Friday night at the Barbican saw the premiere of Neil Brand’s new score to the 1922 silent Robin Hood or, more correctly, Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood – yep, that’s the copyrighted on-screen title. Fairbanks had left Paramount to team up with old friends Chaplin and D.W Griffith and new wife Mary Pickford to create their own studio – United Artists. He also formed his own production company, The Douglas Fairbanks Picture Corporation. As the names suggest, all this was to gain more artistic control.
The UA quartet expected their immense appeal (Griffith, though a director, could also ‘open’ a picture) to pay dividends, but they made a set of rods for their own backs with a very ambitious production schedule. Chaplin caused some consternation by using this new artistic freedom to film multiple takes of every scene and ignore shooting schedules, massively increasing costs. Pickford’s idea seems to have been that they would continue with old studio production methods but keep the money themselves.
Fairbanks was always an athletic actor and had recently turned to bigger self-produced spectacles that exploited that to the full. Robin Hood was a natural continuation from The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Three Musketeers (1921) and there followed a slew of others.
In keeping with Pickford’s “our own studio” model, Robin Hood’s crew included many UA regulars and friends. Alan Dwan – like Pickford, born in Toronto – had directed Doug around half a dozen times since 1916. He directed around 125 films over fifty years, but none are considered ‘masterpieces’, though many are very good and some approach that status. It’s true that there aren’t any camera gymnastics in Robin Hood (Arthur Edeson would be far more audacious a couple of years later in Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad), but the camera does its job, largely in showing off the lavish sets and designs.
Sam de Grasse (yet another Canadian – this time from New Brunswick) plays Prince John to a tee: easy to make into a moustache twirling cliché, but in his first appearance his lip curls with just the right degree of sneer. Richard the Lion-Hearted is often a less than rewarding role: perhaps absent for most of the film, clearly a virtuous character, but still not allowed to outshine Robin. Casting Wallace Beery pretty much ensured he would be a bit lunkish, hale and hearty and certainly not a romantic lead.
Enid Bennett is OK as Maid Marian, but you can hardly imagine Robin losing his heart to her as Erroll Flynn did to Olivia de Havilland. Bennett herself admitted that the role wasn’t too demanding: “I just walked through it in a queenly manner.”
One other notable is Alan Hale. His long filmography include adaptations from Gogol, Ibsen, Maugham, Sinclair Lewis and others. Here he plays Little John, clearly so successfully that he reprised the role for Michael Curtiz in 1938, and again in 1950 (aged 58!) in The Rogues of Sherwood Forest. He had another medieval outing, playing Blondel in de Mille’s The Crusades (1935).
But Doug and his athleticism was clearly the selling point, and throughout the film he eschews walking in favour of a gay skip, book-ended by exuberant arm-flinging. There’s also a great deal of – how shall we say – manly joshing. The effect is intensified by Robin’s early admission that he is “afeared of women”.
Whereas most versions rattle through the “going to the Crusades “ bit to get to the righteous retribution back home in Nottingham, Dwan leaves the exploits of Robin Hood largely for Part Two. But when they come they are glorious, with Robin doing all the things you’d expect: scaling walls, swinging around on ivy, engaging in swordplay, etc. Apart from killing people. Nice bloke that he is, he initially rebels by throwing pieces of fruit at John’s men and only engineers a couple of deaths by using people as unwitting human shields to die in friendly fire.
Robin Hood opened the luxurious 1,760-seat Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, named for its astonishing interior designs. It had cost $800,000 to build and was showing a film that cost a million (1922 money)! As well as the chance to ogle the arrival of the stars, the $5 ticket bought you live pre-film entertainment, the opportunity to buy additional merchandise and of course the huge spectacle of the film itself.
From the pit came a specially written score by violinist-composer Victor Schertzinger. We can be fairly sure that it wasn’t anything like his later collaborations with Gus Khan (One Night of Love), Frank Loesser (Kiss the Boys Goodbye) or Johnny Mercer (Tangerine). Schertzinger later morphed into a director, best known for helming a couple of Hope-Crosby Road… films. Sadly, his score for Robin Hood was no great shakes: rumpty-tumpty in the worst traditions of silent film music, inexplicably tied to song forms rather than developing organically alongside the film (the jousting scene has endless repetitions of a sub-Scott Joplin tune) and, as there were only 18 musicians, underpowered. But you can judge for yourself – the Kino DVD has a midi version of it.
Which brings us back to the Barbican. Brand is quite happy to admit to leaning on “the brothers Williams: John and Vaughan” and of course there’s some Korngoldisms in there as well. But we’re talking style, rather than outright cut’n’paste, just as he noir-ised Hitchcock’s Blackmail with Rózsa and others. The big march (originally the film’s opener before Brand moved it to delay the pleasure) is very 70s-Willliams and throughout the score he (orchestrated by Timothy Brock) finds a huge range of sumptuous colours.
Brand’s music helps pull together a film that can seem more like a series of episodes and set-pieces than a continuous narrative. But its overwhelming quality is that, like Doug’s performance, it’s endlessly energetic: in two-and-a-half hours the strings get twelve bars rest, and orchestrator-conductor Timothy Brock has to keep up by bouncing at the knees. The BBC SO were predictably brilliant, bang on every moment of Mickey-mousing but never merely beating time, rather bringing a real warmth to a hugely tuneful and romantic score. There’s a snatch of it here.
If you didn’t get to the Barbican, there’s another performance at Saffron Hall on 25 Feb 2017. In the longer term, there’s a hope of a DVD issue through the Cohen Collection, but there’s nothing quite like seeing it live.