Saturday 22 March 2008

A Modern Musketeer (1917)

Y'all remember D'Artagnan, one of Alexandre Dumas's musketeers? Well Ned Thacker of Kansas did in 1917, having grown up on them, and our film begins with his dreams of being that hero, battling a tavern full of swordsman, swashing buckles and leaping around like an acrobat, all to rescue some lady's handkerchief. We quickly find that he gets up to the same sort of thing in real life, back in Kansas, eager to be the hero but getting himself into all sorts of scrapes in the process. As the title card says: always chivalrous, always misunderstood. Arriving in the world during a cyclone which destroys the town he's born into, he has a restless spirit that only someone like Douglas Fairbanks could play.

As always, Fairbanks astounds. Much of it has to do with his age in all the meanings of that word. He was 34 when he made A Modern Musketeer but he looked like 44 and acted like 24. Amazingly, he hadn't even reached his heyday yet, which wouldn't arrive for another three years in the form of the 1920 version of The Mark of Zorro and continue on through The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood, The Thief of Bagdad, The Black Pirate, The Gaucho and so on. By the time he played D'Artagnan for the second time (the third if you count the dream sequences here) in 1929's The Iron Mask, he was 46. Given that it's astounding what he gets up to at 34 vaulting horses, climbing church steeples and standing on his hands on the edge of the Grand Canyon, it's no surprise he was such a knockout a decade later.

Anyway, he soon finds that Kansas doesn't understand him, so he heads out west to his find his chivalrous place in the world. What he finds is Marjorie Daw, playing Elsie Dodge (Dorothy in the IMDb listing), a young lady whose mother has effectively set up her with a wealthy suitor to accomplish the goals she never accomplished herself. The wealth suitor is Forrest Vanderteer, who can't see the value of anything if he can't buy it, thus setting up an intriguing rivalry. There's also a further rival in a Navajo 'king' called Chin-de-dah. Just as Vanderteer buys whatever he wants, Chin-de-dah takes whatever he wants and he wants Dorothy.

At one point in this film Elsie is in the front seat of a car travelling along railroad tracks when they have to stop for a mule who is blocking the tracks. Fairbanks asks her if she can speak mule and they shout 'Hee-haw!' at the creature. Given that the American actress Marjorie Daw is absolutely not the source of the nursery rhyme, this can't have been anything but a deliberate play on it. Hee-haw, Marjorie Daw could have been a hilarious alternative.

But back to the film itself, it's little more than an excuse for Douglas Fairbanks to strut his stuff, especially given the sheer volume of stuff he has to strut. Nobody else really gets to do anything much at all and the ease with which Fairbanks seems to do anything makes the thin plot look even thinner. It looks great though and it's a fun ride, all the more surprising for the fact that it was made in 1917.

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