- Historic Sites
Superstar of the Silents
December 1971 | Volume 23, Issue 1
Moreover, they contain some of his best-known stunts. There was, for example, his famous entrapment on the battlements of the great castle built for him, as a kind of superset of monkey bars, in Robin Hood . The bad guys had him outnumbered, back to the wall. It looked like the end. But there was a huge curtain just behind him. He flipped into its folds and slid down it as if it were a very large playground slide (in fact, that’s just what director Allan Dwan had constructed underneath it). Indeed, the whole castle set, the biggest thing of its kind since Griffith’s Babylonian walls for Intolerance , had been built by Dwan and John Fairbanks, Doug’s manager, just to intrigue the aging juvenile, who had been sulkily travelling largely to avoid doing Robin Hood . Then, of course, there is the most memorable stunt of all, the slide down the big sail in The Black Pirate . It seemed wonderfully simple: Doug just inserted his dagger in the canvas and hung on. The canvas ripped gently, slowly, giving the actor a smooth but thrilling ride to the deck below. Reality being less convenient than art, the dagger had to be counterweighted in order for the effect to be achieved successfully. But what an effect it was! And who can seriously complain of movie forms generous enough to support such splendid flummery?
The Fairbanks films of the 1920’s were, for the most part, box-office successes, though, given their expensiveness, they did not net profits at quite the level his less pretentious films had. His off-camera style was by no means cramped, however. He emerged as the most forceful figure in the United Artists hierarchy, and it is said that it was Doug who was instrumental in forcing his old boss, D. W. Griffith, out of the company. More important to him was his emergence as the unquestioned leader of Hollywood social life. The house that was christened Pickfair, the noblest pile in the film colony’s greatest era of architectural extravagance, was already being built when he married Miss Pickford, and from it they conducted their splendid reign. According to the late Walter Wanger, as social arbiters they replaced Mack Sennett. He had run a somewhat more freewheeling establishment: “If you didn’t take the young lady on your right upstairs between the soup and the entree, you were considered a homosexual.” Now that the gossip columns had been invented, however, there were some genuinely shocking scandals to contend with, and Hollywood would have had to invent the morally reassuring Lord and Lady of Pickfair if it had not already done so. For as a pleasantly wicked contemporary journalist, Aliène Talmey, put it, they provided “the necessary air of dignity, sobriety, and aristocracy. Gravely they attend movie openings, cornerstone layings, gravely sit at the head of the table at the long dinners in honor of the cinema great, Douglas making graceful speeches, Mary conducting herself with the self-abnegation of Queen Mary of Britain … they understand thoroughly their obligation to be present, in the best interests of the motion picture industry.”
Socially, as Wanger said, “To be invited to Pickfair was tops. … They had friends all over who came out to the estate. They even tell a story that one day, because they hated to miss anybody with a title, they got a message that Princess Vera Romanoff was in town. They sent a car over to the Biltmore and brought her up there and gave her a wonderful weekend, with parties for her all the time. She was actually a little secretary from San Francisco who went back on Monday morning, having thanked them very much.”
But she was a rare fake. As one Hollywood wit summarized the matter, “Doug goes to Europe each year to book his royal visitors for the coming year.” And if he ran short of titled guests, there was always the new, wonder-world of celebrityhood to draw upon; so the guest list was, to say the least, eclectic: in the famous gymnasium at his studio the star played leapfrog with Babe Ruth, sparred with Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey, allowed the King of Siam to ride his mechanical horse, Conan Doyle to punch the bag, the Duke of Alba to fence with him, and Prince George of England to join him in a wrestling match. Prince William of Sweden, not unnaturally, did Swedish exercises there.
The high point of a visit to Pickfair was likely to be a predawn ride through the nearby hills and canyons (subdivision had not yet reached the hills above Los Angeles). The visiting notables would be routed out of bed at an ungodly hour, placed groaning atop horses, and taken for a strenuous jog through the darkness to a campsite where breakfast—sent out by truck in advance—would be laid. Steak, Florida grapefruit, and croissants might be on the menu; the star himself might tell the tale of a legendary bandit, Tiburcio Vasquez, whose hide-out, Doug claimed, had been in the very canyon where they were dining.
It was all larger than life. When they accepted invitations, Doug and Mary sent engraved cards to their hosts-to-be, requesting that they be seated next to each other at table. Each morning she appeared in his dressing room to help him select which of his forty suits and innumerable shirts and ties he would wear to the studio that day, though both knew that as soon as he arrived at work he would shuck this finery in favor of flannels and a sweater or polo shirt. When they were not entertaining, they let it be known that they favored simplicity—screening a new movie, perhaps, and chewing peanut brittle as the action proceeded.