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.|
|The dame's wearing only a cloth and grass skirt,|
for God's sakes -- do something!
|"Yeah, you were supposed to be the |
entree. Funny, hunh?"
|Hey guys, there's a half-naked woman there,|
and all you have are eyes for are each other.
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
|We're not laughing at you,|
we're laughing with you.
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 witty repartee anymore. Special note must be made of all the natives' clothing, which appears to have been come from a nearby Target.
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 production must have looked old-fashioned even in 1932. The 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.