Douglas Fairbanks was one of the greatest stars of silent cinema and one of its most astute in taking control of his career and molding his own image with the co-founding of United Artists. He shared these qualities with his wife, Mary Pickford. In this way, he transformed from a magnetic actor in comedies into a genuine superstar who became Hollywood’s first real action hero in stunt-based epics. One of his early hits in this new mode is now available as a print-on-demand DVD from Undercrank Productions.
Based on the senior Alexandre Dumas’ oft-filmed novel, The Three Musketeers is the familiar tale of D’Artagnan (Douglas Fairbanks), a lad from the provinces who goes to Paris and instantly makes friends with the three best swordsmen: Athos (Leon Bary), Porthos (George Siegmann) and Aramis (Eugene Pallette). They work as a kind of securitiy force for Louis XIII (Adolphe Menjou) and are known as Musketeers, even though they don’t display any muskets.
They often clash with another group of Guards controlled by the scheming Cardinal Richelieu (Nigel de Brulier), a thin, sallow figure who’s forever stroking things. After being introduced playing chess with the King in an act of flagrant symbolism, the Cardinal arranges with the duplicitous Milady de Winter (Barbara La Marr) to bring scandal to Queen Anne (Mary MacLaren), who has rashly given a souvenir to England’s Duke of Buckingham (Thomas Holding) and… well, whatever.
There are many other characters, including D’Artagnan’s wholesome sweetie (Marguerite De La Motte) who gets dragged into the counter-plots, but all we need to know is that the swashbucklers counter all this behind-hand royal intrigue by saving the day with their forthright flashing swords, proving the eternal Hollywood value that action trumps intellect and that their loyalties are with the absolute monarch and not the church. Hurrah!
The fast-paced handsomely mounted story is shot in clear dioramas by Arthur Edeson and directed by Fred Niblo, known for several major silent epics. It’s a star vehicle for Fairbanks, who produced it for the company he co-founded, United Artists, and he delivers. His light-hearted, athletic persona doesn’t take himself seriously, instead radiating joy in his own physicality as he leaps off horses or somersaults through swordfights. He never walks into a room when he can dash, and he never dashes when he can vault through a window.
The viewer will surely replay and freeze the moment when he stabs a man in mid-backflip, and yes, it’s really Fairbanks doing his own stunts. He’s got charm in spades, or swords, and D’Artagnan’s cross of naïve bumpkin and brash youth is a perfect role for him.
Kino’s previous release of this title is long out of print, and collectors should hang on to it. This new Undercrank version, trumpeted as the 95th anniversary edition, is very watchable, with flaws and scratches occasionally visible amid the digital restoration. Perhaps most importantly, it restores the original scheme of color tints — blue for night, yellow for indoors, etc. This sometimes means the tints darken the image unnecessarily, as during a duel in a stairwell. Ben Model adds a new score using software that samples an old-timey Wurlitzer organ, and he impishly adds his name to the credits — replacing Louis M. Gottschalk, whose score sheet was sent to theatres in 1921.
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