- Historic Sites
Superstar of the Silents
December 1971 | Volume 23, Issue 1
Almost all of Fairbanks’ films revolved around such a conversion experience and, particularly in these first ones, the conversion was to “Americanism”—for want of a better word. Of course there was both more and less to the popularity of these cheerful little dramas than that. It has been noted that Fairbanks’ rise to fame as an exemplar of the basic American virtues coincided with a time of great popular interest in the application of those virtues to world problems. In 1916, the year he made ten films—a quarter of his lifetime’s production—America was standing ambivalently aloof from the great war in Europe, and there was a great debate over whether the nation as a whole should undertake a conversion experience not unlike the one Fairbanks endlessly dramatized. The nation, of course, chose action and involvement, just as Fairbanks’ screen character always did.
But even if the war had not been going on, Fairbanks would have had a fundamental appeal to his audiences. A room, as Cooke so nicely put it, was for him “a machine for escape,” and to see Doug at bay and fighting off his enemies, the while casing the joint for possibilities—that staircase there, that balcony yonder, that chandelier above, how can I put them together to befuddle these fools?—this was the moment of high deliciousness in all his work. The possibilities were always apparent but not the sequence of their employment, nor the variations he could ring on a simple action (Who else, for example, would have thought of, let alone dared, a handspring powered and supported by only one arm?). Lightning pragmatism, that was the heart of his style; and to combine pragmatism—America’s only major contribution to philosophy—with instant action—our national obsession—was no trivial invention.
Its appeal abides, perhaps better than the relentless optimism of Fairbanks’ nature. He was a man who naturally looked on the bright side of things, but the books he wrote (or had ghosted) were a bit too much. Laugh and Live, Making Life Worthwhile, Whistle and Hoe—Sing as We Go (to name less than half his literary output) set the teeth on edge. And so does the near mania with which he pursued wealth, social position, and influence once he saw that the film medium had the ability to confer celebrity and power on a chosen few—beyond the dreams of any previous actor in the history of the world.
Here the sunny story of Douglas Fairbanks begins to cloud over ever so slightly and in a manner that was quite imperceptible to its hero. In 1917 he left Aitkin to form his own company, taking Loos, Emerson, and another favorite director, Allan Dwan, with him; three years after that he joined with Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith to form United Artists, in whose councils his and Pickford’s became by far the most powerful voices. By 1920 there was no doubt that he was the most popular male star of the screen, a position he solidified by marrying the only woman of comparable stature, Mary Pickford.
They had met at a house party in 1915, when both were more or less unhappily married, and the circumstances of their meeting could not have been more romantic. She, of course, was already the most important screen star of the day, and in the pecking order of the guests at Elsie Janis’ country house—the historic Philipse Manor near Tarrytown, New York—she far outranked him, the moderately popular stage actor just beginning his assault on the movies. Still, he was highly complimentary, and she was very disappointed in her marriage to hard-drinking Owen Moore, a Griffith leading man she had married over her mother’s strenuous objections. At that time, she says in her autobiography, “I was resolved to take my marital punishment with a grin. I had carved out my future in my career. It was my solace, my high fortress, where no one and nothing could molest or harm me.” So she paid little heed to Fairbanks until, later in the day, she attempted to cross an icy stream on a narrow and slippery log. Half-way across, however, she found herself trapped, immobilized by fear. Others in the party shouted advice and comfort, but it was Douglas Fairbanks who resolved her contretemps in typical fashion—leaping agilely onto the log, sweeping her up in his arms, and nimbly depositing her on dry ground in a single graceful action.