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The Three Musketeers (1948)

The Literary Classics Collection

What a shame that the blurbacious word "rollicking" is so overused in reviews of action movies, because the temptation to employ it here is an irresistible impulse. Likewise all the usual puns on swashing and buckling. Not to mention the film-wonk nostalgia shout-outs to Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn, and paeans to a bygone "golden age" of Hollywood don't-make-em-like-they-used-to's. But the reviewer's notebook clichés come easily for this MGM production of Alexander Dumas' much-filmed tale of valiant heroes, hissable villains, and improbable costumes. This 1948 adaptation, the first in color, is pure schoolboy adventuring of a kind already old-fashioned well before '48. This Three Musketeers comes with the sort of light-footed brio you'd expect from a swords-and-scandals romp that casts Gene Kelly as the boyish hero and Vincent Price as the head bad guy.

Being an MGM spectacle, its Technicolor treatment penetrates beyond the color spectrum visible to the human eye, with wardrobes seemingly designed by a berserk Bel-Air candy maker. The film is so eccentrically cast that all those American accents place King Louis XIII's Paris somewhere between Ohio and Colorado. Director George Sidney displays little comfort with such roistering theatrics, and its tone is all over the map between exuberant clowning (Kelly) and low-key melodrama (just about everyone else). All the same, this is enjoyable corn in the "Classics Illustrated" tradition. You can't believe a minute of it, but neither can you ignore its rollicking bygone Hollywood charms.

This version of the story remains faithful enough to the source, so all the tent-pole plot points are here (comparing favorably to Richard Lester's crowning interpretation from 1973). The impetuous country boy D'Artagnan heads to Paris to train with the king's famed musketeers. A skilled swordsman, the young man is less adept at Parisian ways and urban interactions, so his first day in the big city chalks up three duels with challengers who turn out to be Porthos (Gig Young), Aramis (Robert Coote), and Athos (Van Heflin). From there the foursome engage in courtly intrigues involving a case of diamond studs exchanged between dotty King Louis (Frank Morgan), his wife Queen Anne (Angela Lansbury), and her lover, England's Duke of Buckingham (John Sutton).

Aiming to plot against the Queen and foment war between France and England, unctuous Richelieu (Price) connives with the wicked beauty Milady de Winter, an "ambitious woman of fashion with a history" played by Lana Turner in the top-billing slot. As D'Artagnan's love-at-first-blink, June Allyson's Constance is a wholesome Kansas girl, now the landlord's lovely god-daughter rather than his wife. Keenan Wynn is arguably the most misplaced as D'Artagnan's squire Planchet. (Along with a horseback chase scene charging through locations reminiscent of Utah backdrops in a John Ford western, Wynn is one of a dozen elements here that refuse to ground the film in its own genre.)

The action leaps and bounds from Paris to England and back again, punctuated with swordfight acrobatics, swings from chandeliers and draperies, and D'Artagnan's breathless pitching of woo for loyal Constance. Of course knavery is defeated with "all for one, one for all" élan, even though the tragic fate of Constance is intact, a change from previous adaptations of Dumas' narrative.

Gene Kelly, at 36, makes a mature-looking young cadet D'Artagnan. With his grinning-leaping-posing dash, he takes his cues from (yes) Fairbanks and Flynn, and does a hearty job of it with his own gymnastic dancer footwork. He plays up the high-spirited boyish abandon to the point of comic parody, and clearly is having a good time. (Fans of Singin' in the Rain will recognize moments of Kelly's derring-do later recycled in black-and-white as Rain's film-within-the-film, "The Royal Rascal.") Otherwise — with a wavering exception for Heflin's broody drunkard Athos, haunted by his heart-shattered past — the cast doesn't appear certain what sort of film they're in. Angela Lansbury makes little impression as Anne, whose lovers sparks with Sutton's wet-blanket Buckingham wouldn't set a powder keg alight. Morgan is still so imprinted as the Wizard of Oz (from MGM nine years earlier) that it's too easy to imagine King Louis giving his musketeers royal decrees of heart, brain, and courage in the final scene.

Among the uncredited character actors, Dick Simmons' Count de Wardes is played as a low-comedy poof; that's Byron Foulger (recognizable from lots of 1960s and '70s TV) as D'Artagnan's landlord; and appearing as Aramis' friend is Kirk Alyn in the same year he became the first screen Superman.

To quell objections from the Catholic Legion of Decency, Richelieu's title was altered from Cardinal to "prime minister." It's a role close to the baddie Price played a few years before in The Song of Bernadette, and again he isn't given enough to do beyond stage-managing Milady's assignations and schemes while sneering about their own innate superiority.

Reportedly, screenwriter Robert Ardry was unhappy with Sidney's spoofy approach to the material. Even so, Sidney didn't do much to prevent draggy sections, especially in the second half. The uneven pacing and rhythms make these 125 minutes feel about a half-hour too long. And the musical score's repeated "greatest hits" melodies from Tchaikovsky are a tiresome distraction.

Still, this Three Musketeers delivers enough of its promise of fun, and Kelly is always a joy to behold. Lana Turner is a pleasing eyeful in her first color picture. Said Bosley Crowther in The New York Times, "Loaded with blond hair and jewels, with twelve-gallon hats and ostrich plumes, and poured into her satin dresses with a good bit of Turner to spare, she walks through the palaces and salons with the air of a company-mannered Mae West."

*          *          *

The Gene Kelly version of The Three Musketeers arrives on DVD singly and as part of Warner Home Video's 2007 "Literary Classics Collection" boxed set. What a beauty! The flawless image (1.33:1) keeps the Technicolor vivid and crisp, and there's little appreciable wear on the print. The monaural audio is full and clear.

The disc's extras are modest period night-at-the-movies tagalongs. An MGM Traveltalks short from 1946, "Looking at London" (10 mins.), showcases the city as it rebuilds after World War II. Featured are views of Buckingham Palace ("Buckingham" being the only connection with the feature film here), Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, and the Blitz bombing damage surrounding St. Paul's Cathedral. Any excuse for a Tex Avery cartoon, even a so-so one, is a welcome addition, and this time it's 1948's "What Price Fleadom" (7 mins.). Its print is a bit speckly, but that sexy lady flea is a dead ringer for Lana Turner.

Also here is the MGM Radio Promo, an interview with Turner marketing The Three Musketeers. "I like being Lana Turner," says Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner with a voice like well-rehearsed butter. (This extra has six non-indexed chapter stops, but it isn't authored to accept your remote's fast-forward and reverse functions.) The film's original theatrical trailer rounds out the extras. Keep-case (or, within the boxed set's paperboard sleeve, a slimline case).

—Mark Bourne

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