October 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 5
Overrated The most popular hero of American silent movies was Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., athletic and gallant rescuer of helpless virgins, escape artist, swashbuckling do-gooder. He also wrote self-improvement books ( Profiting by Experience, Assuming Responsibilities ) and believed in “going through life with a smile.” In fact he hardly ever stopped smiling. Whether dueling, jumping from a balcony to a tree, or leaping from his horse through an open window, he bared those gleaming teeth with a self-reliance that seemed inspirational at the time, but today the effect is monotonous, and the movies completely lack tension. Whatever his predicament, the perpetually Laughing Cavalier never seems in real danger.
Although the aggressively virtuous Fairbanksian image was a deliberate riposte to the Jazz Age, it could operate successfully only in costume pictures, in the simplified world of The Three Musketeers , The Mark of Zorro , and The Thief of Bagdad . Transposed to Chicago in the 1920s, the Fairbanksian Robin Hood would have had the smile wiped off his face by Al Capone. And as “Be clean in body and mind” was another favorite text, the love scenes in all these movies appear wholly asexual today.
In spite of his often spectacular physical skill, Fairbanks was agile rather than graceful. But there was poetry in Chaplin’s movements; in the tree-leaping and high-diving of Fairbanks’s lineal descendant as a proponent of the simple life, Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan; and in the elegance of a star who was Fairbanks’s polar opposite during the 1920s.
Underrated In 1922 Fairbanks bought the rights to Fritz Lang’s Der Müde Tod (Destiny), but he delayed its release because he feared that its sets would be compared favorably with those of his own Thief of Bagdad . His personal competition was also European, for Rudolph Valentino was part of the foreign “invasion” of Hollywood at the time: Stroheim, Sternberg, Lubitsch, Nazimova, Garbo, Emil Jannings.
Fairbanks was transparent and admired; Valentino was mysterious and desired. Because Valentine’s appeal was overwhelmingly erotic, the critics who dismissed him as an actor overlooked something. His beautiful, curiously impassive features and slanted eyes may have helped him perform an extraordinary act of self-transformation, from naive Italian country boy to sexual sophisticate, with a hint of dark compulsion in his pursuit of pleasure, but the act depended on more than will. When Rex Ingram, who directed The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse , met him for the first time, he was immediately attracted by “Valentino’s face and his remarkable grace of movement.” Later, when they began work on the film and he witnessed Valentino’s impact in the tango scene, Ingram still had “no idea how far he’d go.” Although famous mainly for this scene, the fully restored version of Four Horsemen emerges today as a silent classic, and Ingram as one of the great silent masters, with a dynamic, notably modern style, while Valentino’s screen personality is so powerful that he needed only limited acting technique to imprint it.
When Valentino worked with lesser directors, his intense emotional absorption in stereotypical “Latin” or “Arab” lover roles could verge on self-parody. Still, his sexual charge, with its mixture of tenderness and brutality, was authentic, and as he became more experienced, he learned to play these parts to the hilt while letting the audience in on the joke. Although the humor was too sly for some at the time, today it’s unmistakable—especially in the best of his later movies, The Eagle , in which he invades Fairbanks territory. As a daredevil young Cossack he leaps from a window with panache equal to Fairbanks’s and a brief, ironic twinkle instead of a relentless smile. It signals the more complex man within, aware of a more complex world outside.
A genuine legend surprises and outlives his time, and when Valentino died at 31 (the same age at which Fairbanks made his first movie), his legend was validated by the thousands of pilgrims to his lying-in-state. Two years later, in 1928, Fairbanks’s popularity had begun to fade, along with his youth, and very soon the athlete would grow musclebound from too much exercise, and the professional optimist frowned more often than he smiled. Perhaps this was because he suspected that time would soon overtake the kind of world he created — unlike Valentino, the dream lover who longed to overtake his time and play Cesare Borgia.