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Monday, October 29, 2007

Alexandre Dumas Movies (originally published 3/97)

It's amazing how much the writers who create the stories we enjoy on the screen have in common. Consider the following example, a writer whose work is playing right now at your local multiplex. Much of his early work was condemned by critics for its lurid, prurient content. One particularly nasty drama, in which the main character murders his married lover, was described as "the most daringly obscene piece that has appeared in even these days of obscenity." Still, if the propriety of his stories was open to question, their popularity was not. The success of his writings combined with his prolific output to finance a profligate lifestyle distinguished by a shocking degree of licentious debauchery. In fact, there were those who questioned whether one who so studiously pursued the pleasures of the flesh could possibly have the time to produce such a volume of work. Rumors abounded to the effect that he was running a literary sweat shop, claiming the work of uncredited collaborators as his own.

Sounds like a typical modern writer gone Hollywood, right? Except that the scribe in question is Alexandre Dumas, who died in 1870, a quarter century before the birth of the motion picture. Even so, Hollywood knows one of its own, even across the decades. Dumas's much-beloved stories have consistently been favorites of filmmakers through the years, as witness the current adaptation of "The Man in the Iron Mask." If you're interested in how earlier movie adaptations have treated the stories of Dumas, look for these titles on home video.

"The Iron Mask" (1929). Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., the man who invented the swashbuckler movie, had made a screen version of Dumas's "The Three Musketeers" back in 1921, in the heyday of silent movies. Now, with talkies taking over Hollywood, the great silent star was beginning to sense that his day had almost passed. He brought his characterization of D'Artagnan to the screen one more time in one final silent epic, this time playing a D'Artagnan who was himself nearing the end of an illustrious career. For the first and only time, Fairbanks allowed his character to die onscreen.

"The Count of Monte Cristo" (1934). Like any good storyteller, Dumas understood primal emotions. He knew, for example, that few passions are more primal than the desire for vengeance. When the wrongly imprisoned Edmond Dantes manages to escape, then comes into a fortune in pirate loot on the island of Monte Cristo, who among us can resist taking vicarious pleasure in the ruthlessness of his revenge on those who wronged him? Robert Donat turns in a spectacular performance as Dantes.

"The Corsican Brothers" (1941). Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., following his father's tradition of adapting Dumas for the screen, here plays the dual role of twins. Born as Siamese twins and separated surgically at birth, the pair are raised separately to protect them from the persecution of the evil Baron Colonna, who had massacred their family when they were children. Reunited as adults, they swear vengeance on the hated Colonna family.

"Black Magic" (1949). In his novel "Memoirs of a Physician" Dumas fictionalized the life of an 18th Century rogue named Calgiostro, changing his name to Joseph Balsamo for the novel. Cagliostro is reputed to have been a Svengali-like hypnotist who prospered by bending European noblemen to his will. In this film version of the Dumas novel, Balsamo is played with dark menace by the very imposing Orson Welles.

"The Three Musketeers" (1974). We can't forget Dumas's most famous story, of course. There have been several excellent movie versions, dating back to Fairbanks's own version, but for an interesting twist on the classic I recommend this quirky interpretation from director Richard Lester. The story is tinged with the inimitable British style of humor, but without compromising the action-adventure aspects of the plot one whit.

Lest you thought I was exaggerating about the lurid nature of some of Dumas's dramas, I should mention in passing a rather nasty little movie called "Tower of the Screaming Virgins" (1968). It is every bit as salacious a piece of exploitation as it sounds, but the fact is that it is an adaptation of sorts of Dumas's play "The Tower of Nesle." Had there been a Hollywood when this seamy drama was produced in 1832, no one would have doubted that its author would end up writing for the screen. And, in a manner of speaking, so he has.

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