Friday, December 27, 2013

The Three Musketeers (20th Century-Fox, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ran a rather quirky movie I’d picked up from the $4.99 bin at 7-Eleven: The Three Musketeers, a spoof version from 20th Century-Fox in 1939 starring Don Ameche (as D’Artagnan) and the Ritz Brothers (not as the Three Musketeers themselves but as three tavern louts who drink the Musketeers under the table and then impersonate them). It was directed by Allan Dwan (who’d directed the screen’s most famous D’Artagnan, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., not in his version of The Three Musketeers but in the sequel, The Iron Mask) from a script by the usual committee: M. M. Musselman, William A. Drake and Sam Hellman, with Sid Kuller and Ray Golden credited with “special material” — i.e., they were the Ritz Brothers’ gag men. It’s a movie I’d long wanted to see, mainly due to the raves it got from Leonard Maltin in his book Movie Comedy Teams — he called it “the team’s best … a vivid, entertaining musical comedy … remarkably faithful to [Alexandre] Dumas’ classic story” — and it turned out to be something of a disappointment, entertaining and amusing but only rarely laugh-out-loud funny. Part of the problem is the film’s running time — only 73 minutes, hardly enough to get Dumas’ plot and the Ritz Brothers’ comedy routines and four songs in — and part of the problem is the Ritz Brothers. They were capable and energetic, but they peaked early in their films — with their 1934 two-reeler for Educational, Hotel Anchovy — and they had the misfortune of arriving in Hollywood when the market for two-reelers was drying up and comedians were being forced into longer features, often padded out with elaborate plots and musical numbers. Charles said he thought of the Ritz Brothers as a sort of bastard cross-breeding of the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges, but they lack the sophistication and sheer anarchic zaniness of the Marxes and the almost balletic precision of the Stooges’ aggressive, violent slapstick.

It also doesn’t help that, unlike the Marxes (even though they were brothers) or the Stooges (two of whom were brothers), the Ritzes never created characters differing from each other; one can watch just about any of the Ritz Brothers’ movies and, unless they actually address each other by name, not be able for the life of you to tell which Ritz is which. The result is a film that lacks the sheer zaniness the Marx Brothers could have brought to a Three Musketeers spoof in the 1930’s (or Mel Brooks could have in the 1970’s); instead it’s a clever film, well staged by Dwan and benefiting from the 20th Century-Fox infrastructure. The sets representing 17th Century France are absolutely convincing (probably a lot of them were pre-existing leftovers from other big costume epics) and the cinematography by J. Peverell Marley is absolutely gorgeous — and the edition we were watching was a commercial DVD that did full justice to Marley’s work. The supporting cast was also quite good: the bad guys (and gals) were cast mostly seriously — Miles Mander as Richelieu, the great Lionel Atwill as De Rochefort and Binnie Barnes as Lady de Winter (both a stronger actress and a sexier woman than Lana Turner, who took this part in the “straight” Gene Kelly version from MGM in 1948!), along with an almost unrecognizable John Carradine as Naveau — and though Gloria Stuart as the Queen was O.K. rather than great, her presence here is welcome if only because it puts the Ritz Brothers one degree of separation from Leonardo di Caprio! As the good girl for D’Artagnan to fall in love with, Pauline Moore as Lady Constance has a nice singing voice (considerably nicer than Don Ameche’s!) and a quietly strong screen presence that’s welcome.

The Three Musketeers isn’t a bad movie at all; it’s just not great, neither all that exciting from an action standpoint (despite some well-staged swordfights) nor all that funny. Don Ameche’s singing voice — which I’d forgotten I’d heard before in Alexander’s Ragtime Band — is, like the overall film, acceptable without being great; he doesn’t attack the numbers with the panache of Lawrence Tibbett or Nelson Eddy but he isn’t so embarrassingly bad as to be camp, either. As D’Artagnan he’s handsome and reliable — sort of like Walter Abel in the then-most recent “straight” version of the story — his performance “works” even though neither he nor Abel could compete with either Fairbanks or Kelly in the role. The Ritz Brothers get two great comedy scenes: one in which they literally upend Binnie Barnes and shake her to get an important document she’s concealed between her breasts (they shake loose a lot of romantic assignation letters before they get the key paper) and one in which they become a percussion ensemble, clashing together cymbals attached to each others’ bodies, to make so much noise that D’Artagnan won’t be caught while he’s ransacking the palace for something or other. The big plot gimmick is that no sooner have the Ritz Brothers assumed the identities of the real Musketeers (Douglass Dumbrille as Athos, John “Dusty” King as Aramis and Russell Hicks as Porthos, in case you cared), the King, Louis XIII (Joseph Schildkraut — it’s nice to savor the irony of casting a Jewish actor and Yiddish Art Theatre vet as the King of a country where Jews were unwelcome and various factions of Christians massacred each other!), issues an edict that anyone wearing a musketeer’s costume without official permission is to be put to death— which means the Ritzes spend virtually the whole movie cowering in fear over being thought out, while the writers throw them various complications that prevent them from doffing the Musketeer drag and returning to their normal appearance.

It also doesn’t help that the songs aren’t that memorable — except for the catchy one D’Artagnan sings as he rides his old plug horse through the French countryside. I wondered why he kept singing “Walla, walla, walla, walla, walla” until I looked the movie up both in the American Film Institute Catalog and on and found the word was supposed to be “Voilà.” The Three Musketeers is a nicely entertaining film but nothing to write home about, though Charles was impressed that in the closing scene, with the Ritz Brothers exiting with their backs to the camera, they’re all carrying actual muskets; one could sit through a lot of the other versions of this story and not realize that muskets were actually a primitive sort of firearm! Incidentally, lists versions of The Three Musketeers as early as 1903, 1914 and 1916 before the Fairbanks version of 1921 (and a French short made the same year); the first sound version was a four-hour French film in 1932 (the French were specializing in these hyperthyroid adaptations of their national literature just then; the French version of Jean Renoir’s Madame Bovary from 1934 was three hours long, though it was cut to two hours when it was issued in the U.S.), followed by the 1935 RKO version, this one, ones from 1942 and 1945, a few more French versions and some made for TV in the 1950’s and 1960’s, then the Richard Lester version from 1973 with Michael York as D’Artagnan (the most recent of the “major” versions of this story, following the Fairbanks and Kelly films) and a few more from the 1990’s.