Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Three Musketeers (1921): Douglas Fairbanks And His Mighty Sword

The Monkey has spent most of the summer reading the collected works of Alexandre Dumas—or, more accurately, The Three Musketeers which is long enough to feel like the collected works of Alexandre Dumas. It's a sprawling epic, crammed to the gills with plots and subplots enough for a dozen novels.

Even if you haven't read it, you probably have some sense of the story: a young Frenchman named d'Artagnan pals around with three of the king's elite guardsmen—the musketeers Athos, Porthos and Aramis—wielding swords, battling bad guys, and getting into all sorts of scrapes. It's two tons of fun, with memorable heroes and villains, lots of action and pretty girls, and very little angst to slow you down.

No wonder movie makers have been so fascinated with it.

The first film version of the novel (a short fencing scene) appeared in 1898 and people have been retelling the story ever since. At 700+ pages, there's enough here to make any kind of movie you want—a historical romance, a swashbuckler, a buddy comedy, a political thriller, even a sex farce—and there are versions in French, English, Russian, Latvian and Dutch, feature-length versions, musical versions, television versions, and even one version starring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy—and that's just in the last ten years!

As a silent film fan, I'm most interested in the one starring the legendary Douglas Fairbanks. Released in 1921, this version of The Three Musketeers opts to emphasize the palace intrigue, specifically focusing on an episode from the first half of the book where Cardinal Richelieu—the real power behind Louis XIII of France—hopes to catch the queen in an affair with England's Duke of Buckingham, thus discrediting her and removing her as a counterweight to his influence on the king.

Riding to the rescue are d'Artagnan and the three musketeers.

Fairbanks had already established the conventions of the movie action hero with The Mark of Zorro in 1920, and after one last foray (The Nut, 1921) into the kind of modern comedy that had previously defined his career, Fairbanks spent the rest of the silent era making the lavish historical action-adventures he's now known for, beginning with The Three Musketeers.

It wouldn't take Fairbanks long to perfect the formula—The Thief of Bagdad, The Black Pirate and The Iron Mask are among the era's best films—but here, he was still figuring out the proper balance between swashbuckling and plot, in this case erring on the side of the latter. The long set-up introducing all the scheming court figures will serve only to tax the patience of some viewers without making what follows any clearer. The movie also tries to squeeze in as many incidents from the book as possible without necessarily investing any emotion in them or tying them together, dissipating the narrative momentum and proving once again that it's possible for a book adaptation to be too faithful.

At those moments, though, when it turns its attentions to d'Artagnan, the film takes off. A young rube from the country, he initially alienates Athos, Porthos and Aramis, but quickly wins them over with his bravery, ingenuity and superior swordsmanship. He falls in love with his landlord's niece who, as it turns out, is moonlighting as the queen's go-between to Buckingham, thus drawing d'Artagnan—and the three musketeers—into the royal intrigue.

When the time comes to act, all the bad guys in Paris can't stop him from succeeding.

Fairbanks, as usual, was in fine fettle. At thirty-eight, he was too old to play the twenty-one year old d'Artagnan, but once the swordplay begins, you don't care. With grace and gusto, he fends off a dozen men, scales walls, leaps through windows, and saves enough energy to woo the girl and outsmart the Cardinal. And his one-handed handspring to stab a man and save his friends ranks with his best stunts and is worthy of a man half his age.

Admittedly, he was not a subtle actor, but then he rarely played subtle characters, and d'Artagnan is no exception. While modern audiences may find Fairbanks's style amusingly outdated, the d'Artagnan he plays is an impetuous, inexperienced youth, untrained in the manners of an urban gentleman, unable to harness his raw emotions, and always looking in his youthful insecurity to pick a fight with anyone he thinks has looked at him wrong. A more subdued, modern style would only wind up highlighting the silliness of the storyline without adding to the fun.

As for the other actors, Adolphe Menjou is well-cast as the ineffectual Louis, and Nigel de Brulier is so good as Richelieu that he played him three more times, in 1929, 1935 and 1939. A long list of nobody-much plays the various female roles, including Mary MacLaren as Anne of Austria, Marguerite De La Motte as Constance Bonacieux and Barbara La Marr as Milady de Winter. The three musketeers wind up being minor characters in a film bearing their name, with Leon Barry playing Athos, George Siegmann as Porthos, and Eugene Pallette (yeah, the frog-voiced tub who played the father in My Man Godfrey and Friar Tuck in The Adventures of Robin Hood) as Aramis.

Director Fred Niblo (best known for the 1925 silent version of Ben-Hur) and cinematographer Arthur Edeson (All Quiet on the Western Front and Casablanca) made a good team, allowing us to easily follow the swordplay as well as using visuals rather than intertitles to reveal the character of Richelieu—showing, for example, his lurking shadow in the background as the king unwittingly sets the trap designed to ensnare the queen. (Richelieu sometimes also strokes a cat while devising his plans, decades before Ernst Blofeld, Don Corleone and Dr. Evil made it the signature move of the truly wicked.)

Edward M. Langley designed the sets; and Paul Burns and Edward Knoblock were responsible for the costumes.

The film was released in August 1921 to good reviews and a solid box office. Its $1.5 million gross placed it among the top earning films of the year, finishing behind only Rudolph Valentino's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Charlie Chaplin's The Kid.

Overall, this is not top shelf Fairbanks, but it's pretty good, and once you've seen The Mark of Zorro, The Thief of Bagdad and The Black Pirate, I can recommend this one as a worthwhile follow-up.

P.S. Fairbanks returned to the character of d'Artagnan in 1929 with his last silent film, The Iron Mask. Based on a pair of sequels to The Three Musketeers penned by Dumas himself, the second go-around is even better than the first and it proved to be the perfect cap to Fairbanks's swashbuckling career. You don't have to see The Three Musketeers before you see The Iron Mask, but doing so will add to the fun—and poignancy—of the latter.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Book Review: My Lunches With Orson—Highly Recommended

Upon reflection, the next time someone launches another of those internet memes asking who from Hollywood history, living or dead, you'd like to have lunch with, I'm going to answer "Orson Welles." Because if there are two things Orson Welles did better than anyone, aside from making such classic films as Citizen Kane and The Lady From Shanghai, it was (1) eating and (2) talking. I imagine the food would be good, the conversation (on Welles's end, at least) even better, and if in the process, you gained a little insight into one of film history's most mercurial figures, well then the hefty bill at the end would be well worth paying.

Back in the early-1980s, director Henry Jaglom sat down to just such a series of lunches, recorded them, then after letting the tapes gather dust in a shoe box for three decades, allowed Peter Biskind, author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, to transcribe and edit them for public consumption.

The resulting book, My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles, available from Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company, is just as lively and insightful as, and a great deal funnier than, any lunch I ever imagined having with Welles—or any other celebrity for that matter.

The relationship between Jaglom and Welles was one between friends and equals—Jaglom had somehow persuaded Welles to star in his directorial effort, then became Welles's trusted go-between with the various moneyed interests who dangled promises of funding for the aging director's film projects—and for years they lunched weekly at Ma Maison, Wolfgang Puck's hideaway restaurant in West Hollywood. The recordings were Welles's idea, inspired by similar conversations Jaglom had taped with his own father, and with no plans for their future use, and thus no sense of history's judgment hanging over his head, Welles is as close to unguarded as he ever was.

Neither adversarial, as between a journalist and his quarry, or worshipful, as between an acolyte and his idol, the conversations are freewheeling and completely unvarnished. Political correctness ("Sardinians have stubby little fingers") is set aside, civility ("I gave him an evasive answer. I told him, 'Go f#ck yourself.'") is forgotten, and good taste ("Buchwald drove it up Ronnie's ass and broke it off") isn't even honored in the breach.

Jaglom was the perfect lunch companion for Welles. Welles was a raconteur, a provocateur, a poseur and sometimes an out-and-out liar, and it would have necessarily taken a man with a quick mind, opinions of his own, unafraid to say, "Orson, that's ridiculous," when he was indeed being ridiculous (which was often), and able to draw out the great man on a broad range of topics, to serve as the host of these repasts at Ma Maison.

The lunches are delicious, lively and hilarious, what I would imagine the Algonquin roundtable was like, with Welles simultaneously playing the parts of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and George Kaufmann, tossing out one liners like hand grenades while eating food enough for six. It's wonderful stuff. I wound up neglecting everything—the dog, dinner, this blog—just to read another chapter.

Indeed, if I wrote as quickly as I read, you'd have had this review the day after the book arrived in the mail.

These lunches are also filling, as good lunches should be, featuring lengthy discussions of Irving Thalberg ("Satan"), Erich von Stroheim ("genius"), David O. Selznick ("pious old fart"), Carole Lombard ("very bright"), Rita Hayworth ("magnificent"), Joan Fontaine ("a plain old bad actor"), Laurence Olivier ("very—I mean, seriously—stupid"), Charles Chaplin ("wonderful—but not funny"), and many others.

The greatest insights, though, are into Welles himself, although certainly not the ones he intended. Throughout the book, he and Jaglom are in discussions with the French to finance Dreamers, discussions with the Italians to finance Cradle Will Rock, discussions with Hollywood A-listers to star in The Big Brass Ring, and discussions with everybody to finance King Lear, ultimately with no success on any front. Welles complains frequently about his reputation for being difficult, insisting it's the propaganda of enemies with an axe to grind, and that, really, he was just trying to help those poor slobs sell their terrible wine when he insisted on rewriting their ad copy, and who doesn't hate the tedium of editing film, and yes, he was eating four steaks and seven baked potatoes for dinner at Cannes, but he only sniffed the pork tenderloin.

When over one of these lunches Welles pitches a project to Susan Smith of HBO, it becomes obvious why his career went to hell in a handbasket—he may have been a genius, but he was also ill-tempered, insecure, and surprisingly bashful to boot. One imagined look on her part and a single wrong word and he winds up chasing her out of the restaurant even as she's begging him to do a deal for the cable network.

It's no wonder that when Welles died, he left nineteen unfinished projects, and hadn't completed a feature-length film in twelve years.

The question you always have to ask yourself when reading anything Welles ever said is how much of it is real and how much of it is a put-on (to shock, delight or deflect his questioner). In the end, I'm not sure it matters because to a great degree, the pose was the man. But if anyone ever got close to revealing in a series of conversations the flighty bundle of brilliant insecurities that were apparently dancing around inside Welles's over-sized carcass, it was Jaglom.

At one point, Welles discusses the concert pianist, Arthur Rubenstein, and his description could serve as his own epitaph: "He was the greatest cocksman of the ... twentieth century. The greatest charmer, linguist, socialite, raconteur. ... 'I am too lazy to practice ... I play clinkers all the time [but] I play it better with the clinkers.' [He] walked through life as though it was one big party."

One big party, or a series of very funny lunches.

P.S. Don't know your Orson Welles movies as well as you'd like? Click here for some suggestions from the Monkey.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

R.I.P. Bunheads

ABC-Family announced yesterday that it would not be picking up Bunheads for a second season. A real favorite of Katie-Bar-The-Door's and the Monkey's, the critically-acclaimed Bunheads was a warm, smart, quirky comedy about a couple of widows—one young(ish), one old(ish)—who run a dance school, make lots of old movie references and mentor a quartet of teenage girls.

Any show that would quote an obscure line from Sunset Boulevard—"As long as the lady is paying for it, why not take the Vicuna?"—is a show that's right in my wheelhouse.

A few of my favorite moments:

Michelle, Fanny, Sasha, Boo, Ginny, Melanie, and all the rest, we here at the Monkey will miss you.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Coveted Thingster Award (Revised)

(Subsequent to posting this earlier today, I decided to tie in my movie recommendations below with the Oscar-winning film The Artist which Thingy was watching when she gave me the Thingster Award.)

My blog pal Thingy over at Pondering Life has bestowed upon me the coveted Thingster Award. She was watching The Artist—the silent movie that won the Oscar for best picture in 2011—the other day and thought of yours truly.

"Mythical Monkey. The go to guy for great insight on the classics, and not so classic movies."

Thingy created the "Thingster Award" back in April. After winning the Liebster Blog Award, she wrote, "I came up with a scathingly brilliant idea. I shall give out my own awards at the end of each week to blogs I find especially appealing to me. You get no trophy, although, you can take the special banner I have made. I also assume many of you will never know of your special prize, for I shall not tell you. (I'm lazy that way)."

And she's been handing out the Thingster Award ever since.

Just not to me.

Now, I don't usually brood about this sort of thing, but every time she handed one out I thought, "Gee, I wish I had me one of those Thingster Awards." And now I do! To quote Mister Roberts, "I'd rather have it than the Congressional Medal of Honor" (you know, in my case because the Medal of Honor would require an act of extraordinary bravery and heroism, a hard thing to accomplish while sitting in front of a computer in the suburbs of Baltimore).

To return the favor, and since Thingy is apparently in a silent movie mood, here are five suggestions to follow up The Artist:

The Black Pirate—Jean Dujardin, the Oscar-winning star of The Artist, cheerfully acknowledged that he was channeling silent film legend Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., during his performance. So why not cut out the middle man and see Fairbanks for yourself. The Black Pirate is a swashbuckling classic, and if you have a Blu-Ray player, you can see the original color version.

Stella Maris—Remember the scene in The Artist where Peppy Miller fondles the jacket and imagines herself with the hero? That's a direct quote of a scene from the classic Mary Pickford melodrama, Stella Maris, my favorite of all of Pickford's films. There she plays two roles, and so convincingly that if you didn't know better, you'd swear it was two different actresses.

Show People—The story of an unknown girl from the country who makes it big in Hollywood was a staple of the silent era (see, e.g., A Girl's Folly, Souls for Sale, The Extra Girl and Ella Cinders), so much so that Marion Davies (with King Vidor directing) spoofed the genre with this 1928 classic comedy. Look for cameos from just about everybody who was anybody including Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, John Gilbert and even Marion Davies and King Vidor as themselves.

Flesh and the Devil—Speaking of John Gilbert, was his fall from box office grace with the coming of the sound age the inspiration for The Artist? Well, actually it could be any number of silent film greats, but if it was Gilbert, here's one of his best, a noirish romance pairing him with off-screen lover Greta Garbo.

Behind the Screen—And finally, a very funny behind-the-scenes look at the making of a Hollywood movie from the silent era's most popular comedy star, the legendary Charlie Chaplin.

Hope that's of use to you, Thingy, and once again, thank you very much for the award!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Orson Welles: What To See (And What Not To See)

I'm currently writing a glowing review of My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles which will be up in a day or two. In the meantime, if you don't know Welles as well as you should, here are some recommendations:

Citizen Kane (1941)—love it or hate it (I love it), you can no more call yourself a film buff without seeing Kane than you can call yourself literate without knowing the alphabet. As Jean-Luc Godard said of Welles, "Everyone will always owe him everything."

The Third Man (1949)—Welles didn't direct this suspense classic (Carol Reed did), but his supporting performance as the charming arch-criminal Harry Lime is one of the most memorable in movie history.

Highly Recommended
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)—the studio re-shot the ending and the film flopped at the box office, but this story of a spoiled rich kid and his tragic comeuppance is a masterpiece anyway.

The Lady From Shanghai (1948)—starring his soon-to-be ex-wife Rita Hayworth, this film noir thriller boasts the legendary shoot-out in a hall of mirrors.

Touch of Evil (1958)—from the twilight of the film noir era, Welles is a cop run amok terrorizing both good guys (Charlton Heston) and bad guys (Akim Tamiroff).

Chimes at Midnight a.k.a. Falstaff (1965)—the least seen of his classic films, Welles plays Shakespeare's fat fool as a tragic-comic figure and a meta-commentary on his own career.

The Stranger (1946)—Suspected Nazi (Welles) plays a deadly game of wits with Nazi hunter (Edward G. Robinson).

Macbeth (1948)—One of Welles's three Shakespeare films, this atmospheric interpretation made a lot more sense after it was restored in the 1990s.

Othello (1952)—personally, I think the only way for a white actor to play Othello is the way Patrick Stewart did it at the Shakespeare Theater back in 1997: with an otherwise all-black cast. Except for the matter of pigmentation, Othello was right in Welles's wheelhouse.

Mr. Arkadin a.k.a. Confidential Report (1955)—the studio messed around so much with this whodunit about a private detective hot on the trail of the mysterious Mr Arkadin, that the Criterion dvd contains three versions.

Compulsion (1959)—another acting-only movie, Welles plays a lawyer defending two killers based on the infamous Leopold and Loeb.

Journey Into Fear (1943)—director only. Joseph Cotten should have chosen a different cruise line: this one is full of Nazis and nonsense.

Jane Eyre (1944)—acting only. Welles is pretty good as Mr. Rochester, but Joan Fontaine obviously didn't read the novel about a feisty girl who marries above her station.

Tomorrow is Forever (1946)—acting only. I waited forever for this three-hanky weeper to finish. Co-starring Claudette Colbert.

Catch-22 (1970)—acting only. Alan Arkin is good, but the screenplay makes too much sense to capture the flavor of the classic Joseph Heller novel.

F for Fake (1973)—Welles's last feature-length directorial effort, this documentary about art forger Elmyr de Hory and his biographer Clifford Irving who got rich off a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes is beloved by some, but I'm not some.

Burn Before Watching
The V.I.P.'s (1963)—acting only. One of those group-of-strangers-stuck-in-one-place potboilers, this time in a fog-bound airport. Worst layover ever. Glossy, high-toned stupidity starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor at their worst.

Casino Royale (1967)—no, not the Daniel Craig classic. This is the swingin' 60s spoof. Incoherent, self-indulgent and painfully unfunny. Acting only.

It Happened One Christmas (1977)—made for tv remake of It's A Wonderful Life with Welles as Mr. Potter and Marlo Thomas in the Jimmy Stewart role. Saw it as a teenager and was scarred for life. Acting only.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

John Stephenson, The Voice Of My Childhood

Katie-Bar-The-Door and I have been watching old Perry Mason episodes on DVD the last week or so. Nothing like a little angst-free locked-room mystery (not to mention the coolest-looking lawyering job ever) to wind down at the end of the day.

In addition to trying to solve the mystery (I just point to everybody as they come on screen and say, "He did it!"), one of the games we wind up playing is "who is that guy again?" Everybody was on Perry Mason at one time or the other, faces you recognize but can't place the name. You know how it is. Our parents used to drive us nuts with this sort of thing, now we drive each other nuts.

Tonight, one of the suspects was a face that for once we didn't recognize—but that voice! We knew that voice. The actor's name was John Stephenson. Do you recognize his face?

How about if I told you he was the voice of these classic cartoon characters?

Mr. Slate (The Flintstones)

Dr. Benton Quest (Jonny Quest)

Fancy-Fancy (Top Cat)

The Sheriff (Scooby Doo, Where Are You!)

... and a whole lot of other voices. He was also the "In a minute, the results of that trial" narrator at the end of Dragnet. In fact, John Stephenson was pretty much the voice of my entire childhood. And the good news is, he's still out there, alive and kicking, still doing voice work. If my math is correct, he'll turn 90 on August 9th. How about that!

I don't know about you, but I feel just a little bit younger knowing he's still with us.

Mr. Stephenson, we here at the Monkey salute you!

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Singular Case Of Roy J. Pomeroy's Missing Oscar

While Katie-Bar-The-Door and I were vacationing in Alaska, I received an e-mail from Kate Corbett Pollack, a researcher with the American Pomeroy Historic Genealogical Association in Syracuse. Appropriately enough, given her place of employment, she's been researching Roy J. Pomeroy and she asked if I would spread word of his story and of a special request from the Association.

You remember Roy Pomeroy, don't you? If you're a silent film buff and an amateur Oscar historian like me, you immediately thought "Ah, yes, he won the first Oscar for special effects." Engineering effects, it was called then. He provided the sound effects for Wings, the first movie to win the Oscar for best picture, and invented what I guess you'd call rear-projection or maybe blue screen—dropping in a background behind an actor without requiring the actor to film on location.

He also worked, uncredited (nobody much got a credit in those days), on the special effects for Cecil B. DeMille's silent version of The Ten Commandments—remember the parting of Red Sea, using Jell-o? That was Pomeroy. And he was one of the original founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). For his efforts, he made over a $1 million a year in salary.

All around, well done, Mr. Pomeroy.

But then, as is often the case with triumphs, the world continued to turn and discovered it could live without Roy J. Pomeroy, particularly his salary demands and his autocratic behavior. Paramount fired him, no other studio would work with him, and his attempts to form his own company, Pomeroy Laboratories, were largely fruitless.

On September 3, 1947, Pomeroy was found dead in his laboratory of an apparent suicide. He was fifty-five.

And there the story of Roy J. Pomeroy sat until a few years ago when AMPAS began looking for Pomeroy's Oscar. Turns out no one has any idea where it is or even if Paramount forwarded the Oscar to him after it fired him.

"We would love to gain more readership for this story," Kate writes, "and perhaps an answer to the mystery of Roy's death (which looks like a suicide) and the missing Oscar. I thought by contacting others who write about Old Hollywood, this could be a way to do it."

So what say you, faithful Monkey readers? Can we spread the word and write a happy ending to Roy Pomeroy's story?

Monday, July 1, 2013

TCM Gets Very Quiet In July

A list of silent movies on Turner Classic Movies this July. This is why God created the DVR. (All times Eastern Daylight Savings Time).

July 8
12:00 AM
The Thief Of Bagdad (1924)
An Arabian thief sets out on a magical adventure to win a beautiful princess.
Dir: Raoul Walsh Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Snitz Edwards, Charles Belcher. BW-140 mins

July 10
6:30 AM
Bardelys the Magnificent (1926)
A notorious womanizer falls for the woman he has bet he can trick into marriage.
Dir: King Vidor Cast: John Gilbert, Eleanor Boardman, Roy D'Arcy . BW-90 mins

July 10
8:15 AM
The Show (1927)
In this silent film, a sideshow dancer secretly loves the show's amoral barker.
Dir: Tod Browning Cast: John Gilbert, Rene Adore, Lionel Barrymore. BW-76 mins

July 10-
9:45 AM
A Woman of Affairs (1928)
Prejudice keeps a free spirit from the man she loves, triggering a series of tragedies.
Dir: Clarence Brown Cast: Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Lewis Stone. BW-91 mins

July 10
11:30 AM
Desert Nights (1929)
In this silent film, diamond robbers get caught in a violent sandstorm.
Dir: William Nigh Cast: John Gilbert, Ernest Torrence, Mary Nolan. BW-62 mins

July 15
12:00 AM
Seven Years Bad Luck (1921)
In this silent film, a man's attempts to avoid bad luck after he breaks a mirror lead straight to it.
Dir: Max Linder Cast: Max Linder, Thelma Percy, Alta Allen. BW-62 mins

July 15
1:15 AM
Seven Chances (1925)
To inherit a fortune, a man races to find a bride by 7 p.m.
Dir: Buster Keaton Cast: Buster Keaton, T. Roy Barnes, Snitz Edwards. BW-56 mins

July 21
10:00 PM
Modern Times (1936)
The Tramp struggles to live in a modern industrial society with the help of a young homeless woman.
Dir: Charlie Chaplin Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman. BW-87 min.

July 22
12:00 AM
Mickey (1918)
An orphan brought up in a mining settlement is sent to New York to live with her aunt.
Dir: Richard Jones Cast: Mabel Normand, George Nichols, Wheeler Oakman. BW-74 mins

July 29
12:00 AM
Phantom (1922)
In this silent film, a store clerk risks his future to pursue his obsession with a beautiful, ghostly woman.
Dir: F. W. Murnau Cast: Alfred Abel, Lil Dagover, Aud Egede Nissen. BW-119 mins

That's films from such Monkey favorites as Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert, Max Linder, Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand and F.W. Murnau. Mark your calendars!