Posts Tagged ‘Buster Keaton’


All for one and one for all.

First Commentary (continued) by Adam-Troy Castro

The Three Musketeers (1935). Directed by Rowland V. Lee. Written by Rowland V. Lee and Dudley Nichols, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Walter Abel, Ian Keith, others. 97 minutes **

The Three Musketeers aka The Singing Musketeer (1939). Directed by Allan Dwan. Written by M.M. Musselman, William A. Drake, and Sam Hellman, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Don Ameche and the Ritz Brothers. 73 minutes. *

The Three Musketeers (1948). Directed by George Sidney. Written by Robert Ardey, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Gene Kelly, Van Heflin, Vincent Price, June Allyson, Lana Turner. 125 minutes. ***

The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974). Two-part film directed by Richard Lester. Written by George MacDonald Fraser, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Michael York, Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Charlton Heston, Christopher Lee, Faye Dunaway. 105 minutes, 108 minutes. Both ****

The Three Musketeers (1998). Directed by Stephen Herek. Written by David Loughery, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Charlie Sheen, Rebecca DeMornay, Tim Curry, Chris O’Donnell, Oliver Platt. 105 minutes. **

The Three Musketeers (2011). Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Written by Alex Davies and Andrew Litvak. Starring Orlando Bloom, Milla Jovovich, Others. 105 minutes. Not reviewed here, but Holy Mother Of God.

Other Versions Not Covered By Us: Far, far too many to mention.

Welcome back to our epic two-part survey of past movie versions of The Three Musketeers, which we split into these two installments because that was an awful lot of movie neepery for one blog post and because we knew that we’d be spending an awful lot of room, in this one, discussing just why one of the many versions is so frequently described, by so many sources, as “definitive.” Indeed, we’ll spend more time explicating the reasons than we spent discussing the 1935, 1939, and 1948 versions combined.

Definitive is that loaded a word.

As we shall see, the version in question wasn’t so widely gifted with the adjective just because its D’Artagnan looked pretty. 

In the meantime, this brief recap: so far we’ve discussed the 1935 version starring Walter Abel, which was not overwhelming but which did manage to be watchable; the 1939 version starring the Ritz Brothers, which led to some confusion on my part over why my old man would ever mislead me with the intelligence that the Ritzes were so much funnier than the (to him) over-rated Marxes; and the 1948 version starring Gene Kelly, which was old Hollywood doing what Hollywood did best, in Technicolor and with one of the past century’s great dancers turning his soft-shoe wizardy into a fair substitute for brilliant swordsmanship. The last of the bunch, I said, came as close to any of these versions had to actually conveying the entire story, as written in two novels (usually published together) by the great Alexandre Dumas. 

There have been others, before and since, but this is one of the most frequently-filmed stories of all time, and sanity puts a limit on what your faithful essayists are willing to do. If you’re curious about the version we most regret omitting in this compendium, it’s the serial that featured Lon Chaney and a pre-stardom John Wayne in a version that moved all the action to the French Foreign Legion. It sounds beyond awful, but in an entertaining way. We make no judgments because we never got to it. Nor did we ever get to the Disney cartoon with Donald, Mickey and Goofy – despite much urging on the part of the wife – or the one that featured Barbie. At a certain point, even inclusiveness has its limits.

No, we’ll leave those unmentioned, and proceed directly to that “definitive” take and the many reasons it excelled why so many others fell short; followed by a brief look at a subsequent version that was so inferior to it that for years this viewer resented it beyond reason.

(Spoiler Warnings go without saying, as always, but I especially mean them in this case. I’m serious. If you don’t know the story of The Three Musketeers, and don’t want to know, stop reading. )

The Story Behind The Film

Richard Lester first envisioned his Three Musketeers as a vehicle for The Beatles, with whom he had made A Hard Day’s Night. It never happened, but it’s interesting to contemplate what that film would have been like. I doubt it would have had any fidelity to Dumas (the Fab Four disrespected conventional narrative too much for that), and believe that it would have likely been just a farce played as a vehicle for songs; but even so, which Beatle would have been D’Artagnan? (My own preferred casting, for this hypothetical version we’re all probably better off not yhaving seen: Ringo as a bumbling D’Artagnan, Paul as Lord Buckingham, John as Cardinal Richelieu, and George Harrison as Athos. Think on that, come up with your own casting choices and wipe it from your mind. However you shuffle the cards, it would have stunk up the joint.)

Whatever happened, Lester returned to the material in the early seventies, under the auspices of the Salkinds, who here pulled off a bit of a sleazy trick that lent the movie a bit of notoriety entirely unconnected to its quality: to wit, they told the cast they intended to make an epic, close to four-hour version, when in fact they always intended to cut the finished product in half and release it as two separate films.  This was a serious no-no in a business where name actors are paid a per-film rate, and a colossal act of hubris for a production that cast a current or slightly past-current who’s-who of stars. Lawsuits ensued and were eventually settled, though some members of the cast harbored resentment for life.

The upshot is that, the legal issues aside, the precedent was actually good for the business. By demonstrating that a story could be deliberately spread out over more than one film and that several could be shot at once, the Salkinds had created a  model that was later very useful on any number of big-budget franchises where it would have been impossible to keep re-building the sets and re-gathering the cast. They used it on their own Superman series (this time, telling the cast what they had in mind). Later franchises that benefited from the example were Back To The Future (Parts 2 and 3),  The Matrix (also parts 2 and 3), and, most notably, the three installments of Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings.

None of which has any bearing on that “definitive” issue.

And part of what does is this: it appears to have been one of the only versions that managed the all-important trick of getting D’Artagnan right.

He’s Just A Kid

Most prior filmic versions of D’Artagnan, including the Walter Abel, Don Ameche and Gene Kelly versions already discussed, relay his deeds during the story with various degrees of fidelity – and, as in the case of Gene Kelly, with compensating charm to cover whatever they do get wrong – but otherwise, completely miss who he is. They treat him as a generic swashbuckler, grinning in the face of danger, charming the ladies, and laughing as he humiliates the bad guys with superior swordsmanship.

This is perhaps inevitable, as classic Hollywood regarded that as what a swashbuckler was like. Most of them had interchangeable dashing personalities. Errol Flynn was famous for a series of films, often co-starring Olivia DeHavilland and Alan Hale, ranging from The Adventures of Robin Hood to The Adventures Of Marco Polo to The Adventures of Don Juan, not to mention a number of others that didn’t follow that particular titling formula, where he played what was, in terms of personal manner the exact same person, plunked down into various different historical eras. He was a guy who showed teeth and laughed in the face of danger and took what he was doing seriously but always had a glint in his eye about it. Though Flynn wasn’t the first to follow this formula – indeed, the first two of the Musketeers movies we covered pre-date his best, the Robin Hood film – he pretty much made it his own, and a generation of swashbucklers that followed him all tried to emulate his example.

The problem is, this isn’t precisely what Alexandre Dumas had in mind when he took the memoirs of the actual real-life D’Artagnan and used them as the springboard for his own fanciful narrative.

And that’s this: D’Artagnan is supposed to be a  gifted but naïve kid living out a fantasy and having reality shoved in his face. 

Trained to sword expertise by his father, D’Artagnan has also been mercilessly drilled on a personal philosophy certain to get any kid killed: to wit, do not brook even the most offhand insult, and fight duels with anybody who impugns your honor. It is the reason why he challenges a well-dressed, and at this point much more dangerous swordsman, Rochefort (Christopher Lee), over some casual mockery; and why he finds himself scheduled for three consecutive duels to the death, with three of the most dangerous people in town, within mere hours of his arrival in Paris. He thinks that’s the way he’s supposed to act. He’s living up to what his father expects of him.
  
Most film versions bury this aspect in favor of his heroism, giving us a D’Artagnan who is very much already a hero, a D’Artagnan who, even when knocked unconscious by Rochefort in the Walter Abel version, simply looks like a capable guy who fell to a baddie who had gotten the drop on him. Not this D’Artagnan. He is not up to it yet. The version written by George MacDonald Fraser and directed by Richard Lester is indeed full of slapstick (more on that, later), but it’s no mere gag when in an early scene D’Artagan grabs a rope and swings on it, intent on knocking Rochefort off his horse, but instead misses his foe completely and winds up looking like a fool. It’s the act of a kid who is not yet up to his self-image. 

Similarly, in the scene where D’Artagnan meets the Musketeers for the serial duels, the dynamic between them is for the first time in this compendium played for the point intended by the author. First, we get one of Dumas’s grace notes: D’Artagnan helpfully offering his mother’s ointment to salve the old wound of the foe, Athos, who he’s here to fight to the death. It’s a moment of splendid naivete and tremendous good-heartedness on D’Artagnan’s part, and Oliver Reed as Athos plays the reaction perfectly: with surprise, a little leavening of his prior anger at the boy, and a commitment to the duel that, in the eyes of this reader of the book and watcher of the film, amounts to a private decision to let D’Artagnan off with a little wounding. After the subsequent fight with the Cardinal’s men, when D’Artagnan has proved capable of holding his own in a fight, it is about ten times more believable that the famous trio would take the young Gascon boy under their shared wing. Not only because he’s worth a damn, but because it would be a shame to let this kid worth a damn get himself killed before he amounts to something.
  
D’Artagnan’s inexperience manifests in other ways: his gullibility, the moment of startling clumsiness where he wreaks havoc in the office of an authority figure he wants to impress, the defiant speech he gives to Buckingham in  order to make a dramatic exit  just before he has to return with the shame-faced admission that he needs Buckingham’s help getting back to France.

Even his romantic adventures fit this pattern. In the prior film versions, when D’Artagnan declares himself in love with Constance almost at the moment he meets her, and immediately devotes himself to her service, it seems the straightforward act of a man; here, it’s the posturing of a boy, no less sincere, but more the manifestation of someone trying to be a dashing hero than someone who already is one.  It’s a subtle difference, but Michael York summons enough innocence to convey it. He’s role-playing.

More to the point, these two films capture a plot element present in Dumas that is scarcely touched upon in any other Three Musketeers version, before or after: to wit, as a lover, D’Artagnan has the attention span of a goldfish. He adores Constance, but when she’s not around, he allows himself to become the boy-toy of Milady; when Milady’s not around, he cheats on her with a servant. Whatever pretty face is in view, is the pretty face he’s madly in love with. Constance may spend much of the second film pining for him in a nunnery, in the era’s version of the Witness Protection Program, but D’Artagnan’s still getting his ashes hauled regularly. It’s not that he’s a cheating bastard. It’s that he’s not yet a grownup. He doesn’t become one, not really, until the end of the second film, when he arrives too late to save his lady fair. At which point, another of the film’s stylistic attributes pays off.

The Fighting Style And Why It Matters

The best fight scenes in any of the previous versions belonged to Gene Kelly, but that D’Artagnan was not just talented at fighting; he was a prodigy, a genius, a guy who, as I’ve said, didn’t so much duel his enemies as play with them, the way a cat humiliates a mouse.

Many of the great swashbucklers of movie history took a similar tack; they played up the artistry of the thing, pitting hero against villain in exquisitely choreographed duels that permitted both to shine as martial artists.

The swordfights in almost all of Lester’s version were, by contrast, not so much exhibitions of craft, as brawls. There was no elegance about them. The contestants tripped, prat-fell, stumbled over things, used their fists and their cloaks whenever possible, tried to do fancy things and failed, slipped and fell on ice, and oftentimes looked stupid…a comical, but in context deadly serious, demonstration of the difference between the way a fight looks when you have a choreographer on your side and the way one looks when you’re trying not to get killed. It’s messy. Frank Findlay is the poster child for this. In the second movie, he has a trick he’s been working on, that involves throwing his sword like a dart; but it’s a trick that leaves him disarmed if the toss fails. (Throughout both films he’s almost as surely as D’Artagnan the guy stuff happens to.)

It is about a hundred times more satisfying than any number of movie fight scenes that look like every step was planned out beforehand. Indeed, compare this franchise’s fights to the three way duel at the end of Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace,  a dizzyingly choreographed battle that ranges across two vast rooms, involves three combatants wailing away at one another with dizzying swordcraft…and is, to these eyes, woefully dull, simply because it looks too rehearsed, perfect, and fake. (The second best fight in The Four Musketeers is one fought on a frozen lake, where the combatants can barely stand up long enough to swing this swords correctly, and spend just as much time falling on their respective asses.)

But what happens in the course of the two films? D’Artagnan and his friends fight enemies in Paris, in the French countryside, and on the road to England…finally, at the end of the two films, arriving at the convent Milady de Winter has infiltrated,with her agents and the Cardinal’s men, to kill Constance. D’Artagnan arrives in Constance’s room minutes after Milady has strangled his great love to death. (To viewers previously unfamiliar with the story who had expected D’Artagnan to arrive in the nick of time,  it is stunning.) Furious with grief,  D’Artagnan races through the convent halls, his anger building…until he spots his old enemy, Rochefort.

The neophyte fights the master. And, for the first time, in almost four hours of film, a swordfight is choreographed in the old-Hollywood manner. It is one of the greatest swordfights in the history of film, two masters battling each other with a fury that belies some of the old movie duels whose combatants looked like they were trying to look pretty rather than kill each other. It is real and it marks the moment when D’Artagnan is exactly what he has thus far only pretended to be.

This is not a happy ending, except insofar as justice is more-or-less served and D’Artagnan is left with the company of his old friends. But it is something we don’t get often enough: a story, in the sense that its main character has undergone a significant transformation and we’ve gotten to see exactly how.

Other Significant Accomplishments

Unlike many prior filmed versions of the tale, Lester’s Musketeers takes place in a persuasive time and place. It’s not some indoor set, not some production drowning in its own lush style; this is a world of drudgery and toil, where the gap between the poor in the streets and the rich in their palaces is extreme, and we get to see both (notably in the living condition of D’Artagnan’s servant Planchet).

There are spectacular set pieces, both based on Dumas and the screenwriter’s invention, that none of the prior versions attempted. One of these would be that fight on the frozen lake. But another is one of the greatest scenes in the novel: an extended sequence where, in order to gain a few minutes of privacy from Cardinal spies, Athos makes a bet that he and his friends can eat breakfast at a fort under heavy fire. This, they do – an act that their fellows regard as pure courage – but, in addition to showing us again just how formidable these fellows are, it serves the fine story purpose of allowing them to exchange information important both to each other and to the audience, while simultaneously battling an army intent on killing them. It is a terrific scene, and as painless an exercise in exposition as has ever been filmed.

The political background is superior. In many filmed versions of the story, the Musketeers fight for a king who deserves their loyalty. This guy is an easily-gulled cuckold who never quite knows what’s going on, and who looks bored out of his mind and deeply resentful when obliged to present his men with medals.

The characterization of the lesser but still important players is also far superior.

For instance, in most other versions, Constance is just a generic good girl, with no function other than to pine for D’Artagnan. These films take advantage of the observation we’ve already made, that for the story to work Constance must be a beautiful blithering idiot, and actually plays her that way, attributing to her a level of ineptitude that might have rendered her wholly not worth the trouble were she not played by a lady as comely as Raquel Welch. (Welch, who enjoyed a long and profitable career despite usually not being very good, is somehow terrific here; go figure).
     
The film’s Milady de Winter (Faye Dunaway) is the most frightening in film history, the only one so far who captures the character’s utter inhumanity. Faye Dunaway, in one of the greatest roles of her career, plays her as a woman who’s been so profoundly hurt that the only remaining option is stone sociopathy. Earlier versions – even  Lana Turner’s – downplayed her physical resourcefulness and rendered her a generic bad girl, but here she graduates, before our eyes, from secondary villainess to the human face of evil described by Dumas.

Nowhere is this more in evidence than in an extended sequence where, imprisoned by Buckingham, she has three days to seduce her jailer before being exiled to America (a fate worse than death, in that particular era). Her only guard is a sexless puritan who has been described as immune to the charms of women. And in three days, he’s not only hers…but so turned against his former master that it is he who plunges the knife into Buckingham’s heart. Milady brilliantly, and hilariously, and terrifyingly has sold herself to her “incorruptible” jailer as a Joan of Arc figure, with a direct pipeline to God.

Few other versions we’ve seen attempt to tell this part of the tale. The 1948 version contains a version of it, substituting the disastrously naïve Constance for Buckingham’s right-hand man; and it was probably right to do so, since that allows the film to compress the plot and get to the deaths of Constance and Buckingham that much earlier. But it’s not pure Dumas. In the Lester version, we see, step by step, how the impressively resourceful Milady, who cannot seduce her jailer’s body, seduces his soul instead. It is relentless, and it ratchets up the suspense when she next sets her vengeful heart on D’Artagnan’s girlfriend. Can nothing stop her in time? (No.)

The film’s Cardinal Richelieu (Charlton Heston, in one of the great roles of his late career), is given a depth he possesses in no other film version, a depth he only possesses in the novel and, briefly, in the 1948 performance of Vincent Price; he’s a man who schemes for power and has no problem arranging contract killings, but is capable of shaking his head in dismay, as the book’s Richelieu did, when Milady appeals to him for permission to kill D’Artagnan. This is, of course, a man who had only recently sent killers against D’Artagnan himself; but there’s a subtle difference between arranging assassination for power and allowing a minion to kill for a grudge, and the Cardinal dwells on that line. Heston’s weary, appalled “No” sells that difference – which is a lot of weight to put on a syllable, and goes a long way to explaining why fans of this film were so dismayed when the next version of the story had Tim Curry playing the part as a ranting super-villain.

The characterization also allows the classic ending, where D’Artagnan hands the Cardinal’s signed kill order back to him, and the Cardinal, recognizing the irony of the moment, wearily lets D’Artagnan go. In Dumas, the Cardinal is blown away by the sense that the boy before him has a hidden destiny, a greatness, more important to France than the Cardinal himself; in this movie, he simply appreciates being hoist by his own petard. Only a film deft in subtle characterization, and a performance capable of carrying it, could render the Cardinal’s contradictory behavior understandable…which is why it’s so rarely been attempted.
 
Christopher Lee as Rochefort…sorry, I see no reason why I should need to finish that sentence. Christopher Lee as Rochefort. That’s about as good as it gets.

In all versions of The Three Musketeers, only D’Artagnan and one of the titular three, Athos, are actually important to the tale; Porthos and Aramis almost fade into the background. Oliver Reed’s Athos is a brawling, heavy-drinking, embittered fellow with a past, as he’s supposed to be and some versions like Van Heflin’s have managed to be  — but that is not the same thing as saying that the other two are stinted. One, Richard Chamberlain’s Aramis, is pretty much just “the other guy,” odd enough considering that the man playing him was about to come a huge star and that he’s the kind of player who would normally be center place in something like this. More to the point, Frank Findlay’s Porthos is a splendid comic creation: the kind of guy who is always getting himself into mishaps, who can fight and even win but somehow never emerges with victory intact.

In short, why is this version “definitive”? Not because it gets some things right; because it gets virtually everything right, from the texture to the performances to the nuanced morality of the villains. It captures exactly why this has always been considered a great story. No version is ever likely to out-do it. The sad thing is that the quality decline, after this point, was not just noticeable but precipitous. And that’s without devoting any discussion to versions with cannon-bearing airships.

(There was another installment,  eventually, based on the Dumas novel Twenty Years After; it was not nearly as good, but then I don’t intend to discuss it. I mention it here because if I don’t, people will inevitably rush to call it to my attention. I know, I know.)

The Three Musketeers (1993)

A number of people have objected to my vehement hatred of this, widely called “The Disney version” despite the existence of that previous take with Mickey, Donald, and Goofy.

I’ll confess to personal resentment borne of the hubris on display when, asked in an interview about how his take would differ from the classic that came before (that he also confessed to never seeing), Charlie Sheen snotted, “Ours will finally do it right.”

Sorry. But considering the results, them’s fighting words.

Turning the Cardinal into a super-villain who twirls his red cloak like a cape and rants at length about ruuuuuling France is not, by contrast, doing it right.

Having D’Artagnan say to the Three Musketeers, “The Three Musketeers! I’ve heard of you!”, as if they’re famous celebrities, and not just three members of a larger fighting force acknowledged by the film, who just happen to hang out together, is not doing it right.

Turning its Constance into a girl who speaks to D’Artagnan once, for about thirty seconds, and later confesses to the Queen that she loves him with all her heart is not, by contrast, doing it right.

Declaring, oddly, that Rochefort just happened to be the guy who killed D’Artagnan’s father, an invention that adds another layer of “Oh, come on,” to the proceedings, is not, by contrast, doing it right.

Adding misplaced japanese swordsmen is not, by contrast, doing it right.

Having the Musketeers show up twice to rescue D’Artagnan, in circumstances that are awfully convenient but never bother to explain how they knew where to find him, let alone managed to get where he is, is not, by contrast, doing it right.

Exclamatory dialogue so disrespectful of the audience that at one point the Cardinal must address the secondary villain with an eyepatch and point out, in dialogue, that he only has one eye, is not, by contrast, doing it right.

Jokes that rarely achieve wit and most often fail the “dopey” test are not, by contrast, doing it right.

Reducing Milady, who was in the last film one of the most chilling villainesses in movie history, to a wronged woman who is here conveniently arrested and convicted and marched to her execution on the side of a cliff, just when the Musketeers need her to be so redeemed by love that she provides precisely the information they need at the time they need it, is not, by contrast, doing it right.

Having the unbearably earnest boy king defeat the Cardinal by decking him is not, by contrast, doing it right.

None of that, Mr. Sheen, is “winning.”

In 1998, I hated every minute of this concoction. I hated how every story point had been rendered idiotic. I hated how every line of dialogue was bland and flavorless. I hated the clear contempt for an audience the makers had believed incapable of understanding anything else and I hated the gulling of a generation that would now think they knew the tale of The Three Musketeers. I couldn’t imagine anything worse.

Exposure to scenes from the 2011 Paul W.S. Anderson version tells me that in 1993 I didn’t know how lucky I was.

I am forced to admit that the 1993 version was guilty of no more than reducing it to a dumbaction movie for an attention-deficit generation, and what what really irritated me at the time was not the awfulness, but the hubris – and not the hubris of daring to remake what had already been  done perfectly, as that was their right but the hubris one actor demonstrated by  claiming in specific reference to Lester’s take that this new version would be “finally done right” and thus implying that the prior version had been done wrong.

So I watched it again, straining for impartiality.

And I have to admit – while it’s more energetic than good – there’s quite a bit in it that is not actively bad.

Tim Curry was good. Yes, he was. He was there to deliver a cartoon and he did quite well at that endeavor.

Oliver Platt was good. He had infectious fun in a silly part, and it’s difficult to watch him without some of that fun rubbing off. It’s, really, the second-best performance ever given in any Three Musketeers movie, by any actor named Oliver.

Charlie Sheen gave the usual Charlie Sheen performance, but in 1993 that was not particularly bad. Keifer Sutherland is pretty good at selling Athos’s misery, even if he is no Oliver Reed. There’s also, buried in all that awful dialogue, one pretty good scene involving a discussion of “wenching” (even if it takes place in the middle of a cross-country ride to save the day and gives the impression that the Musketeers got bored with saving the day and paused to get drunk).

Some of the action sequences don’t suck, and are pretty enough, even if the final large-scale battle at the king’s palace substitutes scale and bombast for any issues we might have reason to care about.

Honestly. I take it all back. If you’re too tired or too lazy to be discerning, there are worse times to be had at the movies. (The Ritz Brothers version, for example.)

The problem, really, is that for all too many people these days, “just fine for audiences too tired or lazy to be discerning” seems to be the first, last, and only criterion.

And part of the problem with accepting a remake that is extravagantly dumb is that, a few years later, you get a remake that is appallingly dumb. The insults get larger.

I’ve lost track of the number of people who have told me, in relation to the one with dirigibles, that when they go to movies they don’t want to think, they don’t want to feel, they just want to turn their brains off and watch things crash into each other at great speed.

I’ve had intelligent people say this to me.

Of that  I will currently only say, I’m too tired to have the argument…especially since the MacDonald / Lester version provides my argument.

Really, it’s possible to provide derring-do, adventure, swordplay, thrills, charisma, and humor, and do so in the context of a story that makes sense and means something. You don’t even have to look at the Lester Musketeers. Just look at the films made by Errol Flynn.

Don’t get me started, people. Really. Just…don’t get me started.

And now, the wife bursts through the palace window, a rapier gleaming in one gloved fist…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Three Musketeers (1935). Directed by Rowland V. Lee. Written by Rowland V. Lee and Dudley Nichols, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Walter Abel, Ian Keith, others. 97 minutes **

The Three Musketeers aka The Singing Musketeer (1939). Directed by Allan Dwan. Written by M.M. Musselman, William A. Drake, and Sam Hellman, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Don Ameche and the Ritz Brothers. 73 minutes. 1/2

The Three Musketeers (1948). Directed by George Sidney. Written by Robert Ardey, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Gene Kelly, Van Heflin, Vincent Price, June Allyson, Lana Turner. 125 minutes. **1/2

The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974). Two-part film directed by Richard Lester. Written by George MacDonald Fraser, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Michael York, Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Charlton Heston, Christopher Lee, Faye Dunaway. 105 minutes, 108 minutes. Both ****

The Three Musketeers (1993). Directed by Stephen Herek. Written by David Loughery, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Charlie Sheen, Rebecca DeMornay, Tim Curry, Chris O’Donnell, Oliver Platt. 105 minutes. ** *

The Three Musketeers (2011). Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Written by Alex Davies and Andrew Litvak. Starring Orlando Bloom, Milla Jovovich, Others. 105 minutes. Not reviewed here, but Holy Mother Of God.

Other Versions Not Covered By Us: Far, far too many to mention.

I know we had to cover these films. I knew there might be a bunch of ‘em out there.  But come on guys!!! 29 versions of one story?  And you still haven’t beaten that horse to death?

OK, I admit to enjoying seeing Gene Kelly acrobatically dancing out a fight or two.

And, the 1935 version didn’t stray too far from the story I knew. 

The Touchstone/Disney production tried hard to bring in the teen audience on casting alone, and the guys did a decent job.  There’s nothing unwatchable here, but its just a bit off.

Heck, even the Disney version (the one with Mickey, not Kiefer) kept me happy as a child.

But the advertisements alone for this new “steampunked” musketeers had me baffled.  I guess historical accuracy isn’t needed if wire fu is available. Has every audience, worldwide, given up on the ability to remember two minutes into the past?

Now, mind ya’all  like my hubby, I prefer the 1973 mega version (I choose to think of it as one really looong film, rather than two really good films that just happened to be shot at the same time).  The casting of Michael York as D’artagnan made me a fan for life.  I was already well aware of Richard Chamberlain (reruns of Dr Kildaire had already hit my TV).  I was re-introduced to Oliver Reed (not realizing he was the hated Bill Sykes until many years later).  But the surprise of the film has always been Raquel Welch and her ability to pull off a decent comedic turn.  She was more than just the body in the fur bikini.  The sets were and locales were nearly perfect. The swordplay almost realistic.  And the fun just what was ordered.  Guys, we watch these films at least once a year just because.

Now has my love for this one(two) punch blinded my eye to the possibility that the definitive version is yet to be made?  Naahh!  I hope they keep trying.  Lets go for at least ten more versions in my lifetime.  Just one request to any future filmmakers who do attempt this feat.  PLEASE!!!!! Read the source material, not just the Cliff’s Notes.



All for one, and one for all.

 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Three Musketeers (1935). Directed by Rowland V. Lee. Written by Rowland V. Lee and Dudley Nichols, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Walter Abel, Ian Keith, others. 97 minutes **

The Three Musketeers aka The Singing Musketeer (1939). Directed by Allan Dwan. Written by M.M. Musselman, William A. Drake, and Sam Hellman, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Don Ameche and the Ritz Brothers. 73 minutes. *

The Three Musketeers (1948). Directed by George Sidney. Written by Robert Ardey, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Gene Kelly, Van Heflin, Vincent Price, June Allyson, Lana Turner.  125 minutes. ***

The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974).  Two-part film directed by Richard Lester. Written by George MacDonald Fraser, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Michael York, Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Charlton Heston, Christopher Lee, Faye Dunaway.  105 minutes, 108 minutes. Both ****

The Three Musketeers (1998). Directed by Stephen Herek. Written by David Loughery, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Charlie Sheen, Rebecca DeMornay, Tim Curry, Chris O’Donnell, Oliver Platt. 105 minutes. **

The Three Musketeers (2011). Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Written by Alex Davies and Andrew Litvak. Starring Orlando Bloom, Milla Jovovich, Others. 105 minutes. Not reviewed here, but Holy Mother Of God.

Other Versions Not Covered By Us: Far, far too many to mention.

Now, here’s one of the most filmed stories of all time. There are literally dozens of versions, from the dawn of film (a 1903 version that no longer exists and that almost nothing at all is known about), to a mid-thirties version starring a pre-stardom John Wayne that somehow contrives to move all the action to the French Foreign Legion, to a full-length Disney cartoon starring Mickey and Donald, to another animated version starring Barbie, to pornographic versions, to one released just this month by the maniacs at the studio known at the Asylum, where the Three Musketeers are modern-day soldiers of fortune on a violent mission for one “President King” (cute). There are French-language versions, Mexican versions, versions which treat the story with reverence and versions that take a huge steaming dump on it. If you add to the list the various versions of The Man In The Iron Mask, which represents one-third of the final novel in Alexandre Dumas’s Musketeers trilogy (a very long book), you head for triple digits.

And why not? It happens to be one of the greatest adventure  stories ever written.

The long book we now think of as The Three Musketeers is actually two novels, which detail two related historically-based adventures. In the first, a young and naïve Gascon boy named D’Artagnan travels to Paris to fulfill his dream of becoming a Musketeer, but almost immediately makes more enemies than most of us are unlucky to have in entire lifetimes. In short order he finds himself scheduled for three duels to the death with Musketeers Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. Before the first of those fights can begin, D’Artagnan finds himself aiding the Musketeers in a larger duel against the men of Cardinal Richelieu, and so impresses the trio that they declare him a friend and take him under their collective wing. Before long, the lad’s penchant for getting into trouble embroils him in palace intrigue, as he and his companions find themselves racing toward England to retrieve the Queen’s jewels from her British lover, Lord Buckingham, before the scheming Richelieu can humiliate her at a palace ball by using their absence to prove her traitorous infidelity to the king.

In the second half, Richelieu’s spy and assassin Milady de Winter – an unstoppable female terminator, and one of the deadliest and darkest villains in the history of literature – schemes to carry about the assassination of Buckingham and the murder of D’Artagnan’s great love, Constance. Much is made of Milady’s true identity, the wife whose criminal past once broke Athos’s heart. In a twist most movies cannot tolerate, the heroes lose. Milady does succeed in bringing about Buckingham’s death, and does succeed in killing Constance before D’Artagnan and the Musketeers can arrive to save the day. She doesn’t survive their subsequent wrath, but that is of course little consolation to the murdered Constance.

It’s a long story, if between pages a riveting one. (Honestly: if you haven’t read it because of its antiquity, you really owe yourself a look.) If you factor in the various levels of court intrigue, the adultery, the undeniable fact that in the first half at least the Musketeers are fighting to hide that royal’s adultery, a historically-based bad guy who happens to be an officer of the Catholic Church, and Dartagnan’s less-than admirable (excuse me) inconstancy in forgetting Constance to fall into the arms of another woman whenever one turns her pretty head, it’s no wonder that most filmic versions take great liberties in streamlining and simplifying the original narrative, often to a fault.  Many do this by only telling the first half, but others try to cram both halves in, to varying effect.We can therefore afford to be generous on the issue of fidelity. To wit: all we really require in a Musketeers movie is D’Artagnan’s swashbuckling, Athos’s brooding, Milady’s treachery, Richelieu’s depth, swordfights, adventure, and a story that, if it doesn’t meet every beat of the story Dumas told, then at least possesses all the same attributes, in the same measure. Fidelity is, however, a major plus. You don’t take one of the great stories of all time and and replace it with idiot template. Alas, some have.

Because of the sheer number of films being covered in this installment, we will not be discussing all of them at the length readers of this blog have come to expect, but we expect our assaults on some of them to reach the usual level of volubility. For other, strategic reasons we’re gonna split this column into two, making this the first franchise to spread out over more than one installment. Judi will stick her comments in at the end of part two. So stick around.
 
The Three Musketeers (1935)

One oddity of the book-to-film phenomenon is that the nature of D’Artagnan’s first meeting with the Musketeers – i.e. getting into fights with all three of them on the same day, scheduling duels with each, and then impressing them with his heart and skill when he joins them in their battle with the Cardinal’s men – is so very perfect a character introduction that pretty much all filmed versions present it intact, if with different levels of effectiveness. It also takes up so much time to dramatize that many films skimp on further developments. This one is no different, and the fight as presented is well-staged, with D’Artagnan and the Musketeers marching off with a rousing victory song. Their moral ambiguity is also captured in a scene where the Musketeers, throwing their weight around, essentially terrorize an innkeeper into giving D’Artagnan a room, rent-free.

Further developments show some serious compression. The stout fellows do race off to Calais to retrieve the jewels from Buckingham, but there is never any need for D’Artagnan to drag himself all the way to England; instead, he meets Milady while she’s on the way back. And, though she does uttera  threat against Constance, she is stopped before she gets even close, and conveniently throws herself off a bridge just in time for the movie to wrap up. That was nice of her.

Also interesting is that, in this version, Cardinal Richelieu is not the Macchiavellian puppet-master, but a somewhat doddering innocent, barely responsible for the vile machinations of his assassin, Rochefort. Indeed, he kindly nods at the end, when D’Artagnan and company expose Rochefort in front of the king. This development may have been an exercise in not offending the Catholic Church, and it may have simply been the measure of a film that had reached its allotted length and needed to end with as little ambiguity as possible. None of it works as well as Dumas did, but the swordplay is well-staged, the characterization of the Musketeers is clever enough, and the extreme compression of the last half of the film does pretty much prevent any of the proceedings from entering the realm of tedium. Bottom-line: It’s a fun film, though far from a great one.

The Three Musketeers (1939)

This is by no means the oddest Three Musketeers movie ever made, but is by God one of the most annoying.

A little personal detail here: your friendly essayist owes much of his appreciation of old movies to his father, who made sure that he was introduced to many of the classics and helped him learn how to read the vocabulary of older movies. But this is not the same thing as saying that insoluble conflicts failed to arise. The old man had some idiosyncratic opinions, among them that the Marx Brothers really weren’t all that funny and that the Ritz Brothers beat them in every conceivable way.

Because the Ritz Brothers have not enjoyed the cultural longevity of the Marxes, leaving us with a million chances to adore the genius of Groucho and company and almost none to catch up with the Ritzes, years passed before your friendly essayist had a chance to test this premise for himself.

When he did, the only possible response was: Holy Cow, what was the old man thinking?

The Ritzes, using the precise critical term, suck.

And it is likely they never sucked as much as they do in this vehicle, where they play a pair of undifferentiated oafs who steal Musketeer outfits and are mistaken by the heroic, dashing D’Artagnan for comrades in arms. What needs to be noted here is that they are not Musketeers; they are idiots who got mistaken for Musketeers, who exist here as comic-relief foils to a D’Artagnan who is responsible for all the derring-do. Don Ameche labors hard in the straight-man role, and is pretty damned good, even if he doesn’t have the naivete that a proper D’Artagnan should have; here, he’s a generic dashing hero, laughing in the face of danger while the Ritzes mug at the camera and run around in circles. It is a lot like watching a version of Robin Hood where Errol Flynn plays Robin and the Three Stooges play the Merry Men, except that the one thing even Stooge-haters (see: almost all women), would concede about that trio is that, at the bare minimum, they had distinct personalities. The Ritzes play a single moron in three bodies. Being able to tell them apart is not just impossible, but irrelevant.

D’Artagnan never does seem to realize that he’s thrown his lot in with a trio of idiot imposters, and by the end of the movie it’s rendered irrelevant, as the fake Musketeers are last seen marching with the others. It’s unclear whether they gave in and joined out of inertia, or have simply not gotten around to making their break. Nor does it matter. There is one-fourth of a potentially good Musketeers movie here, but it’s like a cupcake floating in a septic tank.

The Three Musketeers (1948)

The first memorable version in this survey is also the first to make an honest attempt to tell the whole story, not just a piece of it – and though that is impossible in the time allotted, it comes damned close, presenting us with such elements as Milady’s fiendish skill at running mind games on prison guards and her malignant killing of Constance and Buckingham.

It also has the best D’Artagnan of this particular compendium in the person of Gene Kelly, who is woefully miscast (in that he’s totally contemporary, totally American, too old for the part, and too sure of himself), but none of that matters at all. The movie makes a deal with you, going in. Here’s your D’Artagnan. You will note that it’s Gene Kelly. We know it’s Gene Kelly and we know that you’ll never forget, for a single frame, that it’s Gene Kelly. He will make no attempt to disappear inside the role. You should not care about this. Honestly, you won’t. And that’s exactly what happens. His every fight is a dance, so brilliantly choreographed that we were not surprised to learn that Jackie Chan credits him as well as Buster Keaton as such a major influence. The first fight with the Cardinal’s men is staged as a genius, playing with and humiliating his lessers; and it is not hard to empathize with Van Heflin’s Athos, watching with dismay the skill of the young snot he came so close to dueling. It is the best duel in the film, but the ones that come after it are almost as terrific.

In the place of Cardinal Richelieu, we have another attempt to appease Roman Catholics, “Counselor” Richelieu (Vincent Price).  Guys, he was a historical figure; get OVER it.

For what it’s worth, though, giving the dude another job title turns out to be a small price for regaining him as villain. He is, robes aside, the villain of the novel, the powerful schemer beside the throne who wants to consolidate power for herself and is willing to murder in order to get it, but who once or twice betrays a streak of decency, despite himself. For instance, there’s the matter of the written permission he provides Milady, giving her a blanket license for any deeds she commits on behalf of the crown. One of the neatest twists in the novel is how this vaguely-worded permission slip for murder winds up in D’Artagnan’s possession and exonerates the Musketeers for Milady’s execution. In the novel, Richelieu is not precisely defeated when this is handed back to him; it is, after all, just a slip of paper, and he can disregard it if he chooses. But the second he sees it handed back to him he senses a certain appropriate irony in being stung by his own deeds, and a certain greatness powering the destiny of a young man who would simply hand the kill order back to him. He simply takes wry amusement in being hoist by his own petard and lets D’Artagnan go. That’s not just a great villain; that’s a villain you can respect as a man. This version takes away some of the element of choice in Richelieu’s decision, as the kill order is returned to him while the king is present and objecting will mean exposing his own perfidy. But Vincent Price knows what the moment is all about. He takes his defeat with a wry smile, and even seems to grin at the irony of his comeuppance, his eyes telling D’Artagnan: well-played.   It’s an extraordinarily subtle moment, that most film versions don’t even try to sell.

Lana Turner, who specialized in “bad girls,” is not quite a great Milady; she was great in other films, but here doesn’t quite convey the layers of cold sociopathy that the part requires. Still, it is chilling to see her manipulate the hapless Constance, a seduction of trust that will, we know, culminate in the murder of a girl naïve to the point of idiocy. (Constance, here played by June Allyson, really does only make sense in a faithful version if she’s an idiot).
 
As for Van Heflin, who plays Athos, we need to say this. The story of The Three Musketeers depends on outrageous coincidence to an extent that would almost never be allowed in a respected tale today, and one of its many contrivances is Athos pouring out his heart about his betrayal by the woman he loved, years after the event but  just before D’Artagnan needs to realize who Milady is. That’s the best-timed alcoholic reminiscence there ever was, but in prose a great writer can sell it and on-screen a great actor can sell it. Van Heflin was not, I think, a great actor, but he could be a good one, and he sells, really sells, the tragedy and pathos of the moment. (Pathos being, of course, the musketeer who was always outside of camera range.) A very, very young Angela Lansbury, who grew up to play secret serial killer Jessica Fletcher, is also in it, performing her function, which is pretty much just standing there looking pretty.

All in all, this is not a great version either, but it  is a very good one, driven by Gene Kelly’s magic. It deserves credit for making a good-faith attempt to tell the whole story in the allotted space, and might today be remembered as the definitive version were it not for the one made by the man who first envisioned his as a vehicle for the Beatles.

But that’s a story for next time.

TO BE CONTINUED


Bridezillas on the Rampage

Sheer Epic Hilarity

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Seven Chances (1925). Directed by Buster Keaton. Screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, and Joseph A Mitchell, from a story by David Belasco and Roi Cooper Megrue. Starring Buster Keaton. 56 minutes. ****

The Bachelor (1999). Directed by Gary Sinyor. Screenplay by Steve Cohen, from the 1925 screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, Joseph A. Mitchell, from the story by David Belasco and Roi Cooper Megrue. Starring Chris O’Donnell, Renee Zellwegger, Edward Asner, Peter Ustinov, Hal Holbrook, Brooke Shields, Sarah Silverman. 101 minutes. * 1/2

Other Notable Versions: Unseen by us, two short subjects by The Three Stooges both made during the Shemp era,  Brideless Groom and Husbands Beware. The latter, made at a time when the Stooges were forced by budgetary considerations to cut costs in humiliating ways, recycled much of its action footage from the earlier film.

*

This is it, folks: the single greatest span between original film and its first major remake that this blog has ever featured, or will likely ever feature. A child conceived on a date night that began with a night out at the movie theatre watching Seven Chances would have been about 74 years old as a grumpy old person catching a twilight matinee of The Bachelor.

Both films are about respectable young men with commitment issues, who have been been stringing along the same young woman without ever quite bringing themselves to declare their love or pop the question.

Both protagonists find themselves faced with professional ruination if they don’t collect the fortune promised by a grandfather’s will, provided the young man is wed by a certain birthday (27 in Seven Chances, 30 in The Bachelor).

Both leave that young man with little more than a day to arrange matrimony.

In both, turned down by the girl he really loves because he blows the proposal miserably, he must propose to a succession of others; in Seven Chances to a succession of vague acquaintances and distant strangers, in The Bachelor to the ladies he used to date, with whom things never quite worked out.

Both films turn toward disaster with a front-page newspaper story, that explains the fortune at stake, attracting hundreds of predatory women in bridal gowns to the church where this marriage of convenience must take place.

And both climax with our hero running for his life as a vast mob of scorned harpies pursue him with murder on their minds.

And yet Seven Chances is still remembered, closing in on ninety years after its initial release, as one of the greatest comedies of all time…while The Bachelor was forgotten even before it left the multiplex.

Maybe we’ll figure out a reason after we first cover the movie it’s trying to emulate.

Seven Chances (1925)

Of the three great silent-film comedians (the other two being Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd), Buster Keaton had the shortest golden age and the most difficult life. Chaplin continued to make great films well into the age of sound. Lloyd made a number of sound features that may have been inferior to his silent work and were certainly underappreciated, but are nevertheless amusing; and when it became clear to him that his time had passed, he stopped with plenty of money in the bank. Keaton, on the other hand, was plagued by alcoholism, a couple of spectacularly bad relationships with women, studios that refused him control of his own work and forced him into deals like acting as straight man to Jimmy Durante, financial woes, and decades of believing that he had been forgotten. (Fortunately, he lived just long enough to see his work re-discovered by a new generation.) Though he continued working until the 1960s and was permitted during those decades a few moments to show his genius, he was by any real standard pretty much over as a comic titan by the end of the 1920s.


 

Seven Chances is not his best film (that would probably be The General), but it’s a remarkably fun hour at the movies, and early on shows one of the elements that distinguished him from Chaplin and Lloyd:  his genius for concocting gags that could only be possible on film. Early in his career, he took apart a motion picture camera to determine exactly how it worked, and he was known for experimenting with special effects techniques that neither of his two great contemporaries would have tried. With one early film, The Playhouse (1921), he managed to appear on-screen as nine separate characters, in the same shot, using matte techniques that were unheard-of at the time and that he did not reveal for years. In another, the dazzling Sherlock Jr. (1924), he leaped from a movie theatre audience and onto a screen showing a feature, where he suffered a succession of indignities caused by scenery that insisted on quick-cutting from one environment to another. Moviemakers and film buffs still  examine these sequences frame per frame, to determine how he pulled off these sophisticated and hilarious effects with no tools but a technology still in what we could consider its infancy.

Though largely a straightforward narrative, Seven Chances still shows some of this kind of technical wizardry, with a scene where Buster’s character gets behind the wheel of his roadster, puts his hands on the wheel, and then, without moving a muscle or turning over the engine, arrives at his destination anyway, because the setting changes around him. The movie does this twice, and it remains a dazzling bit of stagecraft even in the age of CGI. (These days, the effect could be achieved digitally; then, it required meticulous planning, with the position of the camera in relation to the car, and Buster’s position inside the car, controlled to the millimeter.)

There’s a similar bit of virtuoso storytelling at the very beginning, where we’re treated to a succession of shots detailing the more than a year Buster has been spending time with his lady fair without quite getting around to telling her how he feels. We see the pair, and her dog, framed by her front gate, in a gloriously full technicolor summer scene. Then we get fall, and winter, and spring. The seasonal weather around them dictates the passage of time…but so, more hilariously, does the growth of her dog, which at first barely comes up to Buster’s ankles and then, over the course of a year, becomes a behemoth. It’s not just a great gag; it’s a vivid metaphor for the elephant in the room, the extent of this young man’s inability to open his mouth and say what he clearly wants to say.

The other marvel is, of course, Keaton himself. He was called the great stone face, because once he developed his persona he rarely reacted to anything except with his eyes;  and I have heard a number of people who don’t appreciate him opining that this meant he couldn’t act. Nonsense. He focused his attention through his eyes, which were as expressive as any pair of orbs every seen on film. He could express sadness, interest, happiness, embarrassment, terror, confusion, discomfort, and horror just by altering that focus. And there is never any doubt, at any point in any of his films, just what his characters are thinking and feeling. There is thus no doubt that his character in Seven Chances is gloriously in love, gloriously bereft when his love has said no, and then gloriously imperiled when the army of belligerent scorned brides chases him through the city streets. Even allowing for movie magic, he is also an astounding comedic athlete, one reason why the more contemporary folks who consider him a role model include one Jackie Chan.

And finally, there’s the avalanche sequence, excerpted above: product of a test-screening where the chase seemed to lie flat, until the audience laughed uproariously at a divine accident: three tiny rocks pursuing Buster down the side of a mountain.

Keaton listened to that test audience, re-thought the climax, and filmed one of the great wowsers of silent film: his characterpursued down the mountain by boulders of steadily increasing size, bouncing around him and dislodging still more as he gallops like mad to stay ahead of them. It doesn’t hurt the effectiveness of the sequence one whit to note that one “boulder” his own size actually strikes him and bounces off, revealing itself as a lightweight prop; you’re not supposed to notice that, and your enjoyment  and admiration for the sheer bravura of the action will not diminish one millimeter. The timing is perfect, and he’s still one of the great runners in movie history.

Not everything he does requires thrills to be effective. There’s a great sequence on a curving staircase where Keaton follows one strange young woman up to the second floor and, without a pause, follows another coming down, getting a no each time. There’s a bit involving a hat-check girl who has been observing the madness and doesn’t even allow him to blurt the big question out.

But it’s that whole last twenty minutes that amount to one of the great races to the altar in movie history, the chief reason why this movie is now considered a classic.

(One caveat: there are also a few uncomfortable gags involving black people, who are in a few cases presented as incredibly funny just because they’re black – but this was almost a century ago, and it takes up very little of the film. We note this with a level of forgiveness born of posterity, though your mileage may vary; in the meantime, we note it for the record, note also that some filmmakers of the time did far worse, and move on.)

 

Not nearly as good.

The Bachelor (1999) 

The Bachelor raises the stakes in a number of ways. The length of the movie balloons from almost one hour to almost two. The fortune at stake, adjusted for inflation, balloons from the original’s seven million to a hundred million. The lives at risk of ruination if our hero cannot get married by the deadline are not just the two owners of a small investment firm but the hundreds of workers who will lose their jobs if its protagonist cannot hold on to his pool-table factory. The action is moved from the still very rural Los Angeles of 1925 to the hills of San Francisco in 1999, which is not in and of itself a bad idea, as the hundreds of brides chasing Chris O’Donnell up and down those steep slopes should provide opportunities as fascinating as a mob the same size going after Buster Keaton on flat streets.

In addition, the terms of the will are far more stringent. The bequest that bedevils Buster Keaton in Seven Chances requires only that he get married by his 27th birthday. Nothing is said about him remaining married. He is shown, at one point, with two sets of train tickets, one to Niagara Falls and the other to Reno. His intentions couldn’t possibly get any clearer than that. In The Bachelor, the will specifies that any woman he marries must live with him in the same house for ten years, never spending more than one day a month apart from him…and establishing that she must, must, produce an heir. The ball-and-chain becomes weightier. Except for one key scene involving Brooke Shields, the comedy somehow diminishes.

The bride-search follows a different tack. In Seven Chances Keaton’s romantically clueless character popped the big question to a succession of women he barely knew, or didn’t know at all. It was a series of confrontations that began with, “Hello, will you marry me?” and always ended with disaster. The comedy comes in large part from the humiliation attendant on being forced into this impossible situation and doing it all wrong.

In The Bachelor, Chris O’Donnell’s Jimmy Shannon is a lifelong lady killer who has had a series of shallow relationships with women who he was never serious about. He is such a commitment-phobe that when he finally does meet one capable of capturing his heart (Renee Zellwegger’s Anne Arden), he blows his big proposal by summing up with a defeated, “You win.”

He’s thus less likeable right from the start…and when Anne says no and he finds out he must be married by Six O’clock the next day,  our empathy for him is diminished still further by this film’s admittedly more sensible but considerably less funny strategy of having him approach, not strangers, but women he’s actually dated.

The focus then becomes less the urgency of getting a woman, any woman, to say yes…but just why none of these previous relationships worked out. We learn that one of the women was too clingy, another downright boring, one too strident, and so on…and all of this requires a series of consecutive scenes that flirt with being amusing but fail to build tension. The problem is not just any resentment we might feel for being asked to feel pity for the plight of a good-looking, and soon to be rich, guy who has bedded and ultimately rejected all of these beautiful women – itself a far cry from the plight of the Keaton character who can’t even get to first base with the woman who he loves and who reciprocates his feelings; it’s that there’s no gathering momentum. The need for a separate scene with each woman reduces the rhythm of the film to stop-and-start, stop-and-start.

The Brooke Shields sequence deserves some props, mostly because the ex-girlfriend she plays, Buckley Hale-Windsor, is clearly the bitchiest and most unpleasant of the lot; of all of them, she clearly hates Jimmy the most, will be most intolerable living under the same roof with him, and is the one most equipped to feel the enormity of what she’s being asked to do. Agreeing to the marriage for reasons as mercenary as his, she nevertheless interrupts their wedding ceremony three times, to storm away and contemplate the awful price through furious clouds of tobacco smoke. This is as far as it goes a highlight of the film, and shows comic chops that, in 1999, few people knew Brooke Shields had. But it’s rueful-grin funny, not clutch-your-sides funny…and when that’s as funny as the film gets, you have a major problem.

The thing is, there are an awful lot of talented people in front of the camera, doing whatever they can to enliven a story that never sparks. This is a movie with a dream cast. Peter Ustinov, Ed Asner, Hal Holbrook, Sarah Silverman, Renee Zellwegger, Brooke Shields, and James Cromwell are all given funny stuff to do and say. Even O’Donnell, the weakest link, is not actively bad. The problem is that none of it sticks. It’s all stuff that you can look at and appreciate for being theoretically funny, without ever once feeling the need to laugh out loud. There’s a nice bit about the rapid notoriety of Jimmy’s horrifically failed proposal to Anne, and how it becomes famous city-wide…and yes, this is amusing enough, in a theoretical sense, but not funny. There’s another nice bit where Anne storms home afterward and starts preparing comfort food without quite looking at the ingredients, and yes, what she makes is so disgusting that it, too, should be funny…but again, what we get is the sense that it should be amusing, and not the actuality.  And there’s the visit to Anne’s parents, who are still so much in the throes of passionate love after a lifetime of marriage that their daughters can barely stand them…which again, is recognizably humor without quite achieving that lofty state.

And all of this is before Jimmy’s trapped in a church with hundreds of increasingly hostile brides, forced in an interminable scene to defend his taste in women to them. That is as leaden as it gets. It is the only identifiably awful scene in the movie.

And even that  is before Jimmy being chased through the city streets by an army of those brides. The sequence duplicates a little of what Keaton did, by having Jimmy approach an intersection with hundreds of pursuers behind him, only to find his situation worsened as more brides pour in from the cross-streets. But it doesn’t approach one-tenth of a ghost of a scintilla of a shadow of the epic nightmare of the same shots from the earlier film. Nor does it even attempt to match the earlier film’s cliffhangers and hair’s-breadth escapes. There’s of course no avalanche.

The closest thing the film comes to actually adding to Keaton’s vision is the moment where Anne joins Jimmy on a fire-escape, over a vast field of brides in white who have just been calmed by the realization that they have not been scammed and that an actual wedding is in fact taking place; she looks down on all those ladies dressed in bridal gowns, as far as the eye can see, and murmurs, “It’s so beautiful.” A nice moment. Which she then has to ruin by making a speech to underline it. Feh.

All in all, there’s activity, but no energy.

You could, of course, note in fairness that the films occupy different comic universes. Seven Chances intends to be over the top slapstick. The Bachelor aspires to be a romantic comedy and date film. The two subgenres have completely different priorities. But two of those priorities are making us care and making us laugh. Buster Keaton’s film has been doing both jobs for what is fast approaching a century. It transcends its time.  The Chris O’Donnell version? For whatever mysterious reason, it’s inert. And it had us checking our watches before the end of the first hour.

The Vows

There’s a difference between being engaged and wanting an annulment.

*

And now, the furious wife races down the center of the street, waving the brick she took from the construction site…

Second Commentary by Judi Castro

Seven Chances (1925). Directed by Buster Keaton. Screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, and Joseph A Mitchell, from a story by David Belasco and Roi Cooper Megrue. Starring Buster Keaton. 56 minutes. ***

The Bachelor (1999). Directed by Gary Sinyor. Screenplay by Steve Cohen, from the 1925 screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, Joseph A. Mitchell, from the story by David Belasco and Roi Cooper Megrue. Starring Chris O’Donnell, Renee Zellwegger, Edward Asner, Peter Ustinov, Hal Holbrook, Brooke Shields, Sarah Silverman. 101 minutes. **

Other Notable Versions: Unseen by us, two short subjects by The Three Stooges both made during the Shemp era, Brideless Groom and Husbands Beware. The latter, made at a time when the Stooges were forced by budgetary considerations to cut costs in humiliating ways, recycled much of its action footage from the earlier film.

Never watch a film you really need to see with a fanatic who has already seen it a bazillion times!

My viewing of Seven Chances came with a home-made commentary track supplied by my husband.  Not as much of a problem here as it could be with a sound film, but still VERY distracting. Now you may ask why is this my opening salvo for my half of this piece?  Simply put, the one thing that stands out in my mind about the 1925 version, was a chance viewing of two license plates on the cars in one of the proposal scenes and noting that they were sequential.  Call me a heretic or a non-believer, but this was not a great film!  It was very good.  Entertaining for its time.  Incredibly naïve by todays jaded standards, but not great.  The story line once again left me feeling (as many Keaton stories did) what an easily manipulated fool this man let himself be portrayed on screen.  I tend  not to enjoy the bumbling do-gooders who win in the end since usually some jackass relative or friend is made better too!And these are the typical Keaton film characters.  So this film’s unspoken, long-term love match and dire economic (criminal) plots just remind us of the used and abused fool the man always played.  If I need a bumbler to win I prefer Chaplin any day.

Now, the 1999 rom-com had nothing intrinsically wrong.  The casting of this film was great (with one HUGE exception), but did they bother to check for on-screen chemistry? I felt more of an emotional tug during the scene in the boat between O’Donnell and Cromwell, than any of the scenes with O’Donnell and Zellwegger.  I’m sorry if this film is any reader’s idea of great, but it really never elevated above sweet.  And why (here’s the aforementioned exception) did they cast Artie Lange?  His comedy act is playing obnoxious, and he carries that forward into this film.  Chris O’Donnell’s best friend and wingman would never be this shlub.  The sidekick should have been more snake oil salesman able to drag his buddy through this long night’s charade, while still keeping his spirits up.

Oh, and one quick mention how everycharacter is once again in it for themselves.  They need the poor groom to get hitched to save the business and their jobs and their lives.  What about his life?  His happiness?  What the hell’s wrong with wanting to stay single until you know you’re ready?  What’s so romantic about rushing to the altar?  Divorce lawyers love it, that’s all.  There should have been some out that any good lawyer could have found, especially since they never completed viewing the taped will. Didn’t anyone consider the timing factor?  When was the will taped?  How many years were then available to Jimmy?  None of this is considered just the rush to what is supposed to be hilarity and instead invokes sighs of indifference.

Since neither film ranked high on my rush back for another viewing meter and I need a palate cleanser, I’ll go back and watch Notting Hill for the umpteenth time and try to remember what rom coms are like.  As to Mr. Keaton, I feel the need to rewatch One Week and remind myself of the wonder of his physical comedic timing.