Douglas Fairbanks, by Jeffrey Vance, with Tony Maietta. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press and Los Angeles, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 2008. Cloth, $45.00, 368 p. ISBN: 978-0-520-25667-5.
Early on in his magisterial biography of Douglas Fairbanks, Jeffrey Vance recounts a story told by Cary Grant. In 1920, on board the ship Olympia in the mid-Atlantic, a sixteen-year-old Archie Leach brushed up against his idol, Douglas Fairbanks, and his new bride, Mary Pickford. Two of the most famous people in the world at the time, they were returning from their honeymoon, and Leach, a budding performer himself, was mesmerized by Fairbanks and his splendid physical appearance. Forever after, Grant admitted, he tried keeping himself tanned in emulation of Fairbanks’ skin tone.1
Decades later, Cary Grant, like Fairbanks, entered middle age trim and athletic, giving one of his sexiest performances in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) when he was 55.2 In the film’s climactic sequences, Grant prances along window ledges, angles up the supports of a cantilevered house, and ushers Eva Marie Saint along the harrowing heights of Mt. Rushmore, all with the dance-like agility exhibited by Fairbanks in his swashbuckling adventure films.3 Without knowing it, Grant had paid homage to his old idol.
Hitchcock’s images of Cary Grant, in all his Arrow-shirt, nimble-footed splendor, are with us yet, but the graceful armature of Douglas Fairbanks that inspired Grant in his youth has nearly faded from sight. The reason is simple: Fairbanks inhabited the world of silent film, which, these days, only moldy fig cineastes dare visit. Still, even a non-buff would tolerate a Chaplin film and not know that Fairbanks at his peak challenged the Little Tramp as the most popular screen personality in America.
Back then, no one else came close to Chaplin except Mary Pickford, and, before he married her, Doug had joined forces, not only with Mary, but also with Chaplin and with the progenitor of feature film himself, D. W. Griffith, to form United Artists, a production/distribution company that insured the four of them control over their films.
Director/writer Griffith was one thing and director/performer Chaplin quite another, but Mary and Doug, most likely lovers by then, were performers who dreamed big in ways only possible in the pre-mogul era. By 1919, a fantastically successful star of nearly thirty romantic comedies, Fairbanks went on to reinvent himself throughout much of the ’20s as an industry-savvy producer of his own vehicles, in which he played a slew of action hero gallants. In pre-production, Doug would oversee everything: historical research, scenario, titles, art direction, sets, and musical score, all the while training for his upcoming stunts and often mastering a new weapon, like the bullwhip in Don Q., Son of Zorro (1925) or the Argentinean boas for The Gaucho (1927).
Remarkably, as he leapt from project to project, Fairbanks’ muscular frame seemed to become more lithe, younger somehow, and his pantomime, although occasionally overwrought, more elegant as it segued into the grace of his acrobatics. They had faces then, for sure, but Douglas Fairbanks also had a body, which he trained and sculpted for unique expressive purposes as comedian and romantic hero.
Vance’s biography is an unusual one in that it plots a success story that lacks the kind of drama you’d expect from an unconventional life. Biographies of movie stars are often turgid and overwritten affairs that want to answer the question of how much of Archie Leach was in Cary Grant, or how much of Norma Jean Baker was in Marilyn Monroe. Such biographies raise another question: how much can we care? A star’s life may have been bland, like Grant’s, or sad, like Monroe’s, but the spin put on these lives is usually invasively morbid when it can be, or witlessly banal when it can’t.
There’s nothing banal in Fairbanks’ meteoric rise in the adolescent film industry, nor morbid, especially, in his fall, when the arrival of sound in Hollywood coincided with the inevitable effects of aging on Doug’s primary instrument and the collapse of his marriage. Vance wisely charts his course on the films themselves, where a fascinating tale unfolds of a personality in joyful multi-command of the roles of movie star, producer, businessman, and beloved public personality. When Doug starting saying, “Gee whiz!,” so did the country; when the actor invented a ball and racket game called “Doug,”4 the country played it along with him.
Dead movie stars leave us their performances, wherein often lie personae of dubious biographical depth. Archie Leach will tell an interviewer that he himself would like to be Cary Grant; Norma Jean asks a photographer, shooting images of her in a New York subway station, “Do you want me to do ‘her’?” Fascination with the stars may readily come face to face with a mystery that is skin deep, or rather photon deep — a matter of lighting, of photography.
Was Fairbanks more than a grin and a mustache? Vance’s book says yes. Beginning with The Lamb (1915), the actor, fresh from successes on the Broadway stage, began a stream of comedies dedicated to the idea that within every underachieving male there’s an overachieving funny guy who needs to run and jump around, over, and up stuff — especially three-story buildings — in order to rescue women from boring and/or evil men.
Sadly, most of these films have disappeared, but a number of extant ones have been collected for home video by the independent company Flicker Alley in a five-disc set. Lance calls Fairbanks’ formula here “lamb into lion,” and it seems a tireless, even transcendent one until Doug, happening on the concept of Zorro, wittily subverts it by playing a lion who only plays a lamb in order to play the lion. When Zorro, in the climax of The Mask of Zorro (1920), unmasks himself — by simply not donning the mask and being his actual dashing and dangerous self — it’s one of those rare emotional rushes that only the movies can provide. In the film, Zorro’s naked face says to all present, especially to Dona Lolita, his beloved, “Hah, hah! It is me! Really me!” But, metaphorically anyway, the audience feels it as if the actor were saying, “Yeah! It’s me! Doug! The real Doug Fairbanks!”
It was a synergy of personality and role, so much so that Vance himself admits the difficulty of bringing the flesh-and-blood Fairbanks wholly to life. Not surprisingly for a celebrity who died 70 years ago, few remained alive to speak of the inner Doug, or even the palsy-walsy, practical joker Doug (the stories Chaplin could’ve told us!). Luckily, in planning for a Fairbanks biography back in the early nineties, Vance was able to extensively interview Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (right, circa 1928) before the actor’s death in 2000 at the age of 89.
It’s Fairbanks Jr. who can lift the mask up, just a little, from his father’s face. With astonishing clarity and forthrightness, Fairbanks Jr. attempts to disentangle a complex father/son relationship that was tentatively affectionate at best. At worst, Fairbanks père was indifferent, or resentful, or at times hostile to a child who, even at 16, was startlingly good-looking and instantly camera-ready. In contrast, as one can see in his earliest pictures, Fairbanks Sr., however physically fit, began with all the good looks of a genial haberdasher. That makes it all the more astonishing to see this short, bulbous-headed everyman morph into the sexual icon of The Thief of Bagdad (1924), The Black Pirate (1926) (below, with Billie Dove), or, perhaps at his most potently sensual, The Gaucho (1927).
Along with the pantomime, the fun was gone. One of the things Vance gets across so well is the energy and joy Fairbanks brought to moviemaking, as if it were some kind of oversized hobby. The author puts it succinctly: “For Fairbanks, work had to be play. . . .”5 It was the freewheeling business of early Hollywood filmmaking — getting the money, building the sets, playing the roles while a small instrumental ensemble created mood music — that made them both happy. During an actual shoot, there was something open-ended, even improvisatory, to the process, and Fairbanks was free to insert bits of his own personality, usually from its jocular side. Don Diego’s silly handkerchief tricks in The Mark of Zorro and Don Q., Son of Zorro offer a prime example. Always announced with “Have you seen this one?,” they’ve got the impish side of Fairbanks written all over them, along with an endearing air of self-mockery.
Over on her set, Mary too had exquisite control, but, with the advent of sound, her stardom began to evaporate. Vance speculates that the vast changes in both their professional lives spelled doom for the “fairytale” marriage. When movies suddenly became all about big studios, calculating moneymen, cautious producers, and quiet-on-the-set, the raison d’etre for the institution of Doug and Mary vanished. Without the hectic activity of moviemaking, the two of them simply didn’t know what to do with each other.
Along with revealing a none too pleasant attitude toward Douglas Jr., the author’s whisper of an affair with Lupez is as close as his book gets to a darker side of Fairbanks, but the star’s fear of losing Mary feels poignantly real and puts a pall over Vance’s telling of Doug’s final decade. Their emotional lives in shambles by 1929, Fairbanks and Pickford had signed on for a talkie version of Taming of the Shrew (right, on the set), which ended up a fitting allegory for their crumbling marriage and a nail in the coffin of Fairbanks’ career. Throughout the filming, Fairbanks was gloomy and uncooperative, deciding once and for all that the new technology had destroyed his enjoyment in making pictures. So, why had he not exited smiling with his valedictory d’Artagnan, in his last self-produced silent, The Iron Mask (1929)? In spite of a glorious 20+ year run, in which each triumph seemed to build on the last, Doug didn’t want to give any of it up and go watch the sun set.
No surprise, then, that Vance’s final chapter is all melancholy bathos, with the star, adrift and nearly broke in the thirties, seeming to merely sputter out rather than crash and burn. There is no grist here for a Kenneth Anger scandal mill: no lonely suicide, no body in the swimming pool, not even a string of seduced and abandoned starlets — just one bored alpha male.
Without Mary and constant moviemaking activity, Fairbanks becomes less a unique creative presence and more your average American male of corporate means stripped of power and entitlement by age and bad luck. In between desultory screen appearances in the thirties, Doug sought solace in a trophy wife6 and travel. Yet, earlier, in the late twenties, he furthered the acceptance of cinema as an art by helping found the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Some 70-odd years after Doug resigned as the institution’s first president (the first Awards ceremony was held in his office), the Academy commissioned Vance’s Fairbanks biography.
And with that backing, Vance has produced a handsome volume indeed. Hardcover, slightly oversized, and, although no picture book, punctuated throughout with an outstanding number of photos, many of them stills scanned and enhanced from original negatives. The book is to be read, though, not just looked through, and Vance is a fine writer. If his prose is not nearly as ebullient as his subject, neither is it the dry meanderings of a film theorist, and Vance’s purview is wide, making Fairbanks’ story Hollywood’s (and America’s) as well. Clearly, too, the author’s respect and love for Fairbanks lends the book a vital sincerity.
For each film from The Mark of Zorro through The Iron Mask, Vance provides a separate chapter with a detailed critical analysis that dovetails with his accumulating portrait of Fairbanks the man.7 Extensively indexed and cited, this is scholarship without tedium; it is a joy to read and an assessment long overdue.
Welcome back, Doug!
- Doug’s perpetual tan was not a result of sun exposure but merely a genetic dark complexion that seemed a liability to Fairbanks until Mary convinced him to turn it into an asset, a reflection of radiant health and youth. [↩]
- In fact, when Fairbanks reached the age of 55, he had retired from films and was a year away from death. [↩]
- Bernard Herrmann, composing the film’s score, reportedly conceived its main fandango-tinged theme having seen Grant perform his stunts “with an Astaire-like agility.” [↩]
- t was a bit like badminton, and Fairbanks used it to relax on the set. [↩]
- p. 275. [↩]
- In 1936, Fairbanks married the former Sylvia Hawkes. Once a chorus girl, then married to British royalty as Lady Ashley, she was still in her twenties; he was 53. [↩]
- Fairbanks’ lesser-known body of work, the romantic comedies of the ‘teens, gets a much shorter shrift, but, if I can go on record as preferring somewhat the pre-swashbuckling Doug, my feeling a discrepancy here is likely due to that personal bias. [↩]