Three Musketeers (1950)

The Three Musketeers
Rating: *
Origin: USA, 1950
Director: Budd Boetticher
Source: Amazon Streaming Video

Over the opening title card, the Magnavox Theater announcer intones, “The Three Musketeers: the first full-length film made in Hollywood especially for television!” Magnavox Theater was a brief series of seven one-hour dramas broadcast in the fall of 1950, all of which were live TV except this episode, which was produced by Hal Roach Studios. These sort of early TV “prestige” productions were a lot like Classics Illustrated comic book adaptations—earnest and well-meaning, but stiff, flat, and awkwardly abridged. The abridgement here consists of throwing out nearly everything in the novel except the duel between the musketeers and the Cardinal’s Guards, Buckingham’s secret visit to the queen, and the gauntlet d’Artagnan and the musketeers must ride to Calais to recover the diamond studs, with narration by Athos to fill in the gaps. Production values are better than usual for 1950 television—that is, just two notches above terrible. For once, Porthos is well cast, played here by Mel Archer, a giant of a man with a booming voice, but the rest of the actors are forgettable. For Dumas completists only.

Three Musketeers (1948)

The Three Musketeers
Rating: *****
Origin: USA, 1948
Director: George Sidney
Source: Warner Bros. DVD

The Three Musketeers 1948

There were a lot of movie and TV adaptations of The Three Musketeers in the 20th century, but three of them tower above all the others: the Fairbanks film from 1921, Richard Lester’s 1973 version, and, falling almost exactly in between them, MGM’s star-studded entry from 1948.

This is an interesting adaptation: it starts out as a typical Hollywood vehicle for star Gene Kelly, bright, colorful, charming, and light-hearted, a musical without songs, as d’Artagnan (Kelly) finds camaraderie with the musketeers and romance with Constance (June Allyson). But the top-billed actor here is actually Lana Turner, then at the height of her fame, and based on her rôles as a femme fatale in films noir, she’s cast as the wicked Milady de Winter. Now Milady appears mostly in the second half of Dumas’s novel, so to give Turner enough screen time, the movie races through the Affair of the Diamond Studs in its first hour, enabling it to spend its second hour on the schemes of Milady. These schemes take the story into darker places than most screen versions of T3M, and toward the end the tone turns quite grim. The emphasis on Milady also explains the elevation of Athos (Van Heflin), her bitter estranged husband, almost to the level of co-protagonist with d’Artagnan. Heflin, an actor of stature and gravitas, is right up there with Oliver Reed for Best Athos Ever, but Turner doesn’t seem entirely engaged with the part of Milady—though when she’s into it, it works.

One thing the aforementioned top versions of T3M all have in common is a recognition that the novel is not only full of adventure, intrigue, and romance, but is also funny as hell. The humor in the MGM version is mainly delivered by Kelly, who puts in a broad and over-the-top performance, adopting some of the exaggerated silent-film mannerisms of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and all of his athleticism. Kelly goes Fairbanks one better, because he’s not just an acrobat, he’s a dancer, and his swordplay owes as much to the school of ballet as it does to the academy of arms. Of course, at age thirty-five, Kelly is too old for the part of d’Artagnan, but that’s true for every screen incarnation until Michael York takes the rôle in ’73, and he makes up for it with energy and dexterity. All the fencing in the film is with thin foils rather than proper period rapiers, but the swordplay, Kelly’s especially, is deliberately theatrical rather than realistic, choreographed to the split-second, and very entertaining indeed.

On top of that, besides Turner and Heflin, Kelly is backed up by a top cast. On the male side, though Aramis and Porthos are mostly reduced to spear-carriers in the shadow of Heflin’s Athos, we get Frank Morgan (the Wizard from Oz) waffling adorably as the ineffectual King Louis XIII, and sly, malicious Vincent Price gives us the best Cardinal Richelieu since Raymond Massey, a decade before. On the female side, Angela Lansbury is perfect as Queen Anne, while June Allyson gives Constance more depth than the character usually gets. (As is usual in a Hollywood T3M, Constance is single here, goddaughter to the landlord Bonacieux, rather than his wife.)

Playwright Robert Ardrey’s script is very good, tight and fast-moving without ever feeling rushed, and contains the inspired idea of making Constance the jailer-in-chief when Milady is imprisoned in England, a vast improvement over the weak coincidence that throws them together in the novel. We get some scenes from the book that are rarely filmed; for once all four of the musketeers’ lackeys make an appearance, though only Planchet (Keenan Wynn) gets any lines; and even minor villain the Count de Wardes shows up, mainly so d’Artagnan can impersonate him later. The ending, as alluded to earlier, is dark, but Richelieu’s revenge is forestalled by the famous carte blanche: “It is by my order, and for the good of the State, that the bearer has done what has been done.” Indeed.

Three Musketeers (1939)

The Three Musketeers
Rating: **
Origin: USA, 1939
Director: Allan Dwan
Source: Fox Cinema Classics Collection DVD

The Three Musketeers 1939

This is the first filmed musical version of The Three Musketeers (there are others!): it’s a musical comedy swashbuckler, believe it or not. So, the first question is, is it any good as a musical? Well, Don Ameche, who plays d’Artagnan, can certainly sing—you have to give him credit for that. But the songs aren’t particularly worth singing, and they don’t really add much. As a musical, then, it’s pretty much a bust.

How is it as a comedy? In that regard it’s mainly a vehicle for the Ritz Brothers, a comic trio briefly popular in the 1930s; some compare them to the Marx Brothers, but that isn’t really apt, because each Marx had his own distinctive character, while the three Ritzes, like the crackers, are indistinguishable and interchangeable. Also, they’re not funny, which is kind of a liability in a comedy. So no joy there.

Most importantly, then, how is it as a version of The Three Musketeers? Surprisingly, it’s one of the more faithful adaptations of Dumas’s novel, which is rather amazing since, if they were already jamming songs and the goofball Ritz Brothers into the story, why did they bother? At a guess, it’s because the original story is so sturdy and resilient it can support the insertion of Ritzes and songses and still carry on just fine. Ameche is too old for the part of the young Gascon, but he’s energetic and far from the worst d’Artagnan ever cast—and the beguiling Binnie Barnes is one of the best-ever-cast Milady de Winters. She kills. Bonus: watch for the fun early appearance by John Carradine as Naveau (i.e., Bonacieux), Constance’s treacherous guardian.

Three Musketeers (1921)

The Three Musketeers
Rating: ****
Origin: USA, 1921
Director: Fred Niblo
Source: Kino Video DVD

The Three Musketeers 1921

Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.’s Three Musketeers is far and away the best of the seven versions filmed in the silent era—but more about that in a moment. First I want to gush about this production’s costumes, which are fabulous, both historically accurate and theatrically gorgeous. This film was another Fairbanks production, and after the worldwide success of The Mark of Zorro, no expense was spared in an attempt to duplicate that triumph. And boy, did they succeed. The costumes and sets show that serious attention was paid to getting the details right, and I noticed settings and tableaux inspired by 19th-century paintings of the period, as well as the engravings of Maurice Leloir, Dumas’s most celebrated illustrator.

Fairbanks was nearly forty in 1921, far too old for the part of the youth d’Artagnan, but instead of trying to look young he plays young, in his expressions and body language, and does so brilliantly. Fairbanks made his Zorro an acrobat, and he does the same for d’Artagnan, leaping and fencing with a buoyant athleticism that has been attached to the rôle of the young musketeer ever since. But beyond that, Fairbanks’s d’Artagnan exhibits the sharp wits and quick thinking on display in Dumas’s novel, crucial aspects of the character that are often overlooked in lesser adaptations.

Once again, the film covers only the first half of the novel, the affair of the diamond studs, but with 121 minutes to do it, this version has much more room for character interplay, romance, and joyous musketeer shenanigans. There is roistering, roguery, and outright piracy on the English Channel. This time around Constance is Bonacieux’s niece rather than wife, and she gets a generous amount of screen time in a movie that’s otherwise a boys’ club. But the real supporting-actor prize goes to Nigel Brulier as Cardinal Richelieu, whom he plays as a cold and calculating automaton with a genuinely ominous screen presence. In the end Richelieu reacts to his defeat with dignity and even generosity, but is rebuffed by d’Artagnan and the musketeers, who prefer their camaraderie and half-drunken revelry to the sober demands of the state. You go, frat boys!