Wednesday, May 8, 2013


Mr. Robinson Crusoe presents an artist at the end of his rope, both artistically and personally. Having been one of the biggest movie actors in the world just three years earlier, Douglas Fairbanks had seen his star fall dramatically with the introduction of sound. Convinced, rightly, that the new technology, along with his advancing age, would no longer suit the brand of derring-do his fans had become accustomed to, he tried his hand at Shakespeare (The Taming of the Shrew with wife Mary Pickford), sophisticated comedy (Reaching for the Moon) and travelogue (Around the World in 80 Minutes), all to less than stellar results.

So it's no surprise that his fourth talkie was little more than a low-budget 70-minute home movie/vanity project, Mr. Robinson Crusoe. Writing the treatment under his usual nom-de-scenario, Elton Thomas, Fairbanks updated the classic story to that of millionaire Steve Drexel sailing to the Dutch Indies with his friend William Belmont. Drexel, tired of civilization, decides to jump ship and live like Crusoe on a deserted island. If he's still in one piece by the time William returns from his tiger hunting trip, he wins $1000. If not, well, Belmont loses a friend but saves a grand. Good trade-off.

I wouldn't get too comfortable,
Mr. White Boss Man.
Any Robinson Crusoe needs a Man Friday, and this is version no different. Unfortunately for Drexel, this Friday is a proto-Civil Rights activist who wants no part of playing Rochester to the white man, especially when said white man almost drowns him in an effort to correct his attitude. For reasons unexplained, Friday wears a necklace made of radio tubes, cuing Drexel to ask, "You killed a radio operator, hunh? You should've killed a radio announcer." Someone should have killed the writer.

Fairbanks wonders what to do with the
dame in the grass skirt, and comes up empty.
Soon after Friday takes his leave, a native woman escaping her wedding ceremony shows up. "Friday's gone," Drexel observes, "you must be Saturday." (The level of wit in Mr. Robinson Crusoe is staggering.) Drexel brings his conquest up to his home-built bachelor pad, which contains all the usual comforts , including a radio made of Friday's necklace, copper, a shell for the speaker and some wood for the base. (Bose, take note.)

He and Saturday immediately set up house, although he refuses to sleep in the same bed with her. Considering that Saturday is quite willing and good-looking, the reason for Drexel's non-reaction can only be speculated. Saturday, by the way, is played by Spanish actress Maria Alba, who looks about as "native" as Jean Harlow.

"Yeah, you're supposed to be dinner --
funny, hunh?"

Just to give you an idea of the kind of friends Drexel has, Belmont and Carmichael stop off at a nearby island and convince the natives to invade Drexel's pad. They're to pretend to be cannibals and, after capturing Drexel, start to roast him over a fire, whereupon Belmont and Carmichael will "save" him. All this to welsh on a lousy $1000 bet while spending a good six figures on an ocean voyage. I don't understand rich people.

Hey guys, there's a half-naked woman there,
and all you have are eyes for are each other.
The monkey saves the day -- as they always do in these things -- by turning on the radio, which scares the natives -- as they always do in these things. Drexel escapes and captures the natives in his trap. Belmont and Carmichael show up and are impressed by Drexel's surroundings. (Noticing the radio, Belmont exclaims with admiration, "The man is Mussolini!" Whatever you say, dude.) Escaping a further influx of natives, Drexel, his friends and Saturday sail off to safety on their yacht. By the climax, Drexel has sold off Saturday to the Ziegfeld Follies as a hula dancer. I was hoping she'd break free and climb the Empire State Building, but that idea was a year away.

It probably didn't take Fairbanks long to write the treatment. Much of the first half of Mr. Robinson consists of him: 1) Creating Rube Goldberg-type devices to make his life more
comfortable, and 2) Laughing. Laughing, in fact, is his first reaction to everything. Using animals as slave labor? Laughter. Listening to radio reports of traffic deaths and suicides back home? Laughter -- no kidding. He gets a real howl out of trapping a goat, who appears to have been drugged for its movie debut. This was well before the Hollywood branch of the ASPCA ruined all the fun animal abuse entails. 

More hilarity ensues when Belmont and Carmichael observe island natives. Carmichael explains that the village is preparing for an engagement ceremony, which will climax with the groom-to-be knocking out the front teeth of his beloved. Belmont chuckles, "Oh well, we do the same thing. Only we wait until after the ceremony." You just don't hear that kind of classy repartee anymore. Special note must be made of all the natives' clothing, which appears to have provided by a nearby Target.

In 2011, Fairbanks' outfit was sold
at auction for $1,700, which was
probably more than the movie's
After big-budget productions like Robin Hood, Zorro and The Black Pirate, a sorry little effort like Mr. Robinson Crusoe must have disappointed Fairbanks' remaining fans. He tries hard to combine the athletics of those classic adventure pictures and his earlier, modern-dress comedies (for Fairbanks made his mark as a physical comedian). But factors like age -- he was 49 but seems older -- and cigarettes worked against him.

Too, the movie wears its low budget on its ragged sleeve. Much of the first scene on the yacht was clearly shot in a studio with a very unconvincing back projection. The dialogue spoken on the location shooting is echoey and distracting thanks to poor post-production dubbing. The entire whole thing must have looked old-fashioned even in 1932.  

Crusoe's onscreen prologue is itself straight out of the silents. The "glories and freedom of a primitive paradise" could just as well refer to Fairbanks' Hollywood heyday as it does a deserted island. (Just to drive it home, co-star William Farnum was a former silent star as well, best known for The Spoilers, made in 1914.) One nice touch: circulating prints of Mr. Robinson Crusoe still contain the original exit music following the closing credits, the perfect accompaniment as you make your favorite tropical drink to forget what you just watched.

There's a sad, desperate air to Mr. Robinson Crusoe, with Douglas Fairbanks still trying to pretend it was 1925, when he was King of Hollywood and his namesake son wasn't yet more popular than he. His athletic grace comes to the fore from time to time -- but is that him making his climatic escape on a combination zipline/catapult? I think not. It kind of makes sense that his island-wear is a duplicate of Peter Pan's. Douglas Fairbanks had become a middle-aged boy who, sadly, refused to grow up.


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