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Thursday, April 22, 2010

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?


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  

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