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Superstar of the Silents
December 1971 | Volume 23, Issue 1
Nevertheless, quite apart from its leading man, The Lamb turned out to be important in film history: Aitkin wanted to see if he could get away with charging prices comparable to those of a stage attraction for ordinary, program movies. For this experiment (the top price was three dollars) Aitkin needed something by each of the Triangle producers, and this was the best thing available from the Griffith unit. Sitting down with The Lamb on the night of September 23, 1915, were such lions of New York’s artistic circles as Paderewski, painter Howard Chandler Christy, writers Rupert Hughes and Irvin Cobb—and, as it happened, they were amused. So was the press, which proclaimed Fairbanks a very satisfactory hero.
He returned to Hollywood more irrepressible than ever. On the train trip back he was accompanied by the owner of the Algonquin Hotel, Frank Case, and Fairbanks amused himself by dressing in full Indian regalia to waken Case from his slumbers one night. After he got over his fright, Case retaliated by telling the porter that Fairbanks was a mental case on a strict diet and that his frequent requests for fruit, candy, ice cream, and other amenities were to be sternly ignored. Fairbanks doted on this sort of adolescent japery, and he and his companions devoted untold hours to elaborate practical jokes. Indeed, in later years, Fairbanks had a chair in his office wired so that he could administer electric shocks to unsuspecting visitors, and much effort was devoted to maneuvering the unwary into the hot seat.
As of the fall of 1915, however, Griffith was not willing to concede star status to Fairbanks, no matter how successful The Lamb was. Griffith approved another Cabanne project, Double Trouble (with Fairbanks playing twins), and still found his sense of decorum offended by the actor. At that point John Emerson, an actor turned director, came into the picture. Emerson had been a friend of Fairbanks’ in New York, and he now asked for a chance to do something with his old pal. Rummaging around in the files, Emerson discovered a bundle of comedy scenarios by a very young girl named Anita Loos, and returned to “the Master” excited by their possibilities as Fairbanks vehicles. Griffith, who had little regard for Emerson anyway, was unenthusiastic. “Don’t let that material fool you,” he said, “because the laughs are all in the lines; there’s no way to get them onto the screen.”
Why couldn’t the gags be printed as subtitles, Emerson suggested. Because, said Griffith, people don’t come to the movies to read, they go to look at pictures. Why, then, Emerson inquired, had Griffith purchased these scripts? “I like to read them myself,” he replied. “They make me laugh.”
Perhaps Griffith noted a certain illogic in his position as he stated it to Emerson. Or perhaps, preoccupied as he was with his mightiest epic, Intolerance , he was merely seeking a quick solution to the nagging Fairbanks problem. Anyway, he finally told Emerson to have a meeting with Miss Loos (eventually they were to extend their collaboration into marriage), who was persuaded to add more gags, both verbal and visual, to the scenario; and according to Miss Loos they had a high old time shooting the thing, which was called His Picture in the Papers . When it was finished, Emerson and Fairbanks screened it for Griffith, who told them that if they cut their five reels to two, he would see if, possibly, he could find a way to release it.
So the thing was shelved. Or so everyone thought. But a print was somehow shipped to New York anyway, and it was sent over to Roxy Rothafel at the Strand Theatre’as a substitute for a picture he had booked but which had gotten lost in transit. By the end of the first reel of His Picture the theatre, according to Miss Loos, “was fairly rocking with laughter.” By the next day the New York Times had proclaimed it a hit, and Roxy kept it on.
The Loos-Emerson formula was actually quite a simple one. She put much more wit into the subtitles than had been present in the two earlier Fairbanks films, and Emerson, as Alistair Cooke was to put it in his biography of Fairbanks, had the good sense “to let Fairbanks’ own restlessness set the pace of the shooting and his gymnastics be the true improvisations on a simple scenario.” In these films all the “acting” took place in the early going, when Fairbanks might be discovered, in monocle and spats, idling about some mansion or watering place, good-natured but a figure of fun to everyone but himself. As a variation he might be seen as a repressed or inhibited dreamer, trapped in some routine job and longing for adventure. The point was simply to set up a situation where the true Fairbanks—resourceful, daring, gallant—could emerge from an improbable cocoon in a conversion that would demonstrate his remarkable heroic gifts. In that very first Loos-Emerson film, for example, he boxed six rounds with a professional fighter, dove from the deck of an ocean liner into the sea, and took a mighty leap from a speeding train. In subsequent films he was to be observed fighting forest fires, climbing the sheer walls of canyons, being a “human submarine.”