Ramon Novarro is back for the fourth and last installment of Turner Classic Movies’ Sunday evening celebration of the 100 years of the Mexican Revolution.
Tonight, Novarro’s vehicle is Scaramouche (1923), one of his most prestigious critical and box office hits, and one featuring another revolution, the one in France back in the late 18th century. Directed by Rex Ingram, and co-starring Alice Terry and Lewis Stone, Scaramouche was the vehicle that turned Novarro into a top box office attraction – though official star billing would only come two years later, with the release of The Midshipman.
Ingram’s version of Scaramouche is also much closer to Rafael Sabatini’s highly political – and at times quite subversive – novel than the fluffier but equally entertaining 1952 release directed by George Sidney and starring Stewart Granger in the title role.
The information below about Scaramouche is from my Novarro biography Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro:
With the success of Where the Pavement Ends, Metro had allowed Ingram to make another expensive production, a film version of Rafael Sabatini’s 1921 bestselling novel Scaramouche: A Romance of the French Revolution. For this project, bigger and more complex than either Trifling Women or Where the Pavement Ends, Ingram left the writing to others so that he could concentrate on the period reconstruction and other pre-production technicalities. Former journalist Willis Goldbeck, Ingram’s press agent (soon to be replaced by [future Novarro lover and brilliant fan magazine columnist] Herbert Howe), was brought in to turn Sabatini’s sweeping novel into a viable motion picture script.
Pre-production work on Scaramouche began in January 1923. An eighteenth-century French village was built on a sixty-acre lot in the Hollywood foothills, and another major set was erected at Metro. Novarro, playing the dashing avenger André-Louis Moreau, and Alice Terry, as the love interest, would be supported by an enormous cast, including Lewis Stone one more time playing Novarro’s foe [Stone had been at odds with Novarro in both The Prisoner of Zenda and Trifling Women]. Following Ingram’s instructions, historical characters were cast with actors—professionals or not—who resembled paintings of the real-life figures.
Shooting was to have begun on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1923, but, according to legend, production was halted for the first ten days because the Dublin-born director would not stop celebrating. Ingram’s idiosyncratic ways made good copy for the film press, but they were at least partly responsible for Scaramouche going over schedule. The picture, which was set to be completed by midsummer, was still being edited in September. Its then-staggering $858,000 cost concerned some Metro executives, who believed that Ingram’s latest effort could never possibly recover the studio’s investment. Yet, they feared confronting the temperamental director. Ingram did not tolerate front-office interference, and, in fact, Scaramouche was to be his last film made under any supervision other than his own.
The picture finally opened on September 30 at New York’s Forty-fourth Street Theater to exuberant audiences. The New York Times hailed it as “an engrossing and charming film,” while several other reviewers considered Scaramouche to be the director’s best work. At the end of the year, Ingram’s epic of the French Revolution was listed as the sixth best film in the annual Film Daily poll of film critics, and upon its wide release in February 1924, it became one of the most successful box office hits of the year. Although billed after Alice Terry—but now ahead of Lewis Stone—Novarro was the indisputable star of the picture, Ingram’s biggest success since The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The New York Times complimented the dashing leading man for proving himself “an accomplished actor,” the Los Angeles Times praised André-Louis Moreau as “his best and most convincing work,” and Variety asserted that Scaramouche “will do for him what The Four Horsemen did for Valentino.”
Variety‘s assertion proved to be somewhat of an overstatement, though Scaramouche did turn Novarro into a star—in popularity, if not yet in the credits. Boasting better pacing and a charismatic performance by the gorgeously photographed leading man—well matched by Lewis Stone’s suave villain—Scaramouche is a far more compelling spectacle than The Prisoner of Zenda. A few years later, Novarro would understandably refer to the French Revolution epic as his favorite picture and his most enjoyable filming experience.
María Félix, Marlon Brando: 100 Years of the Mexican Revolution
Following Scaramouche, Turner Classic Movies will show a Mexican feature set during the Revolution, Roberto Rodríguez’s La Bandida (1963), starring Mexican legend María Félix, Pedro Armendáriz, Katy Jurado, actor-filmmaker Emilio Fernández, and Lola Beltrán.
And prior to Scaramouche, TCM is showing two Mexican Revolution films made in Hollywood: Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! (1952), with Marlon Brando (wasn’t Katy Jurado or perhaps Sara Montiel available?) as revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, and Jack Conway’s Viva Villa! (1934), with a surprisingly effective Wallace Beery as Pancho Villa.
The beautifully shot Viva Villa! (cinematography by Charles G. Clarke and James Wong Howe) is perhaps best known for what’s not seen on screen: Lee Tracy, one of the stars of MGM’s Dinner at Eight, getting drunk and pissing on a military parade passing below his Mexico City hotel balcony, being arrested by Mexican authorities, getting booted from the project, and thus becoming persona non grata in Hollywood for a while.
Stuart Erwin replaced Tracy. Howard Hawks, originally assigned to the project, was replaced by Conway.
Turner Classic Movies website.