If I Were King is a 1938 American biographical and historical film starring Ronald Colman as medieval poet François Villon, and featuring Basil Rathbone and Frances Dee. It is based on the 1901 play and novel, both of the same name, by Justin Huntly McCarthy, and was directed by Frank Lloyd, with a screenplay adaptation by Preston Sturges.

If I Were King
1938 US theatrical poster
Directed byFrank Lloyd
Produced byFrank Lloyd
Written byPreston Sturges
Based onthe 1901 novel and play, both titled If I Were King
by Justin Huntly McCarthy
StarringRonald Colman
Basil Rathbone
Frances Dee
Music byRichard Hageman
Milan Roder
CinematographyTheodor Sparkuhl
Edited byHugh Bennett
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • November 11, 1938 (1938-11-11)
Running time
101 minutes
CountryUnited States


In Paris, which is besieged by the Burgundians, François Villon (Ronald Colman) is the despair of Father Villon, the priest who took him in and raised him. Father Villon takes François to mass after his latest escapade (robbing a royal storehouse). There François spies a beautiful woman, Katherine DeVaucelles (Frances Dee). Entranced, he tries to strike up an acquaintance with her, reciting some of his poetry to her. On the surface, she is unmoved, but when soldiers come to take him into custody, she provides him with an alibi.

King Louis XI of France (Basil Rathbone) is in desperate straits. He suspects that there is a traitor in his court. He goes in disguise to a tavern to see who accepts an intercepted coded message from the enemy. While there, he is amused by the antics of poet François Villon. The rascal criticizes the king and brags about how much better he would do if he were in Louis' place.

The traitor is revealed to be Grand Constable D'Aussigny (John Miljan), but before he can be arrested, the turncoat is killed in a brawl by Villon. As a jest, Louis rewards Villon by making him the new Constable, though the king secretly intends to have him executed after a week.

His low-born origin kept a secret, Villon falls in love with lady-in-waiting Katherine DeVaucelles and she with him. Then Louis informs Villon about his grim fate. Villon escapes, but when the Burgundians break down the city gates, he rallies the common people to rout them and lift the siege. Having had to put up with Villon's impudence and wanting less aggravation in his life, Louis decides to permanently exile him from Paris. Villon leaves on foot, with Katherine following at a discreet distance.


Darryl Hickman made his film debut in the uncredited role of a child.


Henry Wilcoxon, Colin Tapley, and C.V. France in If I Were King

Nine months in France were required to prepare for If I Were King, and the French government cooperated by allowing a replica to be made of the Louvre Palace throne.[2]

Whether Preston Sturges, who at the time was Paramount's top writer,[3] had a collaborator in writing the script is unclear: some early drafts have the name "Jackson" on them as well as Sturges', but the identity of "Jackson" has not been determined. In any event, Sturges finished a draft by February 1938.[2] The final screenplay included Sturges' own original translations of some of Villon's poems.[4]

The film was in production from 12 May to mid-July 1938.[5] Ralph Faulkner, who played a watchman, acted as stunt coordinator and coached the actors on swordplay, and about 900 extras were used for the battle scenes, one of which was cut by the director after the film had opened.[2][3]


If I Were King was nominated for four Academy Awards:[6][7]

Hans Drier was also nominated for an Academy Award for his work on the 1930 film The Vagabond King, which was a musical version of the same story.[8]

Other versionsEdit

McCarthy's play premiered on Broadway in 1901 and was revived five times up through 1916.[9] It was first adapted in 1920 as a silent film.[1]

In 1925, composer Rudolf Friml and librettists Brian Hooker and W.H. Post turned it into a successful Broadway operetta, The Vagabond King, which featured the songs "Only a Rose", "Some Day", and "Song of the Vagabonds".[10] The operetta was filmed twice - in 1930, starring Jeanette MacDonald and Dennis King[8] and in 1956, directed by Michael Curtiz.[11] Both film versions used only a little of Friml's original score.

The François Villon story was also filmed in 1927 under the title The Beloved Rogue, with John Barrymore in the lead role.[12]

The film was adapted as a radio play on Lux Radio Theater October 16, 1939 with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.. Academy Award Theater adapted it on May 11, 1946 with Colman reprising his part.

There is no connection, apart from the title, between the story and the comic opera by Adolphe Adam called "Si j'étais roi" (English: If I Were King).

Popular Tamil actor-turned-politician M.G. Ramachandran, after watching and being inspired by this movie, decided to act, produce and direct Nadodi Mannan (English: The Vagabond King) in 1958, which turned out to be a huge milestone in his career, paving the way for him to ultimately become Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu 19 years later.


  1. ^ a b If I Were King (1920) on IMDb
  2. ^ a b c TCM Notes
  3. ^ a b Miller, Frank "If I Were King" (TCM article)
  4. ^ Eder, Bruce Plot synopsis (Allmovie)
  5. ^ TCM Overview
  6. ^ "The 11th Academy Awards (1939) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 2011-08-10.
  7. ^ "NY Times: If I Were King". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-10.
  8. ^ a b The Vagabond King (1930) on IMDb
  9. ^ If I Were King at the Internet Broadway Database
  10. ^ The Vagabond King at the Internet Broadway Database
  11. ^ The Vagabond King (1956) on IMDb
  12. ^ Beloved Rogue on IMDb

External linksEdit

Streaming audio