The Three Musketeers

The Three Musketeers (1921 USA 139mins)

Source: CAC Prod Co: Fairbanks/United Artists Prod: Douglas Fairbanks Dir: Fred Niblo Scr: Edward Knoblock, Lotta Woods Phot: Arthur Edeson Ed: Nellie Mason Art Dir: Edward Langley

Cast: Douglas Fairbanks Snr., Adolphe Menjou, Eugene Pallette, Leon Bary, Marguerite De La Motte.

A filmography for Douglas Fairbanks Snr.

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The Three Musketeers is a film starring and produced by Douglas Fairbanks (Senior) that demonstrates the influence a star can have over a film, how it can develop that actor’s persona and enhance the broad appeal of the picture. Fairbanks, a popular Broadway performer, entered the film industry in 1914 when Triangle (a production company formed by D. W. Griffith, Thomas Ince and Mack Sennett) was actively recruiting stage actors in an attempt to gain respectability and increase its box-office returns. By 1916, scenarist Anita Loos (best known for her 1925 novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) had harnessed Fairbanks’ extraordinary magnetism and he had begun a franchise of social comedies playing the clean-cut all-American boy. In 1919, in an attempt to gain complete control over their filmmaking output, the hugely successful Fairbanks, along with the equally admired Mary Pickford (whom he married in 1920, thereby cementing their dual popularity throughout the 1920s), and Hollywood’s most talented and respected directors, Charles Chaplin and D. W. Griffith, formed United Artists.

Fairbanks’ newly acquired control, combined with an admiration for Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), inspired him to pursue more complex productions. The fatalistic mood of the immediate post-war period also required a rethinking of Fairbanks’ somewhat dated screen persona in order to maintain the audience’s enthusiasm for the star. The solution was the swashbuckling adventure, The Mark of Zorro (1920). The film was a great commercial success and launched, for Fairbanks, an increasingly ambitious series of costume dramas – The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and The Black Pirate (1926). The first two of these titles were directed by Fred Niblo. The success of these two films allowed Niblo to direct such important films as Blood and Sand (1922) starring Rudolph Valentino, Ben-Hur (1926) and two Greta Garbo silent features, The Enemy and The Mysterious Lady (both 1928). Just as George Cukor can be regarded as a remarkable director of actors, Niblo had the ability to manage and produce defining vehicles for some of the greatest of Hollywood’s icons.

After the success of The Mark of Zorro, Fairbanks knew that he wanted to portray D’Artagnan, although at the age of thirty-eight he could be considered too old for the role – watch the scene where D’Artagnan is dragged off by his ear by the commander of the musketeers if you require convincing. Fairbanks openly admitted using D’Artagnan as the model for some of his earlier roles. He had already played a character inspired by D’Artagnan in The Modern Musketeer (1918), and in his final silent film, The Iron Mask (1929), Fairbanks played D’Artagnan as an old man – the only time his character ever died on screen. However, in 1921 Fairbanks was reinventing himself as a swashbuckling idol and in the process single-handedly created a demand for prestige high-budget costume dramas including such later non-Fairbanks offerings as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Ben-Hur. He also grew a moustache for The Three Musketeers that he retained for the remainder of his short life.

By comparison with many of these later efforts, The Three Musketeers was a modest affair. The film is less visionary and spectacular than The Thief of Bagdad (which was greatly influenced by German Expressionism) and The Black Pirate (filmed in two-strip Technicolor). Certainly by comparison with the attention paid to detail in the vast sets of Robin Hood and the obsessive historical authenticity of The Iron Mask, less care was lavished on sets and costumes in The Three Musketeers. For example, the boat that Milady de Winter uses to sail back to Calais looks more like a cheap stage construction than a sea-worthy vessel and some of the interiors and exteriors appear lifeless and cursory. However, the extras are intelligently used, creating a dynamic sense of movement throughout. The film closely follows the trajectory of most adaptations of the Dumas’ story. So closely, in fact, that Triangle attempted to sue United Artists for breach of copyright on a version they had previously produced.

The film, along with The Mark of Zorro was a prototype for Fairbanks’ later films and its crowning glory is Fairbanks’ performance. Nevertheless, Fairbanks was not an obvious choice for a matinee idol. Unlike the chiselled profiles of most of Hollywood’s stars, he had a weak chin and flaccid features. In addition, he wore a ridiculous wig in this film. Yet, he had a boundless vitality and a killer smile that communicated an infectious enthusiasm – affable and amiable – even when its owner was playing rogues (as in The Black Pirate or The Thief of Bagdad). It projected an optimistic belief in the American Dream, suggesting that even an impoverished nobleman’s son can become a royal musketeer with applied determination. Here, as in his other films, Fairbanks’ audaciously extroverted nature oozes from every pore of his body and although this does over-extend his performance, this is a sin that is easily forgiven. His performance is not rivalled by anyone else in the film, not even by the subtle Adolphe Menjou as the sly but easily led King Louis. Fairbanks’ easy-going nature infects the mood of the whole film, and carries it. Consequently, the film has an endearing light-hearted tone that was retained by the sound swashbucklers. For example, when the Count De Rochefort and his men don masks to hide their identities, the Count’s scar can still be seen. Everything is fun.

Fairbanks was the model for Errol Flynn, his successor but not his replacement. Fairbanks’ stunts have an incredible grace and effortlessness that has rarely been captured by any other performer. It is therefore unsurprising that during the film’s fight scenes Fairbanks comes into his own. His poise and speed explode from the film; his acrobatic movements cannot be contained. He moves so fast and consistently that his actions must be captured in long shot if they are to be contained within a single take. There are also moments of surprise, such as when Fairbanks and the musketeers are interrupted in their duels by Richelieu’s men and Fairbanks somersaults over one of the guards and knifes him, or when Fairbanks escapes through a door, followed immediately by a hail of swords.

Fairbanks does not treat the character of D’Artagnan too seriously. At the beginning of the film, riding on his nag in his silly hat, D’Artagnan is made to appear clumsy and ridiculous, and the children laugh at him. Fairbanks appreciates that D’Artagnan’s foibles make him more endearing to the audience. So it was Fairbanks’ rare combination of extraordinary magnetism, harmony of movement, and his ability to not take himself too seriously that made him into such a popular star. These are attributes that contemporary audiences can still readily appreciate.

Douglas Fairbanks Sr. selected filmography

The Martyrs of the Alamo 1915

Intolerance, The Americano 1916;

Wild and Woolly, Reaching for the Moon 1917;

A Modern Musketeer1918;

The Mark of Zorro 1920;

The Three Musketeers 1921;

Robin Hood 1922;

The Thief of bagdad 1924;

Don Q Son of Zorro 1925

The Black Pirate 1926;

Potselui Mary Pickford, The Gaucho 1927;

The Iron Mask Show People 1928;

The Taming of the Shrew 1929;

Reaching for the Moon 1931;

Mr. Robinson Crusoe 1932;

The Private Life of Don Juan 1934.

About The Author

Michael Koller is the executive programmer for The Melbourne Cinémathèque.

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