A dowdy swashbuckler even at the time of its release in 1937, Under the Red Robe remains a curiosity today as the final film by Victor Sjöström, the father of Swedish cinema. Born in Silbodal in western Sweden, an infant Sjöström moved with his parents to Brooklyn, returning to Sweden at the age of seven and spending the remainder of his youth in Stockholm following the death of his mother during childbirth. At seventeen he took up acting as part of a touring theatre company, and in 1912, the thirty-two-year-old Sjöström was hired by Svenska Bio along with Mauritz Stiller, famous for his part in establishing Greta Garbo’s Hollywood career.
Between 1912 and 1923, Sjöström directed forty-one films in Sweden. Thirty-one of these appeared across his first three years as a director, and most are now lost, although the social drama Ingeborg Holm is regarded as a high-water mark in the history of early cinema for its realism and narrative continuity. The Outlaw and His Wife (1918) was groundbreaking for its expressive use of nature, The Sons of Ingmar (1919) and Karin, Daughter of Ingmar (1920) were adaptations of Selma Lagerlöf’s novel Jerusalem which met with little acclaim, but switching his attention to Lagerlöf’s Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!, with The Phantom Carriage – a grim tale of alcoholism which makes extensive use of flashbacks – Sjöström won international renown.
He was invited to Hollywood by Louis B. Mayer, his first two American pictures Name the Man and He Who Gets Slapped (both 1924) straddling the line as Goldywn Pictures merged to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. In Sweden Sjöström had acted in his own films, but in Hollywood he focused on directing, enhancing his reputation for studied character portrayals, strong female leads, and psychologically compelling landscapes. Under the Anglicised name Victor Seastrom, he directed stars including Garbo, John Gilbert, Lon Chaney, and Norma Shearer, but the highlights of his time in America were his two collaborations with Lillian Gish, The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928), the latter considered a late silent-era classic.
After A Lady to Love (1930) Sjöström left Hollywood, uncomfortable with the new demands imposed by the talkies. Thereafter he worked mostly in theatre, returning for one last fling with the director’s chair in Under the Red Robe, a British-American production distributed by 20th Century Fox. In later life, Sjöström became something of a mentor to Ingmar Bergman, who reluctantly cast the ageing actor as Professor Isak Borg, the central role in Wild Strawberries (1957). Bergman said that Sjöström:
‘took my text, made it his own, invested it with his own experiences: loneliness, coldness, warmth, harshness, and ennui. Borrowing my father’s form, he occupied my soul and made it all his own – there wasn’t even a crumb left over for me! He did so with the sovereign power of a gargantuan personality. I had nothing to add, not even a sensible or irrational comment. Wild Strawberries was no longer my film; it was Victor Sjöström’s!’
In the context of such a career, Under the Red Robe is entertaining but unexceptional fare, nicely framed but with a convoluted plot, some peculiar casting choices, and a determined lack of action. It is based on the 1894 novel of the same name by Stanley J. Weyman, which Arthur Conan Doyle had praised for possessing ‘the most dramatic opening of any historical novel I know’. Set in seventeenth-century France during the ascendancy of Cardinal Richelieu, and coming to a climax on the Day of the Dupes when Richelieu’s enemies wrongly believed that they had succeeded in ousting him from power, the novel had been turned into a Broadway play in 1896 starring Viola Allen and William Faversham; into a British silent film in 1915, directed by William Noy; it was given the silent treatment in America in 1923, directed by Alan Crosland and starring Robert B. Mantell, Alma Rubens, and the opera singer John Charles Thomas; and in 1928 it also became a musical, with songs by the composer Jean Gilbert and the lyricist Harry B. Smith.
In Sjöström’s version, Conrad Veidt – a German actor who featured in several of the landmark films of German Expressionism, but despite his fervent opposition to the Nazis, once in Britain and the United States found himself typecast as a heavily accented villain – plays Gil de Berault, a notorious swordsman known as ‘The Black Death’ whose penchant for dueling almost leads to his execution. The authoritarian minister Cardinal Richelieu, right hand to King Louis XIII and here played by Raymond Massey, steps in at the last moment to issue Gil with a risky assignment. To spare his life he must travel to the south of France and arrest the Huguenot rebel Edmond, Duke of Fiox, in a gambit meant to bolster Richelieu’s position and centralise the monarch’s power.
Gil is given a manservant named Marius, played by Romney Brent, who despite his loyalty to Richelieu is an irresistible pickpocket and provides Under the Red Robe with its comic mischief. Once in the south, Gil begins infiltrating the Duke’s castle, developing romantic feelings for Marguerite, who he believes to be the Duke’s wife but is in fact his sister. The role of Marguerite is occupied by the French actress Annabella, who had debuted with a small part in the epic Napoléon in 1927, and earlier in 1937 had made her first foray into English-language film as the female lead in Wings of the Morning. For that film she was given top billing despite appearing opposite a young Henry Fonda, and she is the star too of Under the Red Robe, perhaps not the perfect counterpart to a dry Veidt, but able to shift seamlessly from cultivated amour to cool knowing as she pleads on behalf of her lover.
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‘My chief objection to the Little Carnegie’s Under the Red Robe is its selection of Conrad Veidt for the dashing, romantic role of Gil de Berault. Mr. Veidt is an excellent actor […] but I very much doubt that any beauteous Lady Marguerite ever could fall in love with him at first sight […] Mr. Brent’s Marius […] serves to relieve the dour monotony of Mr. Veidt’s performance and gives the film its much-needed comic relief’ – New York Times, 1 June 1937, Frank S. Nugent
‘As one might expect from a director famous for his ability to concretise interior struggles on celluloid, this adaptation of Stanley Weyman’s costume romance of 17th century France (dealing with Cardinal Richelieu’s hounding of the Huguenots) is a swashbuckler more concerned with character than action. Set in a deliciously stylised Sternbergian world – a contrast to the realistic tone of most of Sjöström’s films – it follows Conrad Veidt’s attempts to square his role as a mercenary with his conscience and his eventual salvation in love. Massey is equally sombre as Richelieu, and the photography by Georges Périnal and James Wong Howe is stunning.’ – Time Out, PH
‘Our own too-seldom seen Conrad Veidt, who in this picture looks like a blend of John Bunny and Douglas Fairbanks, is disappointing. It was for something more worthy of that commanding figure and of those incisive tones that we have been waiting.’ – Punch, ‘At the Pictures’, 25 August 1937, E.Y.
‘Romney Brent […] gives an admirable comedy performance as Gil’s unscrupulous servant. Annabella suffers from too many close-ups, and Raymond Massey from farcical make-up as Richelieu. Conrad Veidt, as Gil, at any rate looks impressive. Although not convincing from an adult point of view, the film would probably be found quite exciting and entertaining by children.’ – Monthly Film Bulletin, 31 August 1937, A.V.