Watching three Douglas Fairbanks movies in fairly quick succession (though not, qua the title of this piece, in one night) they tend to blur together.
I just realized the problem — we actually watched four! So the title is even more inaccurate. Never mind. Moving on.
I want to dispose of REACHING FOR THE MOON quickly because it’s a really terrible film, actually causing Fiona to say “I’m getting sick of Doug’s boundless optimism.” He’s a dreamer who works in a button factory (pen-pushing, rather than more rewarding work like punching holes in the buttons: button-pressing?) who is obsessed with the power of VISUALISATION. He visualizes becoming the King of Vulgaria (first appearance of that pun? Certainly predates CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG by decades) and then we get a long dream sequence which does contain a few stunts but it’s already too late. The first half of the film is incredibly joyless, though New York street scenes of the teens do have a certain pleasure of their own.
We got into this marathon because of THE MATRIMANIAC which we watched ages ago, still perhaps my favourite. It’s short, has a good situation and daring stunts and very, very funny intertitles. Fiona loved it and so I thought it was time to try her on more. Of course THE BLACK PIRATE’s screening in Glasgow was catalyst.
The first one we ran was maybe the best — THE HABIT OF HAPPINESS is short and sweet, though a little politically confused. Doug is scion of a wealthy family who, with his typical enthusiasm, is trying to redeem tramps by inviting them into his home. We first meet him aslep between two of the fellows. There’s a scrambled plot about stock-exchange shenanigans and a terrific fight at the end. It’s pretty simple which may be why I can’t remember much of what goes on. Oh, I remember embarrassing scenes of Doug trying to make tramps laugh. Kinda patronizing. But then writers Allan Dwan (who also directed) and Shannon Fife come up with a really nice meta-intertitle as Doug tells a funny story ~
WHEN THE CLOUDS ROLL BY is much more complicated and inventive but maybe a touch protracted. It’s front-loaded with insane genius. The mad scientist living next door to Doug has decided to drive him to insanity and suicide for experimental purposes. All for the betterment of humanity, I suppose. Various stooges assist him, including Doug’s manservant, who encourages him to eat badly before bed, giving him indigestion and nightmares. Cue shots of onion and pie, played by actors in costume, trampolining Satanically in a large, spongy set representing the Fairbanks gut. And then a nightmare sequence featuring slomo, a two-storey interior set built in a tumbrel so Doug can climb the walls, and various other ahead-of-their-time tricks, including Bull Montana as a Fusellian embodied nightmare.
This experimentalism ceases for the rest of the film, which devolves into a kind of disturbing sitcom as Doug’s job prospects and love life are thwarted by the wicked scientist. Then Doug finally has his brainstorm, and the movie visualizes Reason toppled from her throne by Despair and Worry and Jealousy. What follows looks suspiciously like some kind of neurological gang bang, until Sense of Humor reasserts himself and kicks the bad guys out. Very odd.
The movie should really end with Doug performing a few heroic feats, armed with his rekindled optimism, but Doug, along with director Victor Fleming and the scenarists, can’t resist staging an epic flood so Doug can rescue the heroine. It looks forward to STEAMBOAT BILL JNR, actually, even down to the minister floating by on his adrift church in time to marry the happy couple.
THE NUT gets a little overcomplicated too, but has some delightful stuff. A shame Doug’s pal Theodore Reed didn’t direct more. Doug is a mad inventor in this one — which I wrote about previously — though the film tends to forget this slightly as plot complications pile up. There’s a very funny bit where he tries to win back his sweetheart by letting her promote her socially improving schemes for redeeming slum children to a roomful of influential men, but because Doug is unable to round up any actual influential men, he mechanizes some waxwork dummies instead. Reminiscent of Sid Grauman’s practical jokes, actually.
The thing to do when exhaustion sets in with Doug’s modern-dress comedies is to switch to his period movies, so maybe I’ll finally get around to his THREE MUSKETEERS and IRON MASK?
Buy: Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer (His Picture in the Papers / The Mystery of the Leaping Fish / Flirting With Fate / The Matrimaniac / Wild and Woolly / Reaching for the Moon / When the Clouds Roll By / The Mollycoddle / The Mark of Zorro / The Nut)