Film Title: Monte Cristo
Studio: Fox Film Corporation
Silent or Talkie: Silent
- John Gilbert
- Estelle Taylor
- Robert McKim
Alexandre Dumas, père’s novel The Count of Monte Cristo must be one of the most filmed novels in movie history. It has been adapted for film and television literally dozens of times beginning with the 1908 Italian production Il conte di Montecristo to the most recent Japanese anime series Gankutsuou in 2004. In 1921 the Fox Film Corporation bought the 1913 film negative and rights to the Charles Fechter and James O’Neill play. They then purchased the film negatives to a 1908 adaptation and a 1912 adaptation produced by the Selig Polyscope Film Company. They also acquired the film rights to an unpublished play adaptation by Alexander Salvini based on Dumas’ novel. Screenwriter Bernard McConville then set about adapting the Salvini and the Fetcher and O’Neill adaptations into a workable screenplay. Fox assigned the project to studio director Emmett J. Flynn, a prolific director of the period who did everything from giving Rudolph Valentino a break in 1917 to directing the two-reel Laurel and Hardy comedy Early to Bed in 1928. Also in 1921, Fox had signed rising young actor John Gilbert to an exclusive contract. Monte Cristo was the fifth of sixteen films he would appear in for them over a two-year period.
The plot of The Count of Monte Cristo is well known and I won’t recount it in detail. In short: young Edmond Dantes (John Gilbert) is whisked away from his beautiful bride-to-be Mercedes (Estelle Taylor) on their wedding day and is unjustly imprisoned in the dungeon of the notorious Chateau d’If through the treachery of four men: De Villefort (Robert McKim), Caderousse (William V. Mong), Fernand (Ralph Cloninger) and the dastardly Danglars (Albert Prisco). There he remains imprisoned for twenty years! About six years into his stay, he encounters fellow prisoner Abbé Faria (Spottiswoode Aitken), also unjustly imprisoned, as the escape tunnels each is digging unexpectedly connect. Over the next fourteen years Faria schools Edmond in the arts and sciences and in aristocratic behavior. He becomes like a second father to the young man, which is good, because back in Edmond’s hometown of Marseilles his real father died of heartbreak when De Villefort falsely reported that Edmond had been executed. Dying after his third and fatal attack of catalepsy, Faria reveals the location of a huge trove of treasure he has hidden on the Italian island of Monte Cristo. Edmond escapes Chateau d’If by disguising himself as Faria’s corpse and cuts himself out of the shroud after he is dumped into the sea from the chateau’s parapet. “Now on to Monte Cristo and the world is mine!” he declares. Edmond picks up the treasure and enters Paris society as the Count of Monte Cristo, and he begins his campaign to ruin the men responsible for his unjust imprisonment: “Henceforth I will be the hand of God! The Avenger!”
Monte Cristo is atypical of Fox films of the period. Known for its quickie productions, Fox spent some money on this one. Edmond’s hometown of Marseilles is recreated somewhere near the sea, and the sumptuous interiors of the homes of wealthy Parisians are nicely rendered. The costumes are appropriately lavish when they should be and the rags Edmond and Faria wear while imprisoned are also appropriately . . . well . . . raggedy. Gilbert is not yet the dashing leading man he would later become. Rather in Monte Cristo he is an actor simply essaying a role. In the early scenes of the film he is covered by a grizzled wig and beard for the scenes in the dungeon of the Chateau d’If and later as the Count he sports a gray wig and cape. Gilbert’s performance here is underplayed, almost modern. He is very good. He and his leading lady Estelle Taylor share very little screen time. She too is just fine. The four villains are all villainy, and Spottiswoode Aitken as Abbé Faria gets the scenery chewing scenes, which he performs in the best silent screen pantomime manner. Silent film enthusiasts may recognize Aitken as he appeared in prominent roles in two of D.W. Griffith’s epics The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. Renée Adorée, with whom Gilbert would be paired several times in the future, most notably in The Big Parade, appears in a couple of scenes late in the picture.
There is enough plot in Monte Cristo for at least three films, the result of cramming all the best-remembered scenes from a thousand-page novel into a 107-minute film. There is: felony, treason and murder along with faithlessness, treachery, duels, attempted infanticide, infidelity, a villain who is seen “absconding with five million francs earmarked for orphan relief,” slavery, piracy, smuggling, hidden treasure, illegitimacy, courtroom drama, and more. One may assume that audiences of the day were probably more familiar with the plot of wildly popular The Count of Monte Cristo than modern audiences. There are sometimes holes in the plot that title cards attempt to fill such as this introduction of George Siegmann’s character: Luigi Vampa, now Bertuccio, an infamous bandit whose life Dantes saved after escaping from prison, who is now his butler. Huh? Speaking of which, how did Edmond get to Monte Cristo anyway, and how did he transport all that loot to Paris? And what happened to Benedetto (Francis McDonald) who we last see standing laughing in a courtroom? Was he convicted? Did Edmond really set him up to take a fall, or was this all part of Edmond’s master plan to bring down De Villefort? Of course, none of this really matters. Monte Cristo moves along at a fast clip and if some of the plot points are a little vague, who really cares?
Monte Cristo seems to have met with a favorable reaction upon its initial release. The film was re-released in 1927, along with another film he made for Fox, director John Ford’s Cameo Kirby (1923), to capitalize on Gilbert’s by then super-star status at MGM. These are the only two films that Gilbert made for Fox that are known to currently exist. They’ve been found probably because of their re-release but to avoid litigation brought by an Italian producer, Fox agreed to completely withdraw Monte Cristo from distribution after December 31, 1928. Over the years the negative and all prints disappeared, either destroyed due to Fox’s agreement not to ever exhibit the film again, or due to natural decomposition of the volatile nitrate elements. The film was thought lost until a single print was discovered decades later in the Czech Republic.
Flicker Alley has released Monte Cristo as the second disc of its The Lost Films of John Gilbert: 2 Rediscovered Silent Classics DVD set. The first disc containing Bardelys the Magnificent is reviewed separately on this site. The English title cards for the film have been recreated with the aid of the original script. Despite its age and the circumstances of its survival, this print of Monte Cristo looks remarkably good. It is worn and a frame or frames are missing here and there, but none of that detracts significantly while viewing the film. A judicious use of tints enhances the viewing experience. A new score for piano was written and is performed by Neal Kurz to accompany the film. Also included on the disc is a reproduction of John Gilbert’s 1921 contract with Fox Film Corporation and some stills from the production.
John Gilbert’s star power still shines more than seventy years after his death. Had this film been made with a lesser star than Gilbert it would have never have seen a DVD consumer release. It might have been preserved and viewed by a handful of film historians, perhaps shown at a silent film festival or two, but it would never have had the commercial potential for a DVD release. John Gilbert seems to be at last remerging from behind the giant shadow cast by Greta Garbo and the films he made before Garbo, after Garbo and without Garbo are at last getting some attention (not that I don’t like the films he made with Garbo, I do). It is remarkable that both this film and Bardelys the Magnificent have resurfaced after decades of being thought completely lost. The set is very well put together, and I can’t imagine my film collection without it. Flicker Alley is to be commended (and supported) for their efforts. I highly recommend this set.
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