The Three Musketeers (1948)
MGM’s The Three Musketeers (1948) was the latest in a long line of adaptations of Alexandre Dumas’ famed novel. The first movie version appeared in 1914, followed by one in 1921, 1935, and 1939. (There have been others since, too, including 1974, 1993, and 2011. And those are just the Hollywood feature films!)
But this adaptation is something special: it’s one of the gaudiest, most over-the-top movies I’ve ever seen. It’s almost a spoof, but with enough seriousness that you’re never quite sure when you’re supposed to guffaw or gasp. So get ready for showy, even garish costumes, sets, lighting, and acting. It’s a real doozy.
Gene Kelly was a driving force behind the film. He had wanted to play D’Artagnan for a while; in fact, it was a childhood dream. He loved the 1921 Three Musketeers that starred his favorite actor, Douglas Fairbanks. Kelly adored Fairbanks’ swashbuckling stunts and graceful heroics, and he later said, “I loved playing this part. As a boy I idolized Fairbanks, Sr. and I raised myself to be a gymnast.”
His chance to recreate Fairbanks’ role finally happened thanks to an injury, oddly enough. Kelly was supposed to play the lead in Easter Parade (1948), which began filming in November 1947. But he broke his ankle shortly into production, and Fred Astaire replaced him. That movie was in production through February 1948, and The Three Musketeers began in January, so his injury actually allowed him to make The Three Musketeers a little sooner than he might have otherwise.
Besides getting to step into Fairbanks’ swashbuckling shoes, Kelly was also hoping that if The Three Musketeers was a success, MGM would let him make a musical of Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano De Bergerac. (Unfortunately for Kelly, MGM never okayed that project.)
But they said yes to The Three Musketeers, and cast Kelly in the lead role. Robert Taylor and Ricardo Montalban‘s names were thrown around, too, but Van Heflin, Gig Young, and Robert Coote ended up playing the titular characters.
Lana Turner was cast as Lady de Winter, though she originally refused the role because she didn’t think it was big enough. So MGM suspended her. After some rewrites and other negotiations, Turner changed her mind. This was Turner’s first color film, and boy, did MGM go out of their way to make her look fantastic in Technicolor! She plays a great villain, a femme fatale of epic proportions dressed in such shimmering finery that she almost becomes a parody of herself.
June Allyson plays the “Good Woman,” though, like Turner, she wasn’t thrilled with her casting. She didn’t feel quite right in a sweeping period piece, so she tried to get out of it. But MGM eventually prevailed.
Angela Lansbury has some unfortunately brief screen time, and the film also features great character actors Frank Morgan and Keenan Wynn (one of my favorites), as well as Mr. Villain himself, Vincent Price.
The movie was directed by George Sidney, who helmed Technicolor classics like Ziegfeld Follies (1946), The Harvey Girls (1946), Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Show Boat (1951) and Kiss Me Kate (1953). All of MGM’s might in the set and costume departments was brought to this movie, as well as extraordinary lighting and cinematography. Get ready!
The movie opens with a title card announcing our place and time:
“America not long settled”? It was barely beginning to be settled by Europeans in the 1610s and ’20s, so I’m not sure what they mean by that. Anyway, we cut to the Gascon villager as he bids farewell to his father. It’s D’Artagnan (Gene Kelly), looking far too old to be “going forth” from his village for the first time.
Kelly’s acting vacillates between two poles in this movie: very serious and dramatic or self-consciously animated, brash, and “amusing.” In this scene he’s “serious.” And very strong and manly!
In fact, I suspect that another reason Kelly wanted to make this movie was to show how masculine and athletic he could be. He had a personal mission to demonstrate that dance was a physically demanding, manly, athletic pursuit, and that dancers could be as masculine as athletes. You can see this crusade in his movies and TV programs such as Dancing is a Man’s Game (1958), and quotes like this: “Unfortunately, people confuse gracefulness with softness. John Wayne is a graceful man and so are some of the great ball players…but, of course, they don’t run the risk of being called sissies.”
Kelly hated the “feminization” of dance, and he relished a movie like The Three Musketeers that allowed him so many opportunities to be strong, masculine, and graceful as he leaped, fought, and seduced. But Kelly didn’t need to prove anything–his strength and athleticism is evident in every movement. Indeed, his attempts to be uber-masculine can seem a teeny bit desperate.
Anyway, D’Artagnan makes his way to Paris to join the King’s Musketeers. He has an all-important letter of introduction to the head of the organization, so things are looking good. But along the way he meets a cruel nobleman who is escorting an even crueller woman. They insult D’Artagnan, who challenges the man to a duel. He is always challenging people to duels over the tiniest insults. It’s very silly.
The woman orders her guards to dispose of him because she doesn’t have time to linger, so they knock him out, steal his letter, and leave him by the road. This is just the first of many stunning close-ups on Miss Turner, by the way.
D’Artagnan eventually makes his way to Paris, but without his letter of introduction he can’t join the Musketeers. As he leaves the headquarters, he bumps into three different musketeers. Insults fly, and D’Artagnan soon finds himself with three different duels scheduled for that afternoon.
He shows up for the first one with Athos (Van Heflin), only to realize that the man’s seconds are the other two musketeers he is supposed to fight that day! They laugh about it in their Easter egg outfits before D’Artagnan and Athos begin the first duel.
It’s quickly interrupted by a whole mess of Richelieu’s soldiers who try to arrest the men for dueling (it is illegal). But the three musketeers and their new buddy decide to fight the soldiers instead.
The lush green park and the candy-colored costumes make it about the prettiest sword fight you’ve ever seen. Plus, although people get run through constantly, there’s never any blood or gore. My kind of onscreen violence!
The fight is a huge set piece that lasts almost five minutes. It’s mostly D’Artagnan artfully defeating Richelieu’s head guy while the musketeers cheer him on. You can watch the scene here. Fun fact: Belgian fencing champ Jean Heremans taught Kelly how to fence for this film, and he also appears in a small role as one of Richelieu’s guards.
After that impressive display, D’Artagnan becomes an unofficial member of the group. So he is included when King Louis XIII (Henry Morgan) chastises the men for fighting with Richelieu’s soldiers, though actually the King is delighted.
We learn that the Musketeers are loyal to the King, and First Minister Richelieu has his own group of warriors who hate the Musketeers.
Wait a minute–“First Minister” Richelieu? Wasn’t it Cardinal Richelieu? Well, yes. The historical figure was a Cardinal, but MGM was worried that religious groups would be upset to have a Cardinal be the villain of the movie.
In fact, an article in The New York Times from 1947 stated that the National Catholic Legion of Decency, who monitored movies, warned MGM about Cardinal Richelieu’s depiction. The Legion didn’t want the character to be portrayed as a “worldly and unscrupulous man” and they asked MGM to remove the character entirely. (This despite the fact that Cardinal Richelieu had been included in the other filmed versions of Dumas’ story and nothing terrible had happened.) But for this movie, MGM decided to keep the character but remove the “Cardinal” part, referring to Richelieu simply by his name.
Anyway, now that D’Artagnan has a salary, he buys some shiny new clothes, finds an apartment, and hires a servant. But he is barely settled when his landlord asks him for a favor. His daughter, Constance, is a lady-in-waiting to Queen Anne, and he is afraid that she is in danger from Richelieu.
How a humble landlord’s daughter reached such an exalted position is not explained, so let it go. (In Dumas’ novel, Constance is the Queen’s seamstress and she’s the wife of D’Artagnan’s landlord, not his daughter. You’ll see why they changed that relationship a little later.)
Anyway, the landlord shows D’Artagnan a handy trap door that he can use to spy on Constance whenever she comes home from the palace. D’Artagnan isn’t interested in helping his landlord until he sees Constance (June Allyson). She’s gorgeous, so he becomes very invested in her safety.
Constance begins undressing as soon as she gets home, and D’Artagnan acts like a cartoon character as he watches her. He’s not very likable in this moment. In fact, I don’t think he’s very likable in the movie. He’s brash, overconfident, insanely quick to anger, inconstant, and stupidly reckless. He’s basically an overgrown nine-year-old with a sword. He’s like that in the book, too, so it’s not just MGM or Kelly’s depiction, but he seems worse in this movie.
Part of my problem with D’Artagnan stems from Kelly’s over-the-top, almost-a-spoof-but-not-quite performance. He’d just made The Pirate (1948), which was released in May a few days after filming wrapped on The Three Musketeers. In that movie, he plays an actor who impersonates a dashing pirate. His performance in this film is so similar to that intentionally overblown, comic part in The Pirate that it’s hard to take him seriously as D’Artagnan. Plus, he’s kind of a jerk in this movie. A shallow, selfish dummy.
Anyway, as D’Artagnan creepilyy but joyfully watches Constance undress, a bunch of Richelieu’s men break into the house and attack her. D’Artagnan rushes to her rescue and fights the men off. Constance is grateful for his help, but confused by D’Artagnan’s immediate professions of love.
But don’t worry, she falls in love with him a moment later so soon they’re both lovestruck. And that’s why MGM changed Constance from the landlord’s wife to his unmarried daughter. Can’t have your “good woman” engaging in adultery! You can watch the scene here.
I think it’s hilarious that even in this 17th century swashbuckling movie, Allyson wears a variation on a Peter Pan collar! And her hairstyle would not look out of place in a film set in 1948! Her star persona was firmly set as a cute girl next door who wins the boy with her cleverness and goodness, not her sex appeal, and she basically plays that same role here.
That’s one reason Allyson wasn’t thrilled with this part. She wrote in her 1982 autobiography, June Allyson, that “…I wanted out of the picture. I never felt comfortable doing a period piece…I looked at myself in my sweeping robes and was not convinced that anyone was going to believe me as Lady Constance.”
Her costume and hairstyle don’t help with her characterization, and although she does fine in this movie, she always looks like “June Allyson!” Here she is in Good News (1947), which is set in the 1920s, though you’d never know it from the costumes or hairstyles!
One of my favorite stories about star images comes from Esther Williams’ autobiography. Williams wrote: “Perpetually cast as the perky wife or girlfriend, she was always in those demure white blouses with little round Peter Pan collars.” One day, both actresses were being fitted for costumes (Neptune’s Daughter (1949) for Williams and The Stratton Story (1949) for Allyson).
Williams was trying on a “gold sequined glamour suit for the finale” when Allyson “cast an admiring eye on [William’s] sequins.” She asked Williams, “Do you suppose I’ll ever have a swimsuit like that in a picture?” Williams replied, “Junie, honey, they don’t make swimsuits with Peter Pan collars. Be glad they don’t. You don’t have to get wet. You have your identification, and this is mine.”
MGM didn’t mess with Allyson’s “identification” in The Three Musketeers despite the four-hundred-year difference in setting. That’s how powerful star images were.
Back to the movie! Constance tells D’Artagnan, “Thanks for saving me, but I have an appointment, and you better not follow me.” He swears that he won’t, but of course he does. See what I mean? Kind of a jerk.
D’Artagnan watches her meet a man, so naturally he challenges him to a duel. But the man is the Duke of Buckingham, the “Prime Minister” of England, and Constance is sneaking him into the palace! (England and France didn’t have “prime ministers” in 1625.) D’Artagnan realizes that he’s made a mistake and lets the pair go.
Constance gets the Duke safely into the Queen’s quarters, though neither she nor the Queen (Angela Lansbury) realize that the other lady-in-waiting (Marie Windsor) is Richelieu’s spy…
Queen Anne and the Duke of Buckingham (John Sutton) are having an affair, which seems rather dangerous to me. Anne thinks it’s dangerous, too, because she makes the Duke promise that he will not come to Paris again to see her. They are sad to part, but it’s a fun scene with lines like this, “Your country is wise, but your husband is an idiot,” and Buckingham’s promise to start a war, conquer France and take Anne, too.
As a token of her love, Anne gives the Duke 12 enormous diamond studs that the King recently gave her for her birthday. It’s quite foolish, but the Duke accepts them. They say goodbye, perhaps for the last time!
The Duke has gotten a pretty good deal, in my opinion. He sneaks back to England with the diamonds.
Costume appreciation break: Lansbury’s pink nightgown and robe are awfully intricate and furry. And her hairstyle is a mind trap! Walter Plunkett, who specialized in period pieces, designed the costumes for this film. He is perhaps most famous for his work on Gone with the Wind (1939).
Anyway, the Queen’s traitorous lady-in-waiting alerts Richelieu (Vincent Price) to the situation, so he summons his best spy, Lady de Winter (Lana Turner), usually called Milady, and gives her a new assignment. She is to go to England and steal two of the diamond studs from Buckingham.
Then Richelieu will throw a ball in honor of the Queen. He will get the King to demand she wear her new studs, and when she shows up without them, or with only ten (depending on her ability to retrieve them from the Duke), the King will find out about her affair with Buckingham. Then he will declare war on England. Or so Richelieu hopes. He wants a war, and he’s decided that exposing Queen Anne’s affair is the quickest way to get one. You can watch the scene here.
Costume appreciation break. Plunkett outdoes himself with Turner’s costumes. Her heart-shaped beauty mark is an excellent touch. It migrates all around her face throughout the movie, so see if you can spot it!
Milady heads to England and Richelieu starts planning the ball. Then the Queen sends Constance to ask D’Artagnan to retrieve the diamond studs. He and his pals set out at once with their heroic catchphrase “All for one, and one for all!”
But Richelieu’s men men attack the musketeers several times as they gallop towards the Channel. One by one the musketeers are waylaid until D’Artagnan is the only one left. Basically, it’s a grand excuse for more sword fights.
I think that these beach scenes were filmed in Monterey, CA, but for more location information, check out IMDB. Also, the score for this film is based on Tchaikovsky’s works, so you’ll recognize famous tunes, especially in action scenes like this one.
Side note: I feel sorry for Kelly’s horses in this movie because he is constantly leaping on them for dramatic effect. No simple mounts or dismounts for him! A lot of the stunts were performed by Kelly, but famed stuntman Russell Saunders stepped in occasionally.
To get across the Channel, D’Artagnan attacks a nobleman named Count DeWardes and steals his boat. Remember that guy’s name…
Eventually, D’Artagnan makes it to Buckingham’s castle on the cliffs of England. (Fun fact: the current Buckingham Palace was built on and around Buckingham House, which was constructed in 1703 by this Duke of Buckingham’s ancestor. King George III bought the house in 1761 for his wife, and it’s been in the royal family ever since.)
Meanwhile, Lady de Winter returns to Paris with two stolen diamonds. Richelieu is delighted!
Back in England, the Duke happily fetches the diamonds for D’Artagnan, but he is stunned to find that two of them are missing. D’Artagnan asks who has been near the studs, and the Duke admits that only Lady de Winter, with whom he is also having an affair, could have taken them. The men in this movie are the worst!
The Duke summons his jeweler immediately and sends D’Artagnan back to Paris with the ten original studs and two replacements. Along the way, D’Artagnan meets up with Athos who is drunk in a wine cellar. He weeps as he tells D’Artagnan about a nobleman who married a beautiful commoner only to find that she was a terrible, evil woman and a thief. The nobleman, Athos’ “friend,” turned her in then gave up his title and estate and joined the Musketeers. D’Artagnan is too stupid to realize that Athos is talking about his own history.
The whole scene feels strange because it’s so dramatic but also irrelevant at this point. We’ve learned nothing about any of the musketeers so far, and it seems weird to get this soppy backstory in the middle of the diamond stud affair. It does come back, but not for a while.
Anyway, D’Artagnan barely makes it back to Paris in time. The Queen has given up and already entered the hall without the diamonds when D’Artagnan jumps through a window with the studs. Notice that Constance is wearing another purple dress with another white collar!
Constance hurries to the Queen and hands her the jewels. Richelieu still thinks he’s won because the Queen will only have ten studs, but he’s wrong! The Queen accepts his “gift” of two identical studs with relish. Unfortunately, that’s the last time we see Queen Anne!
Constance thanks D’Artagnan for his efforts, not realizing that Richelieu’s spy is hiding just outside the room. So now Richelieu knows exactly who foiled his plot!
Richelieu quickly takes his revenge by kidnapping Constance. D’Artagnan goes to Richelieu and tries to trade himself for her, but Richelieu refuses. He wants D’Artagnan to leave the Musketeers and join his personal guard, instead. While D’Artagnan thinks about his offer, Richelieu introduces him to Lady de Winter and tells them to get acquainted. Neither one is thrilled at first, but soon Milady works her magic.
How perfectly villainous does Vincent Price look stroking that cat! It’s a cliche now, but it sort of works in this movie.
While Milady is attempting to seduce D’Artagnan and bring him to Richelieu’s side, D’Artagnan seduces her maid in order to collect information. He learns that Milady is in love with Count DeWardes (who is currently recovering from D’Artagnan’s attack in Calais.)
So D’Artagnan begins writing Milady letters as Count DeWardes, and even shows up one night disguised at the Count. His trick backfires, though, because D’Artagnan falls in love with Milady. See what I mean about him being a dummy?
Here is Kelly between takes:
Now that he is in love with her, he tries to eliminate his rival. He sends her a letter as Count DeWardes breaking off their affair, hoping to clear the way for Milady to fall in love with him, instead. (Constance is forgotten.)
D’Artagnan tells Athos of his plan, and he is shocked when Athos reveals that the Lady de Winter is his ex-wife, the evil woman he spoke about in the wine cellar. Athos begs his friend not to go back to Milady, as she is a terrible, dangerous person. But D’Artagnan doesn’t believe him, so Athos tells him that his ex-wife had a fleur-de-lis brand on her shoulder which marks her as a thief.
D’Artagnan dismisses his bud’s warning and goes to see Milady for a romantic assignation. She does not disappoint.
But when he admits that he was the one who wrote the letter from Count DeWardes (why would you tell her that? Dummy!), she tries to stab him. As they fight, her dress slips from her shoulder to reveal the fleur-de-lis brand!
Athos was telling the truth! D’Artagnan is stunned and Milady is furious. Fun fact: According to Kelly’s biography, when they were filming this scene he threw Turner onto the bed so hard that she fell off and broke her elbow! Kelly was not a gentle screen partner. Cyd Charisse recalled that when she danced with him she would be covered in bruises.
But the fight isn’t over yet. D’Artagnan leaves the room and almost gets run through by a man with a spear. Milady has set up an ambush! But D’Artagnan leaps, stabs, and swings his way out of the death trap.
If this scene looks familiar, it’s because much of this fight was used as part of the silent film “The Royal Rascal” in Singin’ in the Rain (1952). In fact, in Singin’ in the Rain, if you look closely you can see Lana Turner emerge from the door behind Kelly just before a cut replacing her with Jean Hagen! You can watch the scene in “The Royal Rascal” here. Nicely done, MGM!
Costume appreciation break. I wonder if the negotiations to get Turner in this role included promises of luxurious costumes and especially beautiful close-ups?
Hey, remember Constance? And how D’Artagnan was in love with her and promised to help get her back? Don’t worry, D’Artagnan didn’t remember, either. But Constance jogs his memory when she shows up back at home and explains that the Queen helped her escape. Faithless D’Artagnan professes his love to her once again, and when he learns that she is going to be spirited away from Paris and hidden from Richelieu that very night, he asks her to marry him.
They have a quick ceremony and a brief wedding night before she is taken away to hide at the Duke of Buckingham’s castle. Bummer.
Meanwhile, war begins between England and France, though it seems to be mostly between the Duke of Buckingham and Richelieu. Oddly, we never hear about the King of England, nor does the King of France ever do anything.
At point during the war, Richelieu crosses paths with our four favorite musketeers. He orders them to accompany him to an inn, which was rather stupid because he is about to have a secret meeting with Lady de Winter.
He orders her to assassinate the Duke of Buckingham. She demands a letter endorsing her actions, basically a Get Out of Jail Free card, as well as her ex-husband’s estate. He agrees to her terms.
But Athos hears everything through the ceiling. He makes his way into Milady’s room and confronts her. She is not thrilled to see her ex-husband, and she’s even less thrilled when he evades her murderous attack and steals the letter from Richelieu.
Here is Heflin behind the scenes:
Now that they know Milady’s plan, the Musketeers send D’Artagnan’s servant, Planchet (Keenan Wynn with some intense false eyebrows), to warn the Duke of Buckingham. The Duke listens to Planchet and looks especially fancy in his flared capris.
But Planchet is almost arrested when Milady pretends to know him and tells the Duke of Buckingham that he is a dangerous traitor. It’s his word against hers (but doesn’t the Duke remember that Lady de Winter stole the two diamond studs? Why are these men so stupid?) Fortunately, Constance arrives and backs up Planchet’s story. So Milady gets arrested, instead!
But, since he is an idiot, the Duke assigns Constance to be Milady’s jailer. Sweet, thoroughly good Constance is no match for that manipulative demon. Milady knows exactly how to bend Constance to her will: she pretends to pray and acts as though she is full of remorse and fear. A great scene shows her looking pious and somber as Constance watches. When Constance turns away, lightning strikes and makes Milady look like a witch. Creepy!
At first Constance fights her sympathy for Milady, and she even asks the Duke to find another jailer because she knows she’s not up to it. But the Duke fails to help, and soon Constance is under Milady’s spell.
Meanwhile, Planchet returns to France and tells Athos and D’Artagnan what has happened. “He trusted Satan to an angel,” Athos says, despairingly. The two musketeers rush to Buckingham’s castle to try and avert catastrophe.
Meanwhile, Milady has begun pitifully begging Constance for a knife so she can kill herself rather than be hanged as a common criminal. Will Constance bring the knife before D’Artagnan and Athos arrive? The suspense is actually quite good in this sequence, which is exciting because after the diamond stud affair the movie drags for a while.
Beware, spoiler alert!
Soon after that, D’Artagnan and Athos burst into Milady’s cell to find a dead guard and a dying Constance. But dumb D’Artagnan doesn’t realize she is even injured until she expires in his arms.
They are too late to save Buckingham, too. Milady escapes back to France to retrieve her reward. (This is slightly different in the book. Originally, Milady’s jailer is a well-meaning young man whom she also successfully manipulates, and she kills Constance later.)
But Milady doesn’t enjoy her estate for long. Athos and D’Artagnan track her down.
They hold a “trial” and sentence her to death. This time, she isn’t able to wiggle her way out of it.
An executioner leads her outside as the musketeers watch. That’s the end of Milady. No more stunning close-ups, unfortunately!
The musketeers make their way back to Paris but are ambushed by Richelieu’s men. It’s yet another spectacular sword fight.
But this time they lose and are arrested for Lady de Winter’s murder. They get out of the charge by presenting the letter from Richelieu endorsing “their” actions. (It’s the one Athos stole from Milady.) Richelieu can’t admit that he originally wrote it for Lady de Winter to assassinate the Duke of Buckingham, so he has to let the musketeers go.
And that’s the end! Poor Constance is forgotten in D’Artagnan’s promotion to a full Musketeer. It’s a bit of a bummer. I can’t get too excited about D’Artagnan’s “success.”
This is a wild movie that veers across the spectrum from drama to comedy, seriousness to pastiche. But it always looks pretty and also quite expensive. As I’ve mentioned, the costumes are lush throughout, the fight scenes are massive and intricately choreographed, and the sets are amazing:
The image on the left shows a huge set built especially for this movie and aptly called “Three Musketeers Court.” It featured a large outdoor staircase and an L-shaped building that stands in for part of the Musketeers’ headquarters in this movie. It was the last major permanent set constructed on MGM’s backlot. (I think the backlot was fascinating, and I love tracking the same set in various films.)
Three Musketeers Court was built next to older sets that often stood in for European cities on period films, including the French Courtyard, Copperfield Street, and Copperfield Court (the latter two were built for the 1935 film David Copperfield). They all appear at some point in this film.
The Three Musketeers made use of many other standing sets on MGM’s backlot, too. It filmed along “Quality Street,” which was constructed in 1927 for a movie of the same name, and was a great stand-in for European villages or city side streets. It appears in this film as Paris, sometimes adjoining Three Musketeers Court. (And you can see it briefly in Pride and Prejudice (1940) as Meryton!)
And it looks as though Dutch Street, a waterfront neighborhood of vaguely turn-of-the-century buildings, stood in for Calais when D’Artagnan is traveling to England to get the diamond studs. This large set was built as Denmark for Seven Sweethearts (1942), but also played many other places over the years.
Castle Finckenstein makes an appearance as part of the Musketeers headquarters (it first appeared as a Prussian fortress in Conquest (1947), as does the Old Mill House, which stands in for an inn where D’Artagnan is supposed to meet Constance. That quaint set was built for When Ladies Meet (1941).
Of course, these sets don’t include the lavish interiors shown in the film. Those were constructed in sound stages and likely dismantled after filming ended, unlike the sturdy exterior sets that could last for decades and be used in dozens of different films. (This information on the sets comes from a great book called MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, and Michael Troyan.)
An article from 1948 stated that the film cost over $4 million, but that was likely MGM’s publicity department stretching the truth for impressive effect. Modern sources put the budget at $2.5 million, which was still a lot at the time. For comparison, by the end of WWII, MGM spent an average of $1.68 million on each film, though that was nearly double the cost of other studios’ movies, which averaged out to about $900,000 a picture. So a $2.5 million budget was a lot even for MGM. The expense definitely comes across in the look and scope of the movie.
The Three Musketeers was in production from January 25 to May 5, 1948. It premiered six months later in November to generally positive reviews, and it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography (Color), though it lost to Joan of Arc.
Bosley Crowther’s review in The New York Times was wryly positive. (I’m going to quote at length because I think Crowther is spot-on and pretty amusing with his critique.) He wrote:
The abundant talents and resources of Alexandra Dumas, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the Technicolor company and Lana Turner’s couturier contribute just about equally to the over-all effect of Metro’s splendiferous production of Dumas’ ‘The Three Musketeers.’ More glittering swordplay, more dazzling costumes, more colors or more of Miss Turner’s chest have never been seen in a picture than are shown in this one…And for those who enjoy a surfeit of such flashy and fleshy displays, there isn’t the slightest question that here is a heaping dish.
He continued, “But for those who have some slight affection for Dumas’ exciting romance about court intrigues and high adventures in seventeenth-century France; for those who expect a moderate measure of poetry and style in a costume film, this onrush of million-dollar clichés and star-steam-rollering will be a staggering bore.”
He thought Kelly did fine, calling his work a “…comparatively pleasing job” even though
Mr. Kelly may not seem precisely the gentleman portrayed in the book but he is a fair comprehension of a vigorous and genial young man. Not since Douglas Fairbanks swung through the air with magic ease and landed on balconies and beefsteaks has a fellow come along who compares with that robustious actor in vitality and grace. And even though he is given more than he should have to do and often is permitted to clown in a rather childish way, he carries his heavy role lightly—and, what’s more, he looks good in plush costumes.
Kelly must have been pleased to be compared so favorably to his hero! But “That’s where the credit ends, however…Van Heflin, Gig Young and Robert Coote are just three Hollywood boys in puffs and plumes. Indeed, Mr. Heflin’s performance as the one who chronically cries in his beer when he isn’t flashing his rapier is just this side of burlesque.”
Crowther thought Allyson and Price were fine, but:
Completely fantastic, however, is Miss Turner as the villainess, the ambitious Lady de Winter who does the boudoir business for the boss. Loaded with blond hair and jewels, with twelve-gallon hats and ostrich plumes, and poured into her satin dresses with a good bit of Turner to spare, she walks through the palaces and salons with the air of a company-mannered Mae West. And she makes ardent love to her victims with elegant high-school hauteur. But wait till you see her as the luckless and tragic lady locked up in the London Tower, with lightning flashing on her pale beauty! Take it away, make-up man!
Overall, Crowther concluded that the film is “a strange hooraw’s nest of swashbuckling action and backstairs plots, all mixed up and indeterminate amid a fortune’s worth of Hollywood sets.” You can read his full review here.
Despite its craziness, this movie remains a classic. It’s really fun and visually spectacular, plus it’s a great example of the excess and style of MGM in the 1940s. And I think it does capture a lot of the spirit of Dumas’ novel even though it makes a few changes to the story. Here’s the trailer–enjoy!
For more, follow me on Twitter, tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook, and you can buy this movie here. As always, thanks for reading! And enjoy this wonderfully ridiculous article about June Allyson that heavily promotes The Three Musketeers! Hint: don’t take your husband shopping! And for heaven’s sake, don’t bother him when he’s reading the newspaper!