Barry Paris, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In or out of tights, “Robin Hood” and his Merrie Men have thrilled every generation since the ’50s. The 1350s. They treated the poor, the weak and the feminine with gallant respect but were pure hell on the rich, the official and the ecclesiastical.
They’ve treated filmmakers well, too, helping Hollywood create a golden-goose genre called the “swashbuckler.” Your parents or grandparents would probably cite Errol Flynn’s 1938 incarnation as the finest example. But their parents or grandparents would cite the incredible Douglas Fairbanks version of 1922 — the most expensive silent film (at $1.5 million) ever made up to that time.
The good news is that we have a rare chance to see this 84-year-old gem on a big screen — the even better news, that it’s far from silent — when The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and Renaissance & Baroque Society present “The Robin Hood Project” at the Byham Theater at 7 Saturday night. The one-night-only showing of United Artists’ classic “Robin Hood” will be accompanied by the live music of Hesperus, an award-winning early music ensemble that plays English medieval and Renaissance music geared to the action.
UA, founded by Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, William S. Hart and D.W. Griffith, was just a 3-year-old toddler of a studio when Fairbanks put up his own bucks to make “Robin.” It was filmed on a 10-acre deserted corner of Santa Monica Boulevard (there aren’t too many of those left) by director Allan Dwan, who was an engineer — and needed to be.
The battlements of King Richard I’s castle, for example, were so high — 90 feet — that even the athletic star himself was intimidated. Having recently made “Zorro” and “D’Artagnon,” swashbucklers No. 1 and No. 2, Fairbanks was in excellent gymnastic shape, but hidden trampolines were needed to fuel his 20-foot jumps across moats.
The magnificent sets, rich pageantry and massive size of the crowd scenes are stunning in a two-part photoplay (written by Fairbanks) that dares to delay Robin’s entrance until the second half. In Part One, he’s the stolid Earl of Huntingdon, a champion jouster and friend of Richard the Lion-Hearted (Wallace Beery), to be sure, but not terribly charismatic. The king is gearing up for the Crusades and making the mistake of leaving his kingdom to the “unholy ambition” and tender mercies of his brother, Prince John (Sam de Grasse), while Maid Marian Fitzwalter (beautiful Enid Bennett) fusses around, dispensing garlands and chaplets. (Who knew Marian’s last name before? Not me.)
Only in Part Two, during the nasty reign of John, does the Earl shed his Clark Kent-like persona and take to Sherwood Forest as the “good outlaw” Robin, on a mission to right John’s wrongs and keep Richard’s memory alive, with Little John and Friar Truck by his side.The many resulting skirmishes and escapades are delightful but, for size and scope and action, the tournament scene can’t be beat, even though our current-day ASPCA would blanche at the horse-tripping that goes on. Drumstick-wielding Beery camps it up grandly there, and later at the winners’ feast.
The real Robin, assuming there was one, was motivated to rebellion by royal hunting-rights restrictions. But never mind the facts. What matters is the myth, and especially the music. For its “Robin Hood Project” Saturday night, Hesperus will play some two dozen songs from the 12th to 16th centuries on such authentic period instruments as the recorder, krumhorn, fiddle, cittern, lute and viola da gamba. The group, led by Tina Chancey, mixes and cross-pollinates styles from medieval/ Renaissance to Appalachian, gospel, Cajun, Sephardic and Irish music.
Contact Tina Chancy at Hesperus for more information or to book a live performance.