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Before he became the quintessential swashbuckler -- in such films as The Three Musketeers (1921), The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Black Pirate (1926) -- Douglas Fairbanks was a screen idol of a different stripe. During the 1910s, he was more of a homespun hero, a positive-thinking Horatio Alger character who conquered adversity through physical agility, pluck and wit.
Sort of a Will Rogers with muscles, Fairbanks poked fun at the modernized world, and proved that down-home resourcefulness was the key to romantic, financial, and social prosperity. He tried to maintain this persona off-screen as well. In 1917, he published a book entitled Laugh and Live, containing chapters such as "Energy, Success and Laughter," "Cleanliness of Body and Mind," and "Self-Education by Good Reading." The book was offered for sale in hardcover, as well as in a series of six "inspirational" pamphlets. This was followed, in 1918, by Making Life Worth While.
As much as the public loved Fairbanks as a little man with big dreams, the actor himself yearned to slip into larger-than-life roles. But letting go of the old Fairbanks was not so easy. In 1917, the actor found a way to play the European swordfighter without abandoning his "aw shucks" persona. He dipped his toe into deeper waters with the help of a story called "D'Artagnan of Kansas" by Eugene P. Lyle, Jr., published in Everybody's Magazine September, 1912.
The story, which would reach the screen as A Modern Musketeer on December 30, 1917, concerns a small-town man who is obsessed with the exploits of d'Artagnan, the protagonist of Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers. As rendered on screen, most of the story occurs in contemporary times. However, Fairbanks and director Allan Dwan indulged their interest in romantic swordplay by opening the film with an extended prologue set in 18th-century France. In it, d'Artagnan (Fairbanks) defends a maiden's honor and takes on a tavern full of miscreants in an agile display of fencing and acrobatics.
Fast-forward to 1917 and d'Artagnan is transformed into a clean-cut modern man, Ned Thacker (Fairbanks), who walks in his hero's footsteps and defends a woman's honor in a den of street thugs.
From birth, Thacker seems destined for a different kind of life. His mother (Edythe Chapman) reads The Three Musketeers during her pregnancy, and gives birth during a tornado, virtually sealing her child's fate as a feisty adventurer. Or, as one snappy intertitle explains: "2 + 2 = 4. Cyclone + D'Artagnan = Speed!!!" Just as d'Artagnan was sent out into the world on a knobby yellow steed by his father, Thacker is dispatched in a rattling jalopy and promptly mows down the neighbor's fence.
In these Kansas scenes, look quickly for a glimpse of Zasu Pitts in an uncredited role as a potential object of Thacker's affection.
On his cross-country trek, Thacker encounters Dorothy Dodge (Marjorie Daw), a "sweet unspoiled Park Avenue flapper" who is being wooed on a trans-continental auto tour by a slimy socialite, Forrest Vandeteer (Eugene Ormonde). Thacker helps the stranded motorists reach an inn in El Tovar by mounting his car on the railroad tracks and improvising a wagon for their luggage. In spite of his help, Thacker is shunned by Vandeteer and warned away from his fourth wife-to-be.
But Thacker isn't Vandeteer's only rival. A hot-blooded cliff-dwelling Navajo named Chin-de-dah (Frank Campeau) has a taste for white women. The last one who fell into his clutches is shown, in flashback, driving a knife into her own heart. As might be expected, Chin-de-dah makes off with the virginal Dorothy, and it is up to Thacker to rescue not only the fair maiden, but her bumbling would-be husband. He is assisted in his crusade by a social outcast (the wonderfully slimy Tully Marshall), who is harboring a dark secret about the influential Mr. Vandeteer.
At the time of the film's production, Fairbanks and "America's Sweetheart," actress Mary Pickford, had become romantically involved, in spite of the fact that both of these all-American icons were currently married to other people. According to Booton Herndon's 1977 book Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks: The Most Popular Couple the World Has Ever Known, Pickford's husband, actor Owen Moore, had threatened to kill Fairbanks, so Fairbanks thought it best to leave Los Angeles for a while, until Moore's temper cooled. Fairbanks booked a cross-country train ticket, gathered a stack of literary properties being considered for films, and headed to New York, accompanied by his half-brother John Fairbanks.
During his flight, Fairbanks learned that one of his favorite directors, Allan Dwan (who directed him in The Half-Breed in 1916, and would later helm Robin Hood  and The Iron Mask ) was also on a cross-country voyage, heading to L.A. from New York. Fairbanks wired Dwan to meet him halfway so they could ride back to Manhattan together and begin cooking up another project. Dwan gamely consented and it was on this impromptu rail journey that "D'Artagnan of Kansas" emerged from a pile of stories and began its evolution into A Modern Musketeer.
By October 27, 1917, a cast and crew had been assembled and was heading to Arizona, where location photography was set to commence. Ralph Hancock and Letitia Fairbanks report in their 1953 book Douglas Fairbanks: The Fourth Musketeer that Fairbanks, Dwan, and cinematographer Victor Fleming (who would later direct Fairbanks in The Mollycoddle  before going on to make Gone with the Wind ) engaged in a bit of perilous horseplay on their way into the desert. "Once they all climbed out a window of the train while it was speeding along, worked their way along the side by holding on to the narrow window ledges, and then peered into the Pullman windows. The passengers who saw three grinning heads staring at them through the windows of the speeding train were, to put it mildly, frightened out of their wits. Two women fainted. The conductor pulled the emergency cord, stopped the train, and gave the crazy trio hell."
Filming occurred at the Grand Canyon, as well as the cliff dwellings at the Canyon de Chelly. In one scene, Fairbanks demonstrates a bit of derring-do by vaulting into a handstand mere inches from the edge of a vast canyon. It makes for quite a thrilling scene, until one learns that the camera was carefully placed to conceal the fact that there was a lower ledge that would safely catch the actor should he miscalculate the stunt.
One reason Fairbanks's acrobatic feats are so amazing is that they seem so graceful and effortless. This was due to his physical finesse as well as the meticulous planning of his crew. In shooting one scene of A Modern Musketeer -- in which Thacker escapes from a band of thugs by trotting across a series of rooftops -- the phony houses were placed approximately six to eight feet apart for him to leap across. Booton writes, "When Doug saw the distances, he protested, 'I can jump farther than that!' Dwan, knowing that Doug could indeed jump twice that far, pointed out that the idea was not to set records, but to look good. It was Dwan who convinced Doug to accent the ease and grace of his screen actions by doing less than he was capable of, eliminating any appearance of strain in favor of smooth, flowing, effortless movement."
As another example, the prop department would routinely saw off the legs of tables to perfectly match Fairbanks's leaping abilities, so he could spring upon them almost casually.
While on location, the crew experienced at least one brush with Native American spiritualism. "They had set up camp under an overhanging cliff at the bottom of the Canyon de Chelly, but the resident Indians, who claimed the place was haunted, insisted that they go to the trouble of moving to the other side of the canyon," wrote Herndon, "That night, Dwan said, a huge portion of the cliff fell with a roar right where their tents had been."
For years, A Modern Musketeer existed only in an incomplete form, missing its final two reels. The lost footage was eventually rediscovered and the film was restored to its original length by the Danish Film Institute.
In the end, Fairbanks's experiment with a costumed hero was the most significant aspect of A Modern Musketeer. Its success gave him the confidence to venture further away from the small-town roles he embraced in the 1910s, and begin to take up the foil and feathered cap of more exotic protagonists. But no matter what the historic or geographic setting, Fairbanks made sure that his characters maintained the charming good nature and virtuous behavior that had become and would forever remain his personal trademark.
Director: Allan Dwan
Producer: Douglas Fairbanks
Screenplay: Allan Dwan
Based on the story "D'Artagnan of Kansas" by Eugene P. Lyle, Jr.
Cinematography: Victor Fleming
Cast: Douglas Fairbanks (Ned Thacker, d'Artagnan), Marjorie Daw (Dorothy Dodge), Frank Campeau (Chin-de-dah), Eugene Ormonde (Forrest Vandeteer), Tully Marshall (James Brown), Kathleen Kirkham (Mrs. Dodge), Edythe Chapman (Mrs. Thacker).
NOTE: Douglas Fairbanks's book Laugh and Live can be downloaded free of charge through Project Gutenberg.
by Bret Wood