put on a play for the royals. Voltaire pulls a Hamlet move and presents a play that is a thinly veiled account of the Calas affair, but before the play can be finished, Sarnac accuses Voltaire of treason and he is sentenced to the Bastille. Disillusioned and sick, Voltaire seems ready to give up, but when he finds evidence that Sarnac is working with the Russians behind the King's back, his spirit returns and with the help of Mme. Pompadour, he manages to trap Sarnac and save Nanette. 

I do love George Arliss, who is mannered and predictable and occasionally a scenery-chewer, but always fun to watch, and he's at his best here. His characters, whether historical or fictional, always have a twinkle in their eyes, usually become victims of circumstance who are redeemed in a tricky reversal, and always get at least one big dramatic scene, and all that is true here. There is also the added bonus that, when he's in his nightclothes, he looks like Ebenezer Scrooge, a role Arliss probably could have done in his sleep. Reginald Owen (who did play Scrooge in 1938) as King Louis is very good as usual; Alan Mowbray is fine as the villainous Sarnac and Doris Kenyon has some good moments as Pompadour. Margaret Lindsay is lovely as Nanette, but doesn't get to do much except suffer. Quite enjoyable. A quotable quote: "It is because people can jest that they do not hang themselves." I'm still waiting for a good George Arliss DVD set. Warner Archive put out a 3-disc set earlier this year, which was welcome, but which does not include his best movies. [TCM]

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