Sunday, November 9, 2014
Douglas Fairbanks And The Robin Hood Experiment
I looked it up: this was my twenty-sixth Douglas Fairbanks movie. That doesn't make me an expert, but I do think I have a solid feel for the man's work.
You do know who Douglas Fairbanks was, right? The star of forty-eight movies, including some of the greatest action films of all time, Fairbanks was a superstar before the word existed, and along with Chaplin and his wife Mary Pickford, one of the three highest-paid and most-popular actors of his day. On his honeymoon with Pickford, Fairbanks and his bride drew crowds of 300,000 in Paris and London. At home in their mansion, dubbed "Pickfair," the two threw lavish parties and routinely entertained the world's most sought-after celebrities. To receive an invitation to Pickfair was to receive the social blessing of Hollywood royalty.
But Fairbanks was more than just a regular feature of the gossip columns and party circuit. He was also a fine actor and created the modern action hero in a series of swashbuckling adventures showcasing an infectious joie de vivre and extraordinary flare for stunt work.
He followed up that groundbreaking triumph in 1921 with The Three Musketeers, his first pure swashbuckler. (Read my review here.) The following year, looking to follow up with a similar sort of fun action-filled yarn, he again turned to one of the great fables, this time the adventures of Robin Hood.
If the Robin Hood legend were a song, we'd call it a chestnut, with every generation taking it up and putting its own particular spin on it. Given that there have been something like a hundred filmed versions of the Robin Hood legend, with everybody from Errol Flynn to Daffy Duck playing the title role, I'll assume I don't need to tell you the basic plot: of how Prince John took advantage of Richard the Lionhearted's absence during the Crusades to seize the English throne, and how a nobleman, here named the Earl of Huntingdon (Fairbanks), took up arms against him.
As was always the case with a Douglas Fairbanks movie, the technical support was first-rate. The sets and costumes are terrific, with a full-sized castle set (no, that's not a matte painting) that must have filled the studio backlot. Arthur Edeson, who would later lens All Quiet on the Western Front, Frankenstein, The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, provides his usual stellar cinematography.
Yet for all the money lavished on the production, this is a strangely non-canonical take on the Robin Hood legend — no archery contest, no battle on the bridge between Robin and Little John, Friar Tuck reduced to a single closeup and title card, and the final fight between Robin and Guy of Gisbourne over in two blinks of an eye.
Instead, the movie focuses on Robin's friendship with Richard the Lionhearted, starting on the eve of the Crusades and carrying through all the twists and turns of the relationship — including a betrayal of a basic trust — right on through to Richard banging on the door of Robin's honeymoon chamber begging for entry after the wedding.
But given that Fairbanks himself chose to abandon the traditional Robin Hood story for something else, we have to lay the blame squarely at his feet when the story grinds to a halt forty minutes in and idles in neutral for the next hour.
I also have to say the acting was a bit of a disappointment — not that of Fairbanks himself, mind you, whose enthusiasm was as infectious as ever — but that of the rest of what should have been a strong supporting cast.
I also have a problem with the film's Guy of Gisbourne — what I'll forever think of as the Basil Rathbone role. Paul Dickey, in what turned out to be the only movie role of his career, is a frozen-faced fish who never proves a credible threat to Fairbanks. He's no swordsman with either the blade or the ladies, and though he has broad shoulders, not for one minute did I believe he could best Fairbanks at anything.
But my opinion is that it's not good Robin Hood and it's not good Fairbanks.
That would make Robin Hood a noble failure, or at the very least, a necessary one. No matter what romantic notions we might have about the matter, artists aren't born, they're made, and sometimes you have to step wrong before you learn how to step right.
Note: The AFI-Silver's presentation of Robin Hood (1922) is part of its Silent Cinema Showcase which runs through November 23 (click here for the schedule). Hesperus provided top-notch live musical accompaniment with a score based on the medieval music of Robin Hood's era, performed on historically-appropriate instruments — lutes, recorders and strings. There were even a few songs sung, ancient ballads about the man who robbed from the rich and, well, you know the rest. Overall, a fine afternoon.