His Majesty, the American (1919)
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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.)
It has I suspect not very much to do with the titular author and director, Joseph Henabery, and rather more to do with the mysterious Elton Banks aka Douglas Fairbanks. In fact the film seems very largely to be based on Hawthorne of the U.S.A., a play by James B. Fagan "set in Oberon, the small capital of Borrovina, a small independent state somewhere in the mess of Southeastern Europe" in which Fairbanks had played the central role on Broadway (1912-1913) and which was itself filmed in 1919 by James Cruze with Wallace Reid in the title role. "In one scene" wrote a critic of this play "he punched the Secretary of War, upset much of the army, and kicked a seditious prince in the chest before jumping off a balcony"
It is difficult to place Fairbanks as a comedian. He is clearly not a vaudeville comic in the manner of Arbuckle, Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Langdon and all the plethora of lesser lights. Nor is he a sitcom comedian of which John Bunny, Max Davidson and Sidney Drew were the silent prototypes. I suggested in the other review that there is a stylistic resemblance with the great French comedian Max Linder (I might have added the young Lubitsch) and an affinity, unusual in US comedy, with the more "absurd" style of European comedy.
Surprisingly (but not perhaps as surprising as it might seem) Fairbanks (real name Ullman) has rather more in common with the rather later US tradition of stand-up-based comedians, most of them also of East European Ashkenazi stock - Kubelsky (Benny), Bob Hope (the goy that proves the rule), Kaminsky (Kaye), Levitch (Lewis) and even Komigsberg (Allen). Fairbanks kept his own Jewish origins dark but did not entirely disown them. Jewish humour peeks through at several points in this film.
Compare, for instance this comedy with Bananas (1971) and the similarities are not far to find. Here we have the typical Douglas character of the early comedies, searching for some meaning to his existence (and a mother) while there we have an Allen in eternal search of a suitable soulmate, which, for Allen, comes to much the same thing. Both become embroiled more or less accidentally in a political intrigue in an imaginary foreign kingdom.
Of course there are all the differences one might expect between a drama of the teens and a drama of the seventies (plus the fact that Fairbanks politics are highly reactionary and Allen's leftist) but the two films nevertheless have very similar strengths and very similar weaknesses. There is a strong sense of comic fantasy, often careless (or rather carefree) with regard to continuity and pleasantly oblivious to the normal tenets of US film realism. The celebrated "surreal" nightmare that appears in When the Clouds Roll By was in fact originally shot for this film.
But this is combined with a rather weak and simplistic notion of political satire.... Bananas would later look woefully frivolous in the light of the "real 9/11" of 1973 (the assassination of Allende and establishment of the Pinochet regime in Chile). His Majesty the American, which had government backing and was originally intended to promote Wilson's Fourteen Points had to be hastily rewritten after the non-ratification of the League of Nations and ends up being inadequate either as propaganda or satire. Both films therefore end up in this respect, as Henabery put it, as "a load of hash".
Both films also have subdued subtexts concerning drugs (Allen) and drink (Fairbanks). They were respective subjects on which both men were mildly puritanical. Fairbanks was a teetotaller (see the milk-drinking scene) and Allen has never touched drugs (not even marijuana).
Fairbanks shares also with Allen a taste for sly topical references more or less in propra persona that deliberately break the illusion of the film. Sometimes those references have become difficult to decode. What, for instance, should one make of the impassive man of strange aspect with the prominent apple's apple in the hotel? When someone enters, the man suddenly becomes animated and the two do something that makes Douglas react with mild disgust. I have watched this scene several times on the relatively poor copy available to me but cannot for the life of me work out what is going on.
Then there is the mysterious balding man reading a newspaper in the street to whom Fairbanks addresses the question "Are you stading for President over here?" Logically this should be William Gibbs McAdoo, the lawyer and former Secretary to the Treasury under Woodrow Wilson (and Wilson's son-in-law) who failed to secure the Democratic presidential nomination in 1920 since McAdoo was also legal adviser and major shareholder (along with Fairbanks, Pickford, Grifith and Chaplin) in United Artists. But it doesn't look like him.....
If anyone has any information on these two strange little scenes, perhaps they could post 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!!