Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Exile

After waiting (literally) decades to see “The Exile” (1947), I finally got to see it last night, thanks to the fine folk at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, who screened it as part of its ongoing Max Ophuls retrospective.

I had a great interest in seeing this as I once asked the star of the movie, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., how come it was never shown anywhere.

Almost 20 years ago Fairbanks was touring the country promoting the first volume of his autobiography “The Salad Days” (a marvelous read, by the way) and he was appearing on the “Extension 720” show on WGN-AM. There was much discussion about his career, his father, step mom (Mary Pickford) and famous movies such as “Gunga Din.”

It was a good show but I was chomping at the bit to find out about “The Exile”, a swashbuckler he not only starred in, but also produced and wrote. I have no memory of it being on television in all the years growing up. (If it was on I missed it.)

I’ve always liked Fairbanks, especially in his swashbucklers, like “The Corsican Brothers” (1941), “Sinbad the Sailor” (1948) and my personal favorite “The Fighting O’Flynn” (1949). “Gunga Din” (1939) is one of the greatest adventure movies ever made, as is the 1937 version of “The Prisoner of Zenda.” Fairbanks played the villain Rupert of Hentzau in that and he’s absolutely sensational, one of the cheekiest rogues in the swashbuckling canon. Despite his nefarious activities throughout he’s so engaging that when he escapes at the end we feel like cheering.

I’ve enjoyed the above titles many times over the years, but never an appearance of “The Exile” anywhere. Why?

I decided to call in to see if I could get on and ask about why “The Exile” was never shown anywhere.

So I dialed up the station and told the producer who screened the calls my question. I added, “And he produced it too, so I was wondering if there some sorts of rights issues involved that were keeping it unseen.”

The producer said it was a good question and to hold the line, I would be on the air shortly.

A few minutes later I was talking to Mr. Fairbanks himself. I was nervous, but got through my question OK.

He seemed surprised by the question and said something like, “I honestly don’t know. I’m unaware of any rights problems. Some friends of mine saw it on TV in New York a few months ago and called me about it.”

I thanked him, he thanked me and I hung up. So as long as there no rights problems, surely it would show up someplace. Nope, not on TV, VHS or DVD. I’ve waited and waited and never saw it until last night.

Was the wait worth it? Yes it was. There’s not as much action as I would have liked, but there was plenty more to keep one’s eyes happily occupied, namely Ophuls’s graceful camera movements and the stunning production design.

“The Exile” is set in 1660. Charles II, King of England, is in exile in Holland after being chased out of the country by Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads. The Roundheads have agents scattered throughout Europe looking for the king so they can kill him. In Holland, Charles falls for a pretty Dutch farm girl (Paule Croset, previously Rita Corday, later Paula Corday) and settles on her farm/inn as a worker. He is kept advised of the situation in England by a group of loyal followers, including Sir Edward Hyde (a non-bumbling Nigel Bruce).

One particularly dangerous Roundhead agent (Henry Daniell) finds his way to Holland and tracks down Charles. Daniell is one of my favorite character actors and if you’re going to cast someone as a Roundhead, Henry Daniell should be your first choice. The man could bring a polar ice cap to the Equator just be standing there and glowering. Unfortunately Daniell is not in the movie as much as I would like.

Fairbanks wrote “The Exile” and the screenplay structure is very odd. There’s very little physical action until the final quarter of its 97-minute running time. It’s structured almost like a play, with long scenes taking place in one or two locations.

One long sequence has a bemused Charles playing host to an actor (Robert Coote) who claims he is the exiled king.

Another sequence has a French countess (Maria Montez) flirting with Charles and giving him messages and gifts from the French king.

Still producer Fairbanks knew what he was doing when he hired Max Ophuls to direct. This is a stunning film to look at in every way. Ophuls favored long tracking shots with a minimum of cutting. A long opening scene on a Holland dock between Charles and Katie is done in a series of long, fluid takes. In a lot of historical movies, the sets are lavish but they seem like sets. Here the camera tracks characters as they move from location to location, or in the inn, from room to room with nary a cut.

The construction of these sets must have really taxed the Universal Studios production design department, but they likely welcomed the challenge. By the late 1940s, Universal was one of the most factory-like of the major studios, and the production department no doubt relished the chance to construct sets with real depth and breadth.

Most of the action occurs at the end, with the final duel between Charles and his Roundhead opponent in a windmill (another spectacular set). Fairbanks and Daniell exchange dialogue in between sword parries and thrusts. At one point Charles asks quite sensibly, “England will still go on even if we both die.”

I was excited to see the name of David Sharpe in the credits as the action scenes choreographer. Sharpe was one of the best stuntmen in the business, responsible for so many of the memorable stunts that fill Republic serials and B-westerns. Seeing his name I was expecting him to bring some of that Republic magic to “The Exile.” It’s there, just not in the doses I wanted. Still, Fairbanks’s Charles II is probably the most athletic king in movie history, jumping through windows and riding windmill blades while evading his Roundhead enemies.

In a 1988 interview with The New York Times, Fairbanks names “The Exile” as one of his favorite films even though “we were forced to hire Maria Montez for that.”

Not very gallant, I say, and how would he feel that much interest in “The Exile” today rests on Montez’s 10-minute cameo?

Back to that phone call. It was the oddest sensation to talk to someone famous with a very distinctive voice and hear that voice come back to you over the phone. A few years later I talked to Charlton Heston on the same radio show and had the same reaction. These aren’t just actors, these are larger than life personalities with highly identifiable speaking voices.

I mean if I called into a radio show to talk to, say, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck or George Clooney would the sensation be the same? I don’t think so. I probably wouldn’t expend the energy to talk to any of those gentlemen, but if I was blindfold and they each said something could I identify who was talking? Not in a million years.

But Fairbanks and Heston! Those are voices, larger than life, unique and individual. Those are famous voices and to hear them talking through your telephone is a weird sensation. But I’m glad I had the opportunity to do so.

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