Sunday, 8 December 2013

Doug and Dutch… The Matrimaniac (1916)

Sometimes it’s the smaller films that really show you why a performer became famous, “routine” success is surely the mark of a great star and The Matrimaniac possibly says more about Douglas Fairbanks than a host of twenties blockbusters…

The film is a little light on story and even gags but it has enough special Fairbanks-effects to entertain and to have advanced the star power of its lead at the end of his first full year in Hollywood.

Perpetual motion machine
Whilst it feels a little controlled, the film never-the-less has Fairbanks constantly moving, climbing up walls, running after trains, over rooftops and vaulting into cars, over walls and policemen: he’s a perpetual motion machine, keenly showing his strength and prowess whilst radiating a supernatural positive energy throughout (one that eventually burned itself out all too soon…).

The film starts with a bang, well four in fact, as Fairbank’s character Jimmy Conroy, punctures the tires on his potential father-in-law’s car. Jimmy is aiming to elope with young Marna Lewis (Constance Talmadge) hoping to snatch her away before daddy Lewis (Wilbur Higby) can step in.

Young "Dutch"
Constance “Dutch” Talmadge had pretty much stolen the show in Intolerance a few months’ earlier and her high-energy expressiveness had earned her a shot with another of the grown-ups – she was still only 18 whilst Doug was 33. For most of this film though she plays second fiddle to Fairbanks but there are enough glimpses of what she can really do on screen: light it up.

Jimmy and Marna escape in his car but are pursued by Daddy’s preferred paramour G. Walter Henderson (Clyde E. Hopkins) who succeeds in separating the couple as Jim heads off to get a priest.

Just missed the train...
Not discouraged, Jimmy, who has hauled his Reverend, Tobias Tubbs (Fred Warren), out of his, er… bath tub, sets off in pursuit via rail, donkey and motor car, writing out IOU’s for every favour unrewarded along the way.

The confused cleric suffers all manner of indignities on their way but… needs must as the groom drives.

Marna sands up to Pop and weasely Walter
Meanwhile Poppa Lewis is also in pursuit along with his lawyers who are ready to slap an injunction on Jimmy and anyone else involved. We’re never sure why he has been deemed inappropriate but if I was Mr Lewis I would be concerned by his organisational skill and financial acumen not to mention his worrying habit of flinging himself constantly in the direction of danger.

Free-running Fairbanks...
Henderson escorts Marna to an hotel where she is held under lock and key awaiting her father. He tries to pursue his own claims but Marna is unimpressed: she wants dangerous Doug.

With the aid of a maid (Winifred Westover), conveniently of similar size, Marna escapes and manages to find the Reverend who has been locked up in the local jail. She returns to the hotel for some reason… maybe she has more faith in Jimmy’s organisation than appearances might dictate.

Visiting time at the jail
Meanwhile Jimmy leads Lewis and his lawyers a merry dance-run-roll and vault… he takes to the rooftops and straddles across telephone wires to an engineer who connects him to both Tubbs and Marna: they are married by telephone… and who thought you would have to wait for Skype for this kind of thing to be possible!

"Hello Dutch, I'm up a telegraph pole..."
Director Paul Powell ensures that the whole exercise proceeds in slick fashion but you wonder how much directing he had to do with Fairbank’s stunt sequences. I especially liked his dance with the Donkey… that, as much else, can only have been the actor’s own invention.

"It's Doug, he's up a telegraph pole!"
 When she gets the chance, Constance is full of the same energy as she previously demonstrated as Griffith’s Mountain Girl but we don’t see enough of her in what is firmly a Fairbank’s feature. She would go on to have great success in the twenties as a comic actress – less demure than her sister Norma and with a narrower range; she never-the-less had real presence and a personality that was instantly apparent and unforgettably winning!

Constance energy supply
It’s a shame she couldn’t have made more films with Fairbanks but, whilst the star system is often painted as the reason for this, she may also have been too much competition for him in full flow…

I watched the version included on the sprawling Flicker Alley DVD set: Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer (1916-1921), which is enlivened by a new musical score from Philip Carli.

It’s available direct from Flicker Alley or from the usual, suspect, e-tailers


  1. I think I'd call this my favorite of the pre-swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks films.

    I wonder whether Harold Lloyd saw it -- he was still floundering at the time with his "Lonesome Luke" shorts, a none-too-successful knock-off of Chaplin's Tramp. The Matrimaniac could serve as a blueprint for such films as For Heaven's Sake or safety Last.

    1. I agree - it's a light-hearted joy throughout and makes you want to go out climbing buildings and running after locomotives!

      I think Lloyd may have learned a lot from Fairbanks' style, that near miss train shot reminded me of a similar moment in For Heaven's Sake. Both the epitome of brave performers!