The Three Musketeers (1935)
For this first American talkie version in 1935, RKO brought in Walter Abel from the Broadway stage. Abel had made three films previous to this, the last an adaptation of the play Liliom (1930), in which he had a small part. After The Three Musketeers, he got leads in several B releases and supporting roles in many major films. Over the decades, Abel become one of the most familiar character actors in movies and television, up until his last appearance in 1984, three years before his death at age 88. According to The Hollywood Reporter, however, Abel wasn't the first choice for D'Artagnan. The trade paper reported that Francis Lederer was originally assigned the role, although there's no indication of why he didn't appear.
For D'Artagnan's intrepid companions, the titular musketeers, the studio cast three other actors who would become familiar supporting players in hundreds of movies over the course of their long careers: Paul Lukas, Onslow Stevens, and making his motion picture debut, Moroni Olsen. Also in the cast are two actors who had distinctive familiarities with their roles. Ian Keith, appearing here as Rochefort, would play the same character in the 1948 MGM version. Nigel De Brulier was Richelieu in the Fairbanks film and again in The Iron Mask (1929). He donned the evil cardinal's robes once more for James Whale's The Man in the Iron Mask (1939).
For those not well versed in Dumas' tale, it follows the adventures of a young provincial, D'Artagnan, who arrives in Paris in the early 17th century determined to become part of the king's celebrated Musketeers. He's taken under the wing of the three most respected and feared of the troupe and is soon involved in court intrigue engineered by the dastardly Richelieu. Like most of the other cinematic versions (Lester's being a notable exception), this one adapts only the first part of the novel.
Although a far less familiar take on the tale than either the silent Fairbanks or the more recent twists on the story (with director Paul W.S. Anderson's jacked-up 2011 version adding a hefty portion of video game-like CGI and Milla Jovovich's action stunts), this 1935 version of The Three Musketeers has some exciting fights choreographed by Ralph Faulkner, who put Errol Flynn through his swashbuckling paces in Captain Blood (1935) and The Sea Hawk (1940). Faulkner also played an uncredited bit as Jussac in this film. Credits also list Fred Cavens as "fencing arranger," and it's likely this master swordsman, who was responsible for so much of the fencing style and techniques seen in Hollywood pictures of this period, was most responsible for the swordplay we see on screen. He began working in movies during the silent era, training Douglas Fairbanks for The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Black Pirate (1926). Cavens was also the fencing master on the aforementionedCaptain Blood and The Sea Hawk, Romeo and Juliet (1936), with Flynn again in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and guiding Tyrone Power in the remake of The Mark of Zorro (1940) and The Black Swan (1942).
The picture's director, Rowland V. Lee, had a good working familiarity with this kind of material, having shepherded Robert Donat through the period adventure The Count of Monte Cristo (1934). He also directed George Arliss as Cardinal Richelieu (1935), a far more sympathetic take on the notorious cleric. Another article in The Hollywood Reporter announced that John Cromwell was originally slated to direct The Three Musketeers, but again there's no mention of why RKO took Cromwell off the film.
Look closely and you may or may not see Lucille Ball as an extra. Ball started in motion pictures in 1933, playing a string of uncredited bits over the next few years. She signed with RKO in 1935, which would make her participation in this picture possible, but it's up to viewers to determine if some sources are correct in placing her here.
Director: Rowland V. Lee
Producer: Cliff Reid
Screenplay: Rowland V. Lee, Dudley Nichols, based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas père
Cinematography: J. Peverell Marley
Editing: George Hively
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Original Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Walter Abel (D'Artagnan), Ian Keith (Count de Rochefort), Margot Grahame (Milady de Winter), Paul Lukas (Athos), Moroni Olsen (Porthos), Onslow Stevens (Aramis)
BW-97m. Closed Captioning.
by Rob Nixon