Thursday, June 9, 2011

His Majesty, The American (1919)

Douglas Fairbanks, looking rather pleased with himself.
His Majesty, The American***  was one of the last comedies Fairbanks made in the 10's, and also one of the most elaborate. The formula had hardly changed from his early Triangle Pictures releases: a robust and energetic young man must make his way (joyfully) through the world to win the hand of the girl of his dreams, through a series of contrived challenges that involve a lot of jumping and climbing on things. In this particular instance, the girl of his dreams happens to be his mother, who he has never met, but there's also a beautiful young princess on hand to fill the romantic gap this creates.

Bill Brooks, New Yorker, member of the police AND fire departments, is sad because life has become dull and routine since a progressive DA cleaned up the town. He goes to complain to the DA, trying to get him to lighten up a little so things won't be so quiet, but no soap. He leaves New York and goes to Mexico looking for adventure. While in Mexico he receives a mysterious telegram requesting he travel to Europe to meet his long-lost mother. What he does not know is that he is actually the heir to a rebellion-torn small European nation that desperately needs someone young and energetic to take things firmly in hand. Things go crazy once he arrives in Europe and the dissenting factions are trying to stop him from reaching the king, even before they actually know who he is. The resulting intrigue gives him plenty of opportunity to scurry around the architectural moldings of his hotel and leap over anything in his path, and that's really what we all came to see in any case.

Yup, he's the sort of guy that rescues cats from burning buildings.
His Majesty was the first film Fairbanks made for the fledgling United Artists, and it was written and directed by Joseph Henabery. Henabery had been a regular on the Fairbanks team for several years, part of the group that defected with Fairbanks away from Triangle and Griffith a few years earlier, along with Anita Loos and John Emerson. Unfortunately Henabery did not have Loos' wit, and his titles are a little dry. Fairbanks is given a co-writing credit on this, and it is pretty clear, particularly considering the uniformity of his work in the period, that he had a heavy hand in controlling the direction all of his films took, even if he seldom wrote or directed them himself.

That direction is, in retrospect, something rather extraordinary. Although these comedies seem fairly unremarkable today, in the context of 1919 they are surprisingly inventive. In these works Fairbanks essentially created the comic feature film as we know it. These are films which exist in the real world, usually filmed on location, populated with real people, not clowns. Sure, the plots are contrived and unrealistic and Fairbanks usually seems like a poorly drawn caricature of himself, but when you compare these films to other comedies of the day they are surprisingly real. Before coming to Hollywood Fairbanks was a hugely successful Broadway star, and his films bear strong evidence of the influence of theatrical comedy. Among other innovations, Fairbanks was among the first to make feature-length comedies, several years before Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd all switched to features in the 1920's.

Make no mistake. The popular slapstick shorts of the period are better films. Pick a Chaplin film from the 10's out of a hat and it's better, more enduring, and more entertaining than the best of Fairbanks' comedies. However, the trajectory of American comic films followed that of the drawn-from-life Fairbanks features, not the stylized Chaplin pantomimes. Although Fairbanks himself abandoned the premise in 1920, his comedies were immensely popular and helped to shape the development of other, better, films, into the 20's and beyond.

Stunts like this would probably be impressive if I could see them.
Among this group of films, His Majesty is rather unremarkable. The scale of the film, the size of the sets and number of extras, is testament to Fairbanks' extraordinary popularity. As with most of his films, the plot and supporting characters are fairly irrelevant. Fairbanks himself is the main event: his wild athleticism, boyish charm, and joyful laughter. The plot is... well, I wouldn't call it believable even by movie standards, but it is engaging and carries the picture handily enough. If you like watching Fairbanks move, and I most certainly do, then it's a great way to spend two hours. Apart from his personal appeal, though, there's not really much to recommend this one.

***I need to preface this discussion by saying that I've only seen about half this film. Oh, I watched to the end, certainly, but the VHS rip I managed to scrounge up from Video Yesteryear was such poor quality that I actually found myself wondering about halfway in if Fairbanks had a mustache or not. All detail of facial expression was completely washed out in this grainy, super high contrast transfer, and all text in the film, apart from the titles, was completely illegible. If anyone happens to know where I can find a better copy, please let me know. I know Classic Video Streams has a release of this as well, so if anyone has any experience with the quality of their releases I'd really appreciate knowing about it.

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