Whacks And Wayne
The Three Musketeers (1933)
USA Directed by Colbert Clark and Armand Schaefer
Mascot Pictures/Alpha Video DVD Region 1
12 Chapter Theatrical Serial
Before I get into this, I really want to say up front that I absolutely love 1930s to 1950s theatrical serials and, despite a love for Fred Astaire movies when I was a toddler, it’s these that kick started me off into a lifetime of occasional film watching. Indeed, it was a BBC compilation screening of the first Flash Gordon serial in the early 1970s which fanned the flames of my love of the cinematic arts and their scheduling of other serials in the late 1970s and early 1980s were absolutely essential watches for me. So, yeah, the ones they showed such as Flash Gordon, Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe, King Of The Rocket Men and Daredevils Of The Red Circle kept me enthusiastic about the medium even after movies like Doc Savage and Star Wars became the dominating cinematic influences in my young life. I’ve also seen many others in the intervening years through various DVDs (some official and others bootlegs) of varying quality so, with that in mind...
It pains me to say that The Three Musketeers is probably the worst serial I’ve ever seen in my life, to date. For starters, it has the cheek to say it’s based on Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel of the same name when, in fact, it’s not only been updated to take place nearer to the serial’s release date and is an adventure set around the The Foreign Legion... it has, after having sat through all twelve chapters, nothing much in common with the Dumas classic which I could see (and yes, I have read it) that could justify this as, at the very least, a modernisation of the so called source material. Not even the character names are the same and, instead, it follows the main protagonist Tom Wayne... played by John Wayne... who is befriended by three members of the Foreign Legion (played by Jack Mulhall, Raymond Hatton and Francis X. Bushman Jr.) who ‘compare’ themselves to the original Three Musketeers. They think of John... I mean Tom... as their D’Artagnan and, yeah, that’s as close to the original that this gets. This is not a swashbuckler by any stretch of the imagination and it has none of the intrigues of the Dumas novel. Instead we get fists and rifles and, as enthusiastic as this sometimes gets, it’s somehow still the most dreariest of the serials I’ve seen. Now, I’m more used to seeing chapter plays which were churned out by Universal, Republic and Columbia. You could quite often tell the company from the style of the serial. So I think I shall probably be steering clear of Mascot Pictures in the future... at least in terms of their serial output.
The plot, such as it is, deals with the brother of Tom Wayne’s fiancé Elaine Corday, played by the charming but underused Ruth Hall (indeed, several times in the serial, the other actors forget to use her character name and just call her Ruth). Her brother Armand is played in the first episode by Crieghton Chaney... who horror film fans will know is the real name of Lon Chaney Jr. He doesn’t get much of a look in as he has been running guns to a powerful Arab leader called El Shaitan, who has meetings of the ‘Devil’s Circle’. He’s just about to confess everything to his pal Tom when he is killed and Tom is framed for the murder. That’s it... the whole rest of the 12 chapters is about Tom Wayne being captured, escaping, captured again, escaping again etc... all aided by ‘the Musketeers’ as he attempts to find the true identity of El Shaitan and keep Elaine out of trouble. Yeah, it sounds like any typical serial by a studio like Republic doesn’t it? Except it’s lazy, cheats more often than usual on the cliffhanger resolutions, shows endless repeats and overly long, unnecessary and often augmented recap footage at the start of each subsequent episode... and has more ‘bottleneck’ flashbacks than you can shake a stick at.
There are a few nice things about it though...
For example, Yakima Canutt is one the stunt team, as well as playing various characters and the many high speed ‘horse mount’ jumps in this, which were presumably mostly doubled by Canutt, are spectacular and he makes this stuff look easy. There’s also a degree at characterisation with one of ‘the three’, constantly seen eating a giant sausage. In the midst of any danger, there he will be, pulling out his giant sausage and taking a munch as his other flying fist fights off hordes of Arabs. In fact, almost everything this character does is punctuated by his habit of pulling out his co-starring cylinder of meat, often used as a kind of visual punchline to nearly every scene he’s in. Well, at least they were trying but it does get a bit repetitive after a while, a lot like the rest of the content of the serial... although I did miss it when, in the second from last episode, he goes for a big leg of meat during a fight instead of a sausage.
So... yeah, I know that the way this serial is structured is no different from a lot of others but with pretty much most of the locations looking the same and some pretty flat dialogue, this just comes off as incredibly dull, it has to be said. Lee Zahler’s typical serial scoring tries to keep it lively but... nah, it doesn’t save the production I’m afraid. The serial was subsequently recut down to an hour and ten minutes in length and released as the feature film Desert Command in 1946, presumably in an attempt by Mascot to cash in on John Wayne’s new super stardom at the time. I haven’t seen this version but could quite believe that it actually plays better at only one third of its length and may, actually, be more coherent in that form. All I can say is, this is certainly a ‘version’ of The Three Musketeers that I will be recommending to nobody. And I think now is probably as good a time as any to revisit those old Flash Gordon serials that I loved so much growing up. It’s a shame that they... and a lot of other great serials... haven’t been transferred to Blu Ray to preserve them. It’s a worrying thought that a lot of these may now be just vinegar unless someone gets to them in time and spends the money trying to restore and preserve them for future generations. Somebody needs to get on the case in a hurry, methinks.