Douglas Fairbanks is in peril because his mind is slowly falling apart due to the machinations of the mad scientist next door. To make matters worse, Doug is in love with a young lady who is already promised to another. It will take all his pep and energy to get out of this tangle!
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
They’re coming to take me away, ha ha.
Most silent movie fans know that Douglas Fairbanks had a silent career that could be sliced neatly into two halves: the breezy modern comedies that won him the affection of audiences worldwide and then the elaborate costumed swashbucklers that continue to influence action movies to this day.
What is not discussed as often is how very dark those earlier Fairbanks pictures could be. We expect some wretched villainy and dark moments in something like The Mark of Zorro but those breezy comedies had more than their share as well. In Flirting with Fate, for example, Fairbanks is so depressed with his life that he hires a hitman to facilitate his suicide. And in this picture, When the Clouds Roll By, Fairbanks finds himself at the mercy of that classic villain, the mad scientist.
Unethical and illegal (the two were not always one and the same) medical experiments were a subject of social concern at the time and in this sense, When the Clouds Roll By was very much a product of its decade. Silent films of the 1910s tackled such heavy subjects as human trafficking, the cycle of poverty and its role in crime, abortion and birth control, drug addiction, domestic abuse and prison reform. So, while the setup of this picture may seem to be a surprisingly serious one, it would have been very much to the taste of many American moviegoers of the time.
The film opens with Dr. Ulrich Metz (Herbert Grimwood) outlining his plans for a shocking experiment with a human subject. He plans to drive a perfectly innocent young man out of his mind… for science! The victim is Metz’s neighbor, Daniel Boone Brown (Fairbanks), a spry stock and bond man whose natural tendency toward superstition has made him the perfect target for mad science machinations.
With his army of confederates, Metz has managed to turn Brown’s superstition into full-blown paranoia and because he is fed things like onions, lobster and rarebit before bed, he is haunted with nightmares that leave his mind even more off-kilter. (Rarebit was a popular dish of hot cheese and beer sauce on toast and it was considered nightmare fuel thanks in part to the popular Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend comic strip and films.)
The screenplay (Fairbanks was credited) and director Victor Fleming opt to toss the audience straight into Brown’s chaotic brain from the very beginning. We see performers in onion, rarebit, lobster, rarebit and mince pie costumes performing acrobatics inside Brown’s tummy and then there is a lengthy nightmare sequence in which Brown wanders into a party wearing his pajamas, jumps through a painting and, pursued by his dinner, runs up the side of the walls and onto the ceiling. Inception, eat your heart out.
Obviously, such a night’s rest would hardly be conducive to a productive day on the job and Brown’s shady Uncle Curtis (Ralph Lewis) lays him off from the firm for being unreliable. On the way out, one of the other employees tells Brown that his unlucky opal ring must be to blame.
While walking through the park, Brown throws away the ring and it lands at the feet of Lucette (Kathleen Clifford), a young woman from Oklahoma who has arrived in the big city to pursue a career in art. It’s love at first sight for both Brown and Lucette, especially when they realize that they both buy into every superstition under the sun.
Lucette has another suitor, though. Mark Drake (Frank Campeau) is the mayor of Lucette’s town and the co-owner with her father of an oil field. The land is full of oil but Drake is hiding that from his partner so he can buy him out on the cheap. To help him, he enlists the services of Uncle Curtis, who in turn decides to send Brown out west to seal the deal.
Meanwhile, Dr. Metz plans to use the new weapon of a love triangle to his advantage and remove the last vestiges of Brown’s sanity.
Will Brown win back his mind and the hand of the woman he loves? Will he finally stand up to his bullying, crooked uncle? You’ll have to see When the Clouds Roll By to find out.
This picture is a grand bit of fun and an excellent showcase for the charm and personality that Fairbanks brought to his modern pictures. And, yes, there are stunts aplenty. In addition to special effects sequences like walking on the roof and, later, Fairbanks fighting his way through flood waters to save the day, there are also lots of leaps and racing about and breakneck climbing scenes.
What really elevates it, though, is Kathleen Clifford. Rather than just being “the girl” she has plenty of personality of her own and is essentially the female version of Fairbanks, sans the leaping. Some of the most amusing scenes in the film are found in the meet cute sequence in which the duo engage in synchronized good luck rituals every time anything triggers their superstitions.
The story relies on us believing that after knowing Clifford for just a few hours, Fairbanks would love her enough to marry her and risk his life for her. Mission accomplished, I think.
The picture also boasts not one, not two but three villains all trying to use and abuse Brown for their own nefarious reasons. Metz is obviously the most colorful, with his bizarre and inexplicable scheme to drive Brown out of his mind… for science? Really, science? Really?
Experimenting on unwilling human subjects has been a real concern since the dawn of medical history and it was prevalent at the time When the Clouds Roll By was released. (There’s a whole book on just the use of children as subjects.) And considering that activists are still fighting to remove statues honoring medical pioneers like J. Marion Sims, who practiced his gynecological experiments on enslaved women sans any concern for their pain, discomfort or consent; and considering that the modern opioid crisis has been found to have been caused by deeply unethical pill-pushing and false advertising, I think we can safely say that the topic is still a hot one.
Fairbanks was careful not to cause a panic or incite any anti-science feelings by making his mad scientist quite literally mad. He turns out to be an escapee from an asylum and is taken right back once the orderlies catch up with him.
Ralph Lewis as Uncle Curtis and Frank Campeau as Mark Drake are considerably less of a threat and once Brown is able to throw off the manipulations of Metz, he finds himself in a position to go toe-to-toe with his opponents and emerge victorious. Was there ever any doubt?
While watching When the Clouds Roll By, I couldn’t help but notice some parallels to a later Fairbanks vehicle, one he made after his full transition to costumed swashbuckler. The Black Pirate also opens with Fairbanks already in a pickle—his father murdered by pirates and Doug marooned—and continues to show our hero’s struggle against the schemes of a wily opponent before concluding with some aquatic acrobatics and a final bit of derring-do that saves the day. In fact, you can see echoes of the later Fairbanks swashbucklers in many of his earlier, modern dress pictures, the most obvious being the Three Musketeers prologue in A Modern Musketeer.
When the Clouds Roll By is one of the best of these pre-swashbucklers and much of it is due to the imaginative story and the chemistry between Fairbanks and Clifford. It’s rather a shame that they did not reunite in another picture because I enjoyed their interactions enormously.
In any case, if you were looking to dive into the earlier career of Douglas Fairbanks, this is a good place to start. Enjoy!
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD by Flicker Alley as part of their Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer box set. It is also available as a standalone disc from Grapevine.
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Guy was amazing, hard to believe a man in that great of shape died so early in 1939??
One of the most depressing things about classic and silent film is hearing about all the people who died young and might have been saved with modern antibiotics, surgeries and, in the case of Fairbanks, heart health screenings.
One of the most underrated silent films around. I am a huge fan of Fairbanks and it makes me sad that a guy so dedicated to fitness died relatively young from heart disease.
Fritzi, this if you didn’t,know was a favorite of one of my mentors in sileni film, the late, great Bill Everson.
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