What could possibly be better than a movie starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.? Why, a movie starring two of him! And that is just what The Corsican Brothers gives us. Fairbanks plays a set of swashbuckling twins tragically torn apart at birth after the cold-blooded murder of their royal parents. It marks the first time Fairbanks played a hero swashbuckler and he more than proves his ability!
The Corsican Brothers is based on the story written by Alexandre Dumas (also known for The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo). It tells the story of Siamese twins, Lucien and Mario Franchi, born to Corsican royalty. It is determined that surgical separation is the only choice and that it must be done without the mother’s knowledge that her sons were ever connected. Tragedy strikes when Colonna and his bandits invade the castle and murder the twins’ mother and father and burn the castle down before the operation even occurs. The twins are taken to the home of their parents’ good friends in Paris where the surgeon can perform the delicate procedure of separating the brothers. It is decided that the brothers must be raised separately so as to not raise suspicion from Colanna who believes the brothers perished in the fire.
Mario, raised in Paris, lives a life of luxury and enjoys the finer things in life such as the opera, beautiful ladies, and an impeccable wardrobe. Lucien, on the other hand, is raised in the forest as a bandit. However, the twins are not living as separately as the physical distance between them might suggest. Lucien has vivid dreams that correlate directly to Mario’s life. Lucien feels Mario’s emotions as he falls in love with a girl he’s met at the opera in Paris. He also feels the physical pain of a stab wound that Mario receives that same night at the opera. Not knowing that he has a twin brother, Lucien’s dreams and feelings are blown off as being merely that – a dream.
The two brothers are brought together once they hit the age of 21 and Lucien discovers that he has been experiencing the feelings of his twin brother. There is never any indication that Mario feels Lucien’s emotions which suggests that Mario is perhaps the more dominant twin. Once they have been told the story of their separation, the twins vow to kill Colonna. Meanwhile, Colanna has decided that he is going to marry Countess Isabelle Gravini, the girl that Mario fell in love with at the opera in Paris. The twins travel around the Corsican countryside murdering Colonna’s men and trying to save the Countess. It is at this time that Colonna becomes aware of the fact that the Franchi brothers did not perish in the fire and have come to seek revenge. At the same time, conflict ensues when both brothers declare their love for the Countess. Lucien grows more and more resentful about his deep connection to his twin brother and vows to kill him.
Meanwhile, Mario is caught lying about his identity as a jewelry salesman in a plot to save the Countess. He is brutally whipped to unconsciousness for refusing to give up the whereabouts of his brother Lucien. Lucien grows more angry as he is forced to endure the physical pain of Mario’s whipping. Despite Lucien’s resentment, Mario remains protective and loyal to his twin brother. When Mario falls unconscious, Lucien suddenly stops feeling his brother. Rather than feel an emptiness, he rejoices believing his brother has died and heads straight for the Countess. When he arrives, he is shot in the back by Colonna’s crony Tomasso. Mario arrives soon after and a sword fight breaks out between he and Colonna. Mario slays Colonna and immediately takes his dying brother into his arms.
The film was made on a tight budget which explains some of the technological shortcomings. In scenes where Fairbanks is duplicated the screen gets slightly fuzzy and there is a obvious double used in scenes where one brother is in the background. Fairbanks explains it best here:
Some of the twin scenes widely written up at the time were done by the old and more obvious double-exposure system; that is, one side of the camera’s lens is blanked out and the other side photographs normally. The dialogue of one brother is first recorded correctly, but the replies by his twin are spoken by an unseen actor offstage. Afterward, the film is rewound, the cover put on the opposite side of the lens, and the scene is repeated with the other brother now responding in his own voice on the recording made earlier.
Another method was to have a scene completely played through by one brother who spoke – presumably to his twin but actually to no one. This would then be developed and projected onto a large screen behind the foreground action. The so-far unseen brother would then walk in front of, and sometimes cross over, the original scene being ‘back-projected.’
When one scene required me, as one brother, to slap myself, as the other brother, it was a split-screen affair again. But this time it was an optical illusion. My hand that swept across and hit my brother (me) actually went out of the scene for a fraction of a second, too quick for the eye to catch. The illusion was helped by putting in the sound of the slap, so that even the most experienced camera tricksters were sometimes deceived.
Finally the mystery of how I could possibly carry myself in my own arms is explained by my having a plaster life mask made of my face. This was transferred onto thin rubber and fitted onto the face of a double. I thus picked up the double, with the mask of my face fixed to his, and carried him in my arms.1
Fairbanks knew the challenges of playing a dual role went beyond the technical tricks. Audiences had to be able to distinguish between the two characters by more than just looks. He wrote, “I characterized the twins so that despite their identical nature I could establish convincingly different mannerisms and personalities for each.”2 The brothers grew up in very different circumstances and Fairbanks worked hard to make that evident. Mario, raised in Paris, has a polished look and a more debonair attitude while Lucien, raised in the woods, is a bit rough around the edges. As the movie progresses however, the twins end up both dressed like bandits and it is up to Fairbanks to ensure that the audience can still distinguish between the two. He pulls this off exceedingly well. Lucien’s personality is more intense than Mario. He is a bit angrier, a bit more emotional, and has a certain darkness about him. Mario’s personality is much lighter. He is debonair, seems more carefree, and is a romantic. Through these characteristics, it is easy to distinguish between the two men. (In the photos below: Lucien is on the left and Mario is on the right).
At the time, Fairbanks was disappointed with the technological shortcomings that were due to a lack of money. He expressed his dissatisfaction and pushed for certain changes during the early part of filming but was eventually sidetracked by the reality of the war. During the filming of The Corsican Brothers, Fairbanks was called to active duty. He was allowed to complete the movie before heading overseas but came down with a 103.5 temperature. Desperate to finish the film, he came to the set anyway and filmed the epic sword fight that takes place at the end of the film. It was a grueling few minutes for the very ill Fairbanks but he pushed through it. He remembered it feeling like it took over an hour. He immediately was sent back to bed by the doctor. The combination of being sick and the call to active duty kept Fairbanks preoccupied with thoughts that did not include the film. The Corsican Brothers was wrapped up and released with Fairbanks giving it little thought.
Not long after, on his first day to return home since entering the war, the company of the ship he was stationed on ordered every one to stay aboard. It was said that there would be a special screening that evening and that everyone must be present. Fairbanks had no idea what movie they were going to screen but assumed it was going to be an old movie. Much to his surprise, the movie began and he saw his name across the screen. They were screening The Corsican Brothers for all on board to enjoy. Fairbanks later wrote, “I cringed in embarrassment, particularly as every time I appeared on the screen, all the assembled bluejackets roared and applauded.”3 Every fight scene was cheered on my his fellow men and he was teased mercilessly for the love scenes. Shortly after the screening, he learned that The Corsican Brothers had been a box office success and was getting dazzling reviews. At that point, it was his highest earning picture in which he was the lead role.
Despite any of the film’s shortcomings, The Corsican Brothers is an entertaining movie that shows Fairbanks’ skills as an actor as well as a swashbuckler. He plays the dual role convincingly and makes it easy to differentiate between Mario and Lucien. He also gets to flex his sword fighting abilities by proving just how skilled of a swordsmen he was. He later called the movie a salute to his father and I can certainly see why. It wasn’t until his father’s death in 1939 that Fairbanks allowed himself to play a role so similar to that of his father. I believe there was definitely a fear of disappointing his father but I also believe that this role would have made his father very proud.
- Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., A Hell of a War (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 86-87.
- Ibid, 86.
- Ibid, 89.