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The Corsican Brothers

The Corsican Brothers(1941)

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teaser The Corsican Brothers (1941)

Put the blame on Cain but two brothers pitted against one another or teaming up to take on a common enemy has long been a storytelling standard. Romulus and Remus, The Prince and the Pauper, Biff and Happy Loman, The Krays and The Brothers Grimm all have books and/or films of their own that speak to the eternal question of man's divided nature. Alexander Dumas' 1844 novel Les frres Corses is considered one of the French writer's lesser works (especially when compared to the long-lived Le Comte de Monte-Cristo and Les trois Mousquetaires) but has been adapted for the big screen no less than ten times (as early as 1898 and as recently as 1997, with the most interesting interpretation being Cheech and Chong's The Corsican Brothers in 1984). The best-remembered of these swashbucklers is Gregory Ratoff's 1941 version, starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., made for producer Edward Small at United Artists.

The Brooklyn-born Small had been a talent agent during the silent era, later producing films through his Reliance Pictures, which had a distribution deal with UA. Small had his first crack at Dumas pre with The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), starring Robert Donat. True to his name, the frugal producer kept his productions modest and got name actors to lower their asking price in exchange for roles they would not have been offered elsewhere. After a brief stint behind the scenes at RKO, Small formed Edward Small Pictures and produced James Whale's The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) and Rowland V. Lee's The Son of Monte Cristo (1940), both starring Louis Hayward. When 20th Century Fox scored a success with their lavish adaptation of The Three Musketeers (1939), Small turned to the lesser-known The Corsican Brothers but upped the ante by tapping Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., the son of cinema's greatest swashbuckler.

At the time he signed on to star in The Corsican Brothers, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. hadn't worked in a year. Handsomer than his world-famous father (whose second wife was silent screen star Mary Pickford), "Young Doug" never quite escaped that familial shadow. Given a Paramount contract when he was only 14 years old, Fairbanks fils (christened Douglas Elton Ulman Fairbanks at birth and raised by his mother after his parents' divorce) made a number of undistinguished silent films but paid his thespian dues as a stage actor. His early, four-year marriage to rising star Joan Crawford seemed to focus Fairbanks' energies and he was well-placed in a few big films after the advent of sound, including The Dawn Patrol (1930), Outward Bound (1930) and Little Caesar (1931). He played the villain to Ronald Colman's The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) and was one of the two-fisted heroes of Gunga Din (1939), made the year of his father's death.

At the time that cameras rolled on The Corsican Brothers in the summer of 1941, the war in Europe was escalating and Fairbanks' attentions were unevenly divided between his negligible career and his interests in politics, diplomacy and humanitarian causes. (Fairbanks' efforts on behalf of Russian refugees won him the admiration and respect of his Corsican Brothers director, Gregory Ratoff.) President Franklin Delano Roosevelt named the then-31 year-old actor a special envoy to South America and during shooting he was called to active duty by the United States Navy. Allowed to complete the picture, Fairbanks enjoyed the discipline of training with dueling coaches Ralph Faulkner (for sabers) and Fred Cavens (for foils and epes) and establishing distinct mannerisms for each of the identical Corsican Brothers (whose presence in the same frame was achieved via double exposure and rear projection). In between set-ups, Fairbanks' leading lady Ruth Warrick (an RKO player on loan-out) helped him study his officer's training manual. When the two parted company at the completion of principal photography, Fairbanks told Warrick that working with her was the most fun he'd had "since punting on the Thames with Gertie Lawrence" - and this despite the fact that he completed work on the film with a raging fever of 103 degrees.

The Corsican Brothers opened on December 18, 1941, just eleven days after the Japanese sneak attack upon the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor. Due to America's entry into World War II, the official premiere at the Loew's Palace in Washington, D.C., was understated and conducted without benefit of klieg lights. Reviews were decidedly mixed, with The New York Times sniping that the production "has the comfortable old-fashioned look of a 1910 sofa, most of its springs are broken," but the box office returns were encouraging. As a junior officer aboard the Boston-based USS Mississippi, a navy supply ship, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., had no time to reflect on The Corsican Brothers... until a regularly scheduled movie night on the afterdeck consisted of a special screening of just that picture. Sitting uncomfortably among the assembled "bluejackets," the star of the show suffered the Bronx cheers and ribald remarks that greeted both his fight scenes with villain Akim Tamiroff (and Tamiroff's more agile double) and love scenes with Ruth Warwick. "The wolf whistles, catcalls, and shouted recommendations as to what I should do next," Fairbanks recalled in his combat memoir A Hell of a War, "held me in rigid dumbness with, I was told, a stupid, self-conscious grin on my face."

The military career of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., would prove to be decidedly more heroic. Promoted from lieutenant to lieutenant commander to commander, Fairbanks worked tirelessly with military intelligence, served as a valuable go-between for the American and British high commands and even invented a variety of decoy parachutist (or "paragon") that would draw enemy fire away from the activities of actual paratroopers and self-destruct on landing, leaving behind no trace of the bait-and-switch. For his service above and beyond the call of duty, Fairbanks was awarded the Silver Star, the British Distinguished Service Cross, the Legion of Honor and Croix de Guerre from France and the War Cross for Military Valor from Italy. In 1946, he was made Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Because his efforts for Naval Intelligence were so top secret in their day, the full extent of Fairbanks' military career may never fully be appreciated. (In an odd coincidence that illustrates the hush-hush aspect of this work, Fairbanks would later retain as a butler a man whom he discovered only by chance had been a ranking Special Operations officer during the war but who remained steadfast in his resolve never to speak of it.) On his return to Hollywood in 1947, Fairbanks enjoyed a sizeable success with Sinbad the Sailor at RKO but it was in television that he would have the most impact, as the host of the British anthology series Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Presents. He died of a heart attack on May 7, 2000, at the age of 90, and is interred in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, alongside his father.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
Salad Days by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
A Hell of a War by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
The Confessions of Phoebe Tyler by Ruth Warrick with Don Preston
The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War by Thaddeus Holt
The Politics and Strategy of Clandestine War: Special Operations Executive, 1940-1946 by Neville Wylie
The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz

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teaser The Corsican Brothers (1941)

Producer Edward Small and writer Alexandre Dumas were well acquainted. No, they weren't peers but Small did carve out quite a successful career using the works of Dumas as a rights-free entry into a movie series with a built-in audience. Small made The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), The Man in the Iron Mask (1939), and The Son of Monte Cristo (1940) and when all of those proved popular, he dipped into the rich Dumas well again and came up with The Corsican Brothers in 1941. He even had the good sense to cast Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., son of the most famous swashbuckler Hollywood has ever known (that would be Doug Sr.) and it proved as commercially successful as the others, if not, perhaps, as critically so.

The story of The Corsican Brothers begins in Corsica, of course, before the two are even born, when we learn their mother is about to give birth to them. The Count and Countess Franchi are proud to announce the imminent birth of their first child while their sworn enemies, the Colonnas, headed by the great Akim Tamiroff, are plotting to kill the whole family and seize power. After Dr. Paoli (H.B. Warner) informs the Count that the Countess gave birth to Siamese twins (no one calls them conjoined twins in this movie, as should probably be expected), the Count insists they be surgically separated, even if it kills them. Better they die than have to live joined, the father reasons, although the doctor thinks it's a mistake. Before the surgery can be performed, the Colonnas attack and kill the Count and Countess but not before the doctor can escape with the twins.

Eventually, the doctor is able to separate the two and the brothers, Lucien and Mario, both played by Fairbanks, Jr., are raised separately, neither knowing of the other's existence. But Lucien suspects it or, better said, senses it. As they grow up, Lucien feels what Mario feels. When Mario is physically injured, Lucien feels the pain. This sixth sense is finally confirmed when, on their 21st birthday, the doctor reunites the two and tells them who they really are. The two brothers vow revenge on the Colonnas clan.

Doing a movie with one actor playing two characters that interact is never easy but on a low budget, it can be especially difficult. The optical work has its problems but those problems mainly come from poor planning and bad decisions rather than low budget. For example, during the scene where the two brothers face each other as they are introduced, each with his hand on the Franchi family history bible, the effect looks good until the doctor and Mario overlap, with both men's hats becoming transparent, since the doctor is in the original shot with Lucien and Mario is in the second shot overlaid. A little better planning on their placement and this wouldn't have happened. Meanwhile, the bad decision comes with having Mario reach forward and touch Lucien's hand. When the arm goes out, clearly from someone else being masked in the Mario shot, it clearly comes off as a disembodied arm. Take out the transparent hats and the disembodied arm, and the effect would have worked seamlessly, because Fairbanks does a good job of playing both characters differently enough that special effects aren't necessary to convince the audience. It's a rare instance where the lower budget alternative, just having them stand on opposite sides of the screen, is much better than going for a clever effect. Better still are the shots where the two brothers are seen from medium distance or over the shoulder, at which point a double can be used and quite effectively. In this case, that double was the legendary Peter Cushing.

The Corsican Brothers works in spite of the low budget for a few reasons. One, it's simply a good, rousing swashbuckler, something Edward Small knew how to put together by combining the right actors with the right director. Two, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., while never reaching the heights of fame and celebrity as his father, was still good enough and charming enough to carry a movie like this on his shoulders and pull it off. And three, Akim Tamiroff, period (he's also reasons four through ten). Tamiroff made his name in the thirties with movies like The General Died at Dawn (1936) and The Buccaneer (1938), and by 1941 was in full command of his craft. He could have fun with a role like this and did. Bosley Crowther even singled him out in his New York Times review to say that while Fairbanks played his role with a bit too much "solemnity," Tamiroff played it with "thorough comprehension of its fancy-dress phoniness." In other words, he hammed it up, as well he should. Subtlety is rarely a virtue in a swashbuckler and The Corsican Brothers is no exception. And when it follows its low budget heart and forgets the clever optical tricks, it's at its enjoyable best.

By Greg Ferrara

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