King Louis XI of France (Basil Rathbone) is in desperate straits. He is besieged in Paris by the Burgundians and suspects that there is a traitor in his court. He goes in disguise to a tavern to see who accepts a message from the enemy. While there, he is amused by the antics of poet François Villon (Ronald Colman), who has stolen food from the royal storehouse. 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 (Frances Dee) 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.Ronald Colman as François Villon
Basil Rathbone as King Louis XI
Frances Dee as Katherine DeVaucelles
Ellen Drew as Huguette, Villon's girlfriend
C.V. France as Father Villon
Henry Wilcoxon as Captain of the Watch
Heather Thatcher as the Queen
Stanley Ridges as Rene de Montigny
Bruce Lester as Noel de Jolys
Alma Lloyd as Colette
Walter Kingsford as Tristan l'Hermite
Sidney Toler as Robin Turgis
Colin Tapley as Jehan Le Loup
Ralph Forbes as Oliver le Dain
John Miljan as Grand Constable Thibaut D'Aussigny
William Haade as Guy Tabarie
Adrian Morris as Colin de Cayeulx
Montagu Love as General Dudon
Lester Matthews as General Saliere
William Farnum, as General Barbezier. He starred as Villon in the first, silent film version of If I Were King, made in 1920.
Paul Harvey as Burgundian Herald
Barry Macollum as Storehouse Watchman
May Beatty as Anna
Winter Hall as Major Domo
Francis McDonald as Casin Cholet
Ann Evers as Lady-in-Waiting
Jean Fenwick as Lady-in-Waiting
Darryl Hickman made his film debut in the uncredited role of a child.
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.
Whether Preston Sturges, who at the time was Paramount's top writer, 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. The final screenplay included Sturges' own original translations of some of Villon's poems.
The film was in production from 12 May to mid-July 1938. 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.
If I Were King was nominated for four Academy Awards:Supporting Actor - Basil Rathbone
Art Direction - Hans Dreier and John B. Goodman
Music, Original Score - Richard Hageman
Sound, Recording - Loren L. Ryder
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.
McCarthy's play premiered on Broadway in 1901 and was revived five times up through 1916. It was first adapted in 1920 as a silent film.
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". The operetta was filmed twice - in 1930, starring Jeanette MacDonald and Dennis King and in 1956, directed by Michael Curtiz. 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.
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).