The four men in “The Iron Mask”

Pub date April 25, 2007
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

When The Iron Mask screens at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, four disparate cinematic personalities will merge – three in spirit and one in the flesh.

Now 68, Kevin Brownlow made his first feature film, 1966’s It Happened Here, while in his 20s and subsequently published two books, one (How It Happened Here) on the making of that movie and another (The Parade’s Gone By) featuring interviews with silent-era filmmakers and stars. At that time, the silent era was almost like a technical glitch to be overcome and forgotten. But Brownlow would soon help immortalize great early works through his interviews and his pioneering skills as a restorer.

At the Castro Theatre, Brownlow (the recipient of the SF Film Society’s Mel Novikoff Award, whose latest movie, Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic, also screens at this year’s festival) will present 1929’s The Iron Mask. That movie’s star, Douglas Fairbanks, had an effortlessly cheery, energetic onscreen persona, performing his own, Jackie Chan-like stunts. He also ran a tight ship offscreen, controlling nearly every aspect of his business empire. When Fairbanks began planning his extravagant 1922 film Robin Hood, with its record million-dollar budget, director Allan Dwan landed in the driver’s seat. A crackerjack action man, Dwan could keep up with Fairbanks and move things at a brisk pace; Dwan would go on to direct about 400 films, most of them considerably cheaper.

Fairbanks hired Dwan once again for The Iron Mask, a follow-up to 1921’s The Three Musketeers in which Fairbanks would reprise his role as D’Artagnan. The film is not without its breezy, exciting moments, but by this time Fairbanks was 46 and beginning to slow down. He seemed to understand that his antics no longer coincided with the times; his D’Artagnan is a bit long in the tooth and meets a less heroic ending than does the typical Fairbanks hero. Concurrently, talkies had begun to draw the curtain on silent pictures. Fairbanks recorded two talking interludes for the film, which only add to its heartbreaking, elegiac nature. When The Iron Mask was restored, the great modern composer Carl Davis, whose work currently graces a number of silent movies on DVD, recorded a 42-piece orchestral score worthy of the film’s energy and its melancholy. Fortunately, as Brownlow will no doubt demonstrate, it’s possible to see the film with new eyes. In that, there’s no reason to be sad. (Jeffrey M. Anderson)

CECIL B. DEMILLE: AMERICAN EPIC Sat/28, 9:15 p.m., Kabuki