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…