- Historic Sites
Superstar of the Silents
December 1971 | Volume 23, Issue 1
All that, however, was far in the future when he picked up his stage career again in 1907 and found it booming along so splendidly. The plays have all been forgotten, but his penultimate Broadway vehicle, He Comes Up Smiling , seems to have been quite typical of them and, indeed, of the movie roles he was shortly to be playing. It was about a bank clerk bored with his job who undertakes a life of adventurous vagabondage and, after many cheery thrills, finds fortune and romance. The New York Times called it “a gay story of a great adventure” and noted that Fairbanks’ performance “justified” his star billing.
He was equally successful in The Show Shop , and what was important was not his growing name but the fact that he had firmly established a public personality, a known quantity that audiences could count on to deliver a certain kind of entertainment. In fact, unknowingly he had been creating out of the raw materials of his essential self precisely the kind of image that the movies at the moment required.
Fairbanks was lured to Hollywood by a now almost-forgotten “pioneer of the industry,” as filmland’s ceremonial phrase goes. Harry Aitkin had broken in as an owner of middlewestern theatres and film exchanges and had then shifted into production with dizzying success. D. W. Griffith himself was on Aitkin’s Fine Arts lot in Hollywood, supervising production as one third of Triangle Film Corporation (the other two thirds were Mack Sennett, producing comedies, and Thomas I nee, producing action films). Aitkin, with a corner on name directors, knew that they were not enough to insure prosperity. He also needed actors to compete with such luminaries as Chaplin and Mary Pickford, and he signed some sixty stars of the legitimate stage, among them Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, DeWoIf Hopper, Billie Burke, Texas Guinan, Weber and Fields, and, in the second rank, almost as an afterthought, Douglas Fairbanks.
His salary was two thousand dollars a week, which compensated for what he regarded as a loss of status in shifting from the stage to the movies. The trouble was that Griffith, in whose unit he was placed, couldn’t figure out what to do with him. His bounding energy irritated the humorless master, as did his breezy personal style. Moreover, it was one of the tragedies of Griffith’s career that, though he had an uncanny eye for feminine screen talent (Pickford, the Gish sisters, Mae Marsh, and Blanche Sweet all began their careers with him), he was, it would seem, quite uncomprehending about what constituted star quality in men (he was later to have Rudolph Valentino in his employ and entirely miss his appeal, repeatedly casting him as the villain).
In short, Fairbanks presented a problem to Griffith that the director tried to slide out of by suggesting that perhaps Fairbanks would be happier working in Sennett’s unit. The idea did not appeal. Fairbanks was a physical actor, no question about that, but his thing was grace, not knockabout farces. So he hung on, drawing his salary, perhaps consoling himself that most of the other stage actors caught up in Aitkin’s net were similarly underutilized.
Still, there was a great deal of expensive talent sitting around Hollywood, and something had to be done with it. Already Aitkin probably realized that stage stardom was not necessarily transferable to the screen. Youth and naturalism of style were the desiderata for actors in the new medium, and those were commodities in short supply among the Broadway strangers.
After a summer of idleness Fairbanks finally got something to do—a script (author unknown) called The Lamb . Christy Cabanne, a long-time Griffith assistant, directed while D. W. “supervised” from as great a distance as he could. And in this film a great deal of Fairbanks’ essential screen personality was set forth. It was the tale of an effete eastern snob invited to join a house party in the Wild West and forced, through a chain of unlikely circumstances, to rescue and defend from marauding Indians Seena Owen, the girl who scorned his love. This was a transformation that fascinated Fairbanks. In one after the other of his short, early films he was a sissy or a seriously inhibited youth who found within himself the surprising resources to rise to difficult challenges. Even when he began rummaging through history for stories, the character he played often used the role of the unconcerned, uninvolved playboy as a way of disguising his true, heroic nature (see The Mark of Zorro , for instance). There can be no doubt that Fairbanks thought that he had himself effected such a transformation when he escaped from the respectability his mother had sought to impose upon him.
At this point, however, no one saw what he was driving at. On the set of The Lamb he irritated the crew with his irrepressible between-takes gymnastics, and they retaliated by giving him a make-up that made him appear to be a victim of anemia. The film was shipped to New York with no confidence at all, and Fairbanks followed, pretty well convinced he had no future in the movies.