The Mollycoddle (1920)
Douglas Fairbanks plays up the kind of comedy he established five years earlier with “The Lamb” in this typical exploit in which he plays a rich milksop who has to overcome his Old World weaknesses to become a peppy and effective American hero. Along with “When the Clouds Roll By,” this is one of the first directorial efforts of Victor Fleming.
This movie begins with an odd sort of “Land Acknowledgement” in which Fairbanks thanks the Hopi of Arizona for “in their savage way” allowing them to film in their “primitive” villages. Since the movie is itself a kind of critique of civilization, this may not be intended to be as insulting as it sounds. A Hopi village is contrasted with an image of Monte Carlo to bring home the point. Doug plays the part of Richard Marshall V, an heir of pioneers and heroes who has been raised with refined manners in England, although he is an American. We see some flashbacks to the glory days of Richard Marshall III and IV (both played by Doug). It is established that the family heirloom is a medal awarded to the first Richard by George Washington, though we don’t see any of his heroics.
Richard V is introduced showing off his riding skills – on a merry-go-round. He has glasses, a cane, a monocle, and a cigarette-holder, all signs of mawkish weakness right off the bat. He meets a a group of Americans at Monte Carlo when the wind blows off his hat, but they mistake him for English when he says, “Thanks awfully.” It happens to be the Fourth of July so they all get together for a yachting party. One of these is the love interest, played by Ruth Renick (here called Virginia Hale). He describes in a flashback what he thinks New York is like, filled with tall buildings, stagecoaches, and gunfighters, and she wonders if that’s what all “foreigners” think. Among their group is Henry van Holkar (Wallace Beery), not yet an American, but he has filed his “first papers” and he runs a smuggling operation out of his yacht, using rich American tourists as a cover – I suppose because no Customs Agent would hold them up for a search, for fear of all the whining and complaining that would occur.
When the Americans in the group invite Richard to join their cruise, Van Holkar becomes concerned that he might be a Secret Service agent and withdraws the invitation. American ingenuity being what it is, they devise a plan to stow him away on board; using a forged note from Virginia to lure him to a dark alley, they abduct him and stash him in the ship’s hold. He is discovered by a sailor and an officer, who put him to work shoveling coal in the boiler room. Meanwhile, the audience learns that Virginia is the real Secret Service agent, and that Richard is now a useful cover for her operations, especially as van Holkar seems to be sweet on her. She persuades van Holkar to emancipate him from the “un-gentlemanly” task he has been assigned and to treat him as a guest, being given “American” clothes and schooled in “American” manners by the fellows in the party.
As the yacht approaches the Galveston shore at night, Virginia takes a chance and looks through van Holkar’s private papers, locating an incriminating document, but being caught by Richard in the act. She slips away quietly with her find, but he is still on hand when van Holkar returns and finds things in disarray, and takes the blame to protect her. Van Holkar and his first mate plan to drown him by dropping him overboard when the rest of the party is asleep, but Virginia is able to rally the clever Americans to come up with a plan, substituting a weighted box for him and allowing him to swim to shore – except that he winds up caught in the net of a fishing trawler in van Holkar’s employ – the very one sent to pick up the diamonds and smuggle them into the US!
Richard learns of the plan to bring the party of Americans along on van Holkar’s return trip to the secret diamond mine in Arizona and, smelling of fish, is followed by cats as he makes his plans to intercept them. In Arizona, he takes on a fully American cowboy look and is recognized by locals as the heir of the famous Indian fighter. He goes even more Native, trading these clothes with a local Hopi and getting information about the “haunted canyon mine,” which the Hopi refuse to go near. Some “renegades” are in charge of the mine, and they plan to blow up part of a mountain to trap the innocent American tourists, eliminating any chance of them returning to civilization with news of what they have seen. The scheme nearly succeeds, but Richard captures the smuggler in a tall tree, falls through the tree limbs and brawls with him down an extremely steep embankment into a river and over a falls, then drags the half-drowned man to shore. At the end, having saved Virginia from the lecherous van Holkar, he saves the day and wins the girl.
What stands out to us today in watching this picture is the way it portrays Native Americans, who fill several of the last scenes as extras and backdrops to the action. In fact, several minutes are taken before the climactic fight to establish Doug’s good relations with the locals as they laugh at his antics and allow him to join what looks like a traditional dance. He seems more or less to break character and show documentary footage of himself hanging out with the Hopi through much of this sequence. One hopes they were at least paid well, and some of them seem to be enjoying themselves, but this is ultimately a troubling exploitation of their culture for the purposes of dubious “authenticity” and Fairbanks’ questionable critique of civilized manners versus the Noble Savage.
The rest of the movie fits pretty well with Fairbanks’ comedy-action movies as he’d been cranking them out since 1915. He plays an American with potential who has to overcome decadent European influences in order to be successful and happy. It’s hard to see much of Victor Fleming’s influence over the movie, so much of it is in line with the work Fairbanks has been doing all along, although certainly the direction is taught and professional compared with early works like “The Americano.” The fight scene is handled especially well, and it is impressive that no one was seriously injured rolling down that mountain. Cross-cutting is employed to heighten tension at a number of points, with suspense being key to the humor as well as the action, as when the Americans are “sneaking” Doug out of the state room by distracting the guard with a craps game and with one fellow holding his coat open to block the view of his getaway. The humor, at the expense of Doug’s initial “mollycoddle” character, is generally effective, though Fairbanks was beginning to be more interested in being appreciated for his athleticism than his comedy at this point. The best acting in the picture may be Wallace Beery’s over-the-top villain, who seems to draw from the cruel landlords of melodrama at the same time as the roughest gangster characters of the day.
Director: Victor Fleming
Camera: William McGann, Harry Thorpe
Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Ruth Renick, Wallace Beery, Morris Hughes, Charles Stevens, Betty Bouton, Frank Campeau, Bull Montana
Run Time: 1 hr, 26 mins
You can watch it for free: here.