Monday, 9 November 2015

Swashathon! A Blogathon of Swashbuckling Adventure: "The Three Musketeers" (1948)

Original release poster
Directed by George Sidney, The Three Musketeers (1948) tells the story of D'Artagnan (Gene Kelly), an eager young swordsman living in 17th-century France who travels to Paris to join the elite King's Musketeers. Their commander, Captain Treville (Reginald Owen), initially refuses to let D'Artagnan in, but he changes his mind after the newcomer proves his expertise and audacity in a series of duels with the three most skillful Musketeers, Athos (Van Heflin), Porthos (Gig Young) and Aramis (Robert Coote). Later, D'Artagnan rescues and instantly falls in love with Constance Bonacieux (June Allyson), a confidante of Queen Anne (Angela Lansbury), and finds himself a dim-witted valet named Planchet (Kennan Wynn).

Anne is engaged in a secret affair with the English Minister, the Duke of Buckingham (John Sutton), and foolishly gives him a set of matched diamond studs, which were a gift to her from her husband, King Louis XIII (Frank Morgan). Learning of the queen's indiscretion, the scheming Richelieu (Vincent Price) sends his accomplice, the beautiful Milady de Winter (Lana Turner), to steal two of the diamonds so that he can expose the affair and force the king to consent to a war with England. When D'Artagnan succeeds in retrieving the diamonds, Richelieu exacts his revenge by abducting Constance and holding her prisoner. D'Artagnan tries to trick Milady into revealing Constance's whereabouts, but succumbs to her charms instead, discovering afterwards that she is actually Athos' wife. Meanwhile, Anne frees Constance and sends her to Buckingham for safety. After fighting breaks out between France and England, Richelieu orders Milady to kill Buckingham, but the Duke is warned of the plot and arrests her, placing her under Constance's supervision. Milady escapes and kills both Constance and Buckingham, although the Muskeeters soon find her and deliver her to the executioner. With the war finished and Richelieu deposed, D'Artagnan and the three Musketeers are generously rewarded for their services to the crown.

Athos: To die among friends. Can a man ask more? Can the world offer less? Who wants to live 'till the last bottle is empty? It's all for one, D'Artagnan, and one for all.

More than any other writer in the world, it is Alexander Dumas, père (1802-1870) who has provided inspiration for the swashbuckling film. Not only did he influence an entire host of imitators, notably Stanley J. Weyman (Under the Red Robe, 1894), Baroness Orczy (The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1905) and Rafael Sabatini (Scaramouche, 1921), but he also established two of the basic motifs of the genre: gentlemen adventurers pledging their swords to defend the reputation of a lady and the honor of their country; and aristocratic avengers assuming a disguise to right wrongs done to themselves or to their families. Set in "a mythic world of the Ancien Régime, as imagined and re-created by the mind of Dumas," these storylines combined a love of excitement with adherence to a noble cause, providing their heroes with an array of opportunities to showcase their fighting skills and prove their devotion to honor, justice, patriotism and chilvalry.

Dumas was the son of Thomas-Alexander Dumas, a mullato general who had served with distinction in the French Revolutionary Wars under Napoleon's command before dying in poverty in 1806. Virtually self-educated, Dumas began his career in a solicitor's office and moved to Paris in 1823 to pursue his passion as a writer. Although his first success came in form of a play, Henri III and His Court (1829), it was only when he switched to producing novels, especially The Three Musketeers (1844) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1844-1846), that he became an international celebrity. In between writing, Dumas managed to have time to build a castle, found and lead a newspaper, fight with Giuseppe Garibaldi for the unification of Italy and participate in the French Revolution of 1830. Perhaps inevitably, his outstanding career ended in exhaustion, bankrupcy and loneliness, but not before he had given to the world the immortal figures of D'Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis.

Gene Kelly in a pubicity still
A landmark in swashbuckling fiction, The Three Musketeers has been adapted for the screen more than any other Dumas novel. Among the many film versions of the story are the iconic 1921 Douglas Fairbanks production; MGM's 1939 musical re-telling starring Don Ameche; and Richard Lester's 1973 light-hearted romp. In 1948, Pandro S. Berman, who had produced a 1935 version for RKO, decided to revive the project for MGM and suddenly The Three Musketeers became "the perfect realization of everything that the good swashbuckler should be fast-moving, light-hearted and endlessly stylish." 

Despite rumors that Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was set to star, Gene Kelly was the one chosen to play the young, hot-headed D'Artagnan. An expert dancer and self-taught gymnast, Kelly had just completed another swashbuckler, Vincente Minnelli's The Pirate (1948), and was clearly attracted by the style and coreographic potential of the genre. The Three Musketeers was an extremely personal project for Kelly, as he was recreating the character played by his favorite star (Douglas Fairbanks) in his favorite film (the 1921 version). Trained by the Belgian fencing master Jean Heremans, Kelly modelled his characterization of D'Artagnan on that of Fairbanks, deliberately going "over the top to create a delicious parody of every florid romantic hero who has even given voice to an overwritten declamation or a melodramatic flourish." Kelly hoped that his energetic performance in The Three Musketeers would convince MGM to let him do a musical version of Edmond Rostand's 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac, but unfortunately that project never left the shelves.

Lana Turner and Van Helfin between takes
Shortly after Kelly secured the male lead in early June 1947, Robert Taylor, Ricardo Montalbán and William Powell were announced to play the title roles. However, negotiations fell through and Van Heflin, Gig Young and Robert Coote were cast instead. To play the deceitful Milady de Winters, the studio hired the "Sweater Girl" Lana Turner. An MGM contract player since 1937, Turner initially refused to appear in The Three Musketeers because she did not have a starring role (although she received first-billing) and was briefly suspended by studio chief Louis B. Mayer as a result. During Turner's suspension, MGM began looking for a possible replacement and, at one point, considered casting Italian actress Alida Valli, who was then under contract to David O. Selznick and who had recently made her American film debut in Alfred Hitchcock's noir courtroom drama The Paradine Case (1947). After a series of discussions and a rewriting of the script, Turner finally agreed to do the film and The Three Musketeers became her first appearance in a Technicolor feature.

The part of Constance Bonacieux was initially offered to Deborah Kerr, but MGM eventually decided to cast June Allyson instead. A Metro contract player since 1943, Allyson began her professional career in the late 1930s, juggling chorus jobs in Broadway shows with acting roles in a series of Vitaphone shorts produced in New York and distributed by Warner Bros. She made her film debut in Edward Buzzell's Best Foot Foward (1943), an adapation of the 1941 stage hit in which she had starred, and quickly established her as MGM's lovable "girl-next-door." Allyson was extremely uncomfortable doing a period piece and even asked to be released for the project. "I looked at myself in my sweeping robes and was not convincible what anyone was going to believe me as Lady Constance," she later explained.

Vincente Price and Lana Turner
Replacing Sydney Greenstreet in the role of Richelieu, now restored to the position of principal villain in the story, was Vincent Price, who brought his "inimitable brand of menacing suavity" to his character. Dumas conceived Richelieu as a Cardinal, but the National Catholic Legion of Decency, an organization that monitored the interests of the Church in motion pictures, objected to the idea of having a religious character being portrayed as a "worldly and unscrupulous man" and urged Berman to remove him from the film. Berman refused to eliminate Richelieu, though he did made sure the character would never be referred to as a cardinal.

The Three Musketeers was filmed between January and May 1948 on the MGM studio lot, with some exteriors scenes taking place at Busch Gardens in Pasadena and at the Cheviot Hill golf course near Culver City, California. Cedric Gibbons and Malcolm Brown designed a series of "fairytale sets" as backgrounds for the action and the studio provided according to publicity handouts 300 costumes, 100 muskets, 400 saddles, 100 wigs and 200 moustaches. Robert Planck's superb Technicolor photography stunningly highlighted the "pale yellow dawns and roseate sunsets, the blue and silver tabbards of the Musketeers and the red and black uniforms the Cardinal's Guard, the warm orange glow of candlelight." It is interesting to notice that Milady and her entourage appeared dressed almost entirely in green, the color that has, since the silent era, stood for "disgust, avarice and perfidy."

Released in October 1948, The Three Musketeers was very successful at the box-office, earning MGM's second highest gross of the 1940s, even though its large production budget minimized the profits. Critics were generally enthusiastic as well. Variety called the film "a swaggering, tongue-in-cheek treatment of picturesque fiction, extravagantly presented." Gene Kelly was highly praised for his performance, favorably compared to that of the athletic Fairbanks. Variety said that his acrobatics "would give Douglas Fairbanks a pause," while Bosley Crowther of The New York Times asserted that "not since Douglas Fairbanks swung through the air with magic ease and landed on balconies and beefstakes has a fellow come along who compares with that robustious actor in vitality and grace." Lana Turner was also praised for her portrayal of Milady. Crowther, for instance, described her as "completely fantastic" and likened her to a "company-mannered Mae West," noting that "more glittering swordplay, more dazzling costumes, more colors or more of Miss Turner's chest have never been seen in a picture than are shown in this one." At the 21st Academy Awards, The Three Muskeeters received a nomination for Best Cinematography (Color).

Turner, Kelly, Heflin, Allyson and Lansbury in a publicity still

To me, the single star of The Three Musketeers is Gene Kelly. Leaping over statues and ornamental pools, scampering up and down trees, doing backwards and forwards somersaults, swinging on chandeliers, sliding down curtains and jumping through staircases, he proves that he can be as acrobatic as Douglas Fairbanks, or even as Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power. And his smile at the very end of the film is something else entirely. 

Although I am not a huge fan of swashbucklers, The Three Musketeers has been one of my favorite stories ever since I saw Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds on television when I was very young. George Sidney's The Three Musketeers is the only classic version of the Dumas novel I have seen, so naturally I cannot draw any comparisons with the other adapations. But I can tell you that this is a wonderful piece of entertainment that will surely put a big smile on your face. Borrowing Bosley Crowther's words, "For those who enjoy a surfeit of such flashy and fleshy displays, there isn't the slightest question that here is a heaping dish."


This is my contribution to the Swashathon! A Blogathon of Swashbuckling Adventure hosted by Movies Silently. To view all entries, click HERE.

 

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SOURCES:
Swordsman of the Screen: From Douglas Fairbanks to Michael York by Jeffrey Richards (2014) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review | Variety review

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for joining in! It's a good thing Lana Turner did agree to do this film as it is one of her best performances. But as for Gene Kelly as Cyrano...

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  2. I'm glad you wrote about this version. I loved the Fairbanks and the Richard Lester and was convinced that I would not like this one. But I liked it. It would have been cool to have William Powell. I guess he would have been Athos.

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