Doug's South Seas Adventure
As mentioned before, 8mm is where I go for serious living in the past. There's such delicacy to little Blackhawk boxes and films that came in them. They bespeak a time when people who remembered the silent era took pains to collect artifacts from it. There's not many left above-ground to tell us what fun Douglas Fairbanks' movies were in theatres. We have to take written word of gone to reward fans like Alistair Cooke, who penned a thinking man's tribute for The Museum Of Modern Art soon after Doug's passing (in 1939) and remained a vocal champion from there on. Blackhawk was operated by grown-ups who looked back on Fairbanks with a child's fondness. They kept his best features available on 8 and 16mm. The company listed a condensation of Mr. Robinson Crusoe, Doug's late-career talker from 1932 that was his penultimate offering. I watched those nine minutes lovingly edited and narrated by Paul Killiam, a longtime evangelist for early cinema. He spreads gospel for this athletic star whose enormous popularity we'll never fully grasp for not having been there in his prime. Mr. Robinson Crusoe was something Fairbanks knocked off between golf games and tiger hunts. His dedication to filmmaking diminished considerably after sound came in and kicked joy out of stardom. I wonder if Doug didn't do Crusoe mostly to satisfy product quota for part-owned United Artists. Blackhawk's souvenir made me want to see it all, so deeper I plumbed into laser disc depths for an Image release that probably sold no more than a hundred copies. With so many Fairbanks silents offered on DVD, why aren't his four produced talkies around? Note to Kino: Give us a box set Taming Of The Shrew, Reaching For The Moon, Around The World In 80 Minutes, and Mr. Robinson Crusoe!
To call Crusoe's a narrative by customary definition would be inapt. Home movie is more like it. We open on prosperous Doug aboard a yacht boasting to sportsman friends of how he could survive ... no, thrive ... on an uninhabited island they pass. Lickety-split they exchange bets and off he leaps into the surf. Join Crusoe two minutes late and you'd miss its whole set-up. No other personality could have gotten away with so little exposition. The fact this is Fairbanks makes it only natural he'd engage such a challenge. Does his being forty-nine at the time lessen credibility? Not for the shape he's in here and tricks he performs. A melancholic undercurrent beneath the bravado make Doug's adventures resonate with me. It was often present to some degree or other. Do I sense clouds more for having read about his sometimes depressed mood? Darkness fell unmistakably over much of 1927's The Gaucho and parts of two year's later The Iron Mask, both late travelers down silent avenues that Fairbanks sadly realized were dead ends. After these, he took to wandering continents both alone or in company of restless chums (but seldom with left-at-home Mary). Doug had sense to know his ways were finished in Hollywood, and so steered wide of it. Mr. Robinson Crusoe was really just Fairbanks letting us observe what he'd do if left to primitive devices in paradise. Why bother with plot beyond a simplest of concepts? This and preceding Around The World In 80 Minutes were snapshots brought back from Doug's vacationing, and if you wanted to call him cynical in fobbing them off for paid admissions ... well then, just keep your nickels, because Fairbanks had all of those he'd ever need.
Not that Mr. Robinson Crusoe cheats. It's got movement and energy thanks to stunt ready Doug, even if he leaves modern sensibilities as to race and gender up a tree. DF makes a near slave of a captured man Friday and brings native squeeze Maria Alba (a Fairbanks side-dish during location shooting) home to entertain on Broadway a la Kong (did Cooper and Shoedsack get ideas here?). Alfred Newman contributes an almost wall-to-wall score that was a real advance on mute tracks accompanying most features to 1932. His music previews themes he'd reuse effectively in The Hurricane, Son Of Fury and other south-sea exotics to come. Doug devised Crusoe's story and undoubtedly called most shots, though Eddie Sutherland is credited for direction. What little we know from behind those scenes was imparted by him in a late fifties interview. Sutherland said recording equipment went on the fritz soon after they dropped anchor and most dialogue had to be post-dubbed back home. You can see the out-of-sync truth of that clearly enough. Crusoe plays handily sans talk. Many subsequent prints jettisoned dialogue altogether and added explanatory titles. Sutherland didn't sweat such complications. He was more party animal than committed helmsman (at least according to one-time wife Louise Brooks) and doubtless got his kicks among relaxed environs of Doug's luxury yacht the crew lived (and partially filmed) on. I don't know what became of original elements for Mr. Robinson Crusoe, but have a feeling we'd think lots more of the picture were they available to beget discs. Tahiti locations as evidenced on the laser, presumably mastered from 16mm, give us enough to imagine what a really good transfer might look like. A bad reputation can come of forty years spent in lately called Public Domain Hell, a final stop unfortunately for several late Fairbanks titles. Mr. Robinson Crusoe is among those you'll find for a dollar at grocers and flea markets. This show hasn't been done justice since Blackhawk issued their long-ago reverent highlight reel (that catalogue listing above), which among other things, gave narrating Paul Killiam opportunity to quote from Alistair Cooke's appreciation (one thing I loved about Blackhawk was how much film tutelage they could cram on a five-inch reel). So doesn't Crusoe and a talking Fairbanks deserve at least as much recognition in a twenty-first century DVD marketplace?