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In a prologue, Douglas Fairbanks tells us that this is the first film produced by the new United Artists studio, so the film has greater historic significance than it might command on its merits. This film is simply a vehicle for Fairbanks to do what he does best: run, jump, leap, dash, bolt and generally bounce around like a rubber ball. The plot, such as it is, revolves around Bill Brooks, a kidnapped European prince raised in luxury in America without any knowledge of who he is or where his lavish support comes from. Not having to work for a living, he spends his time seeking adrenaline rushes as an amateur firefighter and policeman. One of the best sequences in the film is when Fairbanks swings back and forth from the balcony of an adjacent building to a burning tenement to rescue a trapped family and their cat. He then toddles off to Mexico and captures Poncho Villa, just for an afternoon's diversion. All of this is but an excuse to see Fairbanks do his stuff and serves as a prologue to the real story. Traitors and foreign spies are inciting the population of the kingdom to revolt against the aging king (Sam Sothern). The prince is summoned to return home and save the kingdom. Prince Bill outwits the plotters, summons the cavalry and rides to the rescue. What were you expecting? Shakespeare? Tennessee Williams? Anyway, Fairbanks is always worth watching, plot or not plot. If you like Doug Fairbanks (and who doesn't?) you will enjoy this photoplay.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"His Majesty, the American" is historically noteworthy as the first
film distributed by United Artists. It begins with an introductory
title acknowledging this precedent, followed by Douglas Fairbanks
performing a somersault while tearing through the title and, then,
winking at the camera. Fortunately, the movie that follows this
historical recognition is one of Fairbanks's best comedies. The
following year, with "The Mark of Zorro", Fairbanks would begin his
transformation to swashbuckling action hero, but in the first part of
his career, he made modern comedies such as this one.
The film follows the common formula of Fairbanks's vehicles: introduced as restlessly exuberant, his character finds New York City to be stifling his insatiable need for adventure and action. In this one, he begins by assisting the New York fire and police departments. He rescues a family from a burning tenement by scaling the adjacent building and swinging across ita good scene early on for Fairbanks's stunts and the mechanical effects, including smoke, for the fire. He also aids in a police raida scene that includes a removed-wall-shot to reveal a view of multiple rooms. After New York proves to be no longer exciting, he travels southwest for excitement, which was a common direction in these vehicles, such as in "Wild and Woolly" (1917). (Amusingly, one title card uses the phrase "wild and woolly" and another uses "hell's hinges", the latter of which was the title of a William S. Hart western.) He goes to Mexico where he chases down Pancho Villa (not the first time Fairbanks and his collaborators took sides on current events and exploited them for humor). Meanwhile, the film crosscuts Doug's scenes with those of intrigue over succession to the thrown in a fictional European state, which our hero soon becomes involved in. Fairbanks has similar narratives of royalty and battle over monarchial succession in "The Americano" (1916) and "Reaching for the Moon" (1917), which anticipate the plots of his historical/costume swashbucklers such as "Robin Hood" (1922).
There's so much intrigue and many twists going on in this scenario that Doug doesn't meet the girl until the picture is already an hour in. Regardless, this film is a lot of fun, including some especially elaborate chases where Doug uses his wit and athleticism to avoid capture. It doesn't even seem to matter that not everything seems to make sensesuch as the details as to how Doug became an estranged son, where and why he was getting money in America and why someone supposedly loyal to the King would keep such a secret until after his death. According to director Joseph Henabery, much of the film had to be rearranged after the US didn't join the League of Nations, as originally the picture was built around supporting President Woodrow Wilson's vision (Jeffrey Vance, "Douglas Fairbanks").
Vance reports that this was Fairbanks's most expensive production up to then, costing nearly $175,000. Not much by today's standards, but it was a considerable sum back then, especially considering that much of it came out of Doug's pockets and for a film distributed under a new company. The added budget shows in the many extras used and the sets built within the studio. It was Fairbanks's continued ambition to create bigger filmsthat restless exuberance, as displayed here, which eventually led him in the direction of the swashbucklers of the 1920s that he is best remembered for today. In a way, however, these more intimate comedies better displayed Fairbanks's contagious good humor and charm, while still allowing him adventures for his seemingly effortless stunts.
(Note: I saw a poor but viewable, contrasty reduction print/home video transfer, which included bleached faces. It had a nice musical score, surprisingly, though.)
When Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and D.W.
Griffith had founded United Artists as a counterweight to the trust the
big studios had formed against the small ones, Doug was chosen to make
the first step: to realize the first project of the new independent
company. And after an introduction explaining the goals of the
newly-formed studio, he jumps right 'out of the titles' and declares,
with his irresistible smile and his unbreakable optimism, about that
first United Artists venture in his most CHARACTERISTICAL way: 'Gee
whiz - I hope you'll like it!'
And how could anyone NOT like this hilarious comedy-adventure - with a length of almost two hours, a running time that RARELY keeps the audience from getting bored, except if there is SO much action in it as in this one - and its hero, dynamic and adventure-seeking as always?! He starts out as Bill Brooks from New York, a volunteer fireman and policeman just for adventure's sake (beating up the most dangerous criminals and rescuing a whole family and their cat from the third floor of a building in flames, swinging over with a rope from the opposite building - and happily remarking when he finally takes the little black kitty from the already crumbling house: 'Fine! Nine lives saved on the last trip!'), because he's well off financially, although he doesn't even know where the money comes from...
But then, a new mayor 'cleans up' the city, and Bill finds himself with nothing to do; so he decides to go to Mexico to catch a ruthless rebel named 'Francisco Villa' - while, at the same time, unknown to him, they're waiting for him desperately in a little Central European state called Alaine... There, a good king (strange how Americans always seem to be longing for the monarchy they never had...), although he's just about to introduce a new, more democratic constitution, is being opposed by his scheming Minister of War, who's collaborating with the ruthless ruler of a neighboring country to stir up the people against their king... And here, amidst all the wonderful comedy and action, the film also teaches the audience a lesson about the dangers demagogues pose, and how easily they're able to rouse the people - years before Mussolini and Hitler, unfortunately, made that nightmare a reality! And so, the people of Alaine keep demanding 'new blood' in the royal family; with which the evil Minister of War means the equally evil Prime Minister of the neighboring state, of course - while the old king is still hoping to find the missing young member of his family; and at the same time, our hero Bill keeps hoping to find the ONE thing he never had: his mother...
A most MASTERFUL and immensely faceted movie, part comedy, part adventure, and even containing serious political and social elements - and, of course, a WONDERFUL vehicle for Doug Fairbanks to show ALL his repertory, from his acrobatics to his great comical talent to his romantic side; there surely couldn't have been a better start for the 'newborn' United Artists Corporation!!
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