Douglas Fairbanks disc 4

When the Clouds Roll By (1919): As comedy premises go, trying to drive someone to suicide is, well, an interesting one, I suppose… In this film Doug is the unwitting victim of a (literally) mad scientist’s experiment in seeing how far someone can be pushed before they snap, a project involving filling the poor bastard so full of superstitious obsession he can barely function. When he meets the love of his life, the doctor’s plan is complicated, but not quite thwarted, as he uses this to his own advantage (further tying it into the film’s main subplot). All this action kicks off with a scene that is quite astounding; after a bad night’s dinner (in which we even see the food doing acrobatics in his stomach), Doug retires to a bad night’s sleep and a short but nonetheless amazing dream sequence. I think I may be right in saying this business—which features the original version of the “walking on the ceiling” scene Fred Astaire did decades later in Royal Wedding and has him being chased by his poorly digested meal—must’ve been one of the most technically advanced things shot in film history up to that point. It’s still kind of breathtaking. The problem is, it’s so good the rest of the film couldn’t live up to such a beginning. It’s not a bad film by any means (though it never does quite explain how this surprisingly large conspiracy against Doug actually comes about); Victor Fleming had worked with Fairbanks as a cameraman long enough by then that he knew what to do with Doug in his directorial debut. Maybe that’s the problem, as the film does kind of manifest the Fairbanks-by-numbers feel alluded to here. We’ve seen him do this sort of vaguely-clownish-young-man-wakes-up-to-self-saves-day-gets-girl thing a fair bit already…

The Mollycoddle (1920): …and he does it again here, to be sure, playing the somewhat disappointing descendant of a line of rootin’ tootin’ frontiersmen, raised (unlike them) amidst wealth and luxury in Monte Carlo, with Anglophile affectations that earn him the mockery of his “fellow” Americans. The difference here is that Doug has a rather better story in which to play out his “lamb to lion” transformation (neat phrase copped from the DVD booklet); finding him inadvertently en route back to the mother country after said “fellow” Americans prank him, Doug has to square off against Wallace Beery’s boat captain and diamond smuggler, who mistakes him for a secret service agent. It’s probably not the most dramatically convincing “lamb to lion” moment—just being on his native soil again seems to bring out the atavistic he-man in this product of foreign luxury—but who cares, the whole thing actually adds up to something rather excellent. Still, it’s hard to deny that Doug was starting to look his age in this film (mind you, I’m now the age he was when he made this and I only wish I could do a quarter of the things he could), and he must’ve known the time was passing when audiences would accept this sort of thing. Change of direction was in the air…

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