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The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952)

storyofrobinhoodposterThis movie always makes me very happy. It’s not as lavish or large scale as Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn’s versions of Robin Hood, not as swashbuckling or even as tense. I especially noticed the lack of tension when I watched it this week. But perhaps because I grew up with the film, it has the power to make me feel warm and comfortable and happy, like chicken soup.

Walt Disney’s live action Robin Hood and His Merrie Men was released in 1952, but has since been superseded in memory by Disney’s animated 1973 Robin Hood. It was filmed in England, with an all-English cast, and I believe it is the second live action film that Disney made (with Treasure Island being the first – another childhood favorite).

The scale of the story is far smaller than most Robin Hood incarnations. Robin Hood (Richard Todd) is not an earl, but is simply Robin Fitzooth, the son of the Earl of Huntington’s gamekeeper. The daughter of the Earl of Hungtington is Maid Marian (Joan Rice), who grew up with Robin as playmates and is still something of a tom-boy. But King Richard (Patrick Barr) is leading a crusade and calls all his knights to go with him, including the Earl of Huntington. Marion is placed in the care of Eleanor of Aquitaine (Martita Hunt – an indomitable presence) as a lady in waiting, while Prince John (Hubert Gregg) is left in charge of a large portion of earldoms.

But as soon as Richard has left, John begins setting in motion his plans. He puts in place his own man as the Sheriff of Notthingham (Peter Finch) and they recruit a large posse, “an army,” of bowman to enforce the taxes necessary to maintain the new posse. When Robin’s father publicly speaks out against the Sheriff, he is murdered and Robin ends up an outlaw in Sherwood Forrest and becomes known as Robin Hood, where he attracts a variety of men in sympathy with his cause or who have been oppressed by the Sheriff.

One of the things I always liked about this is the scale. I am not an expert on British history of the time, but one always has the impression in the other films that Richard ruled in an uncomplicated, autocratic way with sole power and that all John needs to do to control England is replace him as that autocrat. However, in the Disney film, power seems to be divided up more diversely. Eleanor of Aquitaine evidently has lands and power of her own. The Archbishop of Canterbury (Anthony Eustrel) also appears to wield a great deal of power and influence and remains highly skeptical of Prince John and his protestations of poverty. In fact, I rather enjoy the Archbishop as a character. With a voice that often drips irony, he looks more like a man who could lead crusade himself. Prince John, on the other hand, is a calculating man who only controls a certain portion of lands and estates.

robinhoodandhismerriemen_240Even Robin Hood doesn’t have a horde of men (as Fairbanks and Flynn do). His merrie men are a mere band of men. There is no civil war or pitched battles. He is simply doing what he can to alleviate the poverty and injustice and to ensure that enough money is collected to ransom King Richard.

Both Richard Todd and Joan Rice seem to have enjoyed a very brief time of stardom in the 1950s, especially Joan Rice. She was thought to be an up-and-coming star, but her career quickly faded for reasons that seem largely unknown (she also starred with Burt Lancaster in His Majesty O’Keefe). The Story of Robin Hood is her most famous film and she is good as a young woman who seems more at home in the woods than as a lady in waiting. Richard Todd must have been something of a matinee idol, but because he spends a surprising amount of the film shirtless. Not as energetic or athletic as Fairbanks (who is?) or dashing as Errol Flynn (who is?), I still like him in the role and he has a twinkle in his eye and sincerity that fits the role well.

I think one of the big reasons that I love this movie so much is the inclusion of singer, actor, and guitarist Elton Hayes as Alan-a-Dale, whose songs bring continuity to the story. He is a traveling minstrel whose songs provide music, entertainment, news and even political commentary. Little John (James Robertson Justice) is particularly fond of listening to Alan-a-Dale sing. I can sympathize. If you like music and you have no radio, the only option is to cajole your local minstrel into singing for you.

Friar Tuck (James Hayter – he played Mr. Pickwick in the 1952 The Pickwick Papers) will always be Friar Tuck in my mind…as much as I enjoy Eugene Pallatte’s incarnation in 1938. He’s certainly belligerent and militant, but also a romantic and likes to sing love songs to himself (there’s a lot of singing in this movie), as well as make matches.

The screenwriters made an effort to make the language old English (with ayes and nays and such) and between the language, the songs, the painted mattes (such as used for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Mary Poppins), the smaller and slightly more realistic scale and even the highly pious attitude towards the Crusades (politically incorrect, but historically more plausible) makes for a picturesque and charming film. It’s not as good a film other Robin Hood films, but it is the one I love the most. The sights and sounds, such as the whizzing of the arrows or the horn blowing, the timbre of people’s voice, all kind of form a familiar symphony for me and I can’t help but smile.  

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Eagle (1925) – A Silent Russian Robin Hood Romance

The-eagle-1925Rudolph Valentino will always be remembered for The Sheik, where he abducts a European woman and carries her off to his tent in the desert. Stockholm Syndrome then sets in. He was also known as The Latin Lover, so my vision of him was always of a rather intense wooer of woman, sweeping them off their feet in intense, hammy fashion, staring into their eyes and kissing them while the ladies swooned away.

But there is nothing hammy about The Eagle or about Valentino (though I have not yet seen The Sheik). It is an extremely fun and entertaining Robin Hood-like romance set in Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a swashbuckler – there are no sword fights, or really, any fights – but it is a romantic adventure story.

Based on a short novel by Alexander Pushkin,  Vladimir Dubrovsky (Valentino) is a member of the Russian guard under Catherine the Great (Louise Dresser). She watches him gallantly rescue a runaway carriage containing the lovely Mascha (Vilma Bánky). Mascha seems grateful, but he is smitten. However, the Czarina is also rather struck with Dubrovsky, both by his bravery and by his extremely good looks and invites (orders?) him to come to dinner where she asks him if he wants to be a general (which is evidently her pickup line of choice).

Dubrovsky is very uncomfortable with the Czarina

Dubrovsky, looking very uncomfortable with the Czarina

Dubrovksy, however, is appalled at the idea of becoming the Czarina’s gigolo and leaves the palace quickly, with the Czarina less than pleased (though not so put out that she can’t ask Dubrovksy’s captain if he would like to become a general). As Shakespeare said somewhere, sorrow (or trouble) comes not as single spies, but in battalions. Such is the case for poor Dubrovsky. His father then loses his estate through the shady dealings of Kyrilla Troekouroff (James A. Marcus) and now lies dying, while the Czarina has declared him a deserter and wants him brought to her, dead or alive.

Displaced and homeless, he travels to his home village, where the peasants entreat him to right the wrongs that are now being done to them by Kyrilla. Dubrovsky says he will help them and vows that he will avenge his father’s death. He takes up a life of masked banditry and becomes known as The Black Eagle.

The only difficulty is that Kyrilla has a lovely daughter (villains always have lovely daughters) who turns out to be Mascha, and Dubrovsky is just as smitten as before. He infiltrates her home as a French tutor, the better to woo her and still wreak revenge on her father (how he thinks he’s going to have her and kill her father, I’m not sure – people do tend to frown on the murder of their parents).

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Scripture wars – I think she wins, because he misquotes scripture for his own ends. She points out “vengeance is mine, sayth the Lord,” while he points to “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but if you know your scripture, you realize that he has failed to note that there is a “but” after that, where Jesus says to turn the other cheek.

Vilma Bánky has good, flirty chemistry with Valentino and makes Mascha the equal of Dubrovsky in brains and determination. Most of the silent adventure films I have seen so far are Douglas Fairbanks swashbucklers and the ladies tend to be rather hapless and uninteresting. They look lovely and get rescued. But Bánky’s Mascha is spunky, stands up to him, has a sense of humor and is not taken in by him. She wants, as my sister says, to have her cake and eat it, too. She wants Dubrovsky, but she also doesn’t want him to kill her father; which is why she does not betray him, but is also working hard to prevent him from killing her father.

My sister and I have often laughed at how, in costume dramas, the women always reflect their own era. In the 1920s, this means that no matter what era the movie is supposed to be set in, they always look faintly (or not so faintly) like flappers. The Eagle is no exception and Vilma Bánky almost looks like she stepped off the streets of New York, though perhaps with a Russian flair about her attire.

The film is more romance than action/adventure, but is charming and exciting. I now understand the appeal of Valentino. He is, of course, good looking, but also quite charming and even a bit goofy, at times: such as when he wants to give Mascha his ring and cannot get it off his finger or when they are at dinner and he is so enthralled by her that he puts too much pepper in his soup.

eaglelobbycardvalentinoThe DVD I saw was adequate. There was an organ accompaniment that was nothing special, but at least not offensive. The film has clearly not been cleaned up, either, though it is still quite watchable. There is also a fair version on youtube, that is a transfer of the laserdisc version of the film and has an actual score that matches, though the image is less clear than on the DVD. I do hope that someday, a cleaned up version with a good score is released on DVD or Blu-ray. It deserves it!

 
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Posted by on March 16, 2015 in Movies

 

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