When Men Were Men

French author Alexandre Dumas (July 24, 1802 – December 5, 1870) published his most famous novel, The Three Musketeers in 1844. Alexandre Dumas loosely based his characters on real life people. Dumas had read a fictional memoir of the real Charles Ogier de Batz de Castlemore, Comte D’Artagnan that he found in the national library by Cortilz de Sandras. When Dumas “took the book home to use it for research, he never returned it.”

Alexandre Dumas’ most successful novels “contain marvelous adventures and actions, and bigger-than-life characters.” His fictional D’Artagnan is certainly larger-than-life as he boldly and brashly swashbuckles his way across France and England. It is no surprise that motion pictures have often turned to the young, heroic, and romantic D’Artagnan to enthrall generations of movie viewers. There have been more than two dozen film versions of The Three Musketeers. And that’s not counting the animated versions, TV series and miniseries, and all the films that feature relatives and “descendents” of the Musketeers. One of the earliest of The Three Musketeers films is a 1921 silent movie starring Douglas Fairbanks.

Douglas Fairbanks and his second wife, movie star Mary Pickford, were often referred to as the King and Queen of Hollywood during the silent film era. Douglas Fairbanks was born Douglas Elton Thomas Ullman in Denver, Colorado on May 23, 1883. He started acting in amateur theater at an early age and had his Broadway debut in 1902. In 1915, Douglas, his first wife, and their son (who grew up to be a famous actor himself – Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) moved to Los Angeles and Douglas Sr. began a meteoric rise to Hollywood royalty. Within three years, Doug Fairbanks was the most popular actor in Hollywood and the third highest paid. And he had met, and was having an affair with, his future second wife: Hollywood silent screen star Mary Pickford. Doug and Mary divorced their current spouses and married each other on March 28, 1920. “The public went wild over the idea of “Everybody’s Hero” marrying “America’s Sweetheart.”

Not content to be just popular and highly paid movie stars, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford also went about helping to re-make early Hollywood:

  • In 1919, Doug and Mary, along with brilliant comic star Charlie Chaplin and legendary director D.W. Griffith formed the film studio United Artists so that they could escape the control of the established studios. 
  • In 1921, Doug, Mary, Charlie Chaplin, and others helped to organize the Motion Picture Relief Fund to help those in the film industry who were unable to work or pay their bills. Mary was the Fund’s first vice-president. 
  • On April 30, 1927, Doug and Mary were the very first stars to put their hands and feet in cement at the newly opened Grauman’s Chinese Theater. 
  • Doug and Mary and others also formed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Doug was elected the Academy’s first president on May 6, 1927. 
  • Doug also presented the first ever Academy Awards on May 16, 1929.

Unfortunately for Douglas Fairbanks, declining health, the effects of years of chain smoking, and the advent of “talkies” took their toll on his career. Doug and Mary made their first talking movie together in 1929 but it and Doug’s later movies were not very popular with the viewing public. By 1934, Doug retired from acting and by 1936, he and Mary divorced. On December 12, 1939, Douglas Fairbanks died of a heart attack. His last words were “I’ve never felt better.”

Douglas Fairbanks made The Three Musketeers in 1921 when he was in the prime of his career. The Three Musketeers was Doug’s “longest and most elaborate production up to 1921” and his “first full-blown costume adventure.” While Doug was extremely athletic and eventually became best known for his swashbuckling roles, Doug actually spent the early part of his career making comedy movies. Doug described the reaction of famous director D.W. Griffith to Doug’s lusty limberness: “D. W. didn’t like my athletic tendencies, or my spontaneous habit of jumping a fence or scaling a church at unexpected moments which were not in the script. Griffith told me to go into Keystone comedies.

Doug found an outlet for his brawny agility in his action adventure movies. He performed most of his stunts himself and only used a stuntman when the director or studio decided a stunt was too dangerous to risk the star. Remember that this was in a time way before modern special effects and green screens. When you see Doug clambering up a wall or along the side of a ship or sliding down a bannister he was actually doing that himself and risking serious falls and injuries. Doug’s “one-handed handspring to grab a sword during a fight scene in this film is considered as one of the great stunts of the early cinema period” (actually Doug is not grabbing a sword, he’s stabbing a villain, but it is still a great stunt). Forget wires to help propel the star into the air. Doug leaped and propelled himself. Doug and his physique was actually used by comic book writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, in 1938, as their “basis for the overall physical look of Superman.”

Viewers can see the same realism in the action reflected in the sets and costuming used in The Three Musketeers. Some of those sets are huge. Remember, no green screen back in 1921. No building a half of a wall and adding twelve feet to the height with special effects. Back in early Hollywood, either they packed up everybody and everything and traveled to film on location or they built entire towns and villages from scratch themselves. In The Three Musketeers, “villages and courts of the 17th century are painstakingly recreated and costumes chosen from antique dresses of the period.” The costumes are extremely lavish and true to the time period. And there are scenes where dozens of people in full costume are milling around. It is all a wonderful treat for the eye.

The Three Musketeers is also a very funny movie. The title cards have some funny dialogue:

  • D’Artagnan is anxious to kill someone who insulted him: “Pardon me, Madame, I must kill your friend.”
  • Aramis insults D’Artagnan: “Permit me to observe, monsieur, that in one respect you are absolutely perfect. You are the most perfect idiot I have ever met!”
  • The Cardinal confronts D’Artagnan: “Monsieur D’Artagnan, if you were about to die, what would you do?” D’Artagnan replies: “Your Eminence, I should write the history of France.”

There are also many funny scenes:

  • The people at an inn overwhelm D’Artagnan and hold him down to keep him from fighting.
  • D’Artagnan tries to sell his unwilling horse so he can buy a better hat with a bigger feather.
  • D’Artagnan follows a trail of yarn but is not too happy with the first woman at the yarn’s end.
  • D’Artagnan tricks the Cardinal’s men at an inn and steals their food and hats.
  • Nearly every wildly expansive gesture and pose that D’Artagnan makes, especially when he is making his favorite judgment of “Marvelous!”
  • And my favorite scene: when the big, brave, manly, swashbuckling D’Artagnan gets the prize from a half-dressed Milady by ….. biting her hand!

My only real complaint about Doug Fairbank’s The Three Musketeers is that the sword fighting does not really dazzle me. There are times when everything looks very good and believable. But there are other moments when it seems like the actors, Doug included, are doing nothing more than swishing their blades back and forth very fast. I was a bit disappointed. I had hoped to see truly excellent swordsmen.

One last little problem, all the versions of the film (the online movie, Ogg Video, MPEG 4, and DivX versions) have a flaw. When viewers get to approximately one hour 40 minutes, the film skips from villains stopping at an inn to the Queen and her ladies and D’Artagnan fighting on the castle stairwell. The movie proceeds to the end (at approximately one hour 50 minutes) but then there is an added segment after the ending which starts up with the original skip. Again, we have the villains stopping at an inn but this time we see an entire segment that was skipped over the first time around (D’Artagnan’s adventurous arrival and sword fighting). The film then plays through to the end again. Viewers do not miss anything since the skipped segment plays in the second ending. Oh, and bear in mind that this is a silent film so there is no audio at all (took me a few minutes to get used to that).

So, overall, The Three Musketeers is an excellent movie. It showcases all of my favorite things in movies: exciting story, great action adventure, beautiful sets and clothing, plus a little humor and a little romance and a touch of melodrama.

I have never seen a Douglas Fairbanks movie before although I have long wanted to. When I was younger, the only thing a movie fan could do was wait and hope that the desired movie showed up on TV or at some movie festival. But now, many of these old movie classics (as well as many other treasures) are in the Public Domain and there are wonderful websites like The Internet Archive where fans can access these treasures for FREE. This is a perfect example of why we all need to be vigilant and protect our Public Domain from exploiters who want to steal away our treasures in order to make money for themselves. There are many Douglas Fairbanks silent movies in the Public Domain just waiting for me to sit down and watch them, FREE at any time. I can hardly wait.

Please click on the link to watch or download The Three Musketeers starring Douglas Fairbanks FREE at The Internet Archive.

Cast photo with Mary Pickford next to Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.

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