First he swashed, then he buckled
A new book recalls Douglas Fairbanks’s glory days before the silent-film star fell victim to cinema’s sound revolution
He never saw an open window he didn’t want to jump through. He preferred leaping over tables to sitting at them. He never walked down a staircase when he could slide down a bannister. He ignored the stirrups on a horse so that he could rush furiously at the beast and bound onto its back. He played the kind of fairy-tale swordsman who laughed at the clumsiness of his opponents. He defined the word “swashbuckling.”
Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939), a fabulously successful actor in silent films, loved exhibiting his ability as an acrobat. Whatever he did looked effortless, and sometimes he compared his work to ballet or pantomime. In The Mark of Zorro he actually jumped onto a mantelpiece in one swift leap, sword in hand. It was visual poetry, in the view of David Thomson, who says in A Biographical Dictionary of Film that Fairbanks embodied the spirit of naive adventure: “Unwittingly, he made swashbuckling like verse.”
Fairbanks had a mission. He was inventing movies, or at least two crucial kinds of movies: the adventure picture and the romantic period spectacle. He was one of the founders of the entertainment business as it exists today. He and his wife Mary Pickford, the former Gladys Smith from Toronto, along with Charlie Chaplin, were the first world-renowned figures produced by the movies. They created modern celebrity.
And of course, like many another figure in the silents, Fairbanks was wretched when talking pictures blindsided him and quickly rendered him obsolete. Jeffrey Vance, the writer of Douglas Fairbanks (University of California Press), has given us an earnest, enthusiastic account of his triumphant life and melancholy end, providing 237 photographs that go some way toward compensating for a humdrum text.
Fairbanks was to adventure stories what Buster Keaton was to comedy — swift, precise, ingenious, anxious to stretch film technique to its limit. Where they differed was in their status as artists. History, while granting Keaton the name of genius, classifies Fairbanks, rightly, as a high-level craftsman. Today, anyone who takes the trouble can see the point of Keaton, but Fairbanks has become a special taste, enjoyed by a tiny minority. His innovations no longer stamp him as a unique figure; most of his tricks were absorbed long ago into the standard repertoire of action directors. Many find some of his favourite scenes laughable.
The Mark of Zorro (1920), his first outright action picture, began a series of films that focused on physical heroism lightly flavoured with irony, a formula the James Bond producers revived in the 1960s. After Zorro came The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), The Black Pirate (1926) and several more.
The Mark of Zorro brought to the movies a Batman-like aristocrat, a masked rider who goes about Spanish California in the 1820s, fighting for justice, punishing the oppressors of the people, defeating them at swordplay and leaving Z-shaped scars on their faces as a warning to others.
If that film was the beginning of his mature career, The Iron Mask (1929) was the end. Fairbanks flourished in the 1920s and died, artistically, when that decade expired. The Iron Mask plays as a coda to his career, a nostalgic echo of The Three Musketeers. His character, D’Artagnan, by now middle aged, learns of a plot against King Louis XIV and rounds up his fellow adventurers from the old days to set things right. Seen in 2008, The Iron Mask recalls the nostalgic westerns that appeared 30 years ago, about civilization reaching the territories and leaving no place for real adventurers. It was a defiant gesture, a silent extravaganza produced just as sound flooded the Hollywood studios. It was not a success.
His son, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who played an action hero of his own a generation later, said that “My father did not care for sound films. Sound was too literal, too realistic and too restricting.” When the father made his first talkie, also in 1929, co-starring with Pickford in The Taming of the Shrew, it was another mistake. By then their marriage was in shreds, and on some days they spoke to each other only when Fairbanks criticized her in front of the crew. He often showed up late and ill-prepared. On the set he felt boxed in, his normal vigorous movements inhibited by the danger of bumping into sound equipment. There was no orchestra to keep everyone happy with mood music on request.
Making movies had somehow ceased to be fun. This was the film where the director gave himself an extra credit, often quoted as an event in the comic history of Hollywood egomania: “By William Shakespeare. Additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.” It was later corrected to a single line, “Adapted and directed by Sam Taylor.” Kevin Brownlow, the silent-movie historian, has suggested that the “additional dialogue” line was on the print used at the world premiere in London, where rude laughter encouraged the producer to change it.
The erosion of the Pickford-Fairbanks marriage was the end of a soap-opera dream. For a few years they had been the king and queen of Hollywood, entertaining like royalty at Pickfair, their house on 18 acres in the newish community of Beverley Hills. As Alistair Cooke wrote, it was more than the marriage of film stars: “They were living proof of America’s chronic belief in happy endings.” She was Wendy to his Peter Pan, the stable force in their marriage until they lost interest in each other. His son claimed the marriage began partly because Fairbanks wanted to “display their union to the world like a double trophy.” It was a curious relationship. He forbade her to dance with anyone, at dinner demanded that she be placed beside him and demanded to know where she was going when she left the house. The divorce was made final in 1935.
He starred in three more talkies, including an ill-judged The Private Life of Don Juan (1934), directed by Alexander Korda in England. The New York Times called his performance an anachronism. Around that time, strolling down Park Lane in London with a director, Albert Parker, Fairbanks was delighted to be recognized by a stranger. “You see?” he said. “They still remember me.” When Parker told that story later, he added, “And only five years before he had been the greatest star in the world.”
– Douglas Fairbanks, by Jeffrey Vance, is published by University of California Press ($56.21).