Continuing a series of post about historical characters and themes that appear in my new novel, I Don’t Know How the Story Ends.
Film historians agree that if silent film and its first heroic figure hadn’t matured around the same time, the heroic figure wouldn’t have known what to do with himself. If Shwartzenegger was The Last Action Hero, Douglas Fairbanks was the first. It’s not too much to say he invented the “actioner,” a genre of film that at its broadest includes spy thrillers, sci-fi/fantasy, comic-book treatments, buddy-cop movies, and all those nonstop edge-of-your-seat blockbusters that everybody says we have too much of now. And everybody is right about that.) But when the actioner was invented Fairbanks was there, calling the shots.
Not only that, but he appeared to have a great time doing it. It used to be a high complement to a movie star to say, “he does his own stunts!” Fairbanks actually did his own stunts—often because nobody else could. No film actor since has possessed that degree of physicality, finesse, and pure joy that came bounding off the screen whenever he was on it.
He was the kind of kid who had to climb everything he saw. At the age of three, it wasn’t uncommon for his brother to yell, “Mama! He’s on the barn roof again!” Not much of a scholar, he was expelled from high school after a St. Patrick’s Day prank and soon after joined a touring theater company headed by Frederick Warde, a British actor-manager. Warde was impressed with the teen’s stage presence but couldn’t control him—young Doug’s first part, in a play called The Duke’s Jester, became a source of anxiety for the lead actor because the lad never made an entrance the same way twice. He would come in through the window, or down from the ceiling—and he wasn’t even the Jester. After the tour he was fired.
Fairbanks drifted in and out of theater for the next few years before marrying the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and deciding he was out. After dabbling in business, though, the profession called him loud and clear–and by then the film industry was vigorously recruiting stage talent. In 1915 he moved his family to Los Angeles and, like Charlie Chaplin arriving around the same time, decided he was truly home. The two became close friends, and even though Chaplin achieved worldwide fame a little earlier, Douglas Fairbanks was not far behind.
In I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, which takes place during the summer of 1918, we meet him twice. He makes a startling entrance—and an even more spectacular exit—during a huge war bond rally in Los Angeles. He, Chaplin, and Mary Pickford (more about her later) had spent the latter part of 1917 going from coast to coast raising money for the war effort. The rally in Chapter 8 is a hometown event. By that time Fairbanks has become famous as a certain kind of screen character in movies like Say! Young Fellow and He Comes Up Smiling—the bumpkin or loser who turns the tables on his snooty rivals (and wins the girl, if it’s that kind of story). He wins over Isobel by sheer force of personality.
He shows up again two chapters later at a dinner party hosted by Ranger’s father, during which he (Fairbanks) dances on a table and does handstands on his chair. Maybe a little far-fetched, but not by much—Isobel wonders if he’s going to swing from the chandeliers next. He arrives at the party with Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart,” and while I don’t dwell on this in IDK the two of them were living together even though married to other people. They were, we might say, the first “Hollywood couple,” and when they married a few years later, their fans went wild and forgave all the, uh, awkwardness. (In other words, sin)
By then he was exercising more control over his output, and in 1920 came the movie that established his swashbuckling persona for good: The Mark of Zorro, which has spawned endless remakes. The Three Musketeers (also endless remakes) followed in 1921, then Robin Hood (ditto) in 1922. Keep in mind, when watching Russell Crowe as Robin Hood or Logan Lerman as d’Artagnan, that Fairbanks did it first, and if he didn’t set the all-time industry standard, he certainly had the most fun with it.
The Thief of Bagdad is probably his masterpiece. It’s visually stunning even today, and while some of the “special” effects are anything but, others will make you wonder how they did that. Though not the director, Fairbanks was so closely involved with every aspect of the production it’s fair to call it his movie.
Like most silent film stars, he didn’t make the transition to sound pictures very well, but unlike Chaplin and Pickford, he died relatively young: 56. It was as if all that combustible energy burned itself out quicker. By then he and Mary had split up and Fairbanks had found happiness (one hopes) with Lady Sylvia Ashleigh, of the British nobility. That seemed fitting; he was king of the screen for a while, but his style and dash have lingered ever after.
Other posts in this series: