Thursday, August 6, 2015

Douglas Fairbanks

I've talked here before about Douglas Fairbanks as an actor. It's remarkable to see how much athleticism, verve, and charm he had in his movies. As one of, if not the first, action movie star, he brought a vitality to his films that's refreshing to see and rare to find in the modern, CGI-enhanced incarnation of the action film.

By way of a for-instance, I watched The Mark of Zorro in preparation for this post, and he brings much of the same joie de vivre here that he did in the first movie I saw him in, The Thief of Bagdad: lots of jumping around and running in the fight scenes, as well as his laughing, devil-may-care attitude. You can't help but find it infectious.

Fairbanks' marriage to Mary Pickford made for one of the first Hollywood tabloid romances. They met in 1916, at a party. At the time, Fairbanks was married to a chick named Anna Beth Sully, the daughter of an industrialist, and Pickford was married to actor Owen Moore. (Why is it that the best known Hollywood romances were born of extramarital affairs?) Douglas Jr., who enjoyed a long career in film also, was the result of Douglas Sr.'s marriage to Sully. Fairbanks and Pickford's affair was on the down low for several years. Fairbanks got his divorce in 1919, and Pickford got hers the year after that. By the time the two of them married each other weeks later, they were among the highest paid actors in the industry.

In Jeanine Basinger's book Silent Stars (yes, I'm quoting from it again), she writes about their month-long European honeymoon and the reception they got from their fans in England:
...At an outdoor benefit in Kensington Gardens, Mary and Doug arrived seated in the back of an open Rolls-Royce, and as the crowds surged forward, Mary was grabbed and pulled out of the car. Doug managed to rescue her by clutching her by the ankles, but when they were finally able to step out, the crowds again closed in around them "like quicksand," [quoting Pickford's account] and she had to be carried on Doug's shoulders to keep from being crushed. On the Continent, the mobs did not diminish. "I spent my honeymoon on a balcony waving to crowds," Mary said.
Fairbanks, with Mary Pickford
Among their mutual accomplishments, of course, was the co-founding of the studio United Artists. Here's a good account of the history of the studio by noted film historian David Thomson. He makes the point that the idea of creators banding together, independent of the corporations, to make their work and handle the business end, is an idea that has never gone away. Coming as I do from the comics field, I can attest to that; the circumstances that led to the founding of the independent publisher Image Comics in 1992, for example, are almost exactly similar to those of UA. Fairbanks, Pickford and the rest were ahead of their time when they started this new business model.

Can I talk for a minute about Fairbanks' tan? He made Cary Grant look pale! Just look at some of these photos of the man and you'll see what I'm talking about. He almost looks black! - and it's not like tanning was the hip thing to do, as it would later become.

Basinger also talks about Fairbanks as the model physical specimen:
...He has the kind of physical radiance that is usually associated with female performers, although he is quintessentially masculine. He has it. Sometimes he reminds me of the equally exuberant Al Jolson of The Jazz Singer, Mammy, and The Singing Fool. Like Jolson, he jumps around gracefully, swinging his arms, making broad gestures. He seems about to erupt into song but, unlike Jolson, he erupts by leaping up onto something.... Everything he did to "act" was physical - the word most commonly used to describe his performances at the time was "exuberant" - and this acting style was perfect for silent films because it was all about using the whole body to express character, attitude, and emotion.
Fairbanks made a few talkies. How was his speaking voice? I watched a few scenes from a film of his from 1932 called Mr. Robinson Crusoe. His voice was a little higher than I imagined, not that I thought it'd be all that deep. Fairbanks wasn't a ripped, chiseled Adonis like Chris Evans or Hugh Jackman or Channing Tatum, but he was in great enough shape that I suppose I expected he'd have a voice that reflected his physical prowess. In Crusoe, at least, his voice may not be deep, but it's loud. He certainly had no trouble projecting!

Fairbanks was a true original. Looking at his movies, you can see why the medium took off as quickly and as successfully as it did. Modern action movie stars could learn a thing or two from him.

Next: Gloria Swanson

Films with Douglas Fairbanks:
The Thief of Bagdad

Jack Lemmon   Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson   Rita Moreno
Frank Capra   Bernard Herrmann
Joan Blondell   James Dean
Ethel Waters   William Powell
Tod Browning   Edith Head
Joel McCrea   Thelma Ritter


  1. He makes Cary Grant look pale - Ha!

    Douglas Fairbanks certainly was the first international super-star and his appeal has lasted to this day. Quite an interesting guy.

  2. From what I read, Grant was inspired by Fairbanks to get a perpetual tan of his own.

  3. Good post! Thee last film I saw Fairbanks in was The Mark of Zorro, and it was indeed delightful - and with lots of energy!
    The "ripped, chiseled Adonis" sentence is flawless.

  4. Well, more young actors are getting massive workouts for certain roles these days - and not just superhero movies. Fairbanks didn't need to look like Channing Tatum to kick ass as Zorro!

  5. Cary Grant did indeed confirm that he observed Fairbanks in person on a ship in the early 20s' and was so vital and lively it left a lasting impression. And I think Fairbanks easily outnumbers the action stars of today in both charisma and pure athleticism.


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