Sunday, November 9, 2014

Douglas Fairbanks And The Robin Hood Experiment

Katie-Bar-The-Door is out of town again — ongoing family issues — so my pal Mister Muleboy and I met at the AFI-Silver yesterday afternoon to take in the 1922 version of Robin Hood starring one of our favorite silent stars, Douglas Fairbanks.

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.
Certainly no one of his era, maybe no one ever, enjoyed stardom more than Fairbanks did.

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 practically invented the action-hero genre in film with 1920's The Mark of Zorro. Admittedly, his Don Diego Vega—Zorro to you—had no supernatural or extraterrestrial powers, ala Superman or the Hulk, but he was the first film hero with a secret identity and hideaway, a costume, a mask, a sidekick and a backstory, not to mention a compulsion to carve a "Z" on the anatomy of oppressors and evildoers while fighting for truth, justice and the old Spanish California way.

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.
Instead, I'll concentrate on how Fairbanks and his merry band chose to interpret the source material.

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.
Allan Dwan, who wound up directing twelve Fairbanks movies, and 400 more besides, helmed the proceedings.

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.

Is this the only Robin Hood with a fairly explicit homoerotic subtext? Maybe. Our hero prefers wrestling and horseplay with men to the attentions of women, of whom he confesses to be "afeared," and even his interest in the Lady Marian seems more paternal than passionate. Such a reading tends to cast the subsequent Crusades and the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest in a wholly different light.

I have to assume the effort to subvert the Robin Hood story was on purpose. It's not like some screenwriting weisenheimer slipped one past Fairbanks — Fairbanks was the screenwriter, credited as he often was as Elton Thomas (he was born Douglas Elton Thomas Ullman). Not to mention, he was also the producer, owned the production company and the distribution company. Nobody mucks with a man of such power and lives to eat lunch in Hollywood ever again.

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.

As played by that über-ham, Wallace Beery, King Richard is a loutish buffoon hardly worthy of the respect and loyalty he commands, eating Henry the Eighth-sized turkey legs, bellowing and banging his fist, and otherwise accomplishing very little.

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.
Sam De Grasse — one of the great supporting actors of the silent era — is a better villain, with his Prince John a would-be disciple of the Marquis de Sade, seizing the kingdom mostly so he can torture women who predictably refuse his sexual advances. But Alan Hale, who would play Little John again in the 1938 classic The Adventures of Robin Hood, is largely wasted here, and Enid Bennett, an Australian stage actress who appeared in 52 films between 1916 and 1941, is a pretty enough Lady Marian but gives ample evidence as to why she never became a star.

I can't say what you might think of this Robin Hood. Fairbanks's fans loved it, making it the top grossing movie of 1922. It ranks third among his features on the Internet Movie Database with a rating of 7.7. And the audience at the AFI seemed to enjoy it, although I'm not sure gales of laughter during the climatic battle is what Fairbanks would have had in mind.

But my opinion is that it's not good Robin Hood and it's not good Fairbanks.

Looking at it in the context of his career, however, Robin Hood is an example of an artist in transition. In terms of the all-important action sequences, Fairbanks was trying to add stylized movement and rhythm to his usual athleticism to create a sort of swashbuckling ballet. For the story, he was groping for something beyond mere plot, reaching for the mythic. He even makes a stab at playing a three-dimensional character instead of his usual innocent hero, a course that would see him afterwards play a thief, a pirate and eventually a true anti-hero in 1927's The Gaucho.

He failed on all three counts here but he would succeed spectacularly in his next two features — The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and The Black Pirate (1926), arguably the two greatest action-adventure films of the silent era and certainly the best work Fairbanks would ever produce.

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.

1 comment:

Douglas Fairbanks said...

Enid was a cold fish.

When I showed her how I'd been chafed while performing certain stunts, she ran from the room. It was the only emotion displayed during her five weeks on the set.

I could have done without her.