Reaching for the Moon (1917)

Douglas Fairbanks dips a toe into swashbuckling and costume drama in this early farce, but the overall message doesn’t really seem to agree with his real-life attitudes. What kind of fun does he have in store for us here?

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The movie begins with a metaphorical image of Doug, on top of a tall ladder, reaching for an illuminated crescent moon, clearly out of reach. Assuming that there are no tricks here, his precarious balance on the top step may be one of the most dangerous stunts of the movie. We learn from intertitles that his character has the outlandish name of Alexis Caesar Napoleon Brown, but I’ll probably keep calling him “Doug” because that’s how I always think of him, whatever role he plays. He believes in a system of wish-fulfillment based on visualization, and he aspires to rub shoulders with nobility and have the ears of Kings. In reality, however, he is a minor clerk at a firm that makes buttons. Apparently his mother was a refugee from the kingdom of Vulgaria, and he suspects that he may be part of the royal lineage. He goes to see his girl (Eileen Percy), and enthuses at her about how his visualizations will make their dreams come true, though she advises him to start small and work his way up to the bigger dreams. It is fairly clear that her dream is simply to be with Doug, and that she understands the book he recommends to her better than he does.

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Doug focuses his efforts on a meeting with the Prince of Contraria, who is conveniently in town at the time. He manages to insinuate himself into a table at a posh restaurant close to the Prince, but is unable to afford any of the high-priced items on the menu. His constant staring and attempts to get himself noticed make the Prince’s companions suspect he may be a spy. Meanwhile, they ignore the real spies at a further table. He continues to daydream and see if he can find a way to meet the Prince, but without success. Soon, his distraction leads to his losing his job, since he doesn’t put enough time into his regular duties any more. He goes home and throws himself on his bed in despair.

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Shortly after, one of the dignitaries from Contraria shows up at his door, pursued by the spies. He knocks and Doug wakes up to let him in. The man demands to know his name and appears astounded when he hears it and that his mother was Vulgarian. The man compares a photo in his pocket to the picture of Doug’s mother and states that he is the only living heir to the throne of Vulgaria. He promises to take Doug to his kingdom, despite the efforts of assassins employed by Black Boris (Frank Campeau) to stop him. Doug momentarily thinks about his girl, but decides he can catch up with her later, after he has been installed. The assassins see him and follow the car to the dock, where Doug and his entourage board a vessel to Vulgaria. Doug looks forward to the good life, rich food, and sea air, but it turns out he has to stay in hiding from the assassins and can only eat tinned food to avoid being poisoned. He can’t even talk, because the assassins have bugged his stateroom, and to remove the bug would alert them that they have been detected.

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In Vulgaria, things only get worse, as his parade is interrupted by several assassination attempts. It is here that Doug is finally able to put his physical skills to use, as he leaps from horses and canal boats, climbs sheer walls and runs along rooftops while dodging bullets. He also fights some assassins hand to hand, putting in a good show for himself. Finally, he drops from a ceiling trapdoor into the midst of his cabinet, who are relieved to find him alive. He learns that he is betrothed to the Princess Valentina, and aging dowager from Contraria. But he agrees to remain for the good of his people, and eventually Black Boris challenges him to a duel. In this movie, Doug seems to be untrained in swordsmanship, and despite a few good moves, he is quickly forced to back down. Soon, he is sent flying down a steep precipice. It becomes steeper and steeper until Alexis falls out of his bed at home, discovering that the whole sequence has been a dream.

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Doug rushes over to his girl, only to see her with another man. It turns out that the man is a realtor, who is selling her a small suburban home in New Jersey, which she hopes to share with Doug – her dream come true. He gets his job back by promising to apply himself diligently to the job and not aspire for unrealistic things. We see Doug and the girl happy at home with a small child.

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The moral to this story appears to be that one should learn to be happy with one’s lot in life, which is about the most un-Fairbanksian idea I can think of. If he felt that way, he should have stayed in Denver, stayed with his first wife and not married Mary Pickford, and never become one of the world’s first movie star personalities. Since that’s not what he did (indeed, it’s almost impossible to imagine), this movie comes off like him telling his fans, “Do as I say, not as I do.” But maybe the bigger disappointment is the use of the “it was all a dream” ending, which was already a cliché in literature and theater long before the movies used it as a cop out. The relatively short run time of features at this time may have precluded a truly clever resolution to the situation, but it seems like Doug could have learned what was really important in his life (the love of the girl, in this instance), without having to negate the most interesting part of the story. On a level of wish-fulfillment, it’s also dissatisfying not to see Doug beat the villain, when we know that he was perfectly capable of putting on a good show as a fencer.

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Whatever we may say about the narrative, however, this movie is pretty well in line with the better-quality work Fairbanks was putting out in 1917. Although Wikipedia calls it an “adventure film,” it is really a light comedy whose adventure-spoofing sequences give Doug ample opportunity to show off his athleticism. The camerawork and editing are of very high quality for the time, but nothing really exciting of innovative is attempted. Fairbanks didn’t really re-invent himself as an action star until the 1920s, but certainly movies like this and “A Modern Musketeer” gave him a chance to sample what that would be like and get in some early practice. The movie is set in New York and “Vulgaria,” though imdb claims it was shot in Venice, California. The exteriors are convincing, although it is certainly true that we don’t see any recognizable New York locations. The scene at the canal really does mimic the other Venice pretty convincingly, and I wonder if this is the only sequence that was actually shot in Venice, with the more urban landscapes taken from deeper in Los Angeles.

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For fans of Fairbanks, this movie is a fine example of his early work, but the ending is bound to be a downer.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: Victor Fleming, Sam Landers

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Eileen Percy, Frank Campeau, Eugene Ormonde, Bull Montana, Charles Stevens, Erich von Strohheim

Run Time: 1 Hr, 9 Min

You can watch it for free: here.