Monday, March 14, 2011

The Gaucho (1927)

Douglas Fairbanks as The Gaucho, perched on his horse.

The Gaucho is Fairbanks at his very finest. He was in the best shape of his life. His stunt sequences had been getting progressively more elaborate throughout his career, and by 1927 were just dazzling. Raw athleticism combined with his rugged good looks and boyish charm made Fairbanks a joy to watch. It is not that he is stronger or more agile than other performers. Impressive as his work is, it would not be hard to find a dozen performers who could duplicate any of his on-screen acrobatics. No, it is not the technical difficulty of his performance that makes him legendary but the grace and pizazz he brings to his feats of skill. It almost seems, at times, that extra tables surely are put into every film set just so Fairbanks will have more props to leap over effortlessly, a wide grin on his face the whole time.

Nowhere is this more evident than in The Gaucho. He scales a five-story building swinging by its awnings, throwing himself from one floor to the next, for all the world like climbing a step ladder; he is constantly jumping over, on, and around horses or swinging from 50-foot trees; and somehow he turns the simple act of lighting a cigarette into an art form. He dances a tango literally tied to his fiery costar Lupe Valez, and stashes a lit cigarette inside his mouth—hands free—to kiss her, a sexy little move Gene Kelly would imitate twenty years later in The Pirate. This is the sort of film that you could watch backwards and still enjoy, it’s just such a pleasure to look at, independent of the actual story that’s being told.

The Gaucho dancing the tango with The Mountain Girl, played by Lupe Valez

The story this film tells, however, is surprisingly complex and sophisticated. Fairbanks is the Gaucho, a South American bandit chief, a kind-hearted rogue and a defender of the common man not unlike Robin Hood. He is punished for one moment of thoughtless cruelty, and is struck with a rapidly spreading and disfiguring skin disorder that resembles leprosy. Through his faith in a beautiful holy woman at the shrine in the mountains he is healed, but not without having to fight off his fanatically jealous girlfriend, as well as an entire legion of troops, almost single-handedly to put down an insurrection and return the city to its people. It’s a fine, fast-paced adventure; the characters and their motivations are complex and believable. The sets are fantastic—compared to films in the 1930s that are almost always tied to a sound stage, the wide expanse of the action in this and similar films is simply breathtaking. There is plenty of location shooting throughout, and Fairbanks, who was also producer of his own films, spared no expense in the scale and intricacy of his sets.

Overall The Gaucho is remarkably well cast. Lupe Valez is exquisite as the Gaucho’s feisty groupie turned girlfriend. Eve Southern is unspeakably lovely as the girl of the shrine, with Joan Barclay giving a powerful performance as a younger version of the same role. The unfortunately named Gustav von Seyffertitz, a frequent supporting player in Mary Pickford’s films, does a fine turn as the villain of the piece. Finally, if you look closely you can see Pickford herself, in an uncredited cameo as the Virgin Mary.

Somehow Fairbanks makes it look like this is a reasonable way to smoke a cigarette.

The Jazz Singer was released the same year, and within a few short years the art of silent film would be gone forever. The Gaucho, however, remains a brilliant and beautiful reminder of how powerful early filmmaking could be—a visual feast second to none.

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