The motion picture industry was changing rapidly in 1928, and one of its biggest stars, forty-five-year-old Douglas Fairbanks, was seriously contemplating his place within it. It would be hard to overstate his importance to Hollywood as a movie star, a creative producer, and an industry leader. Fairbanks advanced the concept of independent film production as a cofounder (with Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith) of United Artists Corporation in 1919. He was also a civic leader, with wife Mary Pickford, in Beverly Hills when they lived together at “Pickfair,” their legendary home. He was a founder and the first president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He promoted filmmaking as a craft that merited academic analysis and, in 1929, was instrumental in the formation of the first university-level film curriculum in America, personally delivering the first lecture in film appreciation at the University of Southern California. But his true legacy lies in his multitude of films, ranging from the satirical comedies such as When the Clouds Roll By (1919) that characterized the first part of his career to his crowd-pleasing, costume-adventure spectacles of the 1920s that redefined him in the public eye: The Mark of Zorro; The Three Musketeers; Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood; The Thief of Bagdad; Don Q, Son of Zorro; The Black Pirate; Douglas Fairbanks as The Gaucho; and, what may be his finest film, The Iron Mask.
Then “the talkies” arrived. After all his years of experience, this innovative producer intuitively recognized that talking motion pictures called for something completely different than he was used to making, yet he had little enthusiasm for pioneering the new technology. Instead, Fairbanks embarked on his last silent film and last great endeavor, summoning from himself and his team one final swashbuckling adventure film, a sequel to 1921’s The Three Musketeers. For what became The Iron Mask, he decided to emphasize historical authenticity, a quality he believed his first film based on the D’Artagnan story lacked. Fairbanks’s final turn as his favorite character coupled with the film’s story about the end of the musketeer tradition plays like a farewell to the silent cinema itself. In this regard, The Iron Mask is unsurpassed. In one of his few departures from playing a young man—and with fewer characteristic stunts—Fairbanks conjures up his most multidimensional and moving screen portrayal in what could be called the supreme achievement of its kind.
“Doug seemed to be under some sort of compulsion to make this picture one of his best productions,” director Allan Dwan later observed about the film. “He had always meticulously supervised every detail of his pictures, but in this one I think he eclipsed himself. It was as if he knew this was his swan song.” Indeed, Fairbanks was determined to leave behind the silent film genre he practically invented in a triumphant blaze of glory. A romantic adventure, not far removed from the grand pageantry of 19th-century opera, The Iron Mask contains an element of pathos without precedent in Fairbanks’s work. The film, like Douglas Fairbanks as The Gaucho, is unmistakably dark in tone, lending a bittersweetness to his farewell to the art form and, it could be said, to the best part of himself.
In addition to Dwan, who was directing his tenth and last film for Fairbanks, Fairbanks assembled top-notch collaborators. For production consultant he engaged the septuagenarian French artist Maurice Leloir, a recognized authority on the period of Louis XIV and the illustrator of the 1894 Calmann-Lévy edition of the Dumas novel Les Trois Mousquetaires. The British painter and stage designer Laurence Irving, grandson of the legendary actor Sir Henry Irving, served as principal art director with William Cameron Menzies as consulting production designer.
With the working title of Twenty Years After, the scenario of The Iron Mask incorporated episodes from The Three Musketeers (Fairbanks adapted only half of Dumas’s novel for his 1921 film) with events from two of Dumas’s sequels: Twenty Years After and The Vicomte de Bragelonne, or Ten Years Later. (The Man in the Iron Mask is the third part of the Vicomte de Bragelonne trilogy.) The central plot point in Fairbanks’s Iron Mask is the malevolent twin brother of Louis XIV being substituted for the real king.
The fourteen-week production, which began in August 1928, proceeded smoothly and efficiently at the United Artists studio in West Hollywood, with location work in and around Los Angeles. Several of the original cast members from The Three Musketeers repeated their roles in The Iron Mask: Marguerite de la Motte as Constance, Léon Bary as Athos, Nigel de Brulier as Cardinal Richelieu, and Lon Poff as Father Joseph. Henry Sharp was engaged as cinematographer and Fred Cavens was engaged to choreograph the swordplay and fight sequences. Near completion of the film, Fairbanks felt compelled to make some concession to film exhibitors who were then clamoring for sound pictures. Midway through the production the studio installed new sound equipment for the lot. While Fairbanks knew that the primitive technology could never accommodate the sweeping grandeur of the film he was about to complete, he was astute enough to know that he was going to have to make a concession to this new technology. Plus, his financial and emotional investment in the film was so great he was determined to give it every opportunity for success. So, he decided to insert two sequences with D’Artagnan speaking directly to the audience.
The Iron Mask was released as both a silent and sound feature to ensure the widest possible audience. The version featuring D’Artagnan’s two soliloquies had a symphonic musical score by Hugo Riesenfeld with the synchronized speeches recorded on an optical soundtrack using the Western Electric System. (It was also issued with the track dubbed onto Vitaphone discs.) Movie theaters not yet equipped for sound could show a silent version with the speeches left out.
Despite overwhelmingly positive reviews and grossing an impressive $1.5 million, The Iron Mask was considered only a moderate financial success, owing to its approximately $1 million production cost. Having virtually defined the swashbuckler as a movie genre, Fairbanks was also the one to usher out its initial cycle. With the microphone effectively paralyzing movement in the early stages of sound film development, Hollywood concentrated on talk-laden original scripts, static adaptations of Broadway plays, and musicals, with action films momentarily cast aside.
When D’Artagnan bids farewell to the world in the final moments of The Iron Mask, Fairbanks also seems to be bidding farewell not only to his favorite character, but also to Zorro, the Thief of Bagdad, the Black Pirate, and all the other romantic roles of his swashbuckling past. It would have been a superb ending to his career, had that only been the case. However, Fairbanks had nearly a dozen more years to live, and time and conditions compelled him to exit less gracefully from the stage that he loved so dearly. But it was a different stage. It was, in every respect, the “sound” stage. As United Artists began equipping the studio for sound Fairbanks could sense the end of an era, and when he entered the completed soundstage for the first time, he told Laurence Irving, “the romance of motion picture making ends here.”
Whether it was the romance of motion picture making, or Fairbanks’s own romance with picture making that ended with The Iron Mask, one thing is certain. Fairbanks never again made the same emotional and artistic investment in one of his films. He and his team had created a fitting valedictory to the age of silent cinema. It is a beautifully mounted, superbly executed swashbuckling adventure. Fairbanks’s subsequent four films display his old magic only in brief flashes. To paraphrase D’Artagnan’s prologue speech, film never had “a brighter power” than Douglas Fairbanks and with The Iron Mask Douglas Fairbanks had his last “high, romantic hour.” A fitting epitaph to a cinema giant.
Adapted from Jeffrey Vance’s book Douglas Fairbanks (UC Press, 2008)
Presented at Festival 2023 with live musical accompaniment by the Guenter Buchwald Ensemble (Guenter Buchwald, Masaru Koga, and Frank Bockius)