Combustible Celluloid
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With: Douglas Fairbanks, Marjorie Daw, Charles Stevens, Frank Campeau, Albert MacQuarrie, Alma Rubens, Edythe Chapman, Marguerite De La Motte
Written by: Douglas Fairbanks, Anita Loos, Allan Dwan, Lotta Woods, John Emerson, Thomas J. Geraghty, Tod Browning
Directed by: Allan Dwan, Christy Cabanne, John Emerson, Victor Fleming, Fred Niblo, Theodore Reed
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 760
Date: 19/03/2013

Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer (2008)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Digging Doug

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer on DVD

Douglas Fairbanks became one of the world's most popular movie stars very shortly after his cinematic debut. He had an impressive physicality and vitality that pleased audiences; his exuberance and energy rubbed off. Moreover, he was a canny businessman and a consummate screen artist. In the 1920s, he created a string of spectacular hits that still elicit "oohs" and "aahs" today -- from those that bother to see them. For some reason, Fairbanks has fallen out of favor, and currently resides on the list of artists waiting to be rediscovered.

In 2004, Kino Video released a great five-disc, six-film box set that highlighted Fairbanks' peak years. But now Flicker Alley has released an equally impressive box set that chart the early years, the formative years. The new set has the effect of creating a rounder, fuller picture of the artist. If one comes to Fairbanks, as I did, with The Mark of Zorro (1920) -- which Flicker Alley has included in their set -- one might wonder just why this masked avenger smiles and bounces around so much, but looking at the earlier films, the transition now makes sense.

In the beginning, Fairbanks was basically a comedian, but one who ran and jumped and swam and climbed with athletic ease. He doesn't seem as fast or as funny as his business partner Charlie Chaplin, but his sheer joy is infectious. Flicker Alley's box starts with three early pictures, made at the beginning of Fairbanks' stardom: His Picture in the Papers (1916), Flirting with Fate (1916) and The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916). The second one, Flirting with Fate, interestingly foreshadows Warren Beatty's later Bulworth (1998), but the really interesting film here is The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, so bizarre it has become a kind of cult classic among Fairbanks fans. None other than Tod Browning co-wrote the screenplay, well before his excursions into the macabre. Fairbanks plays, no kidding, "Coke Ennyday" -- a direct and unabashed reference to cocaine. Coke is a private eye who divides his day up into sleeping, drinking, eating and doping. He gets the call to solve the title mystery, set in an around the beach and a stand that rents inflatable fish for swimmers. The action is fast and loopy and not entirely logical, with Coke stopping every few minutes to shoot up or snort some more drugs. Then, if that's not enough, the film has a corker of an ending, in which the entire scenario turns out to have been a treatment that Fairbanks has pitched to an incredulous producer. ("Go back to acting," he tells him.)

Next up we get The Matrimaniac (1916) and Wild and Woolly (1917), the latter of which was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. In it, Fairbanks stars as Jeff Hillington, a Wild West nut who works for his father's corporation in a big city. He gets the chance to go west to work on a business deal, and the townspeople, learning of his fetish, disguise their entire town as a throwback to cowboy days. Of course, everything goes wrong, and Doug must use his heroism to save the day in real life. It's predictable, but fun and fast.

On the third disc, we get Reaching for the Moon (1917) and A Modern Musketeer (1917), the latter of which marks a major development in Fairbanks' career. Firstly, it paired him with the great director Allan Dwan, who would later direct Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922). Secondly, it showed Fairbanks testing the waters with his audiences, seeing how far they would go to see him in a costume picture. It seems silly now, but Fairbanks put a lot of thought and worry into this problem. So for A Modern Musketeer, he appears in costume for a prologue; he even runs up to the camera, smiles for the audience, and plays with his wig. Then, for the rest of this delightful picture, he's Ned Thacker, a modern-day guy who was raised on stories of the Three Musketeers and believes wholeheartedly in chivalry.

When the Clouds Roll By (1919) has some interesting imagery revolving around its then-trendy theme of psychoanalysis. It comes on a disc with The Mollycoddle (1920). And the final disc has the great The Mark of Zorro, plus The Nut (1921), which showed Fairbanks hedging his bets. It was a return to contemporary comedy, just in case the costume adventure film idea didn't take. The best bonus feature is an extensive, thorough liner-notes booklet, written by Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta, authors of a new book on Fairbanks. The discs also include lots of stills.

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