Sunday, 14 August 2016

Nurture vs Nature... The Mollycoddle (1920)

"The man of him has never lost sight of the boy of him." Mary Pickford

"A mollycoddle is a body of man entirely surrounded by super-civilization." reads the title card immediately following a foreword dripping in irony which thanks the "picturesque Hopi Indians who... in their savage way heartily welcomed us to their prehistoric villages and with primitive cheerfulness played an importance in this picture."

I think he means us don't you?

According to Fairbanks' biographer, Tracey Goessel, Douglas was so taken with the term mollycoddle as it was a favourite of his hero, Theodore Roosevelt that he paid $5,000 to retain the term for later use. I'm sure Teddy would have approved of this film, the "biggest and best production of his career" according to the trade ads.

Artificial life in mollycoddled Monte Carlo
Directed by Victor Fleming (yes, him) and written by an uncredited Fairbanks along with Tom Geraghty, The Mollycoddle (1920) was made just after When the Clouds Roll By, with sense of humour firmly back to earth... the equivalent of Fairbanks "getting it together in the country" . It carries a semi-serious message for the audience: don't be fooled by the adornments of civilization - mankind is just the same whether living in primitive buildings in Arizona or those more "highly polished" on the rocks of Monte Carlo or at least a Monte Carlo specially faked on the Californian hills.

To show us how this works,the film takes one mollycoddled man from Monte Carlo and throws him up out West where he re-connects with his inner "man" - a spirit gone soft released by the tonic of adventure! Pure Doug and very much a response to contemporary concerns that modernity was making America soft; one that could be seen in a number of his films in the early period of his cinema career.

Marshall IV - secure in his wild-western masculinity
Fairbanks plays Richard Marshall III, IV and V... the first two men of courage and adventure who's bravery and success led to the Mark V version living in wealthy comfort in Europe, disconnected from his American nature. Mark III was a "leather-necked, shag-gutted buckaroo..." followed by IV, who "...put the fear of God into the heart of many an evil-doer along the frontier".

Strolling the gardens of Monaco, Marshall V encounters a group of Americans on a yachting party: society widow Mrs Warren (Adele Farrington), her daughter Molly (Betty Bouton), intrepid journalist Virginia Hale (Ruth Renick) and their host, an unamused-looking Henry van Holkar (Wallace Beery, always a pleasure). They are accompanied by three American college boys: Patrick O'Flannigan, Ole Olsen and Samuel Levinski - played by Morris Hughes, George Stewart and Paul Burns in no particular order - who seem to represent the diversity of the frontier country.

Ruth Renick
"Nobody would ever take you for an American..." Virginia is immediately fascinated with the euro-fop with his polite language, monocle and cigarette holder - Americans roll their own! But he's from Arizona even if the college boys think he's "...contrary to the Constitution of the United States". They resolve to do something about it... he needs curing.

He's not the only one who is not quite as he seems as Van Holker is a "blackguard" (we should use that word more often... Mr Gove, Mr Johnson and Mr Trump) and one of the world's greatest diamond smugglers as illustrated by an animated sequence showing how his operation works from a mine worked by "renegade Indians" to the European cutters who fashion the gems. The yachting party is just a cover for the trade and Fleming and Fairbanks are in a real hurry to get to the action!

To cut a long back-story short... a cartoon is used. The real Beery.
Van Holker receives news that the secret service is on his trail... naturally he assumes that the too good to be true Marshall V is his man and refuses a request to take him back with them. Virginia is wistful: "I think he had the makings of a man." "Bah! That mollycoddle." responds Mrs Warren.
But... the college boys have smuggled Marshall aboard and he is discovered by Van Holker's men and sent to work stoking coal in the engine room. After some grubby hard work he's rescued with good humour intact: "You Johnnies are great spoofers! I rather like it..."

Things start to happen thick and fast as we discover Virginia is the secret agent and Van the Man blames Marshall for some papers she'd disturbed in his safe. He decides to drop the spy into the ocean but the college boys rescue him and he swims to shore only to get caught in the nets of a fishing boat used by the smuggler - some good work done by Doug on a floor of dead fish here... Marshall is starting to prove his mettle and escapes again as events move on land to that rogue Indian mine...

Sea yacht and land yacht...
As the party make their way on Van H's "desert yacht" - a bus rigged with a veranda at the back - Marshall encounters an "educated Carlisle Johnny": a native American who finds his laughable attempt to barter in, umm, primitive lingo well, er, laughable. But Fairbanks' point is an interesting one again: the primitives are civilized and the civilized are primitive. Yellow Horse - "a college Indian gone wrong" - is in charge of the mine but it hardly matters, he and all the of the henchmen are only there to provide an obstacle to be overcome. As Richard Schickel put it... "to see Doug at bay and fighting off his enemies... this was the moment of high deliciousness in all his work."

Civilization and natural life
Marshall - now back in his true element - spends much time with the Indians smoking a peace pipe, laughing and dancing in the most inclusive way... Fairbanks paying due respect to the Hopi tribe on whose land they filmed. Van H is convinced now that everyone's a spy and plans to blow them up at the ominously-named Death Defile, the entrance to Haunted Canyon: he aims to blow up Hanging Rock and start and avalanche.

Marshall looks on from as the baddies make their move...
"Primitive cunning, born of instinct, now guides his every move." Marshall tracks Van H's men as they capture the college boys but then rides to their rescue even going back to pick up one of the injured: he's becoming a pure hero returned to his land and his soul is fired in the midst of this adventure.

There are some spectacular sequences as Marshall heads off across the Arizona desert on horseback, Hanging Rock is blown up and the rocks come tumbling down. Then there's a climactic battle between... you know... which sees the protagonists chasing each other as they slide down rock and scree. Fairbanks broke a finger and badly strained two wrists during the production so that stuntman Richard Talmadge had to perform at least one of the fight stunts but the vast majority are pure Doug.
Fairbanks and Fleming see "civilization" as "primitive" polished and only by reconnecting to our natural state can we gain happiness and love. Slouching about in Mediterranean casinos is most certainly not the way...

Doug tackles Wallace Beery's stuntman on the rock slope
"He never sat when he could stand, never walked when he could run; and,to Doug, chasms were built to jump over." said Anita Loos and in The Mollycoddle as elsewhere Fairbanks preached Roosevelt's idea of the Strenuous Life to the full.

I watched the David Shephard restoration which features a new "musical setting" by Philip Carli which runs along with the story in true Fairbanks' style and speed! It is available as part of the Douglas Fairbanks: Modern Musketeer box set on sale from Amazon and others at above RRP prices... time for a re-issue?

Quotes above lifted from Tracey Goessel's lovely biography The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks - it's especially strong on his relationship with Mary Pickford with the author having acquired their love letters... you may well shed a tear or two. It's available from Amazon too.

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