DVD of the Week – ‘Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer’ – December 2, 2008

Douglas Fairbanks, getting his brain shrunk, in "When the Clouds Roll By"
Douglas Fairbanks gets his head shrunk in "When the Clouds Roll By"

The eleven films on Flicker Alley’s five-disc set Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer are more than just a terrific collection of the films from one of the preeminent stars of silent cinema. Spanning the year 1916-1921, the films show Douglas Fairbanks developing from mere mortal film star, an actor with both comic grace and athletic flair, into the first action hero of the movies. All of the early films of this collection show Fairbanks in modern dress and contemporary mode, the urban guy with a chivalrous streak and an enthusiasm that bursts out of him in feats of gymnastic joy. Films like His Picture in the Papers (1917), Flirting With Fate (1917) and Wild and Woolly (1917) are more comedies than adventures and Fairbanks is a romantic comic lead whose athletic talents are an extension of his gags, much like Chaplin’s slapstick grace, Keaton’s daring play with massive mechanical props (like a moving steam engine) or Harold Lloyd’s thrill stunts. He’s dapper, charismatic and plays everything with a smile so wide you can’t help but be charmed by his joie de vivre, but he’s decidedly a modern urban hero, or at least a variation on it, the fop who transforms into the man of action of The Mollycoddle (1920). In When the Clouds Roll By (1920), one of the more unusual comedies of the set, Fairbanks is a superstitious young swell who is the unwitting victim of a decidedly sadistic psychological experiment by a doctor of dubious moral character trying to drive him to suicide, with the all-too-willing help of the man’s butler and building super (they both get far too much pleasure out of the misery they inflict on this sunny young man). Based on a scenario written by Fairbanks himself, it’s a strange and surreal comedy with an entire scene that place within his stomach (his dinner, looking very much like a primeval version of the Fruit of the Loom guys, acts up as he tries to digest a late meal) and a dream sequence that turns Fairbanks’ acrobatic feats into a slow-motion ballet that looks like something out of a Jean Vigo film.

Fairbanks as D'Artagnon in "A Modern Musketeer"
Fairbanks as D'Artagnon in "A Modern Musketeer"

With A Modern Musketeer (1917, directed by Allan Dwan), you see Fairbanks try on a different kind of persona in the prologue. Fairbanks winks to the audience as he strides into frame in long, curly hair and the flouncy, flamboyant costume of D’Artagnon, but when he leaps into an acrobatic swordfight his smile is no longer one of knowing parody, but of athletic joy. It’s a brief scene that soon gives way to the modern musketeer incarnation, but it looks ahead to the action movie spectacles of the twenties that will make him a screen legend, represented on this set by The Mark of Zorro (1921), a dashing adventure tale of Old California’s Robin Hood. In his secret identity as the foppish Don Diego, Fairbanks slouches, shuffles, and gives the dim, dull air of a bored dilettante who can hardly be bothered to wake up – but clues us in on the charade with smiling asides and playful parlor tricks and games. Behind the mask of Zorro, however, he comes alive with a zesty smile and an acrobatic performance, vaulting through windows and over walls and declaiming his pantomime speeches with every muscle in his body – you can almost hear him through the silence.

As an aside, The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916), the film’s sole short subject, is a truly surreal detective movie spoof, starring Fairbanks as a Sherlock Holmes-like sleuth named Coke Ennyday who juices himself with a syringe of cocaine to jolt himself into alertness and proceeds to gulp mouthfuls of opium and blow fistfuls of cocaine into the faces of attackers in the course of his investigation. Tod Browning was one of the writers and Anita Loos wrote the deft titles (as she did on a number of his films), and those drug gags would not pass muster even a few years later.

The box set from Flicker Alley, produced by David Shepard (of Film Preservation Associates) and Jeffrey Masino, features a new restoration of A Modern Musketeer from the Danish Film Institute and excellent new editions of the rest of the collection mastered from early-generation film materials.

I review the set on my MSN DVD column here.

Also new this week is an action movie not-so-guilty pleasure of mine. Wanted is a pretty silly concept and a high tech action movie as a surreal adventure fantasy, but as directed by Timur Bekmambetov it is a real blast of cinematic rollercoast and funhouse rolled into one. It’s not nearly as dark and misanthropic as the original graphic novel but it has its own corruption at the root of it.

James McAvoy plays a miserable office drone whose anxieties are swept away when he joins a society of hitmen who take their instructions from a supernatural loom. That’s the premise and the plot of this wildly absurd and just as wildly entertaining action fantasy, adapted from a misanthropic graphic novel and directed by Timur Bekmambetov (“Nightwatch”) with unhinged momentum and unrestrained spectacle. Bekmambetov just runs with it, creating a world where a secret society of God’s hitmen race on the tops of moving trains and flip cars through the air to get a better angle on a kill shot. You either go with the fantasy or get stuck in the preposterousness of the entire premise and the flippant execution.

I review the film in my DVD column here and for the Seattle P-I here.

Here’s a digest of the other DVD releases featured on my MSN column:

Movies: The X-Files: I Want to Believe with David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson reuniting as Muldar and Scully, Step Brothers with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian:

There’s more visual spectacle and special effects muscle than storytelling depth in Disney’s second C.S. Lewis fantasy adventure. The four British siblings have only aged a year but the magical fantasia of Narnia has fallen into ruin and a brutal war that dominates the film. The way these kids rise to the occasion with stalwart determination and courage is more compelling than the rather conventional story.

TV: Saturday Night Live: The Complete Fourth Season, Law & Order: The Sixth Year (Benjamin Bratt’s first season) and Freaks and Geeks Yearbook Edition:

Set in 1980 Michigan and executed with a dead-on sense of fashion, music, and pop-culture zeitgeist, the hour long show is no sitcom (though it’s funnier than most), and the humor is often a sneaky way to explore the pain of teenage nightmares and social rites of passage.

I wrote a much longer piece for this blog here.

Special Releases: The 18-disc set Pink Panther Ultimate Collection, the animated feature A Man Called Flintstone, and Sam Fuller’s White Dog:

Sam Fuller’s final American feature, about the discovery and attempted salvation of a canine trained by a racist to attack black people. Fuller literally gives us a dog’s-eye view in mesmerizing sequences, but the power of the film is in the questions of salvation and healing: can such trained hatred be “cured”?

Blu-ray: The Shawshank Redemption, La Femme Nikita and Stranger Than Fiction: Special Edition:

Here’s a Blu-ray first: a new “Special Edition” of a film previously available in a less special Blu-ray edition. The warm, offbeat comedy of a lonely IRS agent (Will Ferrell in a nicely restrained performance) who wakes up to his dull existence when a narrator takes up residence in his mind and announces that he’s going to die, now includes two new commentary tracks… and additional deleted scenes…

The weekly column goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I’m a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I’ve written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View.

I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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