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Superstar of the Silents
December 1971 | Volume 23, Issue 1
Warde kept his word: Douglas got a job doing bits and understudying in his touring company. He went on for the first time as “a lackey” in something called The Duke’s Jester , and Warde, in the title role, began to get nervous whenever the script called for him to ring for his servant, since Fairbanks tended to vary his entrances—one time through a window, another time from the ceiling, only rarely from the wings as he was supposed to. His big chance came in Duluth, where he went on as Laertes in Hamlet on short notice. “Mr. Warde’s supporting company was bad, but worst of all was Douglas Fairbanks …” the local critic wrote. Warde himself was to call the young actor’s first season “a catch-as-catchcan encounter with the immortal bard.” Warde discharged him at the end of the tour with the advice that he gain more experience of the world.
There followed two years of miscellaneous adventures a short try at a “special course” for high-school dropouts at Harvard, a cattle boat to Europe, an office job on Wall Street, hardware wholesaling—before he was back on the stage in a touring company of A Rose o’ Plymouth Town , the leading lady of which later said that he seemed to have “a bad case of St. Vitus’s dance.”
Apparently, two years of worldly experience had not notably contributed to his thespian skills, but he had established a pattern he was to repeat during his fourteen-year, on-again, off-again career on the legitimate stage. He was ever willing to take a flier on some other occupation or simply to take off and see some new part of the world. Clearly, his dedication was not to his art, but to himself, and he had other desires that required satisfaction. All his life the periodic need simply to be foot-loose came upon him. As an international star he was later to indulge this taste in luxury though, alas, never in anonymity. As a young man, however, it was his habit simply to disappear—for a walking tour of Cuba, for example, or a long voyage to the Orient. Then, too, his mother’s yearnings for respectability had been transmitted to him, and so he became a fellow traveller of New York’s young socialites, a group he observed rather more closely and satirically than he was perhaps conscious of doing at the time. At any rate his first film success was in part based on his ability to make fun of their pretensions and preoccupations (nothing vicious about it, just good clean fun for the honest yeomanry who were his basic audience and whose contempt for the smart set was matched only by their envious curiosity about it).
Meanwhile, stories of his athleticism began to get around. A director paused during the rehearsal of one play to wonder how Fairbanks might quickly ascend to a balcony without slowing the pace of the production, to which Fairbanks replied by leaping, pulling, and then flipping himself up onto the second story. On another occasion producer William Brady, who became Fairbanks’ mentor, was astonished to find him filling time during a break by walking up and down stairs on his hands.
Nobody thought much of him as an actor, but everyone had to admit that he had a way with him, that there was something about him … So the roles, the billing, and the salary got bigger. And then he quit.
The cause of it was blonde, plump, pretty Beth Sully, eldest daughter of Daniel Sully, popularly known as the Cotton King. In his way Fairbanks loved her, though his decision to marry was undoubtedly influenced by her wealth and social position. For one motive or the other he acceded to her father’s insistence that he give up the stage and found himself, after the honeymoon in 1907, toiling anonymously at the Buchan Soap Corporation, one of Sully’s many interests.
Fairbanks was rescued by the short, sharp recession of 1907, which washed out not only Sully’s soap business but the cotton market as well. Back Fairbanks went to the stage. And from here on, his career as an engaging young leading man specializing in light comedy was steadily ascendant—and his marriage was steadily descendent. He was never much good in the role of husband and father, being too footloose for the former, too egocentric for the latter. In the beginning his son, Douglas, Jr., irritated him with his boyish clumsiness. Later, when “Junior” went into the movies (mostly to help support his family, which had run through the money his father settled upon them when he finally divorced Beth), Douglas, Senior, resented the boy’s seeming capitalization on his name and even conceived the faintly absurd notion that he was deliberately competing with the old man, although young Doug avoided, during his father’s lifetime, roles that were anything like the sort associated with “Senior.” It was not until his own career had begun to fade that, hurt and bewildered, he reached out for such consolations as a fraternal rather than a paternal relationship with his son could offer. Even then, he made up names for them to call each other, so much had he come to resent the fact that they shared the same one. He got Doug, Jr., to call him Pete, and he called his son Jayar—for the letters in the abbreviation Jr.