Archive for The Saphead

Intertitle of the Week: Primitive Man

Posted in FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , on September 6, 2009 by dcairns

Douglas Fairbanks attempts to parlay with an Indian.

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From THE MOLLYCODDLE. My first exposure to modern-dress Fairbanks, before became Robin Hood and a bunch of other historical action heroes. The movie is extremely entertaining — though lighter on spectacular stunts than one might wish, it does climax with a rollicking fight in which Fairbanks battles Wallace Beery off a cliff, into a tree, down the tree, down a mountainside, through the roof of a shack, through the wall of said shack, down another mountainside, into a river and over a waterfall. Fairbanks, who rarely if ever used a stuntman, triumphs over the dastardly Beery, who always used a stuntman, on the basis that “All directors want to kill actors.”

What’s striking to me is how the story, in which anglicized and sissified rich American abroad Fairbanks gets flung into an adventure involving diamond smugglers and renegade Indians, is the very model for a lot of later Buster Keaton films: THE NAVIGATOR, STEAMBOAT BILL JNR, BATTLING BUTLER, those movies where Buster plays a millionaire fop who has to get roughened up by adversity. And indeed, there’s a firm connection between the two players. THE SAPHEAD had been a Broadway hit for Fairbanks, but he was unavailable to do the movie, and suggested Keaton for the part. It was Buster’s first feature film role, and it’s another of those tales where a soft, spoiled “lamb” is transformed into a lion, or nearest equivalent.

The above gag suggests that THE MOLLYCODDLE boasts a more sophisticated take on the Indian characters than you’d expect in 1920 (or any time in the following 40 years), but this is not consistently so. The film demolishes an entire Indian village in an avalanche, treating the background characters as disposable, and there’s this “well-meaning” but spectacularly patronizing foreword, which rather pours on the ethnographic condescension.

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I’m sure the Hopi had a word for this kind of lack of balance…

THE MOLLYCODDLE was directed by Victor Fleming — it’s now officially my favourite Fleming movie, barring WIZARD OF OZ maybe — and features a startling animated sequence tracing the smuggler’s route, with a little cartoon Wallace Beery trekking from Arizona to Monte Carlo…

Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer (His Picture in the Papers / The Mystery of the Leaping Fish / Flirting With Fate / The Matrimaniac / Wild and Woolly … Mollycoddle / The Mark of Zorro / The Nut)

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