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Old Ass Movies: The Iron Mask

By  · Published on May 23rd, 2010

Every Sunday Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:

The Iron Mask (1929)

Presumably when the 3D Revolution occurs and there are no more movies shot in two dimensions, there will come a moment for filmmakers like the moment that came for Douglas Fairbanks at the end of the 1920s.

It’s known as a time of great social and economic upheaval in the United States, but eight months before the great crash that would send everyone either to the poorhouse or out the window of a tall office building, an artistic upheaval was being cemented into the history of Hollywood.

Sound had come. Although tinkering with it for decades, The Jazz Singer had proven just two years earlier that including sound – in that case Al Jolson belting it out – recorded directly from the scene and synchronized with its accompanying image on screen could be a commercial success. The part-talkie was born.

However, in my mind, the true signal that the silent era was over was when its biggest star turned over to the new age. It’s a small moment. Douglas Fairbanks’s only synchronized sound is in the prologue of the film, but in a way, it was the biggest silent star of the day nodding to what would eventually take over in just a few years time.

Fortunately, he spared no expense in creating a silent film part-talkie that was fit for saying goodbye to the era.

The Iron Mask is based on the novel “The Vicomte de Bragelonne” by Alexander Dumas. The novel is based on the famous legend of the Man in the Iron Mask. Here, it is told with breathtaking splendor.

A beauty with a secret. A king with a twin brother. A scheming Cardinal. A young hero named d’Artagnan who buckles swash, defies gravity and wins the heart of maidens and audiences alike.

Beyond being unfathomably gigantic, there’s not necessarily any difference between this film and Fairbanks’s Robin Hood or his Three Musketeers or any other of dozens of adventure films from the time. The acting is big and bold – nuance was not the actor’s friend at the time – and the depth of the drama is more than worthy of the political intrigue of Dumas’s story. However, what’s notable is that the design and costuming is also big and bold. The details of everything are down to the button and curve of each column, yet there is so much beauty hammered into every set and sewn into every costume that (even without the future revolution of color) the whole film bursts right off the screen.

If you’re worried about having to read, you’ll be glad to know that the film passed on the tired trend of using title cards for lines of dialog and, instead, features a narration (complete with different speaking voices of each character) from Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

It’s a truly gorgeous film, a soaring farewell to the particular brand of moviemaking that Fairbanks called home for the bulk of his career, and it’s unbelievably available (for free) at the Internet Archive. Considering that today is the anniversary of Douglas Fairbanks’s birthday, you should celebrate with this timeless classic.

Plus, on the eve of the last two-dimensional movie – whenever that is – I urge you to celebrate with The Iron Mask and remember a different time and an artist giving his medium its due. It’s a stirring story of romance, swordsmanship, deception, drama, violence, humor, and grandiose glory, and even as we march on to another era of filmmaking, this movie more than stands the test of time as both an artifact and as an excellent example of the entire art form.

Stay classic with more Old Ass Movies.

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