The film is VERY loosely based on the life of the poet Francois Villon, probably best remembered today for the line "oh, where are the snows of yesteryear?" (from “La Ballade des dames du temps jadis”). The real Villon was constantly in trouble, was almost hanged, and was eventually banished from Paris. He had a tendency to get himself into fights; on at least one occasion, he killed his opponent (that his opponent was a priest probably didn't help matters any. However, friends and his adopted father - a lawyer - attested to the fact that Villon was attacked several times by said priest). Much of what is known about him is based on his poetry and on a few court documents. For more information on Villon, visit The Poetry Foundation website.
Never mind that the truth of the narrative is a bit iffy, this is a wonderful film, with an engaging story and strong performances. The combination of Ronald Colman and Basil Rathbone is inspired casting; the way they bounce off one another is one of the highlights of the film, along with a terrific supporting cast, spectacular art design, and gorgeous costumes.
Colman gives a Robin Hood flavor to Villon, a man who starts off robbing from the rich to make himself rich, but who, when handed power, finds that his love of his countrymen is stronger than his love of himself. Even when he is seriously misbehaving, the twinkle in Mr. Colman's eyes makes you want to forgive this arrant rogue. He has many fine moments, but he is at his best when he is verbally dueling with Basil Rathbone.
Louis XI is often referred to as The Spider King, and Basil Rathbone takes the name seriously. He literally moves like a spider, as he portrays the devious nature of Louis. He takes genuine pleasure at watching a man being tortured. He chortles with delight at the thought of trapping the robbers in the pub. He eagerly anticipates the fun of tweaking the noses of his courtiers - and of Villon - by making Villon the new Grand Constable. We've never seen Rathbone give a bad performance. This is among his best. Colman was justifiably nominated for his second Academy Award for his performance (he lost to Walter Brennan in Kentucky. The other nominees were John Garfield in Four Daughters, Gene Lockhart in Algiers, and Robert Morley in Marie Antoinette).
Frances Dee is quite lovely as Katherine DeVaucelles, but it's Ellen Drew as Huguette who really should have stolen Villon's heart. Ms. Drew makes this little street urchin delightful and sympathetic. She is the only one who really seems to love Villon without question. Ms. Drew's career began in 1936, and continued until her retirement in 1961. She spent her career primarily in B pictures; in the 1950s, she made the change to television. Married four times, she had two children. She died in 2003, at the age of 88. (The Guardian).
Henry Wilcoxon appears in the relatively small part of the Captain of the Watch. Though he's not given much to do, he makes the most of what he has, and is memorable in the film. A favorite of Cecil B. DeMille (he appeared in starring roles in both Cleopatra (1934) and The Crusades (1935)). By this point, he was appearing in secondary roles (Hardy in That Hamilton Woman) or B films (Woman Doctor). Like many others, he made the switch to television in the 1960s, but not before he produced several films with his mentor, DeMille. Married twice (with three children, one of whom was named after his best friend, Heather Angel; another was named Cecilia after Mr. DeMille) he died at age 78 in 1984.
The story was originally a play with E.H. Sothern in the lead. Later, it was a silent movie with John Barrymore (TCM article). Lux Radio Theatre presented an adaptation with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Frances Dee in October 1939. In the broadcast, host Cecil B. DeMille mentions that the story holds memories for him: he had appeared in the 1901 Broadway cast with his wife.
According to this AFI catalog article, "a replica of the throne of the Louvre Palace was made in cooperation with the French government." Needless to say, the set design is spectacular. Equally impressive are the costumes by Edith Head; whether she is dressing the commoners or the nobility, the costumes tell a story as well.
We'll leave you with this brief documentary on the making of the film. We heartily recommend that you give this one a try.