Gene Kelly swordfights his way across Hollywood’s Golden Age.
The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and factory pressed Blu-ray discs. Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!
By the late 1940s, Gene Kelly, actor, dancer, choreographer, and soon enough, director, found himself at the pinnacle of Hollywood stardom, with what many consider his crowning achievements as a filmmaker, the Academy Award-winning An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain, considered by film critics, academics, and movie lovers the embodiment of the Platonic ideal of the American musical, in Kelly’s immediate future. With Anchors Aweigh, Ziegfeld Follies, and Living in a Big Way behind him, Kelly embarked on back-to-back musicals, The Pirate, a light romantic musical despite a title suggesting otherwise co-starring Judy Garland, and The Three Musketeers, an expensive, sumptuous Technicolor adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s (The Count of Monte Cristo) operennially popular 1844 swashbuckler.
With studio director George Sidney (Scaramouche, Show Boat, Ziegfeld Follies) at the helm and Kelly as the creative driving force, The Three Musketeers keeps Kelly’s character, D’Artagnan (Gene Kelly), front and center practically from the first scene to the closing credits. While Kelly actually gets second billing to Lana Turner as Dumas’s memorable villainous, Milady, Countess de Winter, she appears early on, orchestrating an unfortunate D’Artagnan’s beatdown before disappearing for the better part of an hour. When she makes her triumphant return, however, meeting with co-villain Cardinal Richelieu (Vincent Price) to discuss his latest power grab, she’s dressed in an arresting array of green and black.
In a book-to-film adaptation filled with plots, counter-plots, and counter-counter-plots, with characters aligning themselves based on a panoply of motives, including, but not limited to power (the acquisition and/or protection of same), honor (primarily an excuse to engage in limb-and-life threatening duels), and, of course, loyalty, if not to the French crown and the weak-willed, easily impressed King Louis XIII (Frank Morgan, The Wizard of Oz), then to the French nation against enemies domestic and foreign, with Kelly’s D’Artagnan, technically a novice cadet in the King’s guards, the Musketeers, on the side of right and might as embodied by the three Musketeers of the title, Athos (Van Heflin), Porthos (Gig Young), and Aramis (Robert Coote).
In a sign of lightly humorous, comical things to come, D’Artagnan inadvertently introduces himself to the three Musketeers by stumbling into a series of confrontations with each one in turn, setting up an afternoon of dueling only interrupted by Richelieu’s men. When D’Artagnan proves himself more than an equal to the Musketeers in acrobatic swordplay when they’re forced to fight Richelieu’s men, he becomes the de facto fourth Musketeer, a favorite of the king, and a brand-new set of clothes (fiery red and mustard yellow). His new position affords him the luxury of a servant, a shared living space with the other musketeers, and a headlong romance with the landlord’s daughter, Constance (June Allyson, the quintessential “girl next door,” 1940s version). Constance also happens to be a lady-in-waiting to the French Queen, Anne (Angela Lansbury, young).
The remainder of the frenetic plot involves Anne’s affair with the Duke of Buckingham (John Sutton), missing jewels Cardinal Richelieu hopes to parlay into stronger influence over the French king’s actions and presumably war with England, a frenzied chase on horseback as the musketeers attempt to evade Richelieu’s men, each one falling back to save the others (“all for one, etc.”), leaving only D’Artagnan to complete the mission. The chase on horseback, punctuated by bravura sword fights featuring Kelly at his most physically impressive, feels less like a period piece than an old-school, Hollywood Western. Not coincidentally, Sidney saw his adaptation of Dumas’s classic novel in a similarly fashion.
Anchored by a positively exuberant performance from Kelly supported by a top-to-bottom cast who most definitely understood the assignment and delivered line readings and performances accordingly, The Three Musketeers unfolds in light, lighthearted fashion, jumping from one credulity-straining plot point to another credulity-straining plot point at lightning speed. Even the periodic dispatch of Richelieu’s men at the end of the musketeers’s rapiers tends to have little dramatic weight (the ADR’ed grunts on the soundtrack don’t help), though the tone gradually shifts into something slightly more serious as the actions of the musketeers and their allies bring them ever closer to Richelieu’s dangerous orbit.
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The Three Musketeers is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Archive.