While Gene Kelly is appropriately remembered as one of cinema’s best-ever musical performers, his non-musical performances are by now largely forgotten. His performance as E.K. Hornbeck in Inherit the Wind (1960) is likely his most widely liked dramatic role, but in 1948 Warner Bros took a chance on launching him as a swashbuckling adventure star in George Sidney’s The Three Musketeers. While not entirely obscure, this sword-swinging literary adaptation certainly wouldn’t make the first page of the actor’s CV – and that is despite a glamorous, high-powered cast of co-stars. This is breezy, competent fare for a Sunday afternoon: entertaining, but undistinguished.
Setting out for opportunities in 18th century Paris, young Gascon native D’Artagnan (Kelly) immediately crosses paths with the mysterious “Milady” de Winter (Lana Turner) – who plots with Prime Minister Richelieu (Vincent Price) against King Louis XIII (Frank Morgan) and Queen Anne (Angela Lansbury). Joining famed musketeers Athos (Van Heflin), Porthos (Gig Young), and Aramis (Robert Coote) – and plucky servant Constance (June Allyson) – D’Artagnan races to stop de Winter’s conspiracy and save the king.
Sidney’s The Three Musketeers marked Hollywood’s third feature adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas novel, and followed a Douglas Fairbanks silent film and a comedic Don Ameche vehicle. The 1948 version stuck relatively close to the book, offering a narrative that reflected the novel’s own far more closely than subsequent adaptations would. The most obvious changes were largely cosmetic – religious concerns saw Richelieu changed from a Cardinal to a Prime Minister, while the ages of the film’s key players were raised. The latter change arguably hurts the finished film: while the literary D’Artagnan was 18 years old, the same dialogue and motivations given to then-36 year-old Kelly makes his character seem embarrassingly inept and naive. Similarly the film’s titular musketeers come across as weirdly middle-aged and mature, lacking much of the energy and verve one would expect from the characters. They are all decent performers – theatre veteran Van Heflin in particular – but in the broader context of Musketeer adaptations they do rather underwhelm.
Much better served are the film’s female cast. Lana Turner positively radiates with malevolence as Milady, bringing a distinctive femme fatale aesthetic to the character. Angela Lansbury is a brittle and dignified Queen Anne of Austria. Most delightful of all is June Allyson as Constance. There is a light and earthly tone to her performance, and she comes across as both innately likeable and comparatively realistic. There is a friendly down-to-earth nature to her Constance that makes her a better-developed character than any of her male counterparts.
The Three Musketeers is interesting, and certainly broadly enjoyable, but given the prestige players involved it cannot help but disappoint a little. For fans of Kelly it is a fun curiosity. For fans of classic Hollywood more broadly, there are better examples of literary adaptations and swashbuckling adventures available.