- Historic Sites
Superstar of the Silents
December 1971 | Volume 23, Issue 1
There is truth, too, in the charge that he was much more appealing performing marvellous acrobatics on commonplace objects instead of on a castle wall, in the rigging of a sailing ship, or in an Arabian Nights palace. Walker compares these feats in the later pictures with’ such winning stunts as his avoidance of a black cat that threatened to cross his path in an earlier picture—up a drainpipe and over a balcony in a single flip without ruffling his city suit or losing his dignified black Homburg—and one must agree that the simple charm and sheer inventiveness of the modern-dress trick is the more engaging. There were other defects in these later films. Sometimes it seemed that things, inanimate objects, now controlled Fairbanks and that he had lost his ability to dominate them, as he had in the beginning: Sometimes, too, his confidence seemed to deteriorate into braggadocio and narcissism, and the cruel element, always present in physical comedy whether practiced by Chaplin or Mickey Mouse, sometimes became too obvious, as, increasingly, Fairbanks used people rather thoughtlessly—playing casually off their weaknesses to make himself look good. Finally, all too often he cast himself as that creature he most envied, the nobleman. To be sure, his sword was always placed in the service of the people, of democratic ideals, but it is also true that there was a heavy touch of noblesse oblige, hence of condescension, in these movies.
In short it all begins to seem a little discomfiting as one looks back on these later films. Still, there were reasons for his change of style. Hollywood in general was abandoning its old simple ways. Everyone was making superproductions, and the show-man in Fairbanks understood that his status as a superstar required him to embrace the new lavishness. Then, too, everyone was very impressed with the production values of the new films from Europe—especially the slick, expensive-looking products emanating from UFA in Berlin. There was enough of the booster in Fairbanks to want Hollywood to compete with these epics. That he personally would lose something by appearing in them was not apparent to him. And the thought that this imitation would lead American movie makers away from the simplicity and the preoccupation with action that had been their great strength surely never occurred to him. What he saw was a chance to convert himself from athlete into conjurer, and it must have seemed to him an irresistible step upward.
The change did not occur all of a sudden. His first costume dramas, The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Three Musketeers (1921), seem to me every bit as good as the early comedies—strong, sharply edited narratives that actually expand his range, since they allow him to demonstrate his remarkable gifts as a swordsman. The blade was somehow a natural extension of his quick, thrusting personality, and its employment often provided him with an easy and natural rationale for bounding around his sets. In some respects his broad gestures seemed even better suited to costume dramas than to the earlier naturalistic films.
As for the public, they loved him as well in this new incarnation as they ever had. Robert Sherwood, a movie critic before he became a playwright and adviser to Presidents, was positively ecstatic about The Thief of Bagdad . “I now know what it means to be able to say, ‘Well, I’ve been to the top,’ ” he wrote. More important, he singled out the quality that gives this picture, so grievously abused by later critics, its special appeal. “Fairbanks has gone far beyond the mere bounds of possibility; he has performed the superhuman feat of making his magic seem probable.”
It is important to bear these comments in mind, for Thief represented the culmination of the star’s trip into the heavy fantastic. His artisans fashioned a strikingly stylized vision of the Arabian Nights city; his specialeffects men created flying carpets, mythical beasts for him to slay, a magical rope that, flung skyward, stiffened so he could climb it. In short it was full of wonders that, if often imitated since (and in some cases technically improved), have never been surpassed in their ability to delight. Yet the film does not seem to strain for effect. As Sherwood said, the story of a happy-go-lucky thief who learns that “happiness must be earned … is sound and workable, and … proceeds rhythmically and gracefully at a steadily increasing rate of speed.”
The real defect of the film is Fairbanks’ performance. Here, as elsewhere in the later works, he seems to be uncomfortable competing with the spectacles he caused to be created—and to be forcing himself beyond his natural limits as an actor. Still, this could be seen as a kind of trade. If some of the best of the old Doug was lost beyond recall, he compensated with spectacle which, unlike that found in the big pictures of his competitors, had a wit and gaiety that has stood the test of time very well. Which is to say that on balance the posthumous reputation of his late films (which also include Robin Hood, The Black Pirate, The Gaucho, The Iron Mask , and the sequel to Zorro, Don Q, Son of Zorro ) should probably be revised upward. For they are, if nothing else, superior entertainments.