Yearly Archives: 2017


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!

By |2018-02-11T17:44:12-05:00December 16, 2017|Cinema of Swords, Ellsworth's Cinema of Swords|Comments Off on Three Musketeers (1921)

Three Musketeers (1916)

The Three Musketeers
Rating: ***
Origin: USA, 1916
Director: Charles Swickard
Source: Alpha Home Entertainment DVD

This very early version of Alexandre Dumas’s greatest swashbuckler is enjoyable and, at only 50 minutes long, very fast-paced, though it only adapts the first half of the novel, the affair of the queen’s diamond studs. D’Artagnan is active, Richelieu is imposing, and Queen Anne is majestically pouty. As will be typical of American film versions to follow, it makes d’Artagnan’s love interest Constance into something other than Bonacieux’s wife—in this case, his daughter—and had Rochefort play both his role and that of the Comte de Wardes, which occurs in almost every film version. A good early effort.

By |2018-02-11T17:43:50-05:00December 16, 2017|Cinema of Swords, Ellsworth's Cinema of Swords|Comments Off on Three Musketeers (1916)

Thousand and One Nights

A Thousand and One Nights
Rating: ***
Origin: USA, 1945
Director: Alfred E. Green
Source: Amazon Streaming Video

This is a tongue-in-cheek Arabian Nights fantasy that falls somewhere between send-up of and homage to The Thief of Bagdad, especially the 1940 version. Aladdin of Cathay (?), played by Cornel Wilde, is a vagabond street singer whom we first see crooning an ode to the desirability of a row of women for sale at a slave auction. This is tasteless by current standards, but it does serve to inform us that in this film, the rôle of women is strictly ornamental—with one exception which we’ll get to shortly. This singing Aladdin has a sidekick, a pickpocket named Abdullah played by Phil Silvers—yep, it’s Sgt. Bilko, black-framed glasses and all. Everyone calls him crazy because he says he was born 1200 years too soon, makes jokes about television and gin rummy, and tells the palace guards their turbans are “groovy.”

In a scene lifted right out of Thief of Bagdad, mounted guards clear everyone from the street at the approach of the princess’s elaborate sedan chair, because “No man may gaze upon her and live.” That, of course, makes Aladdin determined to see her—and one daring intrusion and two songs later, the vagabond and the princess (Adele Jergens, strictly ornamental) have fallen in love. He serenades her in a palace garden that, like many of the sets, is a virtual duplicate of the one for the equivalent scene in Thief of Bagdad. In fact, the whole look of the film, the architecture, the props, the bright costumes against the pastel backgrounds, is practically a love letter to William Cameron Menzies.

Soon enough the guards are shouting “Seize him!”, and Aladdin and Abdullah are on the run. In a mystic cave they meet a mystic mage with a mystic crystal, who sends them after a mystic treasure guarded by a mystic giant—Rex Ingram himself, fifty feet tall and looking exactly as he did playing the Djinni in Thief of Bagdad, chasing his puny prey and doing That Laugh. The treasure turns out to be a magic lamp (oh, right: Aladdin) that contains the best thing about this movie, a sassy red-headed genie played by Evelyn Keyes and named, er, “Babs.” Keyes, who is lively, clever, and ornamental into the bargain, effortlessly steals the rest of the picture, and no wicked vizier, sultan’s evil twin, or mystic mage can stand against her. Bonus: in the finale Cornel Wilde, who’d been an Olympic fencer in the 1930s, gets a chance to show us what he can do with a sword, and it’s quite impressive. Groovy, even.

By |2018-02-11T17:48:24-05:00December 16, 2017|Cinema of Swords, Ellsworth's Cinema of Swords|Comments Off on Thousand and One Nights

Thief of Bagdad (1940)

The Thief of Bagdad
Rating: ****
Origin: UK, 1940
Directors: Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan
Source: Criterion Collection DVD

The Thief of Bagdad

Everybody loves this movie. It’s got heart, magic, music, adventure, romance, and ambitious special effects that alternate between stupendous and hilarious. Hang it, even I love this movie. And yet, to be perfectly frank, it’s a bit of a mess.

Given its production history, it’s a wonder it was ever made at all. Hungarian-English producer Alexander Korda was determined to create a grand epic, a career-defining masterpiece, and inserted himself into every aspect of the film’s production, sometimes causing chaos. Shooting started in early 1939 with German director Ludwig Berger, but he wasn’t delivering a story on the scope that Korda wanted, and then that war thing happened, so Berger was replaced by three other directors, all English or American. Throughout production the story was in flux, constantly changing, with new elements added and other parts cut. When war actually broke out in September, 1939, further production in the U.K. was suspended, and the whole thing was picked up and moved to Hollywood, with side shooting in the Grand Canyon.

Whew! Somehow Korda took all these disparate assets and assembled a mostly-coherent whole, but one can see the seams where he stitched it together in continuity lapses and sudden changes of tone. And yet, all that hardly matters, because this Arabian Nights fable is so vivid and dreamlike that dream logic seems to hold it together.

Certainly the romance that’s ostensibly the plot’s driving wheel is flat and rather dull, as John Justin (King Ahmad) and June Duprez (Princess—that’s all the name she gets) don’t provide much heat, chemistry, or interest. Perhaps they knew they were hopelessly outclassed by the real stars: the young thief, the evil vizier, and the mighty djinni. In truth, this is their movie. The thief, Abu, is played with engaging panache by the fifteen-year-old Sabu (that’s all the name he gets), a lad of genuine charm from India. The great German actor Conrad Veidt is Jaffar—wizard, tyrant, lecher, and all-around wicked vizier—and he has a fine old time with the rôle. But no one is having as much fun as the African-American actor Rex Ingram as the Djinni, whose energy and gusto would make him seem 90 feet tall, even if he wasn’t already being depicted as 90 feet tall.

The story is loosely based on Doug Fairbanks’s 1924 silent epic, with a half-dozen other familiar Arabian Nights elements tossed into the stew to keep things bubbling. There’s a flying carpet, magical curses and transformations, grotesque monsters, and voyages to unknown lands: picking up from its silent predecessor, this is the film that set the style and tone for all the Arabian fantasy films to follow, up to and especially including Walt Disney’s Aladdin.

Warning: the European colonialist gaze is strong here. There are people of all different skin shades in Bagdad, but lightness of color is the infallible guide to status. This is somewhat offset by the prominent casting of the brown Sabu and the black Rex Ingram—but damn.

As for the film’s look, “sumptuous” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Visual wizard William Cameron Menzies, whose credits stretched back to the 1924 Thief of Bagdad, was Korda’s associate producer and uncredited fourth director, and his eye for form and color deserves much of the credit. The excellent score is an early effort by Miklós Rósza, best known for his soundtrack for Ben-Hur (1959). There are some hokey songs—for part of the production cycle Korda thought he wanted the film to be a musical—but the orchestral pieces are dynamic and memorable.

Guilty pleasure: The picture’s screenwriter, Miles Malleson, gets to play the delightful rôle of the dotty old Sultan of Basra, who collects magical toys. I have to say, seeing the script guy having such fun warms my writer’s heart. And even C. Aubrey Smith would be envious of his amazing whiskers.

By |2018-02-11T17:43:29-05:00December 16, 2017|Cinema of Swords, Ellsworth's Cinema of Swords|Comments Off on Thief of Bagdad (1940)
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