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.


Mythical Monkey said...

By the way, did anyone notice that in the group cast photo, Mary Pickford sneaked into the front row? If you click on the photo to enlarge it, you'll see her sitting next to her husband, Douglas Fairbanks.

Douglas Fairbanks said...

Fred Niblo can eat my 1939-sewn shorts ! He was a drunk, a whore-monger, and a POOR DIRECTOR !!!

He wasn't director enough to carry Christy Cabanne's megaphone. We were lucky even to get through Dumas' shambling, rambling play.

I beseech you -- no more of this. Stick with Zorro and remind me not of the hacks I had to endure. . . .

Anonymous said...

Also, Fairbanks’ Three Musketeers (1921) has been recently released on an excellent blu ray from the Film Preservation Society website