The Sunday Intertitle: The Whip and the Body

In Allan Dwan’s ROBIN HOOD, starring the indefatigable Doug Fairbanks, there are a few startling adult moments amid the fun. I guess they act as seasoning, adding a bite of slight discomfort to the pleasure. The story’s wholehearted enthusiasm for the crusades is one element slightly jarring to a modern audience (the ’70s ROBIN AND MARIAN reintroduces the crusades to the story with a far more critical edge), and the startling moment where Doug, still grinning, snaps Guy of Gisbourne’s spine by bending him around a pillar, certainly counts in my book.

But it’s the montage sequence showing the various depredations of evil Prince John while his brother, Richard Lionheart (Wallace Beery) is away innocently murdering muslims, which really stopped me cold.

We get a series of intertitles describing John’s acts of nastiness, each followed by an illustrative shot or short sequence bringing home to us the exact cruelties involved. The intertitle above completely perplexed me at first, but the subsequent image snaps everything into sharp focus.

Rags by Mitchell Leisen.

The near nudity is an eye-opener, but so is the fact that the oppressor’s whip seems to actually connect with the victim several times before the shot mercifully fades out. I hope the actress was (a) not hurt too badly (b) extremely well-paid (c) into s&m so she could at least get something out of the experience. It’s the kind of moment I might almost expect to see in a Michael Curtiz film, although there the victim might be the hero himself, but in my sketchy experience of Dwan’s work I’d never seen anything that made me suspect he was, well, that way inclined. And no other Fairbanks film I’ve looked at contained such perversity.

Fortunately, the bulk of the film is more innocent and endearing. Surprisingly, Robert of Huntingdon doesn’t become Robin Hood until more than an hour has passed, somewhat squeezing his swashbuckling into the last half of the movie. Famously, there are gigantic sets for him to cavort in, the interiors preposterously outscaled (in medieval times, such rooms existed only in cathedrals) and impractical to heat. Oh, and I was thrilled by the title “costumes by Leisen”. I’m kind of holding off on THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, which has the most beautiful and outlandish Leisen costumery — I figure after that, it’s going to be all downhill for Fairbanks, so I should save it to last. But then, his contemporary comedies have a different kind of zest and immediacy that can’t readily be compared with the period epics…

Robin Hood

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25 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: The Whip and the Body”

  1. La Faustin Says:

    Allan Dwan also directed the 1932 WHILE PARIS SLEEPS (script by Basil Woon, which cumulatively suggests Kay Francis reading the production credits aloud) in which a police informant is crammed into the flames of a baker’s oven by a criminal gang including Jack La Rue. The latter looks like a Brassai and sounds like Da Bronx.

  2. the bad old days…where can I see this?

  3. La Faustin: bwahahaha!

    I just tried to watch that one and the damn disc wouldn’t work. Was thinking of getting a replacement, and you’ve just decided me. Jack La Rue is Mister Nastypants.

    Paul, am adding a product link above.

  4. La Faustin Says:

    David, I don’t think I expressed enough enthusiasm when you floated the idea of a Jack La Rue edition of THE FORGOTTEN. Yes please! Only you can do this strange but appealing fellow justice.

    On a related note, THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE is being shown as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s current “To Save and Project” Festival — http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/15/movies/15restore.html?ref=movies
    — and I am informed it looks wonderful.

  5. Well, Karl Struss shot it, and even my fuzzy, faded copy hints at the kind of dazzlement one would expect. Just enjoyed La Rue in Virtue, where he’s a kind of side-dish to the main course of Lombard and O’Brien. I’m fascinated by how his face seems to rapidly change from film to film. In Temple Drake he’s almost grown into that schnozz, although no mere mortal could truly do so.

  6. An interesting departure from the norm, of which I am reminded by that toon: Robin doesn’t fight Little John with a quarterstaff, and it’s Tuck who has the staff. But Alan Hale plays Little John, something he continued to do for decades to come.

  7. Christopher Says:

    I’m SICK o Robin Hood!..I watched the more recent Russel Crowe version just recently and since Robin and Marion,they’re all starting to look basically the same!..Would it hurt filmmakers to inject a little Fun and color into historical dramas every now and then?…The Iron Mask is one of my fave Fairbanks pictures..even gets me all weepy in spots..

  8. While no Flame and the Arrow you can hardly accuse Prince of Thieves of a lack of fun and colour, if nothing else. David, you have Carl Davis’s scored Thief, yes? Can’t wait for you post. I want to know how they did the giant monkey.

  9. I mean “your post”, sorry

  10. I prefer Carl Stalling

  11. Christopher Says:

    Robin Hood isn’t real !..why should I take him so.. seriously??

  12. Arthur S. Says:

    I saw the silent THIEF OF BAGDAD last week. If ever two films with the same title and premise could be so vastly different from each other than the Walsh/Fairbanks and the Korda film, I haven’t seen it. Fairbanks is great but so is Anna May Wong(who in the print I saw seems not to get any comeuppance, much to my delight). The movie reeks of yellow peril but it’s still more fun and the special effects are a delight to watch.

  13. Visually, Prince of Thieves goes the muddy route, even though the approach is largely daft. If it weren’t for Rickman, it’d be laugh-less, I think. But he does wrench it around, almost singlehandedly.

    Ridley Scott took an entirely predictable path into gritty earnestness, which isn’t what’s needed at this time. Robin and Marian had novelty on its side, and something to say. With Scott it just seems like a banal reflex: strip the fun out.

    The three villains of the myth fascinate me: with Prince John, Gisbourne and the Sheriff, you can theoretically do what Hitchcock did in North by Northwest: split the villain into parts, the cultivated mastermind, the smirking sadist, and the thug. But only the Flynn movie comes close to nailing this. (Don’t quite know why there’s no Gisbourne in Robin and Marian: they could have given the name to Kenneth Haigh’s arrogant aristo.)

    Oddly, the Dwan Robin Hood has more plot and action in common with Robin and Marian than with any other version.

    Looking forward to Thief, but will almost certainly watch Fairbanks’ two D’Artagnan outings first.

  14. While it’s Rickman’s film (it’s a shame he never had that energy again) I remember liking a line Mrs. Little John had about “I giv’n birth to ten children, don’t talk to me about getting hurt!” symptomatic of the whole – I thought completely adorable – political correctness of the project (it got a lot of stick at the time for Morgan Freeman’s Moor, but I loved him in it). And the men are merry. I never watched Russel Crowe’s, partly because it appeared to show Robin Hood command an army, so… What?!

    Arthur S., the Fairbanks “Thief” (which I prefer immeasurably to the still beautiful Korda) certainly plays up the yellow peril, but with awesome performances from both of its genuinely Asian players, so I feel no discomfort (and the fact the forces of good are unmuddily Muslim is again terribly cheering). I think I mentioned before my conviction that this film single-handedly influenced Dr. Suess’ complete oeuvre, I’ll see if I can find some appropriate images to back this up in time for the post…

  15. I remember Freeman explaining his skin colour to a kid with the line “Because Allah delights in marvelous variety.” That was nice.

    Am pitching the idea of a William Cameron Menzies magazine article, and the Seuss connection is a tempting angle, although maybe unprovable.

  16. Your post has finally motivated me to watch my bargain-bin DVD of ROBIN HOOD. God only know what the quality will be like?

    Leisen also designed a number of DeMille silents, including THE VOLGA BOATMAN and THE ROAD TO YESTERDAY (starring the wondrously named Jetta Goudal). Again, I’ve not yet got round to watching them!

  17. Leisen’s approach to costume is similar to his later directing, and it’s a good one: an absolute commitment to authenticity UNLESS it gets in the way of dramatic effect.

  18. Randy Byers Says:

    Perhaps not as perverse as the whipping scene in Robin Hood, but I always love the absurd moment in Dwan’s SLIGHTLY SCARLET when Arlene Dahl whips out the speargun and nearly shoots John Payne in the face. Oops!

  19. Oh, I forgot! Fairbanks Thief also has whipping scene! Two, I think. The second being one of the most moving things in it.

  20. There’s nothing like a beautiful woman with a speargun to get the blood pumping. All over the linoleum, sometimes.

    More Fairbanks kink! This is turning into a motif. And he and Leisen are the common denominators, not the director.

  21. SLIGHTLY SCARLET is a total masterpiece – one of the all-time great melodramas! Even if he’d never made another film, Dwan deserves to be famous for that.

    The king of whipping scenes in today seems to be Jim Caviezel. Not only the notorious protracted flogging in THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (as close to gay S&M porn as a mainstream movie has ever got) but also THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, where the young hero is repeatedly tied up and flogged by Michael Wincott. There are worse ways to suffer!

  22. Mel Gibson is obsessed with torture, and while it’s connected to his messiah complex, it’s also a wallowing in suffering for even more indulgent reasons. He’s “crucified” in Lethal Weapon and Braveheart, and has progressed in age to torturing stand-ins rather than undertaking the stations of the cross personally.

    Caviezel is a devotee of the same wacko beliefs, I think.

  23. Yes, apparently the gorgeous Caviezel refuses to do nude love scenes as they go against his strict Catholic beliefs – thereby dooming me (and others) to a lifetime of frustration. Does he really think we watch his movies to see him act?!

  24. Randy Byers Says:

    Is there a whipping scene in THE BELOVED ROGUE? I seem to recall John Barrymore stripped to the waist and put in chains, anyway. Always thought that movie played like a riff on Fairbanks and Robin Hood, so perhaps the scene is an homage.

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