For the life of me, I cannot remember whether I read Scaramouche because I was entranced by the movie, or whether it was the other way around, and I surrendered my 16 cents to the Leader Theater because I had already fallen in love with Rafael Sabatini's historical romances. I know that I gorged myself on huge helpings of Sabatini -- not only Scaramouche and Captain Blood, but everything else in the rich collection of the McDonald Avenue library. Scaramouche, first published in 1921, enjoyed a second burst of popularity when the Mel Ferrer-Stewart Granger Technicolor swashbuckler hit the screens in 1952. I've now re-read the novel, and while it lacks the magic that it had for my 13-year-old self, and, moreover, is awkwardly plotted, and stilted, and thin, and obvious, it's nevertheless an engaging adventure story. The central figure is the dashing and resilient Andre-Louis Moreau, who survives crisis after crisis with a witty, devil-may-care sprezzatura. The novel itself overlays elements of picaresque (on-the-lam Moreau becomes an itinerant actor, then a fencing master, and finally a politician) onto a traditional romance plot (in the novel's final pages, our bastard hero discovers that he's an aristocrat by birth). At heart it's yet another version of the secret-sharer, doppelganger, Jekyll-Hyde plot so common a hundred or so years ago. Moreau is haunted by his wicked double, the Marquis Gervais de la Tour D'Azyr, with whom he competes for not one but two different women -- one fallen and one pure, as was the custom in those days. D'Azyr claims that Moreau has been "the evil genius of his life," but he's got it backwards: he's Moreau's evil twin. In the thrilling climax, so-called, Moreau wins Aline de Kercadiou -- the upper-class paragon whom both he and his double desire. The novel is set during the French Revolution, but the historical context is dimly realized -- a much paler embodiment than The Tale of Two Cities, which, like Scaramouche, is also a novel of doubles (remember Charles Darnay and his dissipated friend Sidney Carton!). A dyspeptic reader might assert that the novel is nothing but dilute Dumas; it would be hard to challenge such an opinion.
The film, which I remembered fondly, was a bitter disappointment. It's appallingly, embarrassingly bad. There's some good theatrical dueling, but the plot is a mess, the dialog is ghastly, the humor infantile, and the acting vaudevillian. Eleanor Parker is hopeless as a cliche "spitfire" who alternately kisses and smacks around her admirers; however, a young and rondelet Janet Leigh, swathed in whole hectares of taffeta, manages to redeem the part of Aline. All the characters, even Aline, wear their hair in the oddest configuration: highly artificial, upswept white wigs. They look like well-groomed sheep. I suppose it's too late to shoot the hairdresser.
The Sesquipedalian Sibilance Society would like to extend its appreciation to Mr. Sabatini for coining the word "spadassinicide," which is much-used in the novel. It's from Fr. spadassin, "assassin," and from the Latin verb meaning, "to kill." Etymologically speaking, spadassinicide ought to denote a person who murders murderers, but the author uses it to mean a person who kills by taking advantage of the etiquette of the duel. It's a handsome old neologism, although not easy to work into everyday conversation.