Classic movie site with rare images, original ads, and behind-the-scenes photos, with informative and insightful commentary. We like to have fun with movies!
Archive and Links
Search Index Here

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Doug's South Seas Adventure

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 was 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 (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 drooped once sound came in and took 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 the whole of Mr. Robinson Crusoe, so deeper I plumbed into laser disc depths for an Image release that probably sold no more than a hundred copies. What with Fairbanks silents offered on DVD or Blu, why not his four talkies? Taming Of The Shrew, Reaching For The Moon, Around The World In 80 Minutes, and Mr. Robinson Crusoe would make a compelling set. UPDATE 4/8/2022: We are twelve years later and that Fairbanks talkie set has not happened yet, me not optimistic it ever will. There is however Mr. Robinson Crusoe all over You Tube, being PD, plus streaming at every place one could imagine. I found instance at YT courtesy The Film Detective that looked OK, as in passable, but wouldn't it be nice if the Museum of Modern Art loosed its original elements, donated during the thirties by Fairbanks himself. Crusoe's standing could use such a hypo, for based on quality as it stands, there is little chance the film's reputation will enhance except among fans (how many left?) who applaud Doug in whatever context or circumstance.

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 would engage such a challenge. American pluck is understood to clinch success of his island venture, bringing modern ideas to wrest of the wilderness. Doug handily constructs a working radio from scraps he finds on the beach, believable if not to us then easily to 1932 watchers many of whom had built their own receivers rather than bearing expense of ones store-bought.  Does Fairbanks 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 keep your nickels, because Fairbanks
had all of those he'd ever need. Not to imply that Mr. Robinson Crusoe is in any way morose, for Fairbanks is cheerful to a fault throughout. All hardship is readily surmounted, Doug talking to himself for much of an opener act and crediting his ease of survival to the fact he had been a Boy Scout, and further, read a book once on skill as practiced in the wilds. 
Mr. Robinson Crusoe seems in ways a Fairbanks riposte to Tabu and others that took bleaker view to what Doug regards as paradise pure/simple. I wonder if he ever considered retiring to such a setting as depicted here. Surely it would have suited him better than what Hollywood had become.    

Mr. Robinson Crusoe
 sort of cheats as to content and execution, being very much a barely working holiday for Fairbanks and crew. He took along those he thought congenial, many if not most serving as court jesters if not meaningful collaborators. More than one writer of then-prominence looked back upon trips with Doug as bizarre rambling where work kept a back seat to distractions where they could be found. Fairbanks by this stage needed distraction. Could be he needed a therapist more, though to his credit did not self-medicate and go down drunk and dissolute. If age was now obvious, Doug cut a dapper figure through travels, a public ready always to hear from his ports of call, if not movies he made.

Mr. Robinson Crusoe
has movement and energy thanks to stunt ready Doug, who leaves modern sensibilities as to race and gender distinctly 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?). There is also Doug pals animal hunting elsewhere as the star pursues his island conquest. They shoot down a striped tiger as pretty as utter insensitivity might please, modern gasps insured should 
Mr. Robinson Crusoe rear its head again in revival (chance of that? Pretty near zero). Third worlds for Fairbanks was terrain to be tamed, and he was the guy to do it, in fact did at whatever native spots he descended upon. Ever hear about his and Mary's Euro and elsewhere tour? They honestly feared being consumed by crowds, nothing left but a hat and scraps of clothing. Novelty of fame was long spent for Fairbanks by the early-thirties, his trips as much escape as recreation. Had there been flights booked to other planets in his lifetime, Doug would have been among first aboard. Mary too, were she not content behind shut doors of Pickfair.

Alfred Newman contributes an almost wall-to-wall score to 
Mr. Robinson Crusoe 
that was 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 Sutherland in a late fifties interview. He 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.

Mr. Robinson Crusoe
came and went in 1932, critics and public knowing this was far from Doug's best, embarrassed for
his investing too little effort in it. Had Fairbanks been cast among casualties of talk? 
He probably would not have argued the point. Mr. Robinson Crusoe had a negative cost of $287K, took $387K in domestic rentals, $373K from foreign, which suggests it showed a profit, but nothing to compare with Fairbanks in lush days. The backlog had to have some sort of value, for hadn't folks once loved Doug and his works? An independent producer named Benny Harris was moved to find if maybe they still would --- in 1953 he would lease Mr. Robinson Crusoe and The Iron Mask to reissue. Lopert handled distribution, a sub-corporation of United Artists so this was sort of old homecoming, even if the pictures went pretty much nowhere in theatres. Greater returns would be had from television, where Fairbanks oldies next went. A bad reputation can come of forty years spent in so-called Public Domain Hell, a final stop unfortunately for several late Fairbanks titles. Mr. Robinson Crusoe 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. Blackhawk could cram a lot of film tutelage onto 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?


Blogger Unca Jeffy said...

I think they DO deserve a place in today's DVD/BlueRay marketplace.

All these things are rich parts of our history and deserve continues preservation.

With todays digital technology (not to mention tomorrows) the expense in materials, marketing, store space etc. isn't even a consideration. The Warner Archives prove that.

You bring up an interesting point. The difference between the fans with fond rememberances who produced the Blackhawk product and film "historians and scholars" who look harder at thar narrative and artistic merits of a piece is a great one. But it's not for the scholars to decide what to preserve and what to I said before, monetarily there's room to preserve it ALL.

We live in an interesting time. For the last 120 years or so, so much of our history is preserved through visual and audio technology...what can be gained by ignoring it?

Great blog, BTW...I appreciate all your hard work and knowledge that goes in to what you do.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Yet another great post. Thanks so much. One small correction, though. It should be "Alistair Cooke". Just nit-picking. Keep up the great work.

12:32 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson remembers Blackhawk Bulletins:

Boy, that clipping took me back. Two-reelers actually on two reels; intermission slides ("LADIES: If annoyed while here, please see the management."); sound shorts turned into silents with subtitles; editing equipment; and Tay Garnett's memoirs. Trying to remember if my stack of back issues survived the move a decade ago.

2:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I received the Blackhawk Bulletin back in a 12 year old kid.

How I scoured it from cover to cover, learning all the background on the latest Laurel & Hardy release and wishing I had the $88 to buy one of the used 16mm sound projectors they featured--but never seemed to run out of.

How far we've come in 50 years! I never dreamed back then we'd have such a treasure-trove of classic sound and silent movies at our fingertips--in gorgeous quality projected in our home theatres.

I found an old family snapshot of my first outdoor movie party in June, 1960 projecting a Castle Films silent version of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein with a little 16mm Excel projector--you know, the kind that used a regular 75 watt light bulb and sounded like a mini-cement mixer! I have one just like it in a display case.

Toledo, Ohio

6:42 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Evan, have you published that photo anywhere? --- because I would love to see it, as would, I'm sure, other GPS readers.

6:48 PM  
Blogger J.V. (AKA "White Pongo") said...

What a great picture, and yes, well worth rediscovery. Thanks for posting this!

9:54 PM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

I tried watching "Crusoe" on a local PBS affiliate once. I couldn't make it past the first 10 or 15 minutes. The movie's very cheapness saddened me -- was this the best Doug could do by then? And did he even think much of it?

9:42 AM  
Blogger Dugan said...

The first time I saw a Fairbanks picture was The Mark of Zorro, which was on one of those $3 VHS tapes you would find in a bin, I loved it, action packed. My next viewing of one of his films was "Mr. Robinson Crusoe" on our local public TV station that ran a "classic films" night. They constantly ran "Mr. Robinson Crusoe" over and over along with a washed out print of "Man on the Eiffel Tower" and "Our Daily Bread."
I've seen some of the other big silent classics of Fairbanks since, but I feel that "Zorro" "Crusoe" and The Black Pirate are the most fun.

1:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's worth noting that in its waning days, Blackhawk DID release the ENTIRE film (from the Killiam collection) on VHS.

9:01 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

can't believe out of the stacks and stacks of Blackhawk Bulletins I accumulated thruout the 70s,I don't still have at least 2 or 3 hidden somewhere!..I'd like to see what was available on film back in '73 and what has yet to make it to dvd..

5:34 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home
  • December 2005
  • January 2006
  • February 2006
  • March 2006
  • April 2006
  • May 2006
  • June 2006
  • July 2006
  • August 2006
  • September 2006
  • October 2006
  • November 2006
  • December 2006
  • January 2007
  • February 2007
  • March 2007
  • April 2007
  • May 2007
  • June 2007
  • July 2007
  • August 2007
  • September 2007
  • October 2007
  • November 2007
  • December 2007
  • January 2008
  • February 2008
  • March 2008
  • April 2008
  • May 2008
  • June 2008
  • July 2008
  • August 2008
  • September 2008
  • October 2008
  • November 2008
  • December 2008
  • January 2009
  • February 2009
  • March 2009
  • April 2009
  • May 2009
  • June 2009
  • July 2009
  • August 2009
  • September 2009
  • October 2009
  • November 2009
  • December 2009
  • January 2010
  • February 2010
  • March 2010
  • April 2010
  • May 2010
  • June 2010
  • July 2010
  • August 2010
  • September 2010
  • October 2010
  • November 2010
  • December 2010
  • January 2011
  • February 2011
  • March 2011
  • April 2011
  • May 2011
  • June 2011
  • July 2011
  • August 2011
  • September 2011
  • October 2011
  • November 2011
  • December 2011
  • January 2012
  • February 2012
  • March 2012
  • April 2012
  • May 2012
  • June 2012
  • July 2012
  • August 2012
  • September 2012
  • October 2012
  • November 2012
  • December 2012
  • January 2013
  • February 2013
  • March 2013
  • April 2013
  • May 2013
  • June 2013
  • July 2013
  • August 2013
  • September 2013
  • October 2013
  • November 2013
  • December 2013
  • January 2014
  • February 2014
  • March 2014
  • April 2014
  • May 2014
  • June 2014
  • July 2014
  • August 2014
  • September 2014
  • October 2014
  • November 2014
  • December 2014
  • January 2015
  • February 2015
  • March 2015
  • April 2015
  • May 2015
  • June 2015
  • July 2015
  • August 2015
  • September 2015
  • October 2015
  • November 2015
  • December 2015
  • January 2016
  • February 2016
  • March 2016
  • April 2016
  • May 2016
  • June 2016
  • July 2016
  • August 2016
  • September 2016
  • October 2016
  • November 2016
  • December 2016
  • January 2017
  • February 2017
  • March 2017
  • April 2017
  • May 2017
  • June 2017
  • July 2017
  • August 2017
  • September 2017
  • October 2017
  • November 2017
  • December 2017
  • January 2018
  • February 2018
  • March 2018
  • April 2018
  • May 2018
  • June 2018
  • July 2018
  • August 2018
  • September 2018
  • October 2018
  • November 2018
  • December 2018
  • January 2019
  • February 2019
  • March 2019
  • April 2019
  • May 2019
  • June 2019
  • July 2019
  • August 2019
  • September 2019
  • October 2019
  • November 2019
  • December 2019
  • January 2020
  • February 2020
  • March 2020
  • April 2020
  • May 2020
  • June 2020
  • July 2020
  • August 2020
  • September 2020
  • October 2020
  • November 2020
  • December 2020
  • January 2021
  • February 2021
  • March 2021
  • April 2021
  • May 2021
  • June 2021
  • July 2021
  • August 2021
  • September 2021
  • October 2021
  • November 2021
  • December 2021
  • January 2022
  • February 2022
  • March 2022
  • April 2022
  • May 2022
  • June 2022
  • July 2022
  • August 2022
  • September 2022
  • October 2022
  • November 2022
  • December 2022
  • January 2023
  • February 2023
  • March 2023
  • April 2023
  • May 2023
  • June 2023
  • July 2023
  • August 2023
  • September 2023
  • October 2023
  • November 2023
  • December 2023
  • January 2024
  • February 2024
  • March 2024
  • April 2024
  • May 2024