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Superstar of the Silents
December 1971 | Volume 23, Issue 1
In all it seemed a dream life, but like a dream it could not last. In 1923 Douglas Fairbanks turned forty, and for a man who had staked not just his career but his style and his sensibility on eternal youth, the date had a terrible significance. His constant training (he kept two boxers on his payroll) had actually served him ill. He was becoming stiff and muscle-bound, a condition caused by excessive exercise, which apparently contributed to the circulatory problems that would lead to his death in 1939. He resented what the years were doing to him, and then, when sound came in 1928, he hated it and disliked also the changes it was forcing upon the industry. Miss Pickford reports in her autobiography that, though they were both due on the set at 9 A.M. for their first talkie (and their first costarring vehicle), The Taming of the Shrew , he would stretch his morning exercise and rubdown period until noon, while cast and crew waited, running up charges that deeply offended his wife’s frugal soul. When he did appear, he often did not have his lines learned and had to have them chalked on a blackboard out of camera range. And he would refuse to do retakes. It was a very petulant act, though he was, all in all, quite good—better than his costar—in the finished film.
The film was not, however, a great success. And Fairbanks’ mood was not improved by the Great Crash, which did him no good financially and, worse, seemed to challenge all the verities about pluck, luck, and hard work that had formed such intellectual underpinnings as his work had. The individualist ethic, the notion that one man with grace, charm, and courage could right all wrongs, was shattered for everyone; but few people this side of Herbert Hoover had as much staked on that oversimplification as Fairbanks did.
Time did not heal the trauma of spiritual shock. He turned rather nasty in his personal dealings; and while his wife worked on a second film, which she junked at a cost of three hundred thousand dollars and no little damage to her pride, he went off to Europe. There he took it into his head to prove his virility by undertaking an affair, which Mary discovered, a carelessness he had previously avoided.
It was the beginning of the end of what many regarded as the decade’s perfect romance, although appearances were kept up for almost five more years. In 1931 he attempted a musical, Reaching for the Moon , which, despite a score by Irving Berlin and the presence of a young crooner named Bing Crosby, failed. Thereafter he did a truly disastrous travelogue ( Around the World in 80 Minutes ), the chief function of which was to provide him with an excuse to get out of Hollywood and keep travelling. Travelling is essentially all he did for the last decade of his life, as he tried to escape the growing knowledge that there was simply no adequate substitute for the kind of films that had brought him acclaim but that age and illness now prevented him from doing.
There were two more sad attempts at features, including, appropriately, one about the declining years of Don Juan, in which he discovered he could no longer perform his old romantic tricks. Then, in 1935, came the divorce from Mary Pickford, which he did not want and tried to stave off at the last minute. A year later he married Lady Sylvia Ashley, who had been a commoner, a model before her first marriage.
He was consumed with self-pity and, perhaps, not a little self-loathing. “When a man finds himself sliding down hill he should do everything to reach the bottom in a hurry and pass out of the picture in a hurry,” he said. It was an ending that a novelist, intent upon moralizing upon the wages of living exclusively in terms of the success ethic and the youth cult, would have chosen, and it hurt and puzzled Fairbanks. He had intently followed the commonly accepted rules and practices of American life in the twentieth century; he had had the promised rewards. Still rich, still admired, he was entitled to a graceful exit, but somehow he couldn’t manage it.
And so he stumbled off the stage. Occasionally looking for excitement, he joined another master of movement and his only true inheritor, Fred Astaire, riding police patrol cars at night. Surely he was cheered by reconciliation with his son, Douglas, Jr., who had grown into an actor if anything more handsome than the man whose name he bore. Doug, Jr., was by now a star in his own right, though not yet imitating his father’s roles, as he later—and quite successfully—did. But even his son’s affection and success could not entirely lift the gloom that had settled upon him.
He died of a heart attack, alone in his sleep one night in December, 1939, when he was fifty-six years old. He had sent one last message to Mary (“by the clock”) and was still trying to imagine, perhaps even practice in his mind a bit, a satisfactory conclusion to a life that, if not typical of American reality, certainly was typical of America’s dreams. The problem had been neatly stated by the sharp-eyed Miss Talmey twelve years earlier: “There are no third acts for him.”