Posted by Moira Finnie on November 18, 2009
I suppose to the eyes of the world, we were a motley looking crew as the capacity crowd flowed eagerly into George Eastman House‘s Dryden Theatre in Rochester, New York last month. Unlike the first Hollywood premiere of Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1923) at Sid Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on October 18, 1922, there were no limos, no gowns, no red carpets, no klieg lights searching the sky, and certainly no hint of a “Day of the Locust” style mob scene. However, there were about five hundred not very glam but expectantly eager people gathered on an October evening for the “World Premiere” of this restored version of the tale in the 21st century starring Douglas Fairbanks in one of his classic roles.
So, who were these people who came out to see this 87 year old film version of the English bandit’s adventures? Among the crowd at this movie were a few who might have been just old enough to have seen a later Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. film in a movie theater, a generous sprinkling of younger cinephiles, middle aged academics, and a delightful gaggle of children of about nine years of age in the audience that Saturday. Once thought lost until it was rediscovered in the 1960s, this film’s “premiere” was a highlight of the seventh biennial conference of the International Association for Robin Hood Studies at the University of Rochester, where the historical and literary permutations of the appealing errant figure of lore were analyzed and, frankly, reveled in by the participants. Accredited scholars and hard core Robin buffs from around the world spent three days discussing the evergreen legend of this “Robin Hood: Media Creature”, trying to discern if the 700 year old hero of Sherwood Forest even existed, while enjoying an extravaganza of multi-media exhibits (including Douglas Fairbanks boots, seen below), early manuscripts, songs, and presentations discussing all aspects of the tale.
The night before this event, a few lucky people even found time to view an unreeling of what is presumed to be one of the first American versions of Robin Hood on film. This brief 1912 flick reportedly features this English story playing out against the background of Fort Lee, New Jersey, with the Palisades of New Jersey standing in for Sherwood’s greenery and each character’s inner good or evil characterized by animal imagery that was superimposed over their faces, (unfortunately there was no word to indicate if this might have been an early example of Surrealism. This intriguing description made me wish that some real life adventures had not kept me away from that event).
For me, attending a showing of a silent version of Robin Hood had three items that lured me from my cave: The story of Robin Hood on a truly grand scale, Douglas Fairbanks, and Fun!
As all these disparate people converged to see a freshly minted 35mm print of this classic silent on the big screen, presented in a format as close as possible to the original, the assistant curator Caroline Yeager introduced the film, which had been originally donated to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. According to Yeager, the Eastman House “had a colored nitrate print that came from MoMA and had been here for 30 years on extended loan. They went back to that print, using their black and white negatives and using that print for the guideline for the colors.” Tinted color sequences long absent from the movie had been restored to the new print. Most significantly, the film was accompanied by an 11-piece orchestra conducted by Gillian Anderson, (the conductor and musicologist, not the paranormal investigator raising her elegant eyebrow as Scully in The X-Files). Under Ms. Anderson‘s baton, the audience experienced this movie with talented musicians in a live orchestra performing a reconstruction of the original 1922 score that was composed by Victor L. Schertzinger, and compiled and arranged by Schertzinger, A. H. Cokayne and Gillian Anderson.
According to Thomas Hahn, the English professor at the University of Rochester who was instrumental in inspiring the Eastman House to make the presentation of the Fairbanks film possible, each “generation gets the Robin Hood they want and the Robin Hood they deserve.” While Robin Hood may lack the literary and mythological pedigree of a Shakespearean character, the iconic image of the rogue who “robbed from the rich and gave to the poor” has been re-imagined some 80 times in movies alone. Hahn believes that the “tale provides an escapist fantasy that is timeless and compelling to people at any age.” Underlying themes of order vs. chaos, the very human urge to rebel, the search for justice, a sense of community and, of course, a love interest, still speak to us today. For recession buffeted audiences, Robin’s compulsion to redistribute the wealth may have renewed appeal, though, the elusive figure of Robin, both nobleman and brigand, may give hope to both conservatives who long for the restoration of a fondly remembered more structured past, and to liberals who think that society’s injustices warrant turning the existing order on its head.
At the time of this blog posting, BBC America is airing their updated version of Robin’s story in a well done series, a DVD of the live action Disney version, The Story of Robin Hood (1952-Ken Annakin), with Richard Todd in the lead, has just been released after far too many years on the shelf, and director Ridley Scott is even working on a new film version of the tale with an earthy Russell Crowe as Robin Hood and an assertive Cate Blanchett as Maid Marian for release in 2010. Perhaps that new cinematic version will dim our collective memories of what may be the ultimate version of the story in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938-Michael Curtiz, William Keighley), a triumph of the studio system’s imaginative potential. Featuring a youthfully buoyant Errol Flynn blending the dashing and romantic aspects of the character so sublimely on screen, supported by an equally adept cast, this film, like the Douglas Fairbanks version, owed as much to children’s literature, and particularly artist N.C. Wyeth, one of whose glorious illustrations from author Paul Creswick‘s 1903 book, “Robin Hood and His Adventures” is seen at the right below. Supervising Art Director Wilfred Buckland, his associates Edward Langley and Irvin Martin, along with the gifted cinematographer Arthur Edeson and costumer Mitchell Leisen all seem to have been steeped in the Middle Ages. Their lush, painterly designs and compositions were often based on the thoroughly researched period details accumulated under the aegis of Fairbanks and director Allan Dwan.
The Grand Scale
One of the major advantages of seeing this blend of medieval derring-do, comedy, and a gentle touch of romance on the big screen, rather than simply on a television, was that the magnificent scale of the world that this movie created is much easier to appreciate. After a brief, poetic nod to Victorian vision of the past, courtesy of a quotation from Charles Kingsley, the action began in a stately fashion as a massive drawbridge lowered to reveal the a beautifully realized 12th century court on the day of a joust. The revels are overseen by an unlikely, slightly buffoonish but likable King Richard, (well played by Wallace Beery), marching toward the camera across a larger than life moat from a towering castle. As a matter of fact that castle, with a facade that was ninety feet tall and took up ten acres, rivaled the lavish production design of Fairbanks‘ later masterpiece, The Thief of Bagdad, (though Robin Hood came into being without the participation of William Cameron Menzies). was said to be the largest set ever constructed–even outdoing that built for D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. The castle’s facade was ninety feet tall, and historically accurate in every detail, constructed by Lloyd Wright, the son of the famed architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, (before the younger Wright went on to design a version of the Hollywood Bowl). While glass shots were used to give even the battlements and landscape beyond a more impressive scale, despite Douglas Fairbanks initial concern that his antics might be dwarfed by the size of the sets. Fortunately, once the director drew his attention to a demonstration of a long child’s slide hidden beneath a voluminous drape, allowing the star to execute a quick escape from his pursuers on the second floor of the castle, the perennially impish acrobat in the star accepted the fact that their could be advantages to working on this large a canvas on screen. (This stunt would reappear to greater fame in one of the star’s very best swashbucklers later in the ’20s, as Fairbanks rode down a sail in The Black Pirate). Another stunt that delighted all of the audience came when Fairbanks clambered up the massive chain of the closing drawbridge to the top of the castle wall. Originally planned for execution by a trained stuntman, during production, the heedless Fairbanks slipped into the stuntman’s place and performed it far better than his substitute, (reportedly to the chagrin of his director, who sensibly feared for his star’s safety.) Since this was the first time I’d seen Fairbanks’ Robin Hood, this and all the other stunts executed so nimbly by the star throughout the film, these moments delighted me.
With Allan Dwan as director, the crowd scenes throughout Robin Hood come to life in detailed ways that bring individual members of the mob into high focus, giving them individuality, a messy humanity, and a realistic place as medieval peasants, knights and nobles. The size and enthusiasm of the remarkable number of extras in these scenes may also have reflected a Hollywood population being very grateful for the work. With movie box office receipts down for a time in the early twenties, and bankers becoming a bit leery about investing in films after scandals such as those involving Roscoe Arbuckle and director William Desmond Taylor, employment was probably very welcome. For me, the liveliness of these participants in the film becomes most amusing in the second half of the film when the Merry Men emerge from their hidden perches in Sherwood mimicking the Peter Pan-like leaps and skips of their mentor, Douglas Fairbanks. One of the biggest laughs from the appreciative audience I saw came during this sequence, which almost reminded me of that moment when an impossible number of clowns emerge from a kiddie car at the circus.
The movie is not a laugh fest throughout, but the bravura work features a surprisingly long, complex backstory focusing on the Earl of Huntingdon (Fairbanks) rather than the more familiar figure of Robin of Locksley in the first half of the film. This part of the story allows the star to indulge in his winning self-mocking but likable noble character as we first meet his character catching his mustache in the visor of his plumed helmet. The emphasis is also on the notions of chivalry, honor, and Fairbanks‘ usual diffident approach to romance (with Enid Bennett playing a demure and frankly rather dull Marian). Fortunately, this slower section of the movie is injected with some of the comic zeal from Fairbanks’ early, wonderfully funny small scale movies of the 1915-1919 period into this build-up. As Robin bests his rival at court in a joust, only to have his monarch (Beery) mock his shy approach to ladies of the court, Fairbanks is chased around the set by a flock of maidens, until he dives into the moat to escape their attentions. We are also introduced to Fairbanks‘ two main antagonists, his romantic rival Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Paul Dickey) and Prince John (Sam De Grasse, whose relatively nuanced performance is excellent) as well as his squire, Little John, played with the capable assurance of a Saint Bernard by thirty year old Alan Hale (who would play the same role in the fine Flynn version of The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938 as well as in a less well known version with John Derek in the lead in the 1950 film, Rogues of Sherwood Forest).
In this version of the story, Robin and Little John do not initially meet in Sherwood nor do they engage in a fight with wooden staffs on a log across a creek. Hale‘s steadfast character is a part of Robin’s life at the beginning of the story, and when he is charged with watching over Maid Marian in Robin’s absence, he becomes a bridge between her to Fairbanks‘ character. The audience I saw this movie with let out an audible “ahhh” when they spotted Hale‘s massive and familiar presence. In one scene, when Little John’s determination and physical strength are demonstrated in a serio-comic moment as he forces his arms through a tiny opening in a cell door, leading to Robin and his escape from prison, a ruffle of applause went up from the delighted crowd.
Bennett‘s Maid Marian, who is initially a passive, rather aloof cipher, emerges as a bit more sympathetic after Fairbanks and she commit to one another just before Richard and Robin depart for the Crusades. In a genuinely sweet and gently funny sequence, Marian traces an outline of Robin’s head and profile onto a wall with charcoal, allowing her to recall his presence later. After the bittersweet departure of the king and his forces, the perfidy of Prince John’s power grab and his imposition of his draconian rule on England is conveyed in a series of somewhat lurid tableaux vivants that could never have been included in such detail in the 1930s version of the story. While I have not unearthed any indications that the local censor boards that existed around America at that time objected to the sight of a woman’s naked back being flogged or other rather startling images of abuse, this part of Robin Hood reminded me that, despite the sometimes sentimental elements of silent era movies, they could be jarringly honest about life as well. The events that flowed from this turn of the plot led to one of the more static sequences of the film, as Robin tried to honorably return to England, leaving Richard to pursue his crusade while things were set right back home. Suffice it to say that after falling into imprisonment, followed by liberation and a return to England, where Robin learns that Lady Marian appears to have died trying to escape from King John’s men, the film’s second half takes off like a rocket. The pace in the latter half of Robin Hood is energized by the disappearance of the noble Earl of Huntingdon, and the emergence of a liberated, visibly lighter in spirit Fairbanks as Robin. His larger than life, antic approach to this side of his character leads Fairbanks to spend much of the remainder of the film taunting and fighting Prince John’s forces. He is, whether faced with 12 men on either side of him, or leaping across to a vine on a turret just in time to catch a falling Marian, a dazzler.
Often simply beautiful, occasionally static, the pageantry on display in the first half of this movie had a majesty and playfulness of another time –or at least a 19th century boy’s imagining. The movie rockets along in this stage of the story, with such staple characters as Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet and Allan-a-Dale barely introduced before we are whisked along on another exuberant adventure taking the town, rescuing Marian or scampering through a forest.
Some people may claim that Doug’s mugging moments as Robin reduces the character to “a grimacing 11 year old boy”– albeit one with incredible balletic grace and gymnastic verve. I found the actor’s infectious grin, delight in his control of every situation, and hint of self-mockery completely winning (more so than when seen in anydvd ). Throughout the film, his character, while often invoking a sense of honor and courtly chivalry, retains a sense of masterful anarchy restrained when necessary, and this serves to break up what might have been a monotonously virtuous character. Fairbanks may have had a melon head, and perhaps lacked the modern actor’s sense of internal characterization, but his extroverted style was simply, in the words of one of his contemporary observers: a tonic for the soul.
To be impervious to Douglas Fairbanks‘ endearing screen personality is to be too far removed from childhood for me. Once among the most famous individuals in the world, along with that of his friend Charlie Chaplin and his second wife, Mary Pickford–both of whom are better remembered today–his legacy may be about to have a deserved resurgence. The availability of a very well done compilation of his films in The Douglas Fairbanks Collection by Kino Video featuring this film, The Mark of Zorro, Don Q, Son of Zorro, The Three Musketeers, The Thief of Bagdad and The Black Pirate, and especially the DVD collection of his sublime, shorter comedy-adventures released last year as Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer from Flicker Alley, along with the occasional broadcast of his movies on TCM might just bring the man the modern audiences he deserves. If only we have the sense to see them as among the best in cinema history.
Many thanks to the George Eastman House and the New York Times for their kind permission to use their images in this blog.
An excellent interview at Bright Lights Film Journal online with the long-lived director Allan Dwan here may also be enjoyed by readers. (His salty remarks about Fairbanks are quite amusing).
Applebome, Peter, “A Hero (or Villain) for the Left (or the Right)”, The New York Times, October 25, 2009.
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