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Superstar of the Silents
December 1971 | Volume 23, Issue 1
In early Hollywood there lived a King. He was married to a Queen. Her name was Mary, and she was a Golden Girl. He was dashing and marvellously graceful and young—above all young. Youth was very American, and besides, it was essential to the King
In early Hollywood there lived a King. He was married to a Queen. Her name was Mary, and she was a Golden Girl. He was dashing and marvellously graceful and young—above all young. Youth was very American, and besides, it was essential to the King
To see him at work—even now, a half century more or less since his finest films, over thirty years after his premature death—is to sense, as if for the first time, the full possibilities of a certain kind of movement in the movies. The stunts have been imitated and parodied, and so has the screen personality, which was an improbable combination of the laughing cavalier and the dashing democrat. But no one has quite recaptured the freshness, the sense of perpetually innocent, perpetually adolescent narcissism, that Douglas Fairbanks brought to the screen. There was, of course, an element of the show-off in what he did. But it was (and still remains) deliciously palatable because he managed to communicate a feeling that he was as amazed and delighted as his audience by what that miraculous machine, his body, could accomplish when he launched it into trajectory to rescue the maiden fair, humiliate the villain, or escape the blundering soldiery that fruitlessly pursued him, in different uniforms but with consistent clumsiness, through a dozen pictures.
Watching him, indeed, one feels as one does watching an old comedy by Keaton or Chaplin—that somehow we have lost the knack, not to mention the spirit, for what they did and that the loss is permanent. Undoubtedly there are many people around to equal, even surpass, Fairbanks’ athletic gift. But there are none, one sadly imagines, who could or would orchestrate that gift as he did, creating out of a series of runs, jumps, leaps, vaults, climbs, swings, handsprings, and somersaults those miraculously long, marvellously melodic lines of movement through which he flung himself with such heedless grace. The problem is that even among the most youthful spirits in the acting game, there is no disposition to see its aim as simply taking joy from the job and giving it back—enhanced—to the audience. For actors, like everyone else these days, have grown distressingly sober about their mission in life. Fairbanks, on the other hand, was product and exemplar of an age that, if not quite so innocent as we like to suppose, was nevertheless not quite so grand in its artistic aspirations—especially in the movies, which only a few zealots could then even imagine as an art form. There is absolutely no evidence that Douglas Fairbanks conceived of himself as anything more than a fabulist and fantasist. The idea that he might have held a mirror up to life would probably have appalled him. What he did was hold a mirror up to himself—to endlessly boyish Doug—and invite his audience to join him in pleased contemplation of the image he found there, an image that very accurately reflected the shallow, callow, charming man who lived by the simplest of American codes and eventually died by it.
It is fair to say that of the créât silent-screen stars, Fairbanks probably expressed more of his true self on screen than anyone. Mary Pickford, with whom he was to contract Hollywood’s first royal marriage, had created, of course, the classic American girl —spunky, virginal, with a beauty bathed in perpetual golden sunlight. She was, in fact, a tough, shrewd woman, and it would appear that her character began as a fantasy shared by her mother (the , archetypal stage mom) and her first film director, D. W. Griffith. Certainly her Golden Girl image was sustained more by the demands of commerce than by the demands of artistic conscience. Chaplin’s Little Fellow was a more complicated construct and surely represented a part of his complex nature—but only a part of it. William S. Hart, the first great western good-bad man, came, in time, to identify very strongly with his screen character, but his real-life western experience was limited, and, before the movies found him, he had been an actor in stage melodramas (notably Ben Hur) that had precious little to do with frontier days in the United States. As for vamps and other exotic sex symbols, from Theda Bara to Rudolph Valentino, they were all offspring of the feverish imaginations of producers and publicists.
Fairbanks was, on the other hand, always— triumphantly, irritatingly, ingratiatingly —Fairbanks, both on the screen and away from it. Indeed, there is about his career a certain inevitability; one can’t quite imagine what he would have done with himself if the movies had not come into existence and provided him with precisely the kind of showcase his spirit and his talents required. Many of his peers might have been just as successful (if not quite so wildly prosperous) as stage personalities. But there was no stage that could contain Fairbanks’ energy or fully exploit his natural gifts. And he was, from earliest childhood, different from other kids in ways that no one at the time could quite specify. From his personal history we gain a sense that none of the usual livelihoods would have satisfied him; that he had no choice but to carve his own, singular path.
At the very beginning, in fact, there was some fear that he might be “exceptional” in the most dismal sense of the term—that is, retarded. He was by all accounts a strangely glum infant, incapable of sending out the signals of contentment—smiles, cooings, gurglings that parents wait so anxiously to observe. His principal pleasure, observable apparently even in the crawling stage, was risk taking. By the time he was three he had, according to his daughter Letitia, who (with a journalist’s assistance) wrote an excessively discreet biography, “climbed everything in the yard and had swung from every limb and rail.” Indeed, on his third birthday his mother, overseeing the preparation of the celebratory cake, was interrupted by Robert Fairbanks, Douglas’ senior by a year, crying, “Mama, he’s on the roof again.” And sure enough, there he was, on top of the barn, having climbed a trellis to achieve his precarious perch. What bothered Mrs. Fairbanks more than the physical danger was his owlish expression.
There was reason for the withdrawn nature Fairbanks exhibited in early childhood. For one thing, he had a remarkably dark complexion. “I was so dark … my mother was ashamed of me. When all the neighbors came around to look at the new baby, Mother would say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to disturb him now—he’s asleep and I’d rather not.’ ” In later life that darkness, burnished by the southern California sun, would be largely responsible for the tanning craze that has proved to be the most enduring of the twenties fads. For the moment, however, his complexion was simply one of the many factors that made him feel profoundly isolated not only from parental love but from his whole milieu.
One always distrusts easy psychological explanations for the basic patterns of a man’s behavior, but Fairbanks was a simple man and in his case a simple explanation will probably suffice. As a child he needed more love than he received; his best weapon in the fight for approval was his natural athletic talent, and since a glum athlete seems (or seemed in those more innocent days) a contradiction in terms, he developed a personal style that would suit his strongest skill. Everything began and ended for Fairbanks with his zealously developed, jealously guarded physical skills and well-being. Almost all the other prominent features of his character were based on his athletic ability—the bouncing, boundless optimism, the perpetually youthful manner, the lack of concern about the future, even his taste for practical jokes of a very physical kind.
What, then, were the wounds he tried to heal with this balm? They were classic—an unhappy and domineering mother, a failed and finally absent father. Ella, his mother, was a New Orleans belle brought up in socially secure, carefully sheltered comfort, which did not prepare her for the vicissitudes she was shortly to experience. By the time she bore Douglas, her fourth child, she had been once widowed and once divorced. Her third marriage was to H. Charles Ulman, her attorney in the divorce proceedings, who took her from New York to Denver in search of a silver fortune that stubbornly eluded him. The boy they christened Douglas Elton Ulman was born on May 23, 1883, two years after their arrival in Colorado and only a year after the birth of his brother Robert.
There is no doubt that in time Ella came to love both of these sons in an excessive, even smothering sort of way. But for the moment, trying to maintain a prosperous front without adequate help, she resented them because they added to her feeling that she had been ill-used by life and that under its pressure she had betrayed her best self. For one thing, she had been raised a Catholic and had, of course, been forced to abandon her faith when she divorced her second husband. Then, her third husband was Jewish, which only reinforced her feeling that she had strayed far too far from her background. Her pain might have been eased had Ulman’s mining ventures worked out, but they all proved worthless. In 1888 Ulman took a position as a paid speaker for Benjamin Harrison, the Republican Presidential candidate; Ulman went back to New York and returned only once to Denver on some mysterious business. Douglas, then twelve years old, encountered him on the street during that stay and persuaded him to come home and visit Ella, but the reunion was painfully strained. Douglas never saw or heard from his father again. His mother was forced to move to a smaller house and take in boarders.
In later years Douglas attributed his interest in the stage to his father, who had been an amateur Shakespeare scholar wont to recite from the Bard at the smallest excuse. Nevertheless, it seems likely that Douglas would have found his way into the theatre without any paternal example to guide him. He was a poor student and an inveterate and muchpunished prankster who very greatly needed to be the center of attention. The reward for his transgressions was often the enforced memorization of some Shakespearean passage, and that work—along with the one part of the school week that he looked forward to, the Friday recitations—surely helped bend the twig. In any case his neighbor, Burns Mantle (later to become a well-known drama critic and editor of the annual Best Plays volume), said that by the time Fairbanks was in his teens, “he would recite you as fine and florid an Antony’s speech to the Romans as you ever heard. With gestures, too.” He performed for his mother’s boarders, organized a backyard theatre one summer, and achieved a certain skill in dialects by imitating the street peddlers—Irish, Italian, Jewish—who hawked their wares from carts passing his home. He even got a bit with a touring company, using one of the accents he had acquired to play an Italian newsboy.
Douglas’ mother was not altogether happy about her son’s interest in drama, but that was less worrisome to her than his perpetual high spirits. The gloomy infant had turned into a lighthearted delinquent, and visits to the school principal’s office were almost weekly occurrences. The exact nature of most of these transgressions is lost to history, but it is said that he and Robert once loosed a carton of water snakes on a crowded trolley car and that on another occasion, when Douglas was serving as an altar boy, he spiked the sacramental wine with vinegar. All the while, of course, he was busy turning the world into a gym, making ordinary structures—steps, fences, porch roofs—into props for crowd-pleasing displays of a boy in graceful motion.
Meanwhile, Ella tried to turn the clock back. She divorced Ulman (for desertion) and resumed her first husband’s name of Fairbanks, which she induced her third husband’s boys to adopt as well. She also saw to it that they were raised in the Catholic faith from which she herself was barred by her divorces and, for good measure, insisted that Douglas take the temperance pledge. This he kept for the rest of his life, although his church affiliation was lost through divorce, as his mother’s had been.
Whether “Mrs. Fairbanks” achieved through these expedients a measure of contentment we do not know. It is clear, however, that she was never able to take and hold a firm line with the rambunctious Douglas. She tried sternness—two years of military school she could ill afford—but that had no discernible effect on him. Thereafter she enrolled him in an extracurricular drama school, no doubt thinking he might thus get acting out of his system.
It was too late. His teacher, Margaret Fealy, was a retired actress of some repute, and she apparently sensed a genuine gift in the energetic young man, though she was never quite able to name what it was. At any rate, he confirmed his sense of vocation under her tutelage. In one of the productions in which Miss Fealy exhibited her school’s talent, Frederick Warde, a well-regarded actor-manager who had made his career on the road, saw Fairbanks act. Though he scarcely gave Doug a rave—“That dark-haired youngster has more vigor than virtuosity”—the optimistic young actor somehow managed to parlay this faint praise into a promise of employment in Warde’s company should he be able to leave high school and join Warde.
Quitting school was easy: on Saint Patrick’s Day he placed green hats and bows on all the busts of the famous men that lined the school corridors and was expelled. Talking his mother into letting him go into the theatre was more difficult. Here a friendly parish priest helped out, slyly suggesting that Douglas might find a suitably adventurous life by becoming a missionary in Africa. Ella, as the priest expected, decided that if acting lacked something in respectability it at least did not put her son in imminent peril of the cannibals’ pot, and so, partially financed by John Fairbanks, her first-born (who was a travelling salesman), she and Douglas set out to seek his fortune in New York. The year was 1900 and Fairbanks was seventeen.
Warde kept his word: Douglas got a job doing bits and understudying in his touring company. He went on for the first time as “a lackey” in something called The Duke’s Jester , and Warde, in the title role, began to get nervous whenever the script called for him to ring for his servant, since Fairbanks tended to vary his entrances—one time through a window, another time from the ceiling, only rarely from the wings as he was supposed to. His big chance came in Duluth, where he went on as Laertes in Hamlet on short notice. “Mr. Warde’s supporting company was bad, but worst of all was Douglas Fairbanks …” the local critic wrote. Warde himself was to call the young actor’s first season “a catch-as-catchcan encounter with the immortal bard.” Warde discharged him at the end of the tour with the advice that he gain more experience of the world.
There followed two years of miscellaneous adventures a short try at a “special course” for high-school dropouts at Harvard, a cattle boat to Europe, an office job on Wall Street, hardware wholesaling—before he was back on the stage in a touring company of A Rose o’ Plymouth Town , the leading lady of which later said that he seemed to have “a bad case of St. Vitus’s dance.”
Apparently, two years of worldly experience had not notably contributed to his thespian skills, but he had established a pattern he was to repeat during his fourteen-year, on-again, off-again career on the legitimate stage. He was ever willing to take a flier on some other occupation or simply to take off and see some new part of the world. Clearly, his dedication was not to his art, but to himself, and he had other desires that required satisfaction. All his life the periodic need simply to be foot-loose came upon him. As an international star he was later to indulge this taste in luxury though, alas, never in anonymity. As a young man, however, it was his habit simply to disappear—for a walking tour of Cuba, for example, or a long voyage to the Orient. Then, too, his mother’s yearnings for respectability had been transmitted to him, and so he became a fellow traveller of New York’s young socialites, a group he observed rather more closely and satirically than he was perhaps conscious of doing at the time. At any rate his first film success was in part based on his ability to make fun of their pretensions and preoccupations (nothing vicious about it, just good clean fun for the honest yeomanry who were his basic audience and whose contempt for the smart set was matched only by their envious curiosity about it).
Meanwhile, stories of his athleticism began to get around. A director paused during the rehearsal of one play to wonder how Fairbanks might quickly ascend to a balcony without slowing the pace of the production, to which Fairbanks replied by leaping, pulling, and then flipping himself up onto the second story. On another occasion producer William Brady, who became Fairbanks’ mentor, was astonished to find him filling time during a break by walking up and down stairs on his hands.
Nobody thought much of him as an actor, but everyone had to admit that he had a way with him, that there was something about him … So the roles, the billing, and the salary got bigger. And then he quit.
The cause of it was blonde, plump, pretty Beth Sully, eldest daughter of Daniel Sully, popularly known as the Cotton King. In his way Fairbanks loved her, though his decision to marry was undoubtedly influenced by her wealth and social position. For one motive or the other he acceded to her father’s insistence that he give up the stage and found himself, after the honeymoon in 1907, toiling anonymously at the Buchan Soap Corporation, one of Sully’s many interests.
Fairbanks was rescued by the short, sharp recession of 1907, which washed out not only Sully’s soap business but the cotton market as well. Back Fairbanks went to the stage. And from here on, his career as an engaging young leading man specializing in light comedy was steadily ascendant—and his marriage was steadily descendent. He was never much good in the role of husband and father, being too footloose for the former, too egocentric for the latter. In the beginning his son, Douglas, Jr., irritated him with his boyish clumsiness. Later, when “Junior” went into the movies (mostly to help support his family, which had run through the money his father settled upon them when he finally divorced Beth), Douglas, Senior, resented the boy’s seeming capitalization on his name and even conceived the faintly absurd notion that he was deliberately competing with the old man, although young Doug avoided, during his father’s lifetime, roles that were anything like the sort associated with “Senior.” It was not until his own career had begun to fade that, hurt and bewildered, he reached out for such consolations as a fraternal rather than a paternal relationship with his son could offer. Even then, he made up names for them to call each other, so much had he come to resent the fact that they shared the same one. He got Doug, Jr., to call him Pete, and he called his son Jayar—for the letters in the abbreviation Jr.
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.
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.”
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.
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. …”
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.
Moreover, they contain some of his best-known stunts. There was, for example, his famous entrapment on the battlements of the great castle built for him, as a kind of superset of monkey bars, in Robin Hood . The bad guys had him outnumbered, back to the wall. It looked like the end. But there was a huge curtain just behind him. He flipped into its folds and slid down it as if it were a very large playground slide (in fact, that’s just what director Allan Dwan had constructed underneath it). Indeed, the whole castle set, the biggest thing of its kind since Griffith’s Babylonian walls for Intolerance , had been built by Dwan and John Fairbanks, Doug’s manager, just to intrigue the aging juvenile, who had been sulkily travelling largely to avoid doing Robin Hood . Then, of course, there is the most memorable stunt of all, the slide down the big sail in The Black Pirate . It seemed wonderfully simple: Doug just inserted his dagger in the canvas and hung on. The canvas ripped gently, slowly, giving the actor a smooth but thrilling ride to the deck below. Reality being less convenient than art, the dagger had to be counterweighted in order for the effect to be achieved successfully. But what an effect it was! And who can seriously complain of movie forms generous enough to support such splendid flummery?
The Fairbanks films of the 1920’s were, for the most part, box-office successes, though, given their expensiveness, they did not net profits at quite the level his less pretentious films had. His off-camera style was by no means cramped, however. He emerged as the most forceful figure in the United Artists hierarchy, and it is said that it was Doug who was instrumental in forcing his old boss, D. W. Griffith, out of the company. More important to him was his emergence as the unquestioned leader of Hollywood social life. The house that was christened Pickfair, the noblest pile in the film colony’s greatest era of architectural extravagance, was already being built when he married Miss Pickford, and from it they conducted their splendid reign. According to the late Walter Wanger, as social arbiters they replaced Mack Sennett. He had run a somewhat more freewheeling establishment: “If you didn’t take the young lady on your right upstairs between the soup and the entree, you were considered a homosexual.” Now that the gossip columns had been invented, however, there were some genuinely shocking scandals to contend with, and Hollywood would have had to invent the morally reassuring Lord and Lady of Pickfair if it had not already done so. For as a pleasantly wicked contemporary journalist, Aliène Talmey, put it, they provided “the necessary air of dignity, sobriety, and aristocracy. Gravely they attend movie openings, cornerstone layings, gravely sit at the head of the table at the long dinners in honor of the cinema great, Douglas making graceful speeches, Mary conducting herself with the self-abnegation of Queen Mary of Britain … they understand thoroughly their obligation to be present, in the best interests of the motion picture industry.”
Socially, as Wanger said, “To be invited to Pickfair was tops. … They had friends all over who came out to the estate. They even tell a story that one day, because they hated to miss anybody with a title, they got a message that Princess Vera Romanoff was in town. They sent a car over to the Biltmore and brought her up there and gave her a wonderful weekend, with parties for her all the time. She was actually a little secretary from San Francisco who went back on Monday morning, having thanked them very much.”
But she was a rare fake. As one Hollywood wit summarized the matter, “Doug goes to Europe each year to book his royal visitors for the coming year.” And if he ran short of titled guests, there was always the new, wonder-world of celebrityhood to draw upon; so the guest list was, to say the least, eclectic: in the famous gymnasium at his studio the star played leapfrog with Babe Ruth, sparred with Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey, allowed the King of Siam to ride his mechanical horse, Conan Doyle to punch the bag, the Duke of Alba to fence with him, and Prince George of England to join him in a wrestling match. Prince William of Sweden, not unnaturally, did Swedish exercises there.
The high point of a visit to Pickfair was likely to be a predawn ride through the nearby hills and canyons (subdivision had not yet reached the hills above Los Angeles). The visiting notables would be routed out of bed at an ungodly hour, placed groaning atop horses, and taken for a strenuous jog through the darkness to a campsite where breakfast—sent out by truck in advance—would be laid. Steak, Florida grapefruit, and croissants might be on the menu; the star himself might tell the tale of a legendary bandit, Tiburcio Vasquez, whose hide-out, Doug claimed, had been in the very canyon where they were dining.
It was all larger than life. When they accepted invitations, Doug and Mary sent engraved cards to their hosts-to-be, requesting that they be seated next to each other at table. Each morning she appeared in his dressing room to help him select which of his forty suits and innumerable shirts and ties he would wear to the studio that day, though both knew that as soon as he arrived at work he would shuck this finery in favor of flannels and a sweater or polo shirt. When they were not entertaining, they let it be known that they favored simplicity—screening a new movie, perhaps, and chewing peanut brittle as the action proceeded.
In all it seemed a dream life, but like a dream it could not last. In 1923 Douglas Fairbanks turned forty, and for a man who had staked not just his career but his style and his sensibility on eternal youth, the date had a terrible significance. His constant training (he kept two boxers on his payroll) had actually served him ill. He was becoming stiff and muscle-bound, a condition caused by excessive exercise, which apparently contributed to the circulatory problems that would lead to his death in 1939. He resented what the years were doing to him, and then, when sound came in 1928, he hated it and disliked also the changes it was forcing upon the industry. Miss Pickford reports in her autobiography that, though they were both due on the set at 9 A.M. for their first talkie (and their first costarring vehicle), The Taming of the Shrew , he would stretch his morning exercise and rubdown period until noon, while cast and crew waited, running up charges that deeply offended his wife’s frugal soul. When he did appear, he often did not have his lines learned and had to have them chalked on a blackboard out of camera range. And he would refuse to do retakes. It was a very petulant act, though he was, all in all, quite good—better than his costar—in the finished film.
The film was not, however, a great success. And Fairbanks’ mood was not improved by the Great Crash, which did him no good financially and, worse, seemed to challenge all the verities about pluck, luck, and hard work that had formed such intellectual underpinnings as his work had. The individualist ethic, the notion that one man with grace, charm, and courage could right all wrongs, was shattered for everyone; but few people this side of Herbert Hoover had as much staked on that oversimplification as Fairbanks did.
Time did not heal the trauma of spiritual shock. He turned rather nasty in his personal dealings; and while his wife worked on a second film, which she junked at a cost of three hundred thousand dollars and no little damage to her pride, he went off to Europe. There he took it into his head to prove his virility by undertaking an affair, which Mary discovered, a carelessness he had previously avoided.
It was the beginning of the end of what many regarded as the decade’s perfect romance, although appearances were kept up for almost five more years. In 1931 he attempted a musical, Reaching for the Moon , which, despite a score by Irving Berlin and the presence of a young crooner named Bing Crosby, failed. Thereafter he did a truly disastrous travelogue ( Around the World in 80 Minutes ), the chief function of which was to provide him with an excuse to get out of Hollywood and keep travelling. Travelling is essentially all he did for the last decade of his life, as he tried to escape the growing knowledge that there was simply no adequate substitute for the kind of films that had brought him acclaim but that age and illness now prevented him from doing.
There were two more sad attempts at features, including, appropriately, one about the declining years of Don Juan, in which he discovered he could no longer perform his old romantic tricks. Then, in 1935, came the divorce from Mary Pickford, which he did not want and tried to stave off at the last minute. A year later he married Lady Sylvia Ashley, who had been a commoner, a model before her first marriage.
He was consumed with self-pity and, perhaps, not a little self-loathing. “When a man finds himself sliding down hill he should do everything to reach the bottom in a hurry and pass out of the picture in a hurry,” he said. It was an ending that a novelist, intent upon moralizing upon the wages of living exclusively in terms of the success ethic and the youth cult, would have chosen, and it hurt and puzzled Fairbanks. He had intently followed the commonly accepted rules and practices of American life in the twentieth century; he had had the promised rewards. Still rich, still admired, he was entitled to a graceful exit, but somehow he couldn’t manage it.
And so he stumbled off the stage. Occasionally looking for excitement, he joined another master of movement and his only true inheritor, Fred Astaire, riding police patrol cars at night. Surely he was cheered by reconciliation with his son, Douglas, Jr., who had grown into an actor if anything more handsome than the man whose name he bore. Doug, Jr., was by now a star in his own right, though not yet imitating his father’s roles, as he later—and quite successfully—did. But even his son’s affection and success could not entirely lift the gloom that had settled upon him.
He died of a heart attack, alone in his sleep one night in December, 1939, when he was fifty-six years old. He had sent one last message to Mary (“by the clock”) and was still trying to imagine, perhaps even practice in his mind a bit, a satisfactory conclusion to a life that, if not typical of American reality, certainly was typical of America’s dreams. The problem had been neatly stated by the sharp-eyed Miss Talmey twelve years earlier: “There are no third acts for him.”
Nor are there any for that majority of people who continue to imagine, as he and his generation of stars first taught us, that youth is eternal, that final curtains are somehow un-American. If F. Scott Fitzgerald, the other American whose story Fairbanks’ reminds us of and who was himself fascinated by the unfinished quality of our lives, had lived long enough, perhaps he might have worked something about Fairbanks into The Last Tycoon . Fairbanks belonged, certainly, in someone’s Hollywood novel, though of course there is a little bit of him in all of them—and in the collective unconscious of all of us.