Unbuckling the swashbuckler

Pub date September 2, 2009
WriterBen Terrall
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

REVIEW Given the phenomenal success of Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, a revival of appreciation for the granddaddy of all cinematic swashbucklers, Douglas Fairbanks, is long overdue. Perfect accompaniment for home entertainment viewing of the silent film star arrives in the form of film historian Jeffrey Vance’s gorgeously laid out biography Douglas Fairbanks (University of California Press, 376 pages, $45).

Douglas Fairbanks was published with the assistance of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, so perhaps it’s to be expected that the prose sometimes skirts close to hagiography. But Vance, who has authored studies of Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd, knows his silent film history. He provides a wealth of information about the productions of Fairbanks’ major pictures (including 1920’s The Mark of Zorro, 1921’s The Three Musketeers, 1922’s Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood, 1924’s The Thief of Bagdad, and 1926’s The Black Pirate). The chapters about the big costume epics are bracketed by discussions of the earlier non-costume silents and the few sound projects Fairbanks worked on. Throughout, the text is complemented by beautiful reproductions of photos of Fairbanks and his friends and family on and off set.

Audiences came to expect incredible displays of acrobatic athleticism from the one-time stage actor. "There was no living man as graceful," says Allan Dwan, who directed several Fairbanks pictures. Upon scouting locations at the Grand Canyon for A Modern Musketeer (1917), Fairbanks commented that he was disappointed because "I couldn’t jump it."

Vance argues that Fairbanks was instrumental in shaping most aspects of his productions, which wielded a major influence on 20th century pop culture. Errol Flynn grew up worshipping Fairbanks and saluted his hero by starring in his own version of the Robin Hood story (1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood). Bob Kane, creator of Batman, tells Vance that Fairbanks’s depiction of Zorro ("a fop by day and a crusader at night") inspired the caped crusader’s costume, secret lair, and dual identity. Vance argues that Superman bore a heavy Fairbanks influence. Fairbanks also receives credit for popularizing the dark suntan, leaving us to wonder where George Hamilton or the Sonny Bono Cocoa Butter Open would have been without the great man’s example.

After he left his first wife for Mary Pickford, the actress dubbed "America’s sweetheart," Fairbanks climbed to heights of celebrity rarely attained by movie actors in the 1920s. Perhaps only Chaplin rivaled his peak fame. When Pickford and Fairbanks arrived in London in 1920, their entourage was mobbed, leaving Pickford briefly in fear for her life. From all indications they adjusted fairly well to this state of affairs, since both relished the limelight (Alexander Woolcott describes their post-marital jaunt as "the most exhausting and conspicuous honeymoon in the history of the marriage institution"). In order to gain more creative and financial control over their work, the couple used their new clout to join Chaplin and D.W. Griffith in founding United Artists.

Eighty-plus years on, the Fairbanks charisma can still wow an audience. And, at the risk of stressing the deadly obvious, DVD viewing really cannot do full justice to spectaculars made for the silver screen. At this year’s Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theatre, I had the privilege of taking in the 1927 feature Douglas Fairbanks in The Gaucho, which included plenty of leaping — and some tremendous vine-swinging which had the packed house screaming with pleasure. By that point well into his 40s and seemingly attempting to set a record for cinematic chain-smoking, Fairbanks was still near the acme of his physical powers. Portraying a more complex, jaded hero than in his earlier movies, he had put aside his discomfort with love scenes, thanks partly to co-star Lupe Velez, with whom he was having an affair. Ironically, Pickford appears in the film as an apparition of the Virgin Mary.

A dear friend who attended all of the Silent Film Festival responded to a questionnaire asking her to name the highlight of the weekend by writing "Douglas Fairbanks’ ass." Clearly, though he is dead and gone, his star shines on.