Douglas Fairbanks was a stage star who reluctantly turned to films in 1915 at age 32. Like most stage stars, he thought the new medium was beneath him, but the lure of easy money won out. In his early films, Fairbanks starred in a series of comedies in which he usually played idle, rich young men. These films allowed him to display his considerable athletic skills and his wall-to-wall smile. Despite the popularity of these slim comedies, it wasn’t until The Mark of Zorro in 1920 that he hit upon the screen persona that would make him a superstar: the swashbuckler.
Unlike the fate of his contemporaries’ films, most of Fairbanks’ early work survives. Even his 1915 debut in The Lamb exists. A good example of the early Fairbanks character is Reggie Mixes In (1916). The film opens with Reggie not wanting to get up. He’s rich and lazy and angry at the cuckoo in the clock that continues to make noise. Once up and after mocking his butler (Old Pickleface), he searches for something to do. He eventually ends up in a beer hall where he gets involved with a gang and a pretty girl (Bessie Love). The film is episodic and has several chase scenes that allow Fairbanks to elude the gang with stunts. He’s also able to “trick” Bessie into thinking her Australian uncle has left her some money (it’s his) so she can be introduced into “polite” society (and be acceptable to his mother) and so he can avoid the scheming Lemona (Alma Rubens).
Reggie Mixes In is typical of the loosely constructed storylines that allowed Fairbanks to mug for the camera and perform impressive stunts. The film does not really display any real characterization. Reggie is basically Fairbanks being Fairbanks. In The Matrimaniac (1916), Fairbanks is again a rich young man trying to elope with his girl (Constance Talmadge). The film is a series of escapades as the couple tries desperately to get married (and avoid her father). The film is so plot-less, we never know why the father objects so strenuously to the marriage. And it doesn’t matter. Fairbanks is fast and funny in this very physical comedy.
Fairbanks’ comedy cycle came to an end in 1921 with The Nut, a film in which he plays a madcap, Keatonesque inventor. But that’s not the only link between the two stars. When The Saphead was being planned (a remake of The Lamb), Fairbanks (nearly 40) decided he was too old for the part and was moving away from comedies, so he recommended Buster Keaton for the role. It was Keaton’s first feature-length film. Fairbanks had also discovered a whole new screen persona with The Mark of Zorro in 1920, one that he wanted to pursue.
The role of swashbuckler was perfect for the dashing and athletic Fairbanks. It provided comedy and also worked against any heavy romantic scenes (which Fairbanks had always refused to do). Zorro was such a blockbuster that Fairbanks quickly followed it with another action yarn: The Three Musketeers. Zorro was a career-defining role for Fairbanks because he played dual roles: the heroic Zorro and the foppish and shallow Don Diego (a characterization drawn from his previous comedies). Possibly more than any other film, The Mark of Zorro showcased Fairbanks’ considerable comedic skills in a character-driven role. Unlike his earlier comedies, Fairbanks did not just play himself.
With The Mark of Zorro, his films became “events,” and he slowed his production to one film a year. Through the end of the silent era, Fairbanks struck gold again and again with Robin Hood, The Thief of Bagdad, Don Q Son of Zorro, and The Black Pirate. The Thief of Bagdad was notable for its extraordinary sets and special effects (the magic carpet chief among them) and a series of stunts that rank among Fairbanks’ best, including the scene where he “rides” down the length of a ship’s sail by slicing it with his dagger as he plummets from the crow’s nest. The Black Pirate was notable for leading lady, Billie Dove, as well as the early use of Technicolor. An odd rumor about The Black Pirate is that a black-wigged Mary Pickford (the jealous Mrs. Fairbanks) “stood in” for Dove during the few love scenes.
But Fairbanks was running out of steam as he approached his late 40s. Both the underrated The Gaucho and The Iron Mask were disappointments (by Fairbanks’ standards) at the box office. The Gaucho is actually a terrific film that boasts the usual Fairbanks stunts, great sets, and a more (and darker) plot than the average adventure (Fairbanks wrote the story). Fairbanks plays an outlaw who bedevils the corrupt administration of a local despot, but after being infected by a victim of the “black doom,” undergoes a transformation when he is cured at the City of the Miracle. He also romances Lupe Velez. A major surprise in this film is that when the Virgin Mary, with an animated halo, appears to a local girl (hence the miracle), it’s none other than Mary Pickford! The original footage of this appearance was in Technicolor but is now lost.
Fairbanks was growing bored with acting and with films. As a co-founder and producing partner in United Artists, Fairbanks and Pickford had their own studio and production companies. They seemed to be on top of the world, but his age was starting to work against his action roles, and he wanted to travel. Then came sound.
Seemingly, the onset of sound should have opened up a whole new career for an actor who had appeared in 18 Broadway plays between 1902 and 1915. The choice of starring Fairbanks with Pickford in The Taming of the Shrew (1929) seemed inspired. But the sound-recording technology was raw, the screenplay uneven, and Fairbanks looked old. His voice was fine, but his acting wasn’t terribly good, and he never quite caught the essence of Petruchio. Despite horrible reviews, the film was a modest hit but not the smash Fairbanks (or Pickford) had hoped for.
Next up in 1930 was Fairbanks in a musical remake of his earlier silent film, Reaching for the Moon. Starring with Bebe Daniels, Fairbanks plays yet another playboy, who, because of a bet, gets involved with a society lady (Daniels) in a series of drawing rooms and on a transatlantic liner. Daniels gets to sing (with Bing Crosby), and Fairbanks gets to do athletic stunts. Their chemistry is near zero, and the film flopped. In 1932 Fairbanks returned to the screen minus a leading lady altogether. Mr. Robinson Crusoe was filmed on location in Tahiti during one of his “round the world” journeys, but it was a dismal flop. Fairbanks made one last attempt in 1934’s The Private Life of Don Juan with Merle Oberon. Despite some strong reviews, the public had little interest in the rueful story of an aging lover, and he suffered his third flop in a row. He retired from the screen at age 51.
By the end of the silent era, Fairbanks ranked among the biggest stars in the world. But he was as famous for his marriage to Mary Pickford (1920-36) as he was for his films. Fairbanks and Pickford, along with Charlie Chaplin, were the three best-known celebrities on the planet. During their European honeymoon tour in 1920, they were mobbed everywhere they went. Pickford once said that she never truly grasped the magnitude of their fame until they went to Europe. Even in small and remote towns, they were followed by adoring fans. On several occasions Pickford was almost crushed as fans sought to grab at their clothes or press them for autographs. There are photographs where even heroic Fairbanks wears a look of utter panic as the crushing mob surrounds their car.
Although Fairbanks was never nominated for an Oscar, he served as the film academy’s first president (1927-29). He also had the distinction of handing out the very first Oscar to Janet Gaynor in 1927 (Pickford had to wait until the following year to claim her award for Coquette). In February 1940, two months after his death, Fairbanks was awarded a special Oscar for his body of work and for his service to the film industry. He died December 12, 1939, after supposedly uttering the ironic line: “I’ve never felt better.” He was only 56.
Few actors have had the level of fame and success that Douglas Fairbanks enjoyed. Even fewer actors have achieved the lasting iconic image that Fairbanks won. Every swashbuckler who followed Fairbanks (notably Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, and even his son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) has been compared to the original. His silent films have enjoyed a surprising level of availability (on home video/DVD) and ongoing popularity at various silent film festivals and on TV networks like Turner Classic Movies.
It is telling that in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, when Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is decrying the demise of silent pictures and the old glory days of Hollywood, she says “They took the idols and smashed them, the Fairbankses, the Gilberts, the Valentinos! And who’ve we got now? Some nobodies!”