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Superstar of the Silents
December 1971 | Volume 23, Issue 1
It was, in short, a perfect meeting—both behaving in perfect public character. Indeed, they continued in character throughout the five years of courtship that followed, he avidly pursuing, she nobly resisting his advances. According to her autobiography and his official biography they were never, or at least rarely, unchaperoned. Still, when his mother died suddenly in 1916, it was to Little Mary that he turned for comfort. She had written him a note of sympathy, he asked if he could see her, they went for a drive in Central Park, and there Fairbanks broke down and wept for the first time in his bereavement. She consoled him as best she could; and when the storm passed, they looked up to discover (so the legend goes) that the clock on their car’s dashboard had stopped at the exact moment of his mother’s death. Thereafter, in moments of stress they swore love and fealty to each other by invoking the phrase, “by the clock.”
From then on their affair grew steadily in intensity, Miss Loos recalling that Fairbanks, in order to meet his inamorata, took to sleeping on a porch well away from his wife’s bedroom in their Hollywood mansion, so that after she was asleep he could slide down an Ionic pillar, roll his car silently downhill before starting the motor, and then speed over to Mary’s house. The difficulty was getting home—pushing the car back up the hill (so says Miss Loos) and shinnying back up the pillar. It is probable that no other screen actor, before or since, was fit enough to carry on such a strenuous courtship. Still, there were problems. Both would have to renounce their Catholicism, which was more of a wrench for her than it was for him. (“Why shouldn’t I divorce?” he cried. “Caesar did it. Napoleon did it.”) Although his intended was America’s Sweetheart, Fairbanks knew she had been born plain Gladys Smith in Toronto and therefore lacked the excellence of birth and breeding that all his life he envied. But as he approached the top of the movie pinnacle where she had reigned virtually alone (only Chaplin’s popularity equalled hers), he must have seen that he and Mary together could found a new aristocracy every bit as potent as that of the “old money” back East.
The problem they faced was a new one—the creation of a method by which they and other stars like them could cope, economically and personally, with a sudden access of wealth and fame unprecedented in this country. One gains an understanding of how difficult it was by consulting any list of their contemporaries who were forced to deal with the problem. The number of them that died broke is legion. The number who eventually succumbed to drink, mental illness, or the urge to self-destruction is equally impressive. Nowadays there is a well-articulated structure designed to serve those who suffer the accident of stardom. Agents, accountants, lawyers, and public-relations advisers staff the structure, and the possibility of emerging more or less intact from the ordeal of superstardom is a reasonable one. But Fairbanks, Pickford, and their peers had to begin the creation of that system under the pressure of fast-moving, unpredictable careers. Whatever one thinks of the way they handled the task, it must be seen as a problem for which they had no convenient paradigms.
In any case United Artists came into being in 1920, and in fear and trembling over what divorces and a quick remarriage might do to their irqottes (especially hers), Doug and Mary were joined in wedlock. The public forgave all, and their European honeymoon turned into a triumphal procession (for they were true international stars), although the staring crowds always bothered them and occasionally threatened them with bodily harm. Once, for example, as they were moving slowly in an open car through a London mob, those nearest Mary laid hands upon her, and if her husband had not grabbed her ankles, she would have been pulled from the car.
Back in Hollywood Fairbanks had two tasks. One was the establishment of a revised screen personality, the other the establishment of the social ascendancy of his wife and himself. Both projects were accomplished with the ease that must have seemed, by this time, his natural right.
Of the two self-imposed tasks, tampering with his screen image was the more dangerous. “Douglas Fairbanks is a tonic. He laughs and you feel relieved,” a critic had written, summing up Fairbanks’ function in the world, and there were plenty who believed that his medicinal effect would be diluted if he ceased to show himself in contemporary settings in simple little films that he could effortlessly dominate. Indeed, the consensus among film critics and historians is that he did, in fact, bury much of his best self in the costume dramas he concentrated upon exclusively after 1920. For example, Alexander Walker, a modern critic, writes that in these later films “the armies of period historians, costume designers, special-effects men and art directors … do not support their leader so much as swamp him. …”