(American, 1922, 125 minutes, b/w, 16 mm, silent)
following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers
Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies
at Pennsylvania State University:
Within a short time, Fairbanks and Pickford would marry, and become the very embodiment of modern celebrity, American royalty just as surely as if this democracy doled out knighthoods and scepters. Their home in Hollywood, Pickfair, became a model English country seat, where visiting heads of state were routinely entertained. Doug and Mary were greeted on European tours with all the pomp due their monarchical status. Doug’s formula for happiness—humility, good humor, and always, the strenuous life of physical culture—was enshrined in best-selling advice books like Laugh and Live, Making Life Worth While, and Youth Points the Way. A generation of adoring boys made them bestsellers.
As Doug’s social status evolved ever upward—his Ivy League undergraduate persona metamorphosing into a dashing young CEO—his films changed, too. From rollicking modern-dress comedies like HIS PICTURE IN THE PAPERS and WILD AND WOOLY, Doug chose projects from his version of The Great Books: THE MARK OF ZORRO, THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD, THE THREE MUSKETEERS. Each production was more gigantic than the last, each what the trade press called "super spectaculars." Inspired by developments in German films he and Mary had seen during their trips abroad, the films became known for their detailed, fantastical sets then and still today among the unquestioned highlights of the art of cinematic scene design.
But the films remained the work of a charmingly overgrown adolescent, and when the cameras began rolling, Fairbanks could be counted on to produce what Variety was wont to call "corking photoplays." By ROBIN HOOD, Fairbanks’s penchant for breathtaking leaps, dives, and climbs, for handsprings, rope tricks, and pole vaulting, for fencing and even occasional fisticuffs, had turned into a preoccupation for both the star and his audiences. In his latest film, Fairbanks was determined to give himself the most spectacular playground the movies had ever seen. He began by buying an entire studio—the old Jesse Hampton lot on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and La Brea, in an area then so deserted that hundreds of acres of empty fields were available nearby for the film’s various settings, including a wilderness that would do nicely for Sherwood Forest. The sets threatened to displace Fairbanks as the star of his own movie. ROBIN HOOD’s castle set was, by most accounts, the biggest single structure ever built for a silent film, bigger even than the Walls of Babylon set for D.W. Griffith’s ponderous 1915 epic INTOLERANCE; it covered ten acres and its construction employed most of the casual labor in Los Angeles for months.
The film’s director, Allan Dwan, was a trained engineer, and with set designer Wilfred Buckland, he ensured that the set was larded with devices that would enhance Doug’s stunts: handholds were built into the walls, trampolines to make his leaps even more outlandish, and a long, long, long slide hidden behind the castle draperies to make possible one of Doug’s most remarkable escapes. The entire castle, with its secret passageways, acrobat’s perches, and dizzying heights, was designed as a fantasy machine for the sole use of its boyish owner.
When the film was finally shot, it combined a first half freighted with court spectacle and pageantry with a second half brimming with vintage Doug—mirthful, brave, a little bashful with women, and owning a boy’s spirit of high adventure. Born a noble but unfairly dispossessed, Doug’s Robin wins back his position through his own ingenuity and courage. Nominally set in medieval England, ROBIN HOOD became, in Doug’s hands, a genuinely American fantasy. "Not by birth, but by pluck," might have read the motto on this Robin Hood’s coat of arms, and indeed, unearned wealth and impenetrable status barriers are thoroughly discredited by Robin and his Merrie Men in the picture’s exuberant second half. Or, as an approving critic of the time put it, in ROBIN HOOD, "Olde England gets a thorough jazzing." HIS MAJESTY, THE AMERICAN had been the title of an earlier Fairbanks film; ROBIN HOOD made the phrase anything but hyperbole. Not surprisingly, the film was Doug’s biggest hit ever, and the great box office smash of 1923. Its cost of $1,400,000 was unimaginable for its day, but so was its profit of $2,500,000.
Even the promotion of the film found Fairbanks in form. He copyrighted the film as DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS IN ROBIN HOOD, lest anyone still not get it, and the film ran for so long at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre that streetcar conductors began to announce the stop as "All out for ROBIN HOOD!" For the film’s New York premiere, he took to a rooftop, to be photographed in his street clothes, holding a bow and arrow. Suddenly, as director Allan Dwan and others watched, "some deviltry within him made him let go of the arrow and away it flew." The arrow went some distance before it went through a window and pierced the buttocks of a startled tailor, who ran screaming into the street. Doug blithely volunteered to pay the man $5,000 to forget the whole business, writing it off as the acceptable cost of his own high jinks. It was a gesture exactly in character for Doug’s Robin Hood.
There would be other Robins Hood, but after Fairbanks, none who matched their creator’s offscreen personality so happily. Among them have been Errol Flynn, famously, then Richard Greene, and, finally, somewhat ignominiously, Kevin Costner. Flynn’s Hood was a pretty matinee idol, Greene’s a squeaky, sanitized Disney good-guy, and Costner’s a troubled tough. Only Sean Connery’s middle-aged Robin in Richard Lester’s 1976 ROBIN AND MARIAN caught the last echoes of Doug’s Robin. In ROBIN AND MARIAN, 20 years after Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood’s patron dies, crazy and in exile, and Robin’s long adolescence must finally end. As the 1920s ended and ‘the era of wonderful nonsense’ was replaced by the gray curtain of the Depression, Fairbanks, nearing 50, found his own screen adolescence had worn thin with his fans. He would die in 1939, his trademark youthfulness forever a thing of the ’teens and 20s, a marker of a nation’s lost innocence just as he had once been the most famous exponent of its boundless optimism.
Watching ROBIN HOOD tonight is to see many of the early Twentieth Century’s most unselfconscious fantasies anew. This is a "Boy’s Own" adventure story come to life, a joyous hash of derring-do, stunts, and cornball gags. Perhaps the resilience of ROBIN HOOD springs from Fairbanks’s legendary joie-de-vivre, still glowing brightly from the screen after all these years.
In the midst of preparing Hollywood’s most expensive productions, Fairbanks seemed to thrive on the energy that only boyhood foolishness could supply. As the sets were being completed for ROBIN HOOD, Fairbanks was advised that a shoestring independent producer wanted to rent the mammoth castle for his own film, to be released before ROBIN HOOD. An angry Fairbanks rejected the idea outright. Nonetheless, he was convinced to come down to watch a run-through of the scene that was to be shot on his castle set. As Fairbanks fumed, watching from an observation tower, he saw the forty-foot drawbridge in front of the castle slowly, ever so slowly, begin to be cranked down. Finally, as it touched the ground, he saw a tiny figure in a woolly nightgown, slippers, and a sleep cap walk out of the castle, carrying a kitten. At the end of the drawbridge, the little man stopped, yawned, stretched, and put the kitten down. He picked up a bottle of milk and a newspaper. Then, he turned and slowly walked back into the castle. Up went the drawbridge. The little man was, of course, Charlie Chaplin, and Fairbanks roared with laughter as he realized he’d been set up with a lavish, exquisite practical joke. For him, moviemaking could offer no more delicious reward.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.