Cinevent Notes: MR ROBINSON CRUSOE (1932)

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Richard M Roberts
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Cinevent Notes: MR ROBINSON CRUSOE (1932)

Postby Richard M Roberts » Thu May 08, 2014 4:29 pm

Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s talkie career in some ways is the real version of the John Gilbert legend, and also once again proves that having plenty of money, your own studio, and all the production control in the world cannot save a career when the public’s tastes change. Five talkies was all it took, one more than his spouse and business partner, Mary
Pickford, before both of these reigning royalties of the Silent Era packed in their film careers for keeps.

Pickford had won much critical success and an Academy Award for her first talkie, COQUETTE in 1928, and then co-starred with her husband in his talkie debut, an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s TAMING OF THE SHREW, released in 1929, the same year that Fairbanks had released his last silent, THE IRON MASK, an elaborate sequel to his 1921 THREE MUSKETEERS and somewhat of a bittersweet farewell to the Silent Film and his swashbuckling career, already compromised by a synchronized musical score and a talking prologue.

TAMING OF THE SHREW was a sizeable hit, partially due to audience curiosity and the pairing of the two great stars in one film, but Fairbanks seemed at a bit of a loss as to his follow-up film in talking pictures. REACHING FOR THE MOON actually returned Fairbanks to a modern milieu, in an Art-Deco musical (with score by Irving Berlin), and a pairing with Bebe Daniels, then on a crest of a wave as a major talkie star, but by the time the film was ready for release in late 1930, musicals were considered “box-office poison” and REACHING FOR THE MOON found itself shorn of most of its Berlin music, save for one song sung by a young Bing Crosby, and released in early 1931 as a jazz-age comedy about the rich, just in time for Depression Era audiences to avoid it like the plague.

That film’s failure seemed to hit Fairbanks pretty hard, as middle age and a less-than-favorable attitude to making talkies to begin with, sent Fairbanks into a cautious and perhaps more weary attitude in making his next film. He set off on a World Tour with his friend, Director Victor Fleming, and as some sort of justification for the trip, they shot a feature-length travelogue. AROUND THE WORLD (IN 80 MINUTES) WITH DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS came out in late 1931, and audiences and critics alike saw it for the trifle it was, shot silent, with Fairbanks chattily narrating, the film also failed to make a hit, even though it had not been an expensive production, ended up as a loss for Fairbanks and United Artists.

So Doug set out overseas once again, this time with Director Edward Sutherland and a full crew in tow, to shoot a modern day version of “Robinson Crusoe” in Tahiti and the Fiji islands. Though also planned as a talkie, apparently the sound equipment they brought was faulty, forcing Sutherland to shoot with a mute camera with plans for later dubbing. Strangely enough, as much of the film was just Fairbanks alone on the island, this was, forgive the pun, a perfectly sound idea.

The plot could have been one of the Fairbanks polite comedies from the late teens, with Doug as an established millionaire diving off his yacht into the ocean just to prove that he could survive on a tropical island and make his own world. Even that Fairbanks is now forty-nine years old seems to matter little, it is a slight tale, with none of Daniel Dafoe’s loneliness and little strife, of course Doug proves himself very quickly, and, instead of a Man Friday, finds himself with a very fetching Girl Saturday in the form of Maria Alba, a sometimes actress whom Doug brought aboard for the trip and apparently carried on with quite happily on both sides of the camera.

Born Maria Casajuana on March 19, 1910, in Barcelona, Spain, the extremely beautiful Alba had been a Fox starlet given a few silent leads just before sound came in (ROAD HOUSE and BLINDFOLD (both 1928)), but her English was not considered solid enough and when talkies came in, she found herself making Spanish-language version of American features for Paramount, MGM (where she appeared in the Spanish version of HIS GLORIOUS NIGHT in 1929), and Columbia. She and Fairbanks hooked up sometime in 1931 (Doug was apparently into Latin babes, Lupe Velez and Maria Alba both behind Mary’s back! At least you can’t fault his taste while you can fault his marital stability), and she went along with the restless Doug in his World travels, and making this film. MR. ROBINSON CRUSOE didn’t do much to further her film career, she appeared in Mack Sennett’s HYPNOTIZED in 1933 and made a few Poverty Row features through 1935, her most remembered performance today is playing the exotic Egyptian Princess Nadji in the Sol Lesser serial THE RETURN OF CHANDU (1934) with Bela Lugosi. Eye-catching as she was, Maria Alba gave up on her film career as the 30’s progressed, save for a couple of Mexican Movie appearances in the mid-40’s which were her final film roles. Settling down for marriage in 1950, Maria Alba lived to a ripe old age and passed away in 1976.

Due to the sound equipment issues, apart from a couple of studio-shot sequences matched up to the location footage, MR ROBINSON CRUSOE is entirely post-dubbed, but a completely silent version was also prepared for International release, and both versions survive today, though the silent is far less available. This is unfortunate, as the silent version is definitely the better of the two, with Alfred Newman’s excellent music accompanying it very effectively, and with the awkward post-dubbing gone, the studio mock-ups of the early scenes seem less obvious and annoying in their talk. It just feels more like a silent film to begin with, Fairbanks seemed to prefer silence, and this is one way he could have continued in this mode, just as his other UA partner Charlie Chaplin would avoid sound all through the thirties. It is not certain that this International Version saw much distribution at the time, but it did turn up as a 1950’s reissue of the film by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Robert L. Lippert thus has survived the test of time. Cinevent is happy to present it to you today.

Douglas Fairbanks Sr. only made one more film, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF DON JUAN for Alexander Korda in 1934 and that is easily his best talking film and an oddly effective and appropriate way to both sum up and wrap his film career. Playing an ageing and world-weary Juan now more trapped by his legend than immortalized by it seemed to indicate well just how much the World had passed by it’s dreams of swashbuckling romantics, then and now again, and that no one realized this better than Doug. He gave a subtle, nuanced performance in the film, perhaps the only one of his late career, and it provided a fitting swan-song, whether he wanted one or not. As the personification of youth and vitality that he had manufactured, maybe it was merciful that Douglas Fairbanks Sr. did not live to deal with the infirmities of old age, passing away at 56 in 1939, Doug Fairbanks kept up the mirage for longer than most, and exited just as the World prepared to lose even more of it’s innocence.


Gary Johnson
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Re: Cinevent Notes: MR ROBINSON CRUSOE (1932)

Postby Gary Johnson » Fri May 09, 2014 12:26 am

Back in the late Twenties Doug Fairbanks was probably the first modern day example of a man experiencing a mid-life crisis. Everything seemed to change for him overnight -- his marriage, his Industry, even his country as a whole. Nowadays the cliche for men when they turn 50 - and wonder if their life is ebbing - is to impulsively go out and buy a Jag. But Fairbanks had to act impulsively on a grand scale -- he went out and bought the world! And spent the last decade of his life traversing it.

Because of that, Fairbanks' talkies always give off a sense of melancholy to me as I watch them. None more so than DON JUAN. An aging past master coming to terms with his own mortality. Those same feelings sweep over me watching Flynn enact the role for Warners in 1948. There must be something in the material to induce such rueful sadness.
In direct contrast ROBINSON CRUSOE has got to be one of Fairbanks cheeriest films. Everything to accomplish is a snap for Doug in this pic. No sooner has he dried off after swimming to the island than he has transformed it into a Swiss Family Robinson playground. He even takes the time to carve out eating utensils out of bamboo and create a radio out of seashells (which I then assume he uses to call Gilligan's Island to invite the castaways over for a game of bocce ball). It's a fun movie which should have been funner. Way to much footage is spent on the islands menagerie. But my biggest letdown is the climatic chase Doug leads the cannibals on. It should had been more elaborate and stunt-filled, like Zorro eluding the Spanish guards for two reels.

But that quibble aside ROBINSON CRUSOE is probably the best representation of Fairbank's silent filmdom charisma transferred to the talkie medium. He did a much better job at it than his wife ever did. KIKI and SECRETS may be roles that actresses yearned to play once, but they did nothing to display the winsome charm and rambunctious spirit that Mary projected for two decades on the silent screen.
But even if this film had hit big with audiences when first released, I doubt it would had changed the trajectory Fairbanks was following. I believe it was Alistair Cooke who quoted Doug along the lines of......

"All of the fun went out of making movies once sound arrived..."

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