Doug Fairbanks

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In early Hollywood there lived a King. He was married to a Queen. Her name was Mary, and she was a Golden Girl. He was dashing and marvellously graceful and young—above all young. Youth was very American, and besides, it was essential to the King

 
 

To see him at work—even now, a half century more or less since his finest films, over thirty years after his premature death—is to sense, as if for the first time, the full possibilities of a certain kind of movement in the movies. The stunts have been imitated and parodied, and so has the screen personality, which was an improbable combination of the laughing cavalier and the dashing democrat. But no one has quite recaptured the freshness, the sense of perpetually innocent, perpetually adolescent narcissism, that Douglas Fairbanks brought to the screen. There was, of course, an element of the show-off in what he did. But it was (and still remains) deliciously palatable because he managed to communicate a feeling that he was as amazed and delighted as his audience by what that miraculous machine, his body, could accomplish when he launched it into trajectory to rescue the maiden fair, humiliate the villain, or escape the blundering soldiery that fruitlessly pursued him, in different uniforms but with consistent clumsiness, through a dozen pictures.

Watching him, indeed, one feels as one does watching an old comedy by Keaton or Chaplin—that somehow we have lost the knack, not to mention the spirit, for what they did and that the loss is permanent. Undoubtedly there are many people around to equal, even surpass, Fairbanks’ athletic gift. But there are none, one sadly imagines, who could or would orchestrate that gift as he did, creating out of a series of runs, jumps, leaps, vaults, climbs, swings, handsprings, and somersaults those miraculously long, marvellously melodic lines of movement through which he flung himself with such heedless grace. The problem is that even among the most youthful spirits in the acting game, there is no disposition to see its aim as simply taking joy from the job and giving it back—enhanced—to the audience. For actors, like everyone else these days, have grown distressingly sober about their mission in life. Fairbanks, on the other hand, was product and exemplar of an age that, if not quite so innocent as we like to suppose, was nevertheless not quite so grand in its artistic aspirations—especially in the movies, which only a few zealots could then even imagine as an art form. There is absolutely no evidence that Douglas Fairbanks conceived of himself as anything more than a fabulist and fantasist. The idea that he might have held a mirror up to life would probably have appalled him. What he did was hold a mirror up to himself—to endlessly boyish Doug—and invite his audience to join him in pleased contemplation of the image he found there, an image that very accurately reflected the shallow, callow, charming man who lived by the simplest of American codes and eventually died by it.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

It is fair to say that of the créât silent-screen stars, Fairbanks probably expressed more of his true self on screen than anyone. Mary Pickford, with whom he was to contract Hollywood’s first royal marriage, had created, of course, the classic American girl —spunky, virginal, with a beauty bathed in perpetual golden sunlight. She was, in fact, a tough, shrewd woman, and it would appear that her character began as a fantasy shared by her mother (the , archetypal stage mom) and her first film director, D. W. Griffith. Certainly her Golden Girl image was sustained more by the demands of commerce than by the demands of artistic conscience. Chaplin’s Little Fellow was a more complicated construct and surely represented a part of his complex nature—but only a part of it. William S. Hart, the first great western good-bad man, came, in time, to identify very strongly with his screen character, but his real-life western experience was limited, and, before the movies found him, he had been an actor in stage melodramas (notably Ben Hur) that had precious little to do with frontier days in the United States. As for vamps and other exotic sex symbols, from Theda Bara to Rudolph Valentino, they were all offspring of the feverish imaginations of producers and publicists.