Douglas Fairbanks disc 3

Reaching for the Moon (1917): With the benefit of hindsight, again, this film’s been viewed to at least some degree as an indication of things to come for Fairbanks. He’s playing a similar sort of character to the one in Wild and Woolly, a young fellow with what I suppose you might call a reasonably rich fantasy life, or, perhaps a bit more kindly, aspirations to greatness. But, as the film’s opening titles remind us, you should be careful what you wish for in case you get it, and the story is an object lesson in that principle, giving the film a kind of “moral tale” quality the previous film didn’t have. Doug finds himself the king of Vulgaria one day, but being King isn’t all it’s cracked up to be; there’s assassins to dodge, a pretender to the throne looking to bump him off, a not terribly appealing princess to marry, etc… All this business is eventually revealed as a dream, with Doug having learned his lesson thereby, though quite what the lesson is I’m not sure; is the film saying it’s better to be ambitious within your means or to not be ambitious at all and to just settle for what you’ve got? Either way it gives a slightly melancholy if not bitter cast to the happy ending. The Vulgaria stuff is great, though, especially the fête on the canal where he has to dodge multiple attempts on his life; this has some of the best stunt action we’ve seen from him so far.

A Modern Musketeer (1917): As I said earlier, quite a few of Fairbanks’ early films have vanished, including—according to the DVD booklet—six he made after this one, which has itself only recently returned from the land of the lost (only the first half of the film was known to exist for some decades). I’m pleased that it has, cos it’s probably the best film in this set so far, there’s a real feeling of Fairbanks at the height of his powers; and there’s no lesson for him to learn in this one, it’s far more straight ahead “go out there and be heroic”. Here he’s Ned Thacker, born during a cyclone to a mother enamoured of The Three Musketeers, and consequently absorbing both those influences into himself; young Ned’s a tearaway stifled by the confines of his small Kansas town, and so off he goes out west. I listened to the audio commentary, by Messrs Vance & Maietta who also wrote the DVD booklet, and they make a point about Fairbanks’ characters being this sort of out-of-time figure, which is kind of literally illustrated by two short scenes of Fairbanks as the original D’Artagnan; apparently he was already interested in trying his hand at a costume picture, but hedged his bets by sticking these scenes in an otherwise modern picture. They do underscore the nature of Ned, though, who winds up having to save his love interest from both an Indian “chief” and the thorough cad looking to marry her, all against the astounding backdrop of the Grand Canyon (which, as the commentary observes, was still a fairly obscure place to many people in 1917); whereas before Doug has been capable of doing heroic stuff, here he is a hero, which is a different thing. Exuberant, terrific fun.

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