Fresh off the career-defining success playing the swashbuckling man-for-the-people in The Mark of Zorro (1920), Douglas Fairbanks set to work to bring his hero of heroes, d’Artagnan of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, to the screen. More than any other character he portrayed, Fairbanks identified with the brave and inexhaustible musketeer, and he embarked on the project with a brio unseen in any of his previous productions. In fact, he wore the moustache he cultivated to play d’Artagnan to the end of his life. With The Three Musketeers, the first of his elaborate costume epics, one of Hollywood’s greatest actor-producers had finally found his rightful place in cinema.
Audiences had already had a tantalizing glimpse of Fairbanks as the young hero in A Modern Musketeer (1917), in which a gallant Midwesterner channels d’Artagnan to save his new love. In the short history of cinema, the novel had been adapted several times, including for the French production directed by Henri Diamant-Berger that was released the same year as Fairbanks’s version. However, Fairbanks had an emotional connection to the character that other filmmakers did not. D’Artagnan, the exuberant Gascon who becomes embroiled in the intrigues of France’s royal court, reflected the actor’s ideal screen self.
By this time, making his thirty-second feature, Fairbanks is firmly established not only as the main attraction in his films but also as their producer and final arbiter. He gathered the best possible team around him, choosing Mark of Zorro’s Fred Niblo to direct and enlisting the services of his old friend and writer Edward Knoblock, who happened to be an authority on French history and the reign of Louis XIV, to adapt the novel and supervise the scenery and costumes. Scenario editor Lotta Woods sifted through the nearly fifteen hundred volumes Knoblock and Fairbanks reportedly collected for the production. Impressed by Arthur Edeson’s work as actress Clara Kimball Young’s chief cinematographer, Fairbanks signed him to a contract and he went on to shoot Fairbanks’s biggest films, The Three Musketeers, Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922), and The Thief of Bagdad (1924).
Fairbanks assembled a fine cast, many of whom achieved greater fame in their subsequent careers, including Marguerite de la Motte as Constance Bonacieux, Eugene Pallette as Aramis, Barbara La Marr as Milady de Winter, and Adolphe Menjou as Louis XIII. And, of course, there was Fairbanks himself, riding the upward curve of his popularity and sincerely believing himself to be an ideal d’Artagnan.
However the d’Artagnan of the novel proved problematic for the star. “He went around picking quarrels with everybody and killing folks who hadn’t done anything to get killed for,” Fairbanks said of Dumas’s character. “It was hard to make a picture out of him.” So the bullyboy d’Artagnan was softened to make the character more palatable to audiences—and to the actor. Fairbanks replaced these distasteful qualities with familiar “Doug” characteristics audiences had come to expect, emphasizing his athleticism, charm, optimism, and loyalty. The film scenario greatly simplified the story, centering it around the episode to retrieve the queen’s diamond brooch. D’Artagnan’s love interest, Constance Bonacieux, becomes the niece rather than the wife of M. Bonacieux to avoid problems with film censors.
Edward M. Langley, the art director, went to great pains to make certain the settings, from d’Artagnan’s rustic Gascony home to Louis XIII’s ornate rooms, were reproduced as faithfully as possible, based on etchings from historical books brought from all parts of the world. The Scottish sculptor William Hopkins created an imitation bronze statue of Britain’s King Charles I standing five and a half feet tall in the chambers of the Duke of Buckingham, an expensive detail justified as essential to the success of such an epic film.
In the end, it is the action scenes that steal the spotlight. There are more brilliantly staged stunts in the famous fight sequence with the Cardinal’s Guards, lasting only a few minutes on the screen, than in some entire action films of the period. Fairbanks and members of the cast spent three months taking fencing lessons from fight choreographer H.J. Uyttenhove. Adolphe Menjou, whose role as Louis XIII required no fencing, even took advantage of the lessons and later recalled that Fairbanks deployed his own interpretation of the instruction once the cameras rolled: “Doug went completely unorthodox. He was all over the set, jumping over chairs and on top of tables, slashing away with his rapier as though it were a broadsword. The fencing instructor, who was an expert swordsman, tore his hair. Never in his life had he seen such an exhibition. He screamed and protested, but Doug did it his way.” In his boundless enthusiasm Fairbanks reportedly broke twelve rapiers shooting the film’s sixteen dueling sequences. The best of all the stunts, however, remains Fairbanks’s left-handed handspring balanced on a short dagger, generally considered the single most difficult stunt of his career.
Fairbanks and d’Artagnan proved as interchangeable to the critics as to the actor himself. Picture-Play noted that when Fairbanks “broke loose with his incredible adventures there was a wink beneath his plumes and curls which said plainer than words: ‘Under all this fuss and feathers, it’s me!’” Curiously, Fairbanks’s d’Artagnan has not aged as well as his more nuanced interpretations of Zorro, Ahmed the thief, the Black Pirate, the Gaucho, or even the mature d’Artagnan of his silent film valedictory, The Iron Mask (1929). Saddled with a bad wig and a still unfamiliar moustache (at times he twirls it like a villain in a hoary melodrama), Fairbanks gives a performance laden with dramatic poses and gestures, although the “I smell a rat” look he gives when he senses something is amiss has the desired comic effect.
He reveled in performing the athletic feats of derring-do as well as in the comic moments, yet Fairbanks was inhibited playing big emotional scenes. When it came time to play d’Artagnan’s reaction to being rejected by the commander of the musketeers, Fairbanks wilted under the pressure. “Fred Niblo, my director, said in a voice of agony and woe, ‘Now Doug, remember this is the big scene: this is the picture.’ How could I cry after that? Dumas and the spirit of d’Artagnan sneaked away and left me flat and we had to resort to the good old glycerine squirter.”
The world premiere on August 28, 1921, was a sensational affair held at the Lyric Theatre, a Broadway house with just two screenings daily as opposed to a conventional cinema with multiple screenings each day. A full orchestra accompanied the film with a specially written score and a spoken prologue written in verse by Edward Knoblock (which Fairbanks later adapted as his prologue to The Iron Mask) and performed by the actor Stephen Wright costumed as d’Artagnan. Fairbanks attended with wife Mary Pickford and friends Charles Chaplin and Jack Dempsey. Variety reported on the turnout: “For an hour before the unwinding of the first reel a crowd lined the sidewalks on both sides and literally jammed 42nd Street to Broadway. $2 tickets for the initial showing sold as high as $5.” The New York Times noted that during the show the star “was forced three times to respond to the plaudits of the crowd.”
Reviews were unanimously enthusiastic, the New York Herald being the most ebullient in its praise: “It is a kind of combination of Dumas, Douglas, and delirium. One moment it boils with action and the next it snaps and sparkles with humor like d’Artagnan’s own rapier … It increased in speed and fury as it progressed, until but one word fits it—rip-roaring. Fairbanks ripped and the audience roared.” Having acclaimed the cinema as an art as early as 1915, the poet Vachel Lindsay wrote presciently the year of The Three Musketeers’ release: “The action picture will be inevitable … Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks have given complete department store examples of the method.”
The reverberations of the film on Douglas Fairbanks’s career cannot be overstated. Its commercial success provided Fairbanks with the artistic capital to proceed wholeheartedly down the road of the costume adventure. The ambitious nature of the production became his standard method of operation on the remainder of his films. And forever after, he embodied for his fans the d’Artagnan screen persona he devised for this film.
Adapted from a chapter in Jeffrey Vance’s Douglas Fairbanks (University of California Press, 2008)
Presented at SFSFF 2017 with live music by the Guenter Buchwald Ensemble. The Guenter Buchwald Ensemble is comprised of Guenter Buchwald, Frank Bockius, Sascha Jacobsen, Donald Sosin