Douglas Fairbanks, the hero

As a new restoration of Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate comes to the BFI London Film Festival, we revisit this 1973 overview of his storied career

The Black Pirate (1926)


It may have been different for audiences of fifty years ago; but most modern spectators need at least a couple of films to accustom themselves to Fairbanks.

The first sight of him can produce a certain bewilderment, that this was the superstar of all times, the world’s hero, the one-man American dream. He wasn’t very young – already an ageing juvenile of 31 when he went into films, he was 46 by the time of The Iron Mask, his last silent. He was not, at first sight, even good-looking. Undressed, in The Half Breed or The Thief of Bagdad, he has a stupendous physique. In clothes he was inclined to seem stocky and square. His face was square, too; and more and more as time went on he had to hold his head back so that the muscular development of his neck did not give the impression of a double chin.

This feature first appeared in the Spring 1973 issue of Sight and Sound

Then there is the disconcerting, unremitting, back-slapping ebullience. An early theatrical employer, William A. Brady, said, ‘He was an odd young man, brimming over with energy to such an extent that it fatigued me even to look at him sitting down – and he never sat.’ It is not difficult to understand what a rude shock this express train of an actor must have been to D. W. Griffith.

But this is only the initial impression. After the first two or three films the magic seems to renew its potency. It is hard not to respond to the grin, the verve, the ridiculous energy, the whole personality, just as his first audiences did; and you recognise that when writers of the 1920s called him ‘a tonic’ they were using no loose figure of speech. Interestingly, his niece and biographer, Letitia Fairbanks – who presumably had her information from Fairbanks’ elder brother, her father – alleges that as a child he was so taciturn and solemn that his mother, already, as a Southerner, bothered by his dark complexion, thought he was in some way subnormal. A traumatic change came one day when (already an incorrigible climber) he fell off the roof and knocked himself out. When he came round (continues Letitia) he could not stop laughing. ‘Obviously it was a moment of hysteria and most children of his age would have cried, but he found emotional release in laughter because the fall was a new and exciting experience. From this moment on, daring adventure was to be an outlet for over-abundant emotions and was to determine all the important moves in his life. Fear was never to affect him…

‘The emotional release he felt in his laughter was soon followed by the realisation, young though he was, that people preferred smiles to gloom. Henceforth, athletic vigour and smiling good humour became a pattern of living for him…’ His son, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr., is inclined to discredit the stories of his taciturnity. Still, family circumstances were not entirely propitious to a normal ideal of a happy childhood. His father, H. Charles Ulman, was his mother’s third husband. The first, John Fairbanks, had died leaving her with a son, John. Her second marriage to Edward Wilcox ended in divorce. Ulman (born 1833) had seen service as an officer in the Civil War, and later became a distinguished lawyer, a founder and President of the U.S. Law Association. Marriage to a divorcée client was bad for his legal career, however, and he went to Denver to prospect, taking the family with him. The restlessness that was later in his son afflicted him. When Douglas was five, his father abandoned the family. Drink hastened the decline of his fortunes. He appeared infrequently in later years, embarrassed to have to ask for help from his son, by this time an established stage star.

Don Q Son of Zorro (1925)

Mrs. Ulman and her three sons (a fourth, by the second marriage, had been mislaid somewhere along the way; he reappeared in later days, along with Douglas’ other brothers, as an employee of the Fairbanks studio) resumed the name of Fairbanks. Mrs. Fairbanks’ hard work to make a living by taking in boarders financed Douglas’ education, which included two years at the Jarvis Military Academy, stage training under Margaret Fealey and, much later, five months at Harvard, where the main attraction seems to have been the gymnasium and sports facilities. In view of all this, and of his undoubted devotion to his mother, it is interesting that in none of his major films does the hero boast a mother, though images of aristocratic and devoted fathers recur: the father whose death must be avenged, to precipitate the drama of The Black Pirate; Zorro as the father who crosses the Atlantic to aid his son Don Q.

Partly because he himself never held any great illusions about his skills as an actor, it is too easy to write off his stage career on the strength of a leading lady’s remark that he seemed like ‘a bad case of St. Vitus’ Dance’, and the actor-manager Frederick Warde’s description of his work in his Shakespearian Company as ‘a catch-as-catch-can bout with the Immortal Bard.’ Despite interruptions when he tried law, a cattle-boat trip to Europe and a job in his father-in-law’s business, Fairbanks always stayed loyal to the stage, from the time of his first role in 1900. Though critics were more inclined to praise his dash and gaiety, and later his athleticism, than his actual talent, his stage career was progressive and successful. By 1908 he was starring (All for a Girl), though his first big success was a tour of A Gentleman from Mississippi, in a role that seems to have had in it many elements of the ultimate ‘Doug’ personality. By 1914 he was one of the highest paid juveniles on Broadway.

At all events, he was prominent enough to be among the sixty Broadway luminaries propositioned by Harry Aitken, recruiting stage talent for the Triangle Company. Always ready for something new, and curious about the West, Fairbanks accepted Triangle’s offer of $2,000 a week. The rest is old history: how Griffith recommended him to try the Keystone lot; how Christy Cabanne filmed him in The Lamb (the role he had played on stage and which Keaton later played, at Doug’s suggestion, in The Saphead) with tolerable success and considerable prestige; how it came about that working with John Emerson as director, and the teenage scenarist Anita Loos, Fairbanks discovered his true screen character. Emerson and Loos have traditionally been credited with the ‘creation’ of the character; but the consistency throughout his films indicates that Fairbanks simply needed their assistance to translate to the screen a spontaneous and personal creation. What was needed from his collaborators all along the line, wrote Alistair Cooke, ‘was no rare skill, but a willingness to let Fairbanks’ own restlessness set the pace of the shooting and his gymnastics be the true improvisations on a simple scenario.’

The score and a half of simple comedy dramas which Fairbanks made between 1915 and 1920 – particularly those made for his own production company, formed at the end of 1916 – seem at once a mirror and a dream self-image of Woodrow Wilson’s changing America. Not many of them are now available, even if they survive, but those that can be seen show a fairly consistent formula. In the early, establishing scenes, Fairbanks is shown as the victim of some current craze or fad or social preoccupation, with either the hero himself or the people around him fallen under whatever baleful influence it might be. In His Picture in the Papers it is the native frenzy for publicity; in The Habit of Happiness, social do-gooding (at the end Fairbanks reveals that the true way to help people is to teach them the physical process of laughter); in American Aristocracy, the snobbism of the industrial new-rich; in Down to Earth, hypochondria; in When the Clouds Roll By, both superstition and fake psychology. In Reaching for the Moon the hero is a clerk with dreams of an ancient lineage; in A Modern Musketeer he yearns for romantic adventure. The clerk of Wild and Woolly, the playboy of The Mollycoddle and the Eastern clubman of Knickerbocker Buckaroo are all fired with a nostalgia (which their creator undoubtedly himself shared) for the manly and straightforward virtues of the old West.

These premises were played with, in comedy incidents and with wisecrack titles in the style of Anita Loos. Again and again the age is brought vividly to life – in the society committees and the doss-houses of The Habit of Happiness, the office relationships of When the Clouds Roll By, the country club in American Aristocracy, with its endless tea dances and the hierarchies in which the wives of mere brewers are shunned and snubbed by ladies connected by marriage to distilleries, while the inventor of the one-hump hatpin is king. (Fairbanks betters himself and proves himself a suitable son-in-law by inventing a two-hump hatpin.)

Somehow or other, the social or character foibles thus posited – along with the girl, and the gang of smugglers, rustlers, spies, filibusters or burglars waiting dutifully around the corner – eventually entangle Fairbanks in perilous adventures from which in the end, extricating himself by rare feats of artifice and athleticism (in the words of another of his titles) He Comes Up Smiling. At the end of the film he emerges cleansed and reformed, a better man and a better American as a result of his adventures.

The Mark of Zorro (1920)

The ‘trajectories’ which provided the exhilarating denouement and finale of the early films were marvellous combinations of athleticism and ingenuity. Fairbanks had trained his body to a peak of responsiveness. He was a fine horseman, gymnast, acrobat, fencer. His standing jumps – over chairs or on to balconies – seemed to defy gravity. He never admitted any fear. The ingenuity consisted in using the immediate environment of the contemporary, everyday world as a natural gymnasium. Walls were for vaulting; drainpipes for climbing. Any room, said Alistair Cooke, was for Douglas Fairbanks ‘a machine for escape’. The thrill is to see this ordinary young man, wearing an ordinary smart city suit, in ordinary everyday surroundings, turn into a superman, solving every problem through great explosions of physical action. At that moment in America’s history, immediately before and during the First World War, his celebration of the dual virtues of action and normality, his idealisation of the peppy optimist bouncing with energy and all get-up-and-go, captivated the nation. A mountain peak was named after him. Books of naive inspirational philosophy, ghosted in his name by his secretary Kenneth Davenport, with titles like Making Life Worth While and Laugh and Live, were avidly studied by America’s young.

Then, quite suddenly, in 1920 the whole style of his work changed. He was to make only one more of the old-style contemporary comedies, The Nut (1921), directed by Ted Reed and written by Kenneth Davenport, neither of whom had worked creatively on his films before. The result was a mess and a flop. Except in his unhappiest sound film, he was never again seen on the screen in modern dress. It was as if, seeing the Wilson era give way before the Harding atmosphere, and the onset of an age in which disillusionment and cynicism – alien notions to Fairbanks – were in vogue, where the old values were crumbling, Fairbanks deliberately turned from reflecting and celebrating his times to offering an antidote for them; turned from films about involvement to escape. Of course it is improbable that there was ever any such conscious deliberation about Fairbanks’ schemes. The simple fact for him was probably that The Mark of Zorro (1920) was a hit with audiences, while The Nut flopped. Costume spectacles were in any case in fashion with the public, who had seen and enjoyed the Lubitsch ‘historical’ films from Germany; and they gave Fairbanks the opportunity to indulge without restraint his childlike delight in make-believe, which gives the later films not a little of their attraction and force.

The Mark of Zorro is really a transition between the two main periods of his activity. The hero, a kind of Californian Scarlet Pimpernel, appears at first as an effete young dandy, daintily dabbing his nose with his handkerchief and doing party tricks. Rather like one of the heroes of the early films, he ultimately reveals his secret other self, the avenger of the poor and oppressed. The character of the avenger recurs through almost all the subsequent films, whether in the guise of d’Artagnan, Robin Hood, Don Q., the Gaucho, or the Black Pirate. Adapted from a novel by Johnston McCulley, The Curse of Capistrano, the setting of Zorro was unusual – 19th-century Spanish California. It was nevertheless a world which still lingered when the Fairbanks family arrived in Hollywood in 1915, to find an old Spanish aristocracy still shunning the vagabonds of the movies. In many respects this is one of the most attractive of all the films, with Fairbanks at once at his most manic and his most graceful, and with scenes of high slapstick comedy as he teases villainous Noah Beery with a deft duelling sword that can at any moment serve him as a javelin or throwing knife.

With The Three Musketeers (1921) begins the inflation of production values in which later critics have claimed to see a falling off and betrayal. For Alistair Cooke, ‘even in Robin Hood the naked line and rhythm of Fairbanks is occasionally shaggy with parades and scenery… [The settings] suffocated the old beloved sprite in a mass of decor.’ For Alexander Walker, ‘the armies of period historians, costume designers, special-effects men and art directors… do not support their leader so much as swamp him.’ Contemporary critics, thrilling to all the Art, felt no such doubts; and the audience’s loyalty and adoration never wavered. In fact Fairbanks is never, I feel, dwarfed or dominated by the monumental settings he devised. He was simply working on a larger stage, in a larger gymnasium. He was, above all the other characters he ever played, d’Artagnan, fearless, inexhaustible, playful, bold yet gentle. He had already personated d’Artagnan briefly in A Modern Musketeer; and would do so again in his last silent film. After The Three Musketeers he wore to the end of his life d’Artagnan’s moustache.

Robin Hood (1922)

Already Fairbanks had embarked on his policy of surrounding himself with artists of accomplishment or prestige. The scenario of The Three Musketeers was credited to the then fashionable English-author-in-Hollywood, Edward Knoblock, along with Fairbanks himself, Lotta Wood and Kenneth Davenport; and the design of an elaborate recreation of Old Paris was by Edward M. Langley and Willie Hopkins. The director was again, as on Zorro, Fred Niblo. Robin Hood (1922) carried the same scenario credits, except that this time Fairbanks appeared under his pseudonym of Elton Thomas (his two middle names). This was the first film designed by Wilfred Buckland, who came from Belasco’s theatre, working with Langley and Robert Fairbanks, whose engineering skills were often the valuable foundation for the physical marvels which Fairbanks performed with such apparent ease only after meticulous preparation.

(Tables on which he had to leap, for instance, were cut down precisely to the point where no effort would be visible in the accomplishment.) Fairbanks in fact revealed that he was himself keenly aware of the danger that his character could be dwarfed by the wrong setting.

The castle in Robin Hood, 90 feet high and with an interior so large that it could only be lit by sunlight, is thought still to be the largest set ever built in Hollywood. It was constructed during Fairbanks’ absence in New York, and on his return he told Dwan (according to Dwan’s account, quoted by Kevin Brownlow in The Parade’s Gone By), ‘I can’t compete with that. My work is intimate. People know me as an intimate actor. I can’t work in a great vast thing like that. What would I do in there ?’ Dwan showed him, by demonstrating the slide Robert Fairbanks had devised for the scene where Robin Hood, cornered on a balcony 40 feet above ground, leaps over the edge and appears to slide to safety down the fold of an enormous drape. Dwan has also related how a trampoline was concealed to enable Doug/Robin to make his spectacular leap across the moat to cling to the ivy on the castle wall – where, of course, handholds in a net were already prepared.

Fairbanks’ action and choreography were simply enlarged to suit the frame provided for it. Still the excitement lay less in the elaborate mechanics of Fairbanks’ trajectories than in his ability to conceal them, to make them seem entirely unrehearsed, spontaneous – and easy. Again there is a sustained breezy humour alongside the melodrama of the plot. Fairbanks had at all times a winning irreverence for his own romance. At one point King Richard (Wallace Beery) bellows; and the Merry Men, perched on the edge of the same balcony from which Robin has recently made his curtain escape, are all blown backwards over the ledge to vanish from view.

The Black Pirate (1926)

Robin Hood cost well over a million dollars, but brought back profits handsome enough to encourage Fairbanks to make The Thief of Bagdad (1924). For Cooke, Fairbanks is now ‘a boy grotesquely buried in a library of costume’; and other critics have followed him. If the judgment is applied to the actor himself (apart from taking issue with the description of him as ‘a boy’: he was already forty-one), his own costumes are revealing enough at points still to raise an eyebrow. In fact The Thief of Bagdad now seems one of Fairbanks’ best, most accomplished, and certainly most durable pictures. With absolute deliberation he places himself in gigantic settings – the Cave of Fire, for instance, or the battle with the dragon – in which his minuscule figure remains always the focus of activity. No distance can reduce the indomitable vitality of the unmistakable figure.

William Cameron Menzies’ settings and Arthur Edeson’s luminous photography are a striking monument of period design, Dulac given animation and three dimensions. The fairytale irreality was enhanced by building all the sets on floors of glassy polished black concrete, and consistently highlighting the lower parts of the structures so that they seem to float insubstantially. The hardest thing is always to integrate real people into a fantastic setting of this kind; but the casting and the dressing of the players – from slaves who appear nine feet high, and slaves as fat as elephants, to diminutive Snitch Edwards, a favourite Keaton player, as the Thief’s loyal confederate – entirely accomplish the feat of making the setting and its inhabitants one whole. Fairbanks’ athleticism had always been marked by unforced grace: here he consciously emphasised it, falling into stylised poses like a dancer, to become part of the design itself. After half a century this roaming, prodigal Arabian Nights’ tale still has the power to absorb the spectator in its fairytale world.

For Zorro and The Three Musketeers Fairbanks had brought himself to championship pitch as a fencer. For Robin Hood he mastered the longbow. For Don Q., Son of Zorro (1925) – set in Spain, with Fairbanks playing the dual role of the dashing son falsely accused of assassination and the father hastening across the Atlantic to his aid – he became so expert with the bullwhip that he could use it to snatch cigarettes out of the mouths of startled enemies, to rip a marriage contract, to bind villains or scale walls. For The Gaucho (1927) he became as deft with the boladeras, the weapon of the cowmen of the Argentine Pampas.

Between these two films came The Black Pirate (1926), directed by Al Parker, who had played the villain in American Aristocracy. It was shot in a two-colour Technicolor process which produced strikingly attractive effects, thanks to the set designs of the Swedish artist Karl Oscar Borg for the galleons on which practically all the action is set. The film is much shorter than the other spectacles, benefiting from a narrative dash which the others – mostly well over two hours in length – sacrifice for leisurely excursions into make-believe. Fairbanks was now forty-three, but had lost none of his agility, and the film contains two of his most spectacular stunts: the slide down a great mainsail, supported only by the point of a dagger as it shears the sheet; and his rescue from the hold of the ship by soldiers (the plot is complicated) clad in what look like black swimsuits, who bear him up the hatches, passing him from one level to the next so that his body seems to fly upwards like a bullet in a gunbarrel.

The Iron Mask (1929)

In 1929, with sound films already well established, Fairbanks made one more silent film, The Iron Mask (with spoken prologue and epilogue; in the 1952 reissue now circulating these have been dubbed by Douglas Fairbanks Jnr.). The story of the saintly heir to France who is imprisoned in a fiendish iron device by his evil twin has an extraordinary pathos – in the treatment of both brothers – quite without precedent in Fairbanks’ work. What is more startling is d’Artagnan himself. He can still perform wonders; but he is grey-haired, and at the end of the film he dies – the first Fairbanks character to admit mortality. His spirit rises from his body and strides off into the skies in company with his three brave friends, all of whom have gone before. It seems almost like an elegy for Fairbanks’ silent cinema.

Throughout these silent spectacles there is a family likeness about all the characters he played. Most, as we have seen, tend to be aristocratic avengers. All, like the young men of the early films, seek the solution to every problem in physical action, superhuman prowess. Yet Fairbanks remained a conscientious actor as well as a personality and showman. Each hero is characterised, distinctly and often subtly. The noble expansiveness of Robin Hood is quite a different thing from the swashbuckling bravado of d’Artagnan. The languid, jesting Zorro is not at all like his engaging and high-spirited son. And the Gaucho is Fairbanks’ most completely untypical character: rough and animal, coarse in his feeding and violent in his treatment of women (until, of course, he meets a true lady, and sees the light when the Blessed Virgin, in the unmistakable form of Mary Pickford, appears to him in the mountain chapel).

Fairbanks always said that the hardest thing he ever had to do on the screen was to make love; and he devises some endearing gag solutions to evade the problem. In The Three Musketeers he and the lady are everywhere followed by prying eyes (a reflection perhaps of the difficult courtship of Pickford, at a time when both of them were still married to other people) until a friendly washerwoman drops a huge laundry basket over their heads. In Robin Hood the hero traces Maid Marian’s profile on the castle wall where both their shadows are cast. At the end of The Black Pirate he goes into a clinch so prolonged that his loyal henchman Donald Crisp, waiting for a word, drops off to sleep. Generally, though, Fairbanks, the eternal boy, treats girls like a kid brother, teasing indulgently. In The Three Musketeers he goes on all fours to help a girl over a wall, but suddenly flattens just as she steps on him.

It is in the moments of trajectory which climax the spectacles that all the characters fuse into one and the same Doug, bounding along, bent slightly forward so that his shoulders are ahead of the rest of the dynamo body, until he leaps to launch himself into some fresh miracle.

‘When a man finds himself sliding downhill he should do everything to reach the bottom in a hurry and pass out of the picture in a hurry,’ he said. There was always a dark obverse to the laughter and optimism.

The Private Life of Don Juan (1934)

There was no apparent reason why he should not have succeeded in sound films. When in 1929 he appeared with Mary Pickford in The Taming of the Shrew, he came off very much better than his wife. He was dashing, funny, had a good voice and spoke his lines with the attack and relish of a trained Shakespearian actor. But a voice, even a good one, was not necessarily a gift to the idols of the silent screen. It may have been that while the vast sets of Robin Hood and The Thief of Bagdad could not dwarf him, a voice did – merely by removing that magical difference which set apart the silent stars, to whom eyes and face and mind were nature, by bringing him back to human scale. Whatever the reason, nothing seemed to work for him in sound pictures. Edmund Goulding directed him in a musical, Reaching for the Moon. Victor Fleming, who had directed two of his best early films, The Mollycoddle and When the Clouds Roll By, with its remarkable subjective fantasy sequences, helped him with a travelogue, Around the World in Eighty Minutes with Douglas Fairbanks. Edward Sutherland made Mr. Robinson Crusoe, which has not seen the light of day for thirty years or more.

His last film looks like a cruel allegory of his own decline and fall. The Private Life of Don Juan (1934) was directed by Alexander Korda. The plot is slight, but the film is pretty and not nearly as bad as it has been reputed. What makes it so disconcerting is the impossibility of not identifying the role with the actor. Don Juan is at the height of his fame, but feels a little under the weather (I think that this was about the time that Fairbanks himself had his first taste of sickness and underwent minor surgery). Yet while he lays up a while, his alleged exploits continue to delight Seville, for a young upstart is impersonating him. When the imposter is killed by a jealous husband, the real Don Juan sees a heaven-sent opportunity for respite from the responsibilities of his reputation and the pursuits of his life.

Idleness begins to chafe, and he decides to resume his career. It is disaster. One girl demands payment for her favours; another says she likes him because he is so like her father and will he please take a message to her boy friend. A stout matron (Athene Seyler) invites him to marry her and settle down. On his return to Seville, his last lover denies him, saying that Don Juan was bigger and more handsome. The final humiliation comes when he leaps on the stage of the theatre to protest at a libellous play, and is ridiculed by the whole vast audience. The end is a dubiously happy one: forsaking the identity of Don Juan he returns to his wife and a future of domesticity. For Fairbanks, whose marriage with Pickford had broken up irrevocably, whose career, whether he knew it or not, was at an end, and who died in his sleep of a heart attack a week or so after the start of the Second World War, the ending was not so cosy. But like Don Juan, he had bequeathed a legend and the shadow of a hero.

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