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It's a mystery why this delightful silent feature isn't better known
and more widely appreciated. I've seen several of the comedies Douglas
Fairbanks made prior to his switchover to swashbucklers and they're all
great fun, but for my money When the Clouds Roll By is the best of the
lot: it's funny, fast-paced, action-packed and highly original. To call
it "original" is quite an understatement; this movie is absolutely off
the wall and constantly surprising, even for buffs. The plot is
convoluted enough to keep you guessing, and just when you think you
know what's going to happen next, the filmmakers throw you another
curve-ball. Speaking of originality, it's worth pointing out that a
number of gags and bits of business found here were borrowed by others
and used again in later years, so while this movie proved to be a rich
source of inspiration for Fairbanks' colleagues who saw it in 1919, the
source material itself seems to have been largely forgotten.
Much of the comedy derives from the screenplay's satirical jabs at the still new field of psychology. Doug plays a good-natured young man who is harshly victimized by a sinister psychologist named Metz, who lives nearby. Why the doctor has chosen to treat Doug worse than Pavlov's dog isn't explained until late in the story (and I won't reveal it here), but let it suffice to say that Doug is subjected to a distressing series of "Gaslight"-style mental manipulations intended to convince him that he's losing his mind. The evil Dr. Metz even contrives to invade the world of Doug's dreams by controlling his diet, and the ensuing nightmare is a surreal cinematic highlight, combining such techniques as slow motion, double-exposure, and the very same "wall-walking" stunt Fred Astaire would employ in Royal Wedding in 1951, performed more elaborately in this early rendition. The dream sequence begins inside Doug's body, where we witness a battle between the foodstuffs he's been eating at Metz' behest: an onion, a lobster, Welsh rarebit, a slice of mince pie, etc., each represented by actors dressed in the appropriate costume. They duke it out on a "stomach" stage set, an effect that is both bizarre and hilarious, and a throwback to the early cinematic style of Edwin S. Porter's Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, or the trick films of Georges Méliès. We're reminded of early cinema again later when our hero reaches a crisis and thinks he's finally lost his mind for real; the title card tells us that Doug's Reason is Tottering on Her Throne and his Sense of Humor has been defeated, while his mind is being assailed by Worry and Despair. This struggle is then enacted before our eyes by performers representing these traits, like some kind of Medieval morality pageant.
These quirky comic sequences are a real highlight, but meanwhile there's an earthbound plot involving Doug's relationship with a girl, his conflict with the girl's former suitor (a vulgar crook), and a scheme by the crook to defraud the girl's father. This story-line is more conventional, but greatly boosted by the surrounding craziness and further enhanced by a series of genuinely funny title cards that maintain just the right level of breezy insouciance. There's also a cute series of running gags concerning superstitions that both Doug and the girl believe in, not only still-familiar beliefs involving black cats, ladders, and the number 13, but also more obscure notions involving dropped knives and opal rings. The plot culminates in an impressive storm sequence combining miniature sets with large-scale action, all of which may remind buffs of the finale of Buster Keaton's classic Steamboat Bill, Jr. of 1928. Buster didn't use miniatures, but it looks like he and his crew might have borrowed a gag or two from Doug!
I was fortunate enough to see this film at a recent public screening at the Museum of the City of New York. There was much laughter throughout, and afterward a lot of people were saying "Why haven't I heard of this movie before?" Clearly, this is a silent comedy that deserves to be better known, a movie that cries out for full restoration, more public screenings, broadcasts on TCM and a DVD release.
P.S. December 2008: I'm pleased to add that this film is now available in the newly released Fairbanks DVD box set. Many thanks to the folks responsible!
What a miracle this film is! Designed as a "cheer 'em up film" following
the dark days of World War 1, this is a wildly energetic and fanciful
comedy, that is truly life-affirming.
Doug is his usual cheerful self, performing some amazing stunts, and lighting up the screen with his ebullient personality. Under the sure direction of Victor Fleming - making his debut as a director - the film never misses a beat, and is full of surprises.
There are a couple of moments of pure fantasy, including an insane dream sequence, and scenes set in Doug's brain and in his stomach! And the whole thing comes to a wild special effects climax when a dam bursts!
This gem is truly a neglected classic and deserves to be restored and released on DVD, so that we may all enjoy the cyclone of energy that was Douglas Fairbanks. 10 out of 10.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"When the Clouds Roll by" is a rather offbeat picture from Douglas
Fairbanks, and it's one of his best I think. It's from before "The Mark
of Zorro" (1920), which redirected his career to more prestigious
costume/historical swashbucklers. These earlier films were generally
modern comedies where Fairbanks was discontented with a normal life and
yearned for some adventure, or he made an adventure out of his
relationship to the leading lady. This one seems to be more of the
latter, as the leading lady inspires the usually exuberant and smiling
Doug to come forth, but for most of the film, he's cripplingly worried
and superstitious. Fairbanks gave a similarly morose performance in
"Reaching for the Moon" (1917), where he also found himself the victim
of an "adventure".
The scenario this time is something of a spoof of psychology. Fairbanks is the victim of a mad doctor's experiment to cause him pain and death though the power of suggestion, although Fairbanks is unaware of this. There is an amusingly bizarre scene early on inside Doug's stomach, where the onion, lobster, welsh rabbit and mince pie he is persuaded to eat make him sickwe see performers costumed as the food do somersaults in his stomach and then chase him in a nightmare. The nightmare sequence is wonderful: featuring fast and slow motion photography; superimpositions; a grotesque monster distorted probably by special camera lens or mirrors; a trick-scene, special effects marvel where Doug walks up walls and on the ceiling of a room (done with a rotating set and camera with substitution-splices and multiple-exposures); and otherwise surreal imagery. The over-cranking of the camera to effect slow-motion for Doug running in his nightmare is doubly interesting because it's the opposite way his athleticism was usually shown; that is, the camera was usually under-cranked to make his stunts appear effortless. Later in this film, there is an example of this under-cranking when Doug climbs up a fire escape to avoid following a black cat's path through the door.
Another strange scene is when Fairbanks's mind is verging on insanity, which appears as a "brain storm" attack of Worry, Jealousy and, consequently, Despair on the throne of Reason, with Sense of Humor by her side. As with the food attack on his body, actors (including Fairbanks) represent the battling thoughts in his mind.
The climax features some more special effectsalthough, rather than the mostly optical effects in the nightmare, the dam break sequence features some well executed mechanical effects, including the use of a miniature town model. There's also some underwater photography of Doug swimming. Throughout, "When the Clouds Roll by" features impressive technical effects and wonderfully bizarre incidentsa scenario with surprises around every corner. This was an interesting and entertaining vehicle for Fairbanksone of his best and most unique.
As our story opens, otherwise normal New York gadabout Douglas
Fairbanks (as Daniel Boone Brown) has been unknowingly the "guinea pig"
in a bizarre experiment. For three months, Mr. Fairbanks has been
secretly the subject of possibly mad scientist Herbert Grimwood (as
Ulrich Metz). "The power of suggestion can destroy both mind and body,"
Dr. Metz explains, "But first I weaken the power of resistance in my
subject by implanting psychic germs of fear, worry, superstition and
kindred annoyances." Fairbanks has become superstitious and frantic,
but maintains his good nature...
"When the Clouds Roll By" was a United Artists showcase for its box office star. The plot collapses as episodes lead to a revelation that doesn't exactly fit the (doctor's) introduction; we have been led astray. However, it doesn't matter if you take the story as a surreal fantasy from the opening credits. Also involved are Fairbanks' courtship of conveniently placed Kathleen Clifford (as Lucette "Lucy" Bancroft), plus business intrigue involving his uncle Ralph Lewis (as Curtis Brown) and oily rival Frank Campeau (as Mark Drake). Somehow, Fairbanks and Victor Fleming fit it all together.
******** When the Clouds Roll By (12/28/19) Victor Fleming ~ Douglas Fairbanks, Kathleen Clifford, Frank Campeau, Herbert Grimwood
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Monday June 2, 7:00pm The Paramount, Seattle
"Never despair, folks, everything will be Jake .. .. when the clouds roll by."
Youthful enthusiasm, show-stopping feats of athletic lunacy and hilarious, eye-catching gimmicks were Douglas Fairbanks' stock-in-trade. When the Clouds Roll by (1919) opens cleverly with film of the crew as their names appear on screen.
A psychologist treating Daniel Boone Brown (Fairbanks) secretly plans to drive him insane in the name of science. After a prescribed bedtime supper of onions, lobster and mince pie, Daniel is chased through his stomach and across the countryside by his bizarre meal, in a brilliant surrealist nightmare.
Perpetually late for work, Daniel gets the sack, then wanders around until he literally bumps into Lucette (Kathleen Clifford), a girl as nutty as himself, and the two are instantly smitten. "Are you superstitious?" "Terribly so " Needles!" "Pins!" Her hayseed fiancé arrives just in time to spoil their plans. A frantic chase by boat and train concludes with a storm, a colossal flood and finally, true love.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Some spoilers herein.
Yes, it's true, this is one of the weirdest movies ever put before a
camera. Let's see, it starts with a maniacal doctor informing his
students that he is going to kill a man in the interest of science.
Then we meet his intended victim, the dashing but horribly
superstitious and paranoid Douglas Fairbanks, who eats for
dinner onion, lobster and mince meat pie, only to have these
dishes dance about in his stomach, causing a stomach ache.
Doug then goes to bed and has a strange dream where he is
chased by the same food he just ate. During the dream, he
fore-runs Fred Astair's antics in Royal Wedding by walking up a
wall and then across a ceiling, and quite convincingly.
So, from there, the craziness only increases. Doug leaps over
dining tables, hangs from cross-beams by his feet, climbs up the
side of his apartment building because a black cat crosses his
path and ends up impersonating an insane asylum official.
There's a huge deal made about an opal ring, a pretty blonde, a
climactic flood and did we mention that it's a musical? Well, it's
not actually a musical. But it does have everything else. And it's
hard to find, too. Go look for it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
When I finally got a chance to see this movie, I was just so STUNNED -
Doug Fairbanks, our always realistic, down-to-earth (the title of
another, QUITE different one of his early movies...) hero of westerns,
comedies and swashbucklers, in a completely crazy 'scientific fantasy'
that resembles the motion picture experiments of the great Georges
Melies in the late 1890s and early 1900s...?!
And yet, there he is, an unsuspecting 'guinea pig' for a mad and evil scientist, who provokes all kind of nightmares and mishaps for him, trying to drive him to commit suicide!! And WHAT special effects the expert crew employed for this really UNIQUE movie - making him 'walk' on the wall and the ceiling trying to escape his nightmares (a trick that's mostly remembered today for being performed by Fred Astaire in "Royal Wedding"; in 1951, more than 30 years later!); and of course, giving him the chance to employ ALL his huge acrobatic talent like he did in very few other films... and THAT'S certainly saying something!! Of course, the whole 'nightmare' turns into a pleasant, most enjoyable comedy in due course of time - but then, Doug Fairbanks' movies (almost) ALWAYS have got a happy ending!
So this almost forgotten JEWEL of silent cinema, concerning performances as well as story and effects, shouldn't be missed by ANYONE who's even the slightest bit interested in early cinema - and even those who aren't yet are SURE to TURN fans of early cinema as soon as they'll get a glimpse of this masterpiece!
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