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Superstar of the Silents
December 1971 | Volume 23, Issue 1
In later years Douglas attributed his interest in the stage to his father, who had been an amateur Shakespeare scholar wont to recite from the Bard at the smallest excuse. Nevertheless, it seems likely that Douglas would have found his way into the theatre without any paternal example to guide him. He was a poor student and an inveterate and muchpunished prankster who very greatly needed to be the center of attention. The reward for his transgressions was often the enforced memorization of some Shakespearean passage, and that work—along with the one part of the school week that he looked forward to, the Friday recitations—surely helped bend the twig. In any case his neighbor, Burns Mantle (later to become a well-known drama critic and editor of the annual Best Plays volume), said that by the time Fairbanks was in his teens, “he would recite you as fine and florid an Antony’s speech to the Romans as you ever heard. With gestures, too.” He performed for his mother’s boarders, organized a backyard theatre one summer, and achieved a certain skill in dialects by imitating the street peddlers—Irish, Italian, Jewish—who hawked their wares from carts passing his home. He even got a bit with a touring company, using one of the accents he had acquired to play an Italian newsboy.
Douglas’ mother was not altogether happy about her son’s interest in drama, but that was less worrisome to her than his perpetual high spirits. The gloomy infant had turned into a lighthearted delinquent, and visits to the school principal’s office were almost weekly occurrences. The exact nature of most of these transgressions is lost to history, but it is said that he and Robert once loosed a carton of water snakes on a crowded trolley car and that on another occasion, when Douglas was serving as an altar boy, he spiked the sacramental wine with vinegar. All the while, of course, he was busy turning the world into a gym, making ordinary structures—steps, fences, porch roofs—into props for crowd-pleasing displays of a boy in graceful motion.
Meanwhile, Ella tried to turn the clock back. She divorced Ulman (for desertion) and resumed her first husband’s name of Fairbanks, which she induced her third husband’s boys to adopt as well. She also saw to it that they were raised in the Catholic faith from which she herself was barred by her divorces and, for good measure, insisted that Douglas take the temperance pledge. This he kept for the rest of his life, although his church affiliation was lost through divorce, as his mother’s had been.
Whether “Mrs. Fairbanks” achieved through these expedients a measure of contentment we do not know. It is clear, however, that she was never able to take and hold a firm line with the rambunctious Douglas. She tried sternness—two years of military school she could ill afford—but that had no discernible effect on him. Thereafter she enrolled him in an extracurricular drama school, no doubt thinking he might thus get acting out of his system.
It was too late. His teacher, Margaret Fealy, was a retired actress of some repute, and she apparently sensed a genuine gift in the energetic young man, though she was never quite able to name what it was. At any rate, he confirmed his sense of vocation under her tutelage. In one of the productions in which Miss Fealy exhibited her school’s talent, Frederick Warde, a well-regarded actor-manager who had made his career on the road, saw Fairbanks act. Though he scarcely gave Doug a rave—“That dark-haired youngster has more vigor than virtuosity”—the optimistic young actor somehow managed to parlay this faint praise into a promise of employment in Warde’s company should he be able to leave high school and join Warde.
Quitting school was easy: on Saint Patrick’s Day he placed green hats and bows on all the busts of the famous men that lined the school corridors and was expelled. Talking his mother into letting him go into the theatre was more difficult. Here a friendly parish priest helped out, slyly suggesting that Douglas might find a suitably adventurous life by becoming a missionary in Africa. Ella, as the priest expected, decided that if acting lacked something in respectability it at least did not put her son in imminent peril of the cannibals’ pot, and so, partially financed by John Fairbanks, her first-born (who was a travelling salesman), she and Douglas set out to seek his fortune in New York. The year was 1900 and Fairbanks was seventeen.