Monday, August 3, 2015

Mr. Robinson Crusoe (Elton Productions, United Artists, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Mr. Robinson Crusoe, a weird little item from Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.’s Elton Productions in 1932, at a time when the elder Fairbanks had pretty much lost interest in filmmaking and whose only interest was travel — indeed, when Mary Pickford divorced him, the main complaint in her petition was he was so interested in gallivanting (or guyavanting) around the world he was literally almost never home. Fairbanks was one of those actors whose career declined when sound came in, though in his case less because of any deficiencies with his voice than simply that he was getting older, getting bored with the routine of filmmaking (especially at his level, in which he was not only the star but also the producer and, under the pseudonym “Elton Thomas,” the writer) and was unsure of what direction he should take to keep his career going with the challenge of sound. In 1929 he made his first talkie, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (whose infamous credits proclaimed, “Additional dialogue by Sam Taylor” — though as Alexander Walker noted, it was actually based on Katherine and Petruchio, David Garrick’s rewrite of Shakespeare’s original, and therefore probably had “additional dialogue by David Garrick” too!) which disappointed both his co-star, Mary Pickford (working together for the first and only time during their marriage, unless you count her brief cameo at the end of his 1926 film The Gaucho; later The Taming of the Shrew would serve as a vehicle for another legendary real-life star couple, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor). In 1930 he cast himself opposite Bebe Daniels in an Irving Berlin musical called Reaching for the Moon (also the title — though with a different story — of one of his early silent hits), but by the time it was ready for release musicals were on the downgrade commercially and Fairbanks panicked and cut all but one of the songs (a duet between Daniels and the then-unknown Bing Crosby on a song called “When the Folks Up High Do the Mean Low-Down” — when I saw the film it occurred to me that the song enlivened the proceedings so much Fairbanks should have left the rest of the songs in!).

Then he made this rather odd film, which seemed less an attempt to make a solidly commercial movie than to take a trip to the South Seas in company with his actor friends William Farnum and Earle Browne and be able to write off the costs of his trip as a “business expense.”  The plot, to the extent there is one, casts Fairbanks, Farnum and Browne as hunters going to Sumatra to shoot tigers, only by the way they pass a seemingly deserted island and Fairbanks bets his two companions that he can get off and live there like Robinson Crusoe until they come and pick him up, and either find him “living in a penthouse on Park Avenue and 52nd Street” or “being burned at the stake by the natives.” (Who wins the bet if his fate is midway between those extremes isn’t made clear in the screenplay by Thomas Geraghty and “Elton Thomas.”) After all that is established, for the first 50 minutes or so of its 70-minute running time the film cuts back and forth between Fairbanks on his island, rigging up a series of elaborate gravity- and animal-powered gizmos to give him shelter, food, drink and whatever he needs — his first trap picks up a she-goat he ends up using as a source for milk. Inevitably he meets a native and tries to make him his Friday, but the communications barrier proves insuperable and the native appears hostile until Fairbanks uses one of his gizmos to make a noise that scares him away — and the adventures of his friends on Sumatra, where they shoot at least one tiger and also make the acquaintance of a native tribe. Previously one of their number, a nice young girl played by Maria Alba (who two years later would turn in an unusually good performance, especially by serial standards, as the female lead in Bela Lugosi’s serial The Return of Chandu, but has far less to work with here) — she’s supposed to be playing a Polynesian native but she has carefully plucked eyebrows — is given a bracelet beaded with shells by a repulsive tribesman who wants to marry her. It’s been previously explained that that’s how Polynesian men propose — but it hasn’t been explained what happens when the women want to reject them. What happens is the whole tribe — at least its male component — has a hissy-fit and the girl is forced to flee the island in a canoe. And guess where she ends up? Right on Douglas Fairbanks’ island, where she becomes his “girl Saturday” — that’s what he calls her — and though they’re sleeping in the Production Code-mandated separate beds he’s drawn to her more and more.

Meanwhile, Farnum and Browne recruit the tribe she came from to mount a massive invasion of Fairbanks’ island and string him up to a stake just so they can win their bet — only the invasion turns genuinely mean when the guy who put the moves on Alba and was rejected by her sees his opportunity for revenge. Eventually the white characters return in their boat, Fairbanks dives off the island and makes it to their boat, they sail off — and there’s Saturday, stowed away in the boat, and the four return to New York and get her a job dancing in the Ziegfeld Follies. (I’m not making this up, you know!) What makes this film interesting despite the silliness of both its concept and its execution — the director is A. Edward Sutherland, best known for his comedies (notably International House and Poppy with W. C. Fields, The Flying Deuces with Laurel and Hardy, and One Night in the Tropics, Abbott and Costello’s first film) but also the auteur of the quite nasty horror film Murders in the Zoo — is not only Fairbanks’ still impressive skill as an acrobat (he spends a lot of his time climbing trees and sliding down out of them again, and his final escape is made via swinging vines, Tarzan-style) but an overall insouciance, an indication that no one took this particularly seriously. Mr. Robinson Crusoe was a box-office flop — the critical consensus at the time was that Fairbanks was asking people to pay admission to watch his home movies (much the way some of Will Smith’s recent vehicles, especially the ones co-starring his real-life son, have been reviewed) — but fortunately Fairbanks was able to make a quite respectable screen exit two years later in The Private Life of Don Juan for Alexander Korda (the second role, after Robin Hood, played on-screen by both Fairbanks and Errol Flynn).