After reviewing the great Flicker Alley DVD set Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer from MSN and spotlighting the set as my “DVD of the Week” with a longer review, I was asked to take another, much more in-depth look for the Turner Classic Movies website.
The image of Douglas Fairbanks that springs to mind to even the most dedicated silent movie fan is that of the grinning swashbuckling hero. From The Mark of Zorro in 1920 to The Iron Mask in 1929, Fairbanks was the dashing leading man of dynamic costume epics defined by his verve and acrobatic energy. But before he leapt into the public’s imagination in those flamboyant action epics, Douglas Fairbanks was a charismatic and decidedly contemporary leading man of light romantic comedies, a rambunctious urbanite facing the adventures of modern life and modern love with comic grace and athletic flair. Flicker Alley’s magnificent box set Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer is not just a survey of Fairbanks’ career leading up to The Mark of Zorro. In the words of Fairbanks biographers Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta, who write the essay in the accompanying booklet, “this set charts his evolution from screen satirist to swashbuckler.”
Fairbanks made twelve features in eighteen months at Triangle, including Flirting With Fate, a dark comedy directed by William Christy Cabanne, and The Matrimaniac, scripted by Anita Loos and directed by Paul Powell (with cinematography by future director Victor Fleming), both included in this set. These 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. They defined the Fairbanks screen persona as the all-American urban man with a chivalrous streak and an enthusiasm that bursts out of him in feats of gymnastic joy. Whether he was the working stiff with big dreams or the foppish scion of a business magnate who transforms into the man of action, he was always “Doug,” onscreen and off.
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.
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.