Douglas Fairbanks is a nice Kansan who, through a the odd combination of his mother’s prenatal Dumas reading and a cyclone ravaging town as he was born, is a little hyper. All right, a lot hyper. He is also chivalrous to the point of madness (Dumas again). Setting out to find adventure, he happens upon a true damsel in distress. Is this the mission he has been waiting for?
Ritalin was 38 years away…
Douglas Fairbanks is remembered as a swashbuckler but people sometimes forget that he spent the first five years of his career in a series of peppy modern action-comedies. These films were designed to show off the trademark Fairbanks stunts and give the audience a bit of friendly escapism.
A Modern Musketeer is an interesting film for several reasons. First, it shows Fairbanks testing the costume film waters with some Three Musketeers scenes juxtaposed with the modern story. It would be another three years before his first true all-costume picture, The Mark of Zorro.
Viewers should keep in mind, though, that these costume sequences were not at all unusual during this period. Films would use these scenes to share a dream that a character was experiencing, to demonstrate what happened in a past life (very common), or to illustrate extremes of emotion that would not be clear in modern dress. My point is that the Three Musketeers scenes would have been seen as perfectly normal in 1917.
Another element that makes the film interesting is that it is shot on location at several Arizona landmarks, including the Grand Canyon. In fact, the movie is such an advertisement for the scenic beauties of Arizona that the state should consider issuing copies to its tourism bureau. Well, except for those parts about damsels in distress and whatnot… But we’ll get to that later!
The film opens with an extended sequence where D’Artagnan (Fairbanks, of course) performs feats of chivalry and gymnastics in order to return a lady’s handkerchief. Then we are ushered into the modern section of the story. Merry Kansan Ned Thacker (Fairbanks again) is a bundle of uncontrolled energy but there is a good reason for that.
His mother read a steady diet of swashbuckling novels while pregnant, specifically hoping she would have a boy who would be like D’Artagnan. And the day of his birth, a cyclone swept through the tiny Kansas town. The film even spells out the math for us: Cyclone + D’Artagnan = Speed!!!
I just want to point out here that I have no idea what version of The Three Musketeers mom was reading but it must be the sanitized for her protection. D’Artagnan was many things but a paragon of chivalry he was not. In fact, he behaves rather shockingly toward both of the women in his life.
But I digress. In any case, Ned’s pent-up energy is beginning to cause problems and property damage. He climbs the church steeple, saves women (whether they want to be saved or not) and smashes up saloons. In short, he and Kansas need some time off from one another.
Like D’Artagnan, Ned is sent off by his father to seek his fortune. And who should Ned run into but Elsie Dodge (Marjorie Daw), a New York debutante. Elsie is being forced to endure the advances of wealthy Forrest Vandeteer (Eugene Ormonde) by her overbearing mother (Kathleen Kirkham, only seven years older than her “daughter”). Mrs. Dodge hopes that her daughter’s marriage to Vandeeter will save her from financial ruin. Vandeteer (who has several other wives scattered about) has always been able to buy what he likes and Elsie is just another conquest.
Vandeeter has taken mother and daughter along with him on a road trip. Their splendid car is stuck in some nasty country when Ned comes putt-putting up in his jalopy. He is able to cobble together a makeshift train out of his car and a push cart and off they go. Elsie is absolutely entranced with Ned. Vandeeter, however, makes it clear that Ned will not be allowed to continue his acquaintance with the ladies once the journey is over.
Now what this story needs is a villain. At this point, it is time to issue an Unfortunate Stereotype Alert. The real bad guy of the picture (Vandeteer is merely a nuisance) is Chin-de-dah (Frank Campeau), a Native American cliff-dwelling chief. Chin-de-dah has decided to get married and only a white girl will do. (“Oh dear” would be the right response about now.) James Brown (needless to say our old friend Tully Marshall, not the famed funk singer) is a fugitive from New York who has taken refuge with Chin-de-dah.
Chin-de-dah sets his sights on Elsie and tricks Vandeteer into hiring him as a guide into the canyons. Brown shows up and tells Ned about the nefarious scheme. Ned does not hesitate for a second. A lady is in distress! Oh, and Vandeteer too but he doesn’t really count. Modern D’Artagnan is off to the rescue!
Will Ned save the day? Will Vandeteer have to return to one of his other wives? Will tours to the Grand Canyon ever be safe? Watch this film to find out.
This movie showcases Fairbanks at his best. Director Allan Dwan understood the Fairbanks persona and did everything in his power to show it off. Hardly a moment passes without Doug leaping, flipping, vaulting, running, hand-standing, or climbing. (In case you were wondering, Mary Pickford stated in her autobiography that Fairbanks was like this at home too. He had a habit of entertaining guests on the roof.)
Marjorie Daw (only fifteen when this film was made) is a cute and charming leading lady, though she is not quite able to stand up to the Fairbanks exuberance. Tully Marshall is welcome in any film he appears in. If you have seen a lot of classic movies, he always plays the weird old guy in the background.
Every film has a few flaws and A Modern Musketeer has two issues that I would like to point out. First, film is a little thin in the plot department. It is padded out with a long (and amusing) prologue outlining the hero’s origins and attitudes but it still feels a bit lacking. The 67 minute running time was right in the normal feature range for 1917 and the film does not overstay its welcome. I just wish there had been a little more.
Second, the film suffers from a lack of suspense. No one is anywhere near in Ned’s league for brains, ingenuity and physical ability. Vandeteer never stood a chance and Chin-de-dah is defeated immediately once Ned figures out what he is up to. I realize that this was probably to emphasize Fairbanks’s breezy persona but it made me harder to get excited since there was no doubt that Doug would emerge victorious.
However, these are minor quibbles. In general, the film succeeds in being exactly what it aimed to be: a fun and fast adventure with plenty of stunts. Fairbanks was a stunning athlete and his grace and vigor put modern CG-enhanced leaps to shame. Fairbanks employed hidden handholds, lowered windows and hidden trampolines to make his feats even more impressive but the quicksilver grace was all him. As an added bonus, the film looks fabulous. The scenery is splendid and the cyclone scene at the beginning is especially well-done.
I also enjoyed was how the folks of Ned’s hometown reacted to him. While the kids are still impressed with his antics, the adults are thoroughly sick of him. Climbing the steeple once is a lark. Climbing it daily becomes pesky.
A Modern Musketeer is a great way to see pre-swashbuckler Fairbanks. Thought to be lost except for fragments, it was recently reconstructed and restored. Check it out!
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★½
Where can I see it?
A Modern Musketeer was released as part of the 11-film Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer box set put out by Flicker Alley. It’s a big investment but so worth it.