Sunday, May 1, 2016

THE THREE MUSKETEERS (MGM 1948) Warner Home Video

Odd, that MGM should have undertaken a lavishly appointed screen adaptation of The Three Musketeers (1948) barely a decade after 2oth Century-Fox’s superb B&W spectacle of 1938, co-starring The Ritz Brothers. Not that director, George Sidney’s sumptuously mounted remake - in glorious Technicolor no less - was unworthy of the effort. On the contrary, with a roguishly handsome Gene Kelly as D’Artagnan, Lana Turner, oozing sinful sex appeal as the deliciously devious, flaxen-haired Charlotte - the Lady de Winter, June Allyson, above it all as the virginally obtuse, Constance Bonacieux, and Vincent Price, a thoroughly wicked Cardinal Richelieu, this adaptation of the famed Alexander Dumas swashbuckler was every bit as lusty, playful and exquisitely staged as its predecessor; in some ways, more so.  As Metro always did in its grand days, it threw enough kilowatt stardust at the screen to stifle a supernova; Angela Lansbury, as the Queen, Frank Morgan, a thoroughly loveable King Louis XIII, Van Heflin as Athos, the intellectual amongst freedom fighters, and, Gig Young and Robert Coote; stars ascending, if never to reach the upper echelons, as Porthos and Aramis respectively.
Apart from being a pugnacious mogul, Louis B. Mayer knew his business inside and out; arguably, audience’s tastes much better still; the post-war generation’s verve for valiant heroes, despicable villains and hot-blooded women – both virtuous and viperous – cavorting with enough nimble brio to set cash registers ringing; updating the time-honored paeans of Dumas’ tongue-in-cheek adventurist spirit with just enough of that ancient flowering in golden age Hollywood razzamatazz to allow its nostalgia - all high-spirits and marvelously staged set pieces – and the treacle its proper place within an actioner’s pantheon. Even better, Mayer had assigned the prolific, Robert Ardrey to write the screenplay, Herbert Stothart to compose the score, and cinematographer extraordinaire, Robert H. Planck to lens this happy affair – cobbled together on back lot facades, the occasional location shoot at Santa Monica beach, and, sound stage sets held over from Irving Thalberg’s monumental acquisitions on Marie Antoinette (1938). Quite simply, The Three Musketeers could not miss – and didn’t – at $4,124,000 in domestic grosses, one of MGM’s brightest moneymakers, not only of the year, but the entire decade.
At its zenith, Metro could display such stifling eccentricities as these with wild abandonment and a certain unapologetic lack of authenticity. None of the actors carry off their roles with anything even remotely resembling an authentic ‘French’ accent (Kelly’s boyish rascal, more sexy pirate/comedian than sword-slashing seducer). Miraculously, this disconnect is virtually unnoticed – at least, for long stretches of time, allowing the audience to slip into the ether of suspended disbelief with narrowly a thought for remaining anything less than thoroughly and pleasantly entertained by these jaw-dropping gorgeous and ridiculously out of step accoutrements. Mayer’s version of entertainment may have been coming to an end by 1948 – in point of fact, MGM was experiencing something a downturn in its profitability at war’s end (the beginning of the end for its one-time untouchable supremacy, as it turned out) - but there was little to doubt The Three Musketeers as exactly the sort of gargantuan spectacle, a la the blessings of the late Irving Thalberg would have judiciously approved, and, the likes of which virtually no other studio in Hollywood dared to rival without a few sweaty palms in the executive front offices. Interestingly, costume epics had fallen out of favor with the war; a genre Metro reviled in and almost single-handedly kept alive as they had done a decade earlier with the screen operetta (soon – if briefly – to be revived yet again in the fabulous fifties, and, in Cinemascope with stereophonic sound!).
Mayer could afford to be magnanimous, even extravagant in his pursuit of such antiseptic perfection. His kingdom had weathered the lean war years spectacularly. Even with wartime cost-cutting, Metro had managed to make many fine and fanciful movies far above and beyond the means of their competition - and show handsome profits besides; MGM, the envy of the world and in possession of a highly prized roster of stars never again to be rivaled under one roof.  Tossing a handful of them at the screen for this adaptation of The Three Musketeers would have seemed frivolous to downright dangerous coming from any other mythical back lot in the land. But from Mayer’s private repository, an embarrassment of such riches, it just seemed par for the course and frankly expected. If nothing else, and with very few exceptions, The Three Musketeers gives us the Cook’s Tour and lay of the land around the Metro back lot; spanning the girth of its formidable outdoor sets, from Copperfield Square and the famed footbridge leading to the house where Greer Garson once defended the virtues of England from a downed Nazi pilot in Mrs. Miniver (1942) to Dutch Street and Salem Waterfront, all of them, curiously depopulated.
In hindsight, MGM’s cost-cutting is not altogether nor even successfully camouflaged. Consider first, the lack of extras to populate these cluttered streets of a pseudo-France. So too, reflect upon Malcolm Brown and Cedric Gibbons’ art direction that asks we not look too closely for the discrepancies in these varying bits of architecture, in no way  replicating the flavor and/or authenticity of period France; disparately butted against period trappings on display in interior sets culled from Thalberg’s Marie Antoinette, the throne room as example, slightly reassembled herein with its iconic parquet flooring and gargantuan crystal-cut chandeliers: a gleaming gold obelisk to Thalberg’s own era of bygone decadence.  Were that The Three Musketeers had been made during Thalberg’s reign, it would have emerged a far more meticulous and arguably worthy contender in the ‘illustrated classics’ tradition of Hollywood make-believe. In retrospect, it more represents Mayer’s verve for asexual ‘family-orientated’ fare; cleansed of most of the political hypocrisies and intrigues, except as they serve to remind the ardent reader of Dumas’ novel in a sort of primitive connect-the-dots plotting; swiftly executed, but distilled of its intellectual bite, and, in service to the more luridly escapist chapters of the book for which Mayer’s kingdom was world renown.
The Three Musketeers opens with great pomp and circumstance, Gene Kelly, as D’Artagnan, doing some of his most ambitious swashbuckling and swordplay this side of Errol Flynn, some of it later reappearing in B&W as ‘The Royal Rascal’ movie within a movie used in Singin’ In the Rain (1952).  Alas, for all his skill as a swordsman, D'Artagnan is a rather uncouth Gascon youth; his ego preceding his manners. On his way to Paris he encounters the villainous Charlotte, the Lady de Winter who orders her protector, Rochefort (Ian Keith) and his men to subdue the lad, fearing he is the King’s spy. D’Artagnan is beaten unconscious, his father’s letter of introduction burned, thus depriving him immediate entry into the elite Musketeer corps. However, the Captain of the corp, de Treville (Reginald Owen) does allow D’Artagnan cadet status. Almost immediately, D’Artagnan makes rather bad enemies of three Musketeers in his clumsy pursuit of Rochefort. Athos, Porthos and Aramis each demand their satisfaction, arranging duels at half hour intervals throughout the course of the day. Thus, when Athos’ seconds arrive to observe the first of these confrontations they are pleasantly astounded to discover the youth challenging them is one in the same. However, before the first duel can commence, the Musketeers are confronted by Richelieu’s men, including Rochefort. Determined to avenge his early assault, D’Artagnan stands with the Musketeers – all for one, and one for all. Hastily, D’Artagnan proves his mettle with a sword in the dispatch of their foes. His superb skill utterly humiliates Rochefort by exposing his pantaloons.
Amused by this fine upstart in their midst the Musketeers and D’Artagnan return to court to face the King’s wrath. Fittingly, the befuddled Louis XIII exonerates them of any wrong doing, but orders de Treville to get D’Artagnan a new suit of clothes and a noble steed. With this newfound wealth and title, D’Artagnan takes a fashionable suite of rooms near the palace. His landlord, Bonacieux (Bryron Foulger) pleads for D’Artagnan to watch over his daughter, Constance while he is away. Constance is Queen Anne’s most trusted and loyal confidante and thus in danger of being kidnapped by Richelieu’s men. Interestingly, Louis B. Mayer proclaimed to his screenwriters that no mention would be made of Richelieu as a ‘cardinal’; presumably, so as not to offend the Catholic diocese. D’Artagnan and his man servant, Planchet (Keenan Wynn) are cruel to Bonacieux, knocking him down a flight of stairs. But shortly thereafter, D’Artagnan becomes smitten with Constance, whom he spies on from a secret porthole in his floor. Witnessing her near kidnap by Richelieu’s men, D’Artagnan intervenes and subdues these would-be attackers. Constance is grateful and quickly falls in love with D’Artagnan. Meanwhile, Anne has given a matched set of diamond studs, a gift from her husband, to her lover; the Prime Minister, the Duke of Buckingham (John Sutton). Unearthing this indiscretion, Richelieu plots an intimate crisis in order to distract Louis from more pressing matters of state and later persuade him to declare war against Britain. Louis is reluctant to do so. Thus, Richelieu decides to arrange a ball, a diversion in which the Queen will be expected to wear the diamonds she no longer possesses.
Constance implores her lover to retrieve the gems before anyone is the wiser. Alas, on the road to England, D’Artagnan and the Musketeers are ambushed by Richelieu’s men yet again; another display of swordsmanship resulting in some spectacularly photographed Californian beachfront scenery that in no way replicates the coast line of France. One by one, the Musketeers are forced to separate; only D’Artagnan and Planchet reaching the Duke in time. As a failsafe, Richelieu has sent the Countess de Winter ahead to seduce the Prime Minister and steal two of the jewels back – proof, returned to Richelieu, he intends to use to illustrate the Queen’s infidelities to her husband. With marked efficiency, Buckingham has his jeweler create two replacements; the gems entrusted to D’Artagnan. On the eve of the ball, D’Artagnan sneaks past an army of Richelieu’s guards, crashing through the windows of Constance’s bedroom and restoring the jewels to her. In short order, Constance gives the diamonds back to the Queen who arrives at court with the complete set, much to Richelieu’s chagrin. Now more than ever, Richelieu is determined to destroy the monarchy; his venom telescopically focused on Constance.
Not long thereafter, Constance is abducted on Richelieu’s command; Richelieu attempting to enlist D’Artagnan in his service by promising her unharmed return to him. As D’Artagnan openly refuses to even consider the appointment, Richelieu now sends Milady de Winter to work her feminine wiles on D’Artagnan. She is most conniving and erodes at least part of his resolve; Athos desperately trying to convince D’Artagnan Charlotte is an evil, corrupting and remorseless viper who will stop at nothing to destroy any man who falls under her spell. And Athos intimately knows of what he speaks. De Winter is, after all, his wife! Refusing to accept Athos claims at face value, D’Artagnan soon discovers the fleur-de-lis branded into Charlotte’s flesh – the irrefutable mark of a common criminal. Meanwhile, relations between Britain and France disintegrate. War breaks out. Amidst this chaos, Anne discovers where Richelieu is keeping Constance. A daring rescue ensues and Constance is taken to England. In reply, Richelieu gives de Winter carte blanche to murder Buckingham. Learning of this insidious plot, D’Artagnan sends Planchet to England to warn the Duke. Athos confronts de Winter, exposing Richelieu’s treachery to Buckingham.  Charlotte is imprisoned and Constance made her jailor. Alas, Constance takes pity on Charlotte, who fakes madness and then a hunger strike to win her forgiveness. Pleading with Constance to procure her a knife by which she means to take her own life rather than face torture and an inevitable hanging in the public square, the weapon is instead used by de Winter to murder both Constance and Buckingham.
Arriving too late to prevent these cold and calculated assassinations, Athos, D’Artagnan, Aramis and Porthos nevertheless thwart Charlotte’s departure back to France. With them is the Executioner of Lyons (Frank Hagney). There is no escape this time. De Winter is beheaded in the gardens just beyond the castle where her bloody treason has been wrought. Now, the Musketeers are ambushed by Richelieu's men. While Louis XIII is empathetic to their plight, he nevertheless is easily manipulated by Richelieu to see things his way. Richelieu is about to sentence the Musketeers to death when D’Artagnan produces the carte blanche given to de Winter by Richelieu. It proves his complicity in the plot to destroy Louis’s kingdom from the inside. Determined to preserve his integrity at all costs, Richelieu grants the Musketeers their choice of exile; Aramis, to a monastery; Porthos, to find a rich widow of his choosing and settle down, and D’Artagnan and Athos, to retire in a manner of luxury befitting their station in life. The Musketeers retreat from the King’s court, secure in the knowledge they have done their sworn duty to the crown.
This version of The Three Musketeers can be an exhilarating experience. Without question, Gene Kelly’s performance is the memorable one, despite his second billing to Lana Turner’s incendiary vixen. In the beginning, neither star was attached to this project; Louis Hayward, then Douglas Fairbanks Jr. advertised in the trades for D’Artagnan; Lana Turner relenting to make her first appearance in Technicolor after negotiations with Alida Valli fell through and Louis B. Mayer threatened Turner with suspension should she refuse the honor. Alas, only days before production was to begin on Easter Parade (1948) Kelly broke his ankle during a game of touch football at his home; exercise expressly forbidden by Mayer in case of just such an injury. While Kelly’s delayed healing forced him to bow out of Easter Parade entirely, Mayer pushed back shooting the more elaborate fencing sequences in The Three Musketeers to give Kelly’s ankle a chance to sufficiently heal. But Kelly would begin the picture with his injury only partly on the mend; strapped into a cast-like brace and doing all of his love scenes and close-ups ahead of schedule.
Rooting from behind, Van Heflin does his absolute best to keep up, but it is Kelly’s miraculous and seemingly inexhaustible vigor that delights on more than one occasion in The Three Musketeers; his athletic swordplay, part technician/part pantomime, with a touch of the clown, bon vivant and uncouth rapscallion all rolled into one. Quite simply, it remains a tour de force. Evidently, Kelly’s incorrigible horseplay and risk-taking incurred Mayer’s ire on more than one occasion. Mayer’s utmost concern was likely Kelly’s safety; also, Mayer’s plans to keep one of his most popular stars steadily churning out some of the best musicals ever made on the back lot. Had Mayer not been dethroned in late 1950 he might have been the one to nix Kelly’s tenure at the studio mid-decade after the slow, sad and unstoppable implosion of the Hollywood musical had already left MGM with a cavalcade of classically trained musical/comedy talent, but alas a real dearth of viable spectacles to showcase their enviable talents. With very few exceptions, Kelly would remain perennially tied in the number one spot as the best hoofer at MGM and arguably, in all of Hollywood, his only real competition, Fred Astaire; although, I would sincerely argue Gene Nelson, Donald O’Connor and The Nicholas Brothers could have given him a run for his money too.
Kelly brings balletic maneuvers, yet a genuinely earthy and masculine appeal to his D’Artagnan; a smug joie de vivre too, especially when asserting his robust physicality in the company of men. He is altogether less convincing as the adoring suitor/later husband to Constance; June Allyson’s virginal ‘girl next door’ passionlessly at odds with Kelly’s slightly tarnished man of the world. Indeed, the scenes between Kelly and Lana Turner are more up to speed in achieving romantic chemistry; albeit, of a highly toxic nature. Turner usually devoured the men she was paired with on the screen; all except for frequent costar, Clark Gable and, ironically, Gene Kelly in this movie. It has something to do with Kelly’s bravura, equally as dazzling and devil-may-care as Turner’s bodice-ripping harlot and schemer. Depending on one’s point of view, it is either a pity or a triumph that the plot weighs so heavily on D’Artagnan; the rest of the cast generally wasting away in his shadow. The worst of these noble sacrifices is Angela Lansbury – barely glimpsed as Queen Anne; a thankless part. Ditto for Frank Morgan’s hapless Louis XIII and Vincent Price’s skulking Richelieu; never given the opportunity to go beyond a venomous twinkle in the eye or coy, but cutthroat grin.
Whatever its shortcomings, The Three Musketeers can be forgiven virtually everything in glorious Technicolor. Robert H. Planck’s cinematography is a veritable ice cream sundae for the three-strip process; the violent green plumage atop Lady De Winter’s bonnet, gold brocade and embroidery in D’Artagnan’s riding ensemble and flowing blood red robes of state for Price’s grey-haired and goateed Richelieu are all given over to eye-popping representation on the screen. By comparison, Herbert Stothart’s underscore is unremarkable at best. Stothart, a workhorse at Metro with a very fine pedigree (1935’s Anna Karenina, and, Mutiny on the Bounty, 1936’s A Tale of Two Cities, 1938’s Marie Antoinette and 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, for which he won Best Original Score, among his many commendable credits) could perhaps be forgiven this rather homogenized and tepid effort. By the mid-1940’s, MGM’s in-house style had taken on a sort of pompously romanticized regality that was increasingly at odds with its more homespun productions. And Stothart, although not yet ill, would die of lung cancer barely a year after the picture’s release. Whatever the case, his music cues herein seem to chart all-too-familiar territory; his bombastic prompts to follow the dueling sabers, or imperious marches and dainty waltzes to accompany the more courtly pursuits in Louis’ palace, are veiled offerings that hint and occasionally reek of better work done elsewhere. In the end, we are left with unapologetic and gushingly elegant bedazzlement without any genuine substance to anchor the effect. Perhaps the best that can be said of The Three Musketeers, as with a good many of MGM’s supremely crafted spectacles of this vintage, is that we exit the theater smiling, superficially entertained by the distraction of it all.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is better than passable, though hardly spectacular. The original Technicolor hues have held up remarkably well, avoiding differential shrinkage for the most part. Colors are robust and at times illustrate a reasonable facsimile of vintage three-strip color photography. While close-ups bear a superb amount of fine detail, we lose something of this as well as the aforementioned vibrancy in a good many long shots; background information slightly blurring. Flesh tones look a tad orangey and contrast is a little weak. There are no true blacks, as example; the azure night skies and murky shadows inside the dungeon where Lady De Winter is being held prisoner, exhibit a warmish brown tint. Occasionally age-related artifacts crop up, but these generally do not distract.  The audio is vintage mono and quite respectably solid, although quiescent moments exhibit a pronounced background hiss and slight pop now and then. Warner adds a few unrelated short subjects and trailers to this mix; vintage stuff that likely appeared before and after the feature theatrically. But we get nothing in the way of history or making of – an oversight, indeed. Bottom line: recommended. But I would sincerely encourage the Warner Archive to give this deep catalog title consideration for a revamped Blu-ray release.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


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