While he switched over exclusively to costumed swashbucklers in the 1920s, Douglas Fairbanks hedged his bets with one more modern comedy. The Nut is about an eccentric fellow who hopes to win the hand of his girlfriend by helping with her charity drive. Chaos ensues.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
Charity begins at (your) home
Few stars in the history of film have rebranded themselves as thoroughly or as successfully as Douglas Fairbanks. When he became one of the original founders of United Artists, his fame and power were based on his wildly successful adventure comedies, almost all set either in modern cities or out west. He was the young man about town who ended up in peculiar predicaments, most of which were solved by death-defying leaps and a cheery disposition.
Fairbanks had other ambitions, though, and they came to fruition with the 1920 release of The Mark of Zorro, a costumed swashbuckler set in Old California. (The costumed sequence in A Modern Musketeer can be seen as a dry run for this changeover.) Switching genres has always been a risk for stars and Fairbanks hedged his bets with more of his signature modern films just in case audiences didn’t take to the swashbuckling stuff.
The Nut was released between Zorro and The Three Musketeers (1921) and it was the last time Fairbanks was seen out of costume in one of his features for the remainder of the 1920s. If you saw Doug onscreen in a modern suit during the rest of the decade, it was a newsreel or a cameo.
Fairbanks’ changeover was so complete that his non-swashbuckler films are barely mentioned at all outside of silent film circles and The Nut is generally written off as just a component in a backup plan that was never really necessary. We know that those 1910s Fairbanks films could be pretty terrific, is it possible that The Nut is really a hidden gem?
Fairbanks plays Charlie, an eccentric inventor who is head over heels in love with Estrell (Marguerite De La Motte). Estrell is an amateur philanthropist and her big idea to change the world is to allow poor children to spend time in fine homes to give them a taste of the better things in life. For her plan to succeed, she needs a string of mansions willing to take in her charges. Hoping to impress her enough for her to accept his marriage proposal, Charlie volunteers to arrange matters.
Things go bust on the first try when Charlie’s fundraising/house sharing party is ruined by his all-too-realistic model battleship opening fire on the crowd. Charlie is forced to hightail it after a guest who was set on fire and then sneaks back in disguised as a corpse on a stretcher. The very fact that the police and guests were unsurprised to see a dying man/dead body in the house is kind of indicative of the havoc Charlie wreaked. The ruse fails in any case because Charlie decides to hide in the back of a police van, which is promptly locked and he is driven to jail.
Meanwhile, Charlie’s rival in love, Philip Feeney (William Lowery), the owner of a speakeasy and gambling den, is trying his best to obstruct the path to true love. But Feeney’s jealous ex, Claudine (Barbara La Marr), has a few obstructions of her own in mind…
Will Charlie succeed in meeting the smart set and saving Estrell’s charitable plans? Or will she fall victim to the nefarious Feeney? See The Nut to find out!
The Nut is truly, well, mixed with some very strong elements but the glue doesn’t quite hold. Fairbanks holds back on his signature stunts, which wouldn’t be a deal breaker but for the fact that the picture doesn’t have anything appropriately flash to replace them with.
That being said, there is plenty to like about the picture. Like Fairbanks’ 1919 film When the Clouds Roll By, The Nut veers into the symbolic and surreal. Charlie and Feeney both call Estrell on the telephone and their calls are routed through a switchboard. Feeney’s is manned by Satan while Charlie’s is operated by Cupid.
The gag that probably lands the best is the impressions scene. Charlie amuses Estrell’s friends with his impressions but the “impressions” are all clearly performed by completely different people and not Fairbanks at all. Who does he think he is, trying to fool us, his viewers, with these not-so-special effects? Fairbanks then double-crosses the audience by having the screen he was changing behind fall and reveal all the people he has concealed behind it to both his in-film audience and the people watching in the theater.
This bait-and-switch technique was popular during the silent era as audiences were quick to catch onto cinematic tricks, so filmmakers would engage in a bit of gentle teasing. For example, in Her Sister from Paris, Constance Talmadge plays identical twins and when the women are together, one has her face covered. Ah ha! A double! What a cheap cheat! But then the twin uncovers her face while still sharing a frame, thus showcasing the film’s special effects.
By the way, the impression scene features a Charlie Chaplin impersonator and there has been some speculation that Chaplin, Fairbanks’ real-life best friend, himself appeared in the film in some capacity. I think the impersonator is pretty obviously not Chaplin (and I speak as someone who is hopeless at identification, so if it’s obvious to me…) and I could not see Chaplin in any other scenes. In his book Douglas Fairbanks, biographer Jeffrey Vance speculates that Chaplin may have shot scenes with his back to the camera but they were left on the cutting room floor or were otherwise lost.
Returning to the strong points of the picture, The Nut is a good example of title cards being repeated for comedic effect. While in jail, Charlie makes the same request multiple times: “Please call up Miss Wynn, Gramercy 35. Tell her I’m heartbroken about this—I adore her—I think she’s wonderful—and—just say ‘honeybunch’ at the end.” The punchline comes later in the film with Charlie delivering his adoring, wonderful, honeybunchy spiel over the telephone personally. I doubt the gag would have landed if it had been spoken but something about the repeated message, complete with identical punctuation, just tickles my funnybone.
Fairbanks also indulges in the macabre humor so typical of his modern productions, which was generally left out of his swashbuckling pictures. For example, in Flirting with Fate, while in the throes of despair, his character hires a hitman to kill him and then has to try to cancel the contract once his life takes a turn for the better. In The Nut, Fairbanks steals some dummies to pose as rich magnates (long story) but passersby assume that he is a murderer trundling along with the corpses of his victims. And, as stated earlier, Fairbanks himself poses as a corpse to fool the police earlier in the picture.
In spite of all this, the screenplay lets the picture down. Fairbanks and his team were busy with their other films and I think this distraction shows itself in The Nut. While The Mark of Zorro was skillfully plotted and smoothed out the rougher edges of its source material, The Nut just kind of goes off the rails. Charlie’s inventions are not incorporated into the story as much as they could have been and Estrell’s charity drive is treated as well-intended but slightly ridiculous, which weakens the motivation for helping her.
There were also some funny gags left on the table as the comedic possibilities of Estrell always having borrowed children underfoot were completely unexplored. Such scenes would have helped establish why she was so dedicated to her plan and would have given Marguerite De La Motte more to do in the picture. Barbara La Marr is similarly underused, after being established as Chekhov’s Ex, her storyline ends with a fizzle during the police raid of Feeney’s den.
Charlie being an inventor is similarly abandoned for the finale. I was hoping that one of his Rube Goldberg devices would save the day in the end but the whole matter is resolved with a firm sock on the jaw, no technology required. Again, not a dealbreaker but it is a missed opportunity.
Reactions to The Nut were mixed and theater owners were not universally pleased with the Fairbanksian return to modern pictures. Here’s a small selection of feedback published in Motion Picture News:
“Fairbanks has slipped in this picture. It is much poorer than The Mark of Zorro and while many patrons came to see him the first few days, the rest of the week’s business was poor.”
“Some adverse criticism to the effect that it was not up to the star’s standard. Receipts fine.”
“Fine picture which brought good business.”
United Artists tried to goose up the hype by offering pre-written, effusive reviews that theater owners could submit for publication in local newspapers. Four such reviews were published in the marketing kit for The Nut and they did not scrimp on the praise. Genuine originality! Fairbanks gives one of the best character portrayals of his career!
The marketing kit openly states that “If the review you submit is not a palpable boost for the picture in question, he [the editor] prints it verbatim.” Smuggling marketing copy into print under the guise of an independent review and obtaining free advertising for the studio was hardly unexpected in the age of hoopla and other film studios engaged in similar antics but it is amusing to see the plan talked about so frankly.
(This sort of thing still goes on, even if it is not quite so open. One is reminded a bit of Sony’s infamous David Manning scandal. A marketing executive created a fictional reviewer to offer enthusiastic blurbs for otherwise panned movies before the whole scheme was exposed in a Newsweek piece.)
What’s really interesting is that the reviews seem to be an attempt to get ahead of criticism by stating that comedy scenes, rather than stunts, were emphasized in The Nut. If that was the goal, it didn’t really work because the comedy scenes were panned. Exhibitors Herald’s reviewer wrote: “Fairbanks gets some laughs out of his business with the dummies, but not enough to dole out the quota expected of him.”
The biggest problem The Nut has is its position in the Fairbanks filmography: smack dab between The Mark of Zorro and The Three Musketeers. Modern Fairbanks action-comedies are ridiculously fun but the stakes are never the highest and so placing “Will boy marry girl?” between “Will Old California rise up against brutality?” and “Will France be saved?” is just asking for trouble.
Film Daily put it succinctly in its review: “They’ll like Doug, but they expect a better one from him.”
A century removed from its initial release and taken on its own, The Nut is about average for a Fairbanks picture and average simply was not enough when compared to his success with costume fare. The Nut doesn’t reach the twisted comedic heights of Flirting with Fate and it doesn’t match the madness of When the Clouds Roll By.
The Nut will definitely amuse the viewer and it has some very funny moments but there are better pictures in Doug’s early style. Still, it’s worth a look for any Fairbanks fans or anyone who enjoys their comedy a bit on the zany side.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD as part of Flicker Alley’s Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer set, which showcases Doug’s early work.
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