Writer and silent film enthusiast, Pamela Hutchinson (Silent London) and composer Neil Brand look back at the making of Douglas Fairbanks and Allan Dwan’s 1922 silent classic, Robin Hood. Could this have been one of the first Hollywood ‘blockbusters’?
‘More than anything else, Robin Hood is a show … In fact, it’s the last thing in spectacles. We doubt if the silversheet will go much further along this expensive road.’
That was how Photoplay magazine raved about Robin Hood when it was released in 1922. Although each year the Hollywood blockbusters promise to be bigger and better than those before, at 94 years old Robin Hood can put them to shame. It remains a first-rate family movie, combining breathtaking action, gorgeous sets and irreverent humour – plus an irresistibly charming performance from its acrobatic star, Douglas Fairbanks Sr.
That is why it is so exciting to welcome Robin Hood back to the screen at the Barbican, with a vibrant new score composed by Neil Brand and performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. ‘It is the first epic star adventure movie,’ says Brand. ‘I have wanted to score a Fairbanks film for many years because I love his sense of joy.’ With his score, Brand wanted to match the sense of joy that Fairbanks brings to the role. ‘When we first see Fairbanks as Robin Hood, there are fireworks on the screen, and in the music too,’ says Brand. ‘It’s a delirious, six-minute scene of him out-running, out-thinking and out-shooting all of Prince John’s men. Then we meet the rest of the Merry Men, who disappear into the forest and start leaping over the bushes. What’s not to love?’
Everything is super-sized in this movie, from the sets, to the star’s exuberant personality, and the cost. Robin Hood runs at nearly two hours, an epic in 1922, and the film-makers knew that telling this story wouldn’t come cheap. Fairbanks put up $1m to fund the production; Robin Hood was made at the studio he co-owned, United Artists, so he was ultimately responsible for its success or failure. He even insisted on building a new studio, despite the qualms of his brother John, who was in charge of the company finances. ‘Robin Hood should be made lavishly, or not at all,’ he said. The final bill came to an unprecedented $1.4m, however Photoplay weren’t the only ones to be impressed, and Robin Hood earned a mighty $2.5m at the box office.
The film has substance to match its magnificent scale. ‘Robin Hood is the first time Hollywood takes on Medieval England and wins,’ says Brand. Fairbanks, one of the biggest movie stars at the time, had long been fascinated by the Robin Hood legend, and he commissioned a historian to research the age of Richard the Lionheart.
He wanted the look of the film to be as accurate as possible – not easy when you are dealing with centuries-old folklore.
He hired Allan Dwan – known as ‘Capability Dwan’ for his brisk efficiency and technical ingenuity – to direct, who brought in leading art director Wilfred Buckland. The sets that Buckland constructed for Robin Hood are the stuff of movie legend. Robin Hood’s towering Nottingham Castle was the biggest set Hollywood had ever seen. The Los Angeles Times review gasped: ‘Greatest of all the settings is, of course, the castle which for months has been a sort of landmark of cinema enterprise on Santa Monica Boulevard.’
In fact, the size of the castle gave rise to a Hollywood myth. Dwan often said that when he took Fairbanks to the set for the first time, the star was so intimidated that he wanted to shelve the movie, saying: ‘I can’t compete with that.’ According to studio publicist Robert Florey, the actor was definitely astonished, but the castle had his full approval; ‘Heavens,’ he said, ‘you take me seriously.’ Fairbanks was further charmed by Dwan and Buckland’s cleverness in concealing slides and trampolines around the set, so that he could bound into balconies and glide down the curtains. Fairbanks longed to be active at all times, especially on screen, so how could he resist this climbing-frame castle?
The shoot progressed in unorthodox style, with Dwan, Fairbanks and screenwriter Lotta Woods more or less making up the script as they went along, and the energy of both director and star setting the pace. Wallace Beery, one of Hollywood’s most famous faces – a heavy-set hunk of a man – played King Richard with vigour, and Enid Bennett, a well-known Australian actress, offered a sweet but subdued Lady Marian. Dwan strove for jaw-dropping moments, such as a falconry shot that required 100 takes to perfect and Fairbanks brought so much gusto to a climactic fight scene that he had to battle the censors to keep the gruesome, gleeful murder of Guy of Gisborne in the final cut.
Back on the big screen with Brand’s joyful score, we’ll be able to see Robin Hood as the crowds in 1922 did – an unforgettable cinematic spectacle.
BBC Symphony Orchestra perform Neil Brand’s new score to Robin Hood on Friday 14 October in the Hall.