From Frazer to Fairbanks to Flynn – Robin Hood in Film
As recently as 2010, the character of Robin Hood appeared on the silver screen to steal from the rich, give to the poor, and chase Prince John from his usurped throne. While these recent incarnations might spring to mind when we think of the character “Robin Hood,” the film version of this character actually saw its screen debut 100 years ago, running through the forests of the Northeast.
The original filmed Robin Hood, Robert Frazer.
The American branch of Eclair was established in Fort Lee, New Jersey (like so many other early studios) in 1911. Just three years later, a vault fire destroyed the studio’s negatives, preventing us from seeing landmark films like “The Raven,” “Saved from the Titanic,” and “Robin Hood.” Starring Robert Frazer as Robin Hood and Barbara Tennant as Maid Marian, Eclair’s version of “Robin Hood” marks the beginning of Robin as a film character. Released on August 22, 1912, the film was only two reels long, and presented the story in three parts. Although some of the familiar elements were present — including King Richard, Robin and Marian’s marriage, and Robin’s rivalry with Sir Guy of Gisbourne — the length of the film limited the story to mostly those elements. Despite this, the film was praised, with Motography magazine calling it “a play of surpassing beauty” and “as an example of motion picture photography, this subject is a revelation.”
Around this time, research emerged that said the characters of Robin, Marian and Alan-A-Dale were based on real, historical figures. With this information, studios began to take greater care to bring historical accuracy to their adaptations. One of those studios was Thanhouser. Shot at Fort Shuyler and Bronx Park, Thanhouser’s offering was released just over a year after Eclair’s. Critics expected much of it, and were treated to quite the production upon its release. William Russell starred as Robin with Gerda Holmes as Marian, and the story was presented in four parts and four reels. In addition to Robin and Marian’s wedding, the film also featured the famous archery contest and poaching scene which would be used again and again in later versions of the story. Notably, the film was approved by the British Trade critics for its historical accuracy and its realistic settings and costuming. It was praised for its photography and was hailed a masterpiece, one that went unchallenged for nearly a decade.
In 1922, Douglas Fairbanks embarked on his most ambitious project yet. He sought to bring his comedic, athletic and adventurous style of filmmaking to the 12th century. With “The Mark of Zorro” and “The Three Musketeers” already under his belt, he teamed up with director Allan Dwan to produce a new version of the Robin Hood tale. The trade papers were shocked by the $1.5 million budget and length of the shoot, but when the film finally premiered in October of 1922, critics were speechless. At its world premiere in Chicago, it was an astounding 13 reels long and ran over three hours. With Enid Bennett as Marian, Wallace Beery as King Richard and Allan Hale as Little John, Robin Hood and his Merry Men leaped and bounded through the forests of 12th century England, cementing the look and feel of many of the elements later productions would repurpose. Little John and Friar Tuck become more prominent characters, the usurping of the throne by Prince John is emphasized, and Robin’s athletic abilities are highlighted. With this film, Robin Hood becomes Douglas Fairbanks, charming and athletic, and the tale becomes a swashbuckler.
In addition to enhancing these story elements, the crew sought to be as historically accurate as possible…and it paid off. Critics, historians and educators praised it for its spectacle and production values. The story, manners, customs, costumes and architecture met critics’ and historians’ highest expectations, causing them to declare it a new landmark in motion picture history. Visual Education praised, “It equals and surpasses ‘Intolerance’ as a spectacle and standard for film production.” Exhibitors Trade Review said, “Doug […] leaned against the industry — and it moved,” and Educational Screen wrote, “If the cinema is capable of greater achievements than this, the future will have to produce them.”
For 15 years, Fairbanks’ masterpiece went unchallenged. Two-strip Technicolor had been replaced by three-strip, and silent films had been replaced by talkies, and yet Fairbanks’ silent, black and white adaptation remained the definitive adaptation of the legend…until 1937. As Photoplay wrote at the time, “People still remember Doug as Robin, remember him so well that for 15 years, no producer has dared to risk competition with the memory. Now, Warners are daring. They have sound to help them, Technicolor, and — Errol Flynn.”
Errol Flynn and that sweet, sweet Technicolor
In some ways, Flynn had assumed the throne Fairbanks had left behind. The dashing and charming leading man was as adept at stunts as he was at acting. Using every available resource and film advancement, Warner Bros. sought to produce the greater achievement that Educational Screen knew could only lie in the future. “The Adventures of Robin Hood” had a whopping $2 million budget. The set boasted some of the biggest sets in the world, they created costumes and scenery that popped when presented in Technicolor, and they made the bold decision to have Maid Marian (Olivia De Havilland) show contempt for Robin and his behavior. Still, they couldn’t escape the influence of the past; some scenes were filmed in the same location Fairbanks, Dwan and and even recast Alan Hale in the role he played 15 years prior, Little John. Critics and audiences responded positively, and the film went on to win three Academy Awards.
While “The Adventures of Robin Hood” set a new standard for action adventure films, its success was undoubtedly made possible by the efforts of the filmmakers that had brought the story to life decades prior to its 1938 release.
Janelle Vreeland for Classic Movie Hub