4 August 2002 | wmorrow59
In which an effete Doug toughens up and becomes a red-blooded American
Here's a feature-length silent comedy that deserves to be better known! Once we make allowances for its age, obscure slang, and some predictably dated attitudes, The Mollycoddle is a surprisingly fresh and engaging comedy, especially during its action-packed second half. It was produced by its star, Douglas Fairbanks, who was always careful to see that his fans got their money's worth. It's an exquisitely well produced film, beautifully photographed, and marks an early directorial effort for Victor Fleming, whose credits include Red Dust, The Wizard of Oz (most of it), and Gone With the Wind (most of it, too), a track record that ain't half bad. This may not be the most distinguished title in his resume, but it's a breezy and highly entertaining flick with something to say about modern life. At times it plays like an editorial cartoon come to life, aiming a number of wry satirical jabs at the decadence of the modern world, and even illustrates the bad guy's villainy with a brief, amusing animated sequence, a very unusual technique for 1920.
One minor hindrance for today's viewers is the title, an archaic term which requires explanation; a "mollycoddle," we are told, is "a body of man entirely surrounded by super-civilization," but that definition doesn't provide much help until the story gets under way. It turns out that the term refers to privileged, coddled young men who are essentially useless, i.e. upper-class twits. The story is a loose reworking of the basic situation in Fairbanks' earlier Wild and Woolly, and it's a premise that would be re-used repeatedly during the '20s by everyone from Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton to William Haines: a comically effete, arrogant young man must take some hard knocks and toughen up in order to earn the respect of his peers and the love of his leading lady. The Mollycoddle, made in the immediate wake of the First World War, offers a spoonful of nationalism as well: the silly, clownish Doug of the opening sequences must learn to become a true American, and cast off such affectations as his cigarette holder, his monocle, and his affected, pseudo-British speech patterns. By the end of the film he looks like a cowboy, and it comes as a relief.
I mentioned dated attitudes; this film's very first title card puts us on guard when it thanks the "picturesque" Hopi Indians who took part in the filming, and who "in their savage way heartily welcomed us to their prehistoric villages," etc. This seeming pomposity may raise hackles today, but during the course of the movie it becomes clear that the filmmakers were more self-aware than we might have assumed, initially. Throughout the film, right up to the epilogue, parallels are drawn between 'primitives' and 'moderns,' and the filmmakers make it clear that the Indians who live simply may be smarter than some viewers presume, while the "moderns" aren't really so different, or better. As it happens, the Hopis in the film are presented with a respect that is unusual -- and gratifying -- for Hollywood movie makers. (I wish I could say the same for the African American steward seen playing dice during the ship sequence, but at least his role is brief.) The Indians are not presented as an undifferentiated mob but as a community. Some are better educated than others, and at least one is corrupt. My favorite moment: when Doug addresses an old man with typical Ugga- Wugga gibberish, the reply is a refreshing "What the hell you talking about?"
At any rate, The Mollycoddle has a number of elements going for it: a despicable villain well portrayed by Wallace Beery, an attractive leading lady (Ruth Renick) with a gratifyingly assertive role in the plot, Doug's vigorous comic dance with a portly Hopi woman, and an impressively staged avalanche sequence. New Yorkers will appreciate the effete Doug's fantasy of life in the city (cowboy shoot-outs on Wall Street), while animation buffs will enjoy the cartoon sequence. As for drawbacks, I felt that Doug's transformation from wimp to hero, while gratifying, takes too long. We're fully 45 minutes into the movie before he reaches Arizona, shaves off his silly mustache, and begins his transformation in earnest. Also, while it's nice to see the leading lady assert herself, it's also dismaying to see her fold so quickly in the face of mild opposition from the villain. Still, over all, The Mollycoddle is certainly well worth seeing today. It represents state of the art filmmaking for its era, and is even somewhat ahead of its time in surprising ways.
P.S. Oh, and guess what: when an Indian says "How!" to Doug, the latter does NOT reply "And how!" I'd like to heartily thank the screenwriters for not creating a cliché template for so many later, lesser comedies to follow.