Reaching for the Moon (1917) A Silent Film Review

Douglas Fairbanks plays a button factory employee who dreams of bigger things—like being the lost prince of a chaotic European state. While he’s daydreaming, he’s letting real life pass him by. That is, until he seemingly gets everything he ever wanted…

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Real Self-Help

Before he became the king of costume swashbucklers, Douglas Fairbanks starred in breezy modern adventure-comedies. Quite a few of them were set in the wild west but there were also a handful that gave a preview of his romantic, sword-swinging future. Reaching for the Moon is one of them.

Fairbanks in the intro reaching for the, well, you know.

Fairbanks plays Alexis Caesar Napoleon Brown, a paper pusher for a button factory whose mother, a refugee from the kingdom of Vulgaria, died in childbirth. Alexis was named for the king of her country and he privately holds the belief that his mother was a princess on the run and he is only cooling his heels until called upon to take the throne.

Alexis is encouraged in his wild flights of fancy by a steady diet of self-help books, which he quotes chapter and verse. His bosses find him intelligent but flighty and his girlfriend, Elsie (Eileen Percy), is desperate for him to finally pop the question. Alexis, however, only has eyes for newspaper columns reporting the comings and goings of Vulgarian dignitaries, most notably the visiting foreign secretary.

Not an ideal sight, in light of the fate of Franz Ferdinand. (Also, please note the back of Erich von Stroheim’s head in a bit part.)

Now, it strikes me that, considering the state of the world at the time and how it got that way, a strange young man following a foreign dignitary about would cause some suspicion but Alexis gets away with his spying. Well, not entirely. He is later for work, again, and loses his job. In despair, he retires to bed.

But hark! His moment arrives at last! The foreign secretary arrives and informs Alexis that he is indeed the lost heir of Vulgaria and both the crown and the hand of the Princess Valentina await him back home.

A king is born!

Will Alexis seize the moon? Or will he learn to keep his feet on the ground? See Reaching for the Moon to find out!

The screenplay is credited to Anita Loos and director John Emmerson… so, mostly the work of Loos. I have to admit that I am not a big fan of her writing for Fairbanks and Reaching for the Moon has done little to change my mind. Her Fairbanks screenplays tended to be jingoistic and mean-spirited with jarring amounts of inappropriate violence, which clashed with his happy, heroic persona. Wild and Woolly featured additional racism with Native Americans being mowed down like ripe wheat, which was presented as all in good fun.

An American in Vulgaria.

In contrast, other non-Loos Fairbanks films from the period like When the Clouds Roll by (1919) and Flirting with Fate (1916) were merry adventures with a slightly twisted sense of humor and some gloriously surreal sequences but they didn’t have a cruel bone in their bodies.

One of the main issues with this film is how unlikable Alexis is. Of course, he’s supposed to learn a lesson, I understand that, but it’s not immediately made clear why Mr. Bingham or Elsie are so committed to him. He constantly interrupts work meetings with flights of fancy and talks at Elsie, lecturing her on self-help books that she understands and he doesn’t. With this kind of film, it’s okay for the hero to have personality problems but not to the point where you want to defenestrate him from the nearest tall building. I suppose we should be fortunate that YouTube had not been invented when Alexis was at large.

Alexis talks at Elsie.

Later, in Vulgaria, Alexis is saved by the foresight and loyalty of Princess Valentina. Once he meets the young lady, he is horrified to find her plain and that is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. He declares that he will never wed such a creature. This is remarkably rude considering that she treated him with nothing but loyalty and respect. He didn’t have to want to marry her but insulting her without provocation is pretty awful and, I might add, centers the male sexual desire above all. (Anita Loos, ladies and gentlemen.)

Reaching for the Moon maintains its watchability on the shoulders of the Fairbanks charisma and not much else. Doug is at his Dougest as he tries to navigate the court etiquette of Vulgaria while trying to avoid assassination. The water fete sequence, in which Fairbanks scales the city from the canal to the sewer to the topmost floor of the tallest building, is quite spectacular and one of his best action scenes from this period.

Valentina is guilty of not being sexy and therefore deserves what she gets.

There are also smaller character bits that are fun. On the boat ride across the Atlantic, Alexis discovers that his food has been poisoned but the Foreign Minister has prepared for such a turn of events. He has kept a box of Uneeda biscuits and malt tablets. Truly, a meal fit for a king. Fairbanks gives us a pained expression before tucking into his feast.

(Uneeda biscuits have been discontinued but they contained flour, oil, salt, baking soda and yeast and were kind of like fat saltines. Not exactly a balanced meal, though Nabisco advertised them as that when combined with a glass of milk.)

Uneeda biscuit?

And while the film has a xenophobic tone toward smaller European countries (calling them Vulgaria and Contraria is a clue—Three Stooges comedies have more subtlety), it does acknowledge that maybe monarchy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, a sentiment that was and is not entirely common in American films. “Ruritania is for the birds!” basically.

The film’s lesson is also not exactly terrible. Start small and build your way up is generally good advice. The positive thinking mantra was popular at the time and fit in neatly with Fairbanks’ own life philosophy.

Spoiler: But the “it was all a dream” ending was a severe copout and was quite unsatisfying. And Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. would probably have something appropriately philosophical to say about the ending of the picture showing Alexis doting on his son to the exclusion of all else.

All in all, this picture is worth seeing if you like Douglas Fairbanks and want to see him swash a few buckles before he took the plunge. However, it’s not his best picture from the period and I didn’t like the way his character was written. Any appeal can be credited to Fairbanks himself.

Where can I see it?

Released on DVD as part of the Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer box set.


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