A bumbling barber at the court of King Louis XV of France, Beaucaire (Bob Hope) accidentally gets his beloved would-be girlfriend, ambitious chambermaid Mimi (Joan Caulfield) exiled from the palace. Thereafter the Duc le Chandre (Patric Knowles), renowned as the finest swordsman and lover at the French court, persuades Beaucaire to impersonate him after the King (Reginald Owen) arranges a diplomatic marriage to the daughter of King Phillip II of Spain. En route to the Spanish court, the Duc rescues and swiftly falls in love with a beautiful woman unaware she is in fact his bride-to-be, Princess Maria (Marjorie Reynolds). Meanwhile poor old Beaucaire continues the ruse while a vengeful Mimi allies herself with dastardly Don Francisco (Joseph Schildkraut) to expose the impostor as payback. It falls to the hapless and cowardly Monsieur Beaucaire to keep his wits about him, lest he lose his head.
No less a comic authority than Woody Allen singled Monsieur Beaucaire among a handful of early Bob Hope comedies for praise. While less well known today than Hope's celebrated Road movies with Bing Crosby, this rollicking costume romp was a big hit in the Forties and has aged especially well. Published in 1900, Booth Tarkington's original Pulitzer-prize winning novel was first adapted for the screen as a far more serious vehicle for silent film star Rudolph Valentino. It also served as loose inspiration for Ernst Lubitsch's classic Monte Carlo (1930). Here Tarkington's novel gives a typically zany Bob Hope comedy what many others lack, namely a compelling plot. Co-writers Melvin Frank and Norman Panama - with uncredited input from Frank Tashlin - fashion a farce out of a swashbuckling romance without betraying its essential spirit.
Of course Bob Hope had made period comedy-adventure films before, notably MGM's Technicolor charmer The Princess and the Pirate (1944), and the success of Monsieur Beaucaire emboldened him to do so again with Casanova's Big Night (1954). In these films the central gag is Hope's own anachronistic presence. He is a man of the Forties inexplicably transplanted to the Seventeenth century where his fast-talking, cowardly, lecherous schtick sparks laughs off the stuffed-shirts of the era. Yet in Monsieur Beaucaire Hope's stock comic persona slots into Tarkington's intricate plot with surprising ease. The script invests Beaucaire with pathos and humanity as we come to empathize with his plight and frustrated romantic yearning for Mimi. Similarly, beyond mere cardboard stooges for Hope's comic schtick, the supporting cast essay fairly faceted characters with their own interesting, entangled motives. Chief among them gorgeous Joan Caulfield who gives an especially winning performance. Mimi has her own character arc, slowly transforming from venal gold-digger to worthy love interest instrumental in saving the day. Indeed the romantic subplot here is unusually rather sweet as Beaucaire and Mimi move from thwarted romance to outright adversaries then eventually sincere love.
Veteran comedy director George Marshall does a fine job intertwining the comic and dramatic sides of the plot even though, as per Forties film convention, the 'serious' heroes Duc le Chandre and Princess Maria are less interesting and alarmingly callous in their treatment of the buffoonish lead. Marshall went on to direct The Paleface (1948), one of Hope's most popular movies, and stuck with him well into the late Sixties. Frank and Panama supply ol' ski-nose with a gourmet selection of killer one-liners ("Talk to me later, I'm killing myself"). It is easy to see why Hope's line deliveries were the envy of Woody Allen. His patter is machine-gun fast and lighter than air. Meanwhile Tashlin's influence on the script is evident in moments of delightful cartoon-like slapstick as when Beaucaire hides the Duc and his lady-love in the same barber's chair or the lively climactic swordfight laden with zany sight gags.