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The Silent Superstar

Douglas FairbanksDouglas Fairbanks by Jeffrey Vance

Reviewed by Robert Gottlieb
New York Review of Books

Except for his great friend Charlie Chaplin, the biggest male star of silent films, and the most loved, was Douglas Fairbanks, the idol of millions of young boys -- and a number of grown-up boys, too. He was number one at the box office in 1919, before he began swashbuckling, and he stayed number one through the 1920s, his eight major productions bringing in even more money than the movies released in the same period by his wife, Mary Pickford -- America's (and the world's) sweetheart.

Fairbanks was born in 1883, and to coincide with his 125th birthday, an ambitious book -- Douglas Fairbanks, by Jeffrey Vance with Tony Maietta -- has just been published. At times it approaches hagiography, but it tells you a lot about its hero, and it's generously illustrated -- crucial for a performer whose impact was so overwhelmingly physical.

Douglas Fairbanks stood for pluck, vigor, decency, the healthy mind in the healthy body, good old American ingenuity, up-by-your-bootstraps optimism, respect amounting to shyness for the weaker sex, and -- most important -- success. ("Whenever he doodled with pencil and pad," wrote Pickford, "...he would write those two magic syllables over and over again, in strong printed letters.") Failure was not an acceptable option. Why was he disappointed in the Grand Canyon? "I couldn't jump it."

So whether he was playing the Lamb or the Matrimaniac or the Mollycoddle or Mr. Fix-It or the Nut, whenever Doug attempted something, he inevitably succeeded. His weapons before he took to the sword -- and equally effective -- were his astounding athleticism, his insouciant charm, his patent goodwill, and a huge, irresistible smile. He wasn't tall, he wasn't particularly good looking, he didn't radiate sexuality -- he was the anti-Valentino. Yet he left Valentino in the dust. His effective career, like all silent-screen careers, was short, yet between 1915 and 1929 he made thirty-eight silent movies, every one of them a success and, once he got going, all of them conceived and produced by himself.

It was a career divided in two -- the early romantic comedy-adventures followed by the swashbucklers -- with a sad coda in the early days of sound. But Fairbanks didn't begin in film: by the time he took the plunge he was a highly successful young romantic lead on Broadway. That's why the movies wanted him, rounding him up for the camera along with a clutch of other "legitimate" actors, including Sarah Bernhardt and Sir Herbert Beerbohm-Tree. It was money that lured him into the decidedly declasse world of the "flickers" -- a guaranteed $2,000 a week, far more than he could hope to earn on the stage. Why not give it a try? Besides, part of the deal was that his films would be supervised by D.W. Griffith, whose Birth of a Nation had fired his imagination early in 1915. But Doug's first movie, The Lamb, was hardly supervised by Griffith, who wrote him off as "that jumping-jack, that grinning monkey" with a face like a cantaloupe, and suggested that he go work for Mack Sennett, along with the Keystone Kops and the custard pies.

As it turned out, film proved to be the perfect medium for Douglas Fairbanks. We get a sense of his stage persona from the amused theater critic Percy Hammond, writing about him in the 1913 play "Hawthorne of the U.S.A.":

Bounding, sprinting, diving, hurdling, he arrived in the last act in time to say "I love you" to the slim princess, as the curtain fell. Meantime Hawthorne, impersonated by Mr. Fairbanks, had also smashed the bank at Monte Carlo, arrested a regicide, escaped from jail, harangued a mob, acted as king for a few minutes, and had introduced slang and chewing gum into the Balkans. In one scene he punched the Secretary of War, upset much of the army, and kicked a seditious prince in the chest before jumping off a balcony for the second time in the act. It makes one breathless to write about it.

This all sounds far more like a movie than a play, and we can see in retrospect that the stage couldn't really contain Doug's almost manic energy and amazing physical prowess.

His screen character -- the restless, eager, somewhat goofy young man who's flung into circumstances that allow him to morph into a hero (and win The Girl) -- was fixed from the start. The story might have him playing an effete easterner converted into a "real" American by the Old West, or demonstrating manly American virtues in decadent Europe or corrupt Latin America, or good-humoredly asserting American common sense in response to vogues like health faddism or pacifism, but in all these plots he was the exact same wholesome, attractive fellow he had always been. And which, to a great extent, he was in real life.

That's why in his case the audience to a remarkable extent blurred the boundaries between actor and role. No one really believed that Lillian Gish was actually a fragile victim, or that Theda Bara (anagram: Arab Death) was an exotic man-killer, or that Valentino was a sheikh, but Doug's fans seemed to assume that all those Lambs and Mollycoddles up on the screen were simply projections of the actor himself, a man whom every mother could be proud of, every girl trust herself to, and every kid idolize.

You can't exaggerate the degree to which Fairbanks embodied what in the Teens were accepted as the quintessential American virtues. He was a Horatio Alger paragon -- cheerfully rising to the top through hard work and a happy disposition. He was, like his hero Teddy Roosevelt, a vigorous outdoorsman and an ardent patriot -- not for nothing were three of his films called The Americano, American Aristocracy, and His Majesty the American. He was Billy Sunday, preaching sobriety (he didn't drink), clean living, and respect for God, Woman, and the work ethic. He was a Boy Scout -- and, indeed, wrote regularly for Boys' Life, the official Boy Scout magazine. Yet he wasn't a goody-goody: he was a regular guy, enterprising but unaggressive -- until roused to challenge (and, of course, trounce) bullies and mashers and crooks.

And he was an extraordinary athlete, totally at ease in the saddle and preternaturally agile; he was a master fencer, an archer, a swimmer, a boxer, a wrestler. Why enter a house through the front door and climb the stairs when you can bound up the side of the building and dive in through a window? Why not spring from a galloping horse to a speeding train, or outrun an automobile? Why not slide down the vast castle draperies or thrust your knife into the topmost sail of your pirate ship and slice your way down to the deck? Why not vault over anything in your path? Fairbanks never encountered a chair or a table he didn't hurtle over, not to show off but because his inexhaustible energy demanded it. And as the whole world knew, he did all these things himself -- no stuntmen or doubles -- except (very rarely) when he didn't. If Mary Pickford was America's sweetheart, he was the all-American boy.

That, however, was not the way he started out. Douglas Elton Ulman had two distinctly unusual parents. His mother, Ella, was self-proclaimed Southern gentry, who married a well-to-do planter named John Fairbanks. Their son, also John, was born in 1873, John Sr. dying of tuberculosis that same year. Ella then married a Judge Edward Wilcox, by whom she had another son, Norris. When Wilcox turned out to be an abusive drunk, she procured a divorce with the help of a well-known New York lawyer, H. Charles Ulman, who in turn fell in love with her and married her.

In the many early accounts of Doug's life, we're told only that Ulman was an important figure in the New York legal community, but that the erratic marital career of Ella made it politic for them to get out of town -- a move made simpler by her decision to take little Johnny Fairbanks with her but to leave behind with a paternal aunt even littler Norris Wilcox. (Many decades later, his half-brothers would rescue the abandoned Norris from obscurity and bring him into the thriving Fairbanks enterprise.) In Denver, Ella and Ulman quickly had two more boys, Robert and Douglas.

Young Doug was a perplexing child. If you believe the official version, he was a glum, lethargic boy until one day he fell off the roof while clambering around and basked in all the attention he received, instantly and forever becoming the life of the party. He also was unusually dark-complexioned -- for a while when Ella had him out in a baby carriage she would cover his face to ward off reactions from passers-by. But that was merely an oddity of biology. There were secrets as well.

Number one: Ulman was Jewish.

Number two: Ulman was a drunk, whom Ella booted out when Doug was five. She also discarded his name and resumed that of her first husband, Fairbanks, bestowing it on Bob and Doug as well, baptizing them in the Catholic faith, and opening a rooming house. She now had three husbands and four sons under her belt, as it were.

Number three: Ulman hadn't been legally divorced from his first wife, back in Brooklyn -- the real reason, clearly, why he and Ella had to hightail it out of town. (Only decades after Doug's death did this fact leak into print.)

In other words, Douglas Fairbanks was the son of a Jewish drunk and the product of a bigamous relationship -- or to put it more directly, was illegitimate. Not exactly the all-American story.

Ella was the lodestone of Douglas's life -- she adored him, pampered him, fought for him -- yet Ulman, despite his transgressions, was also a strong influence on his famous son's life. He was passionately interested in the theater, claiming to have been a friend of Edwin Booth and worshiping (and often publicly declaiming) Shakespeare. Doug was infected by his father's love for the stage, and the far-seeing and businesslike Ella encouraged him, realizing that acting might be an escape route out of the genteel poverty in which they were living. When he was just short of sixteen, Doug managed to get himself expelled from high school so that he could jumpstart his career.

The sequence of events that followed is obscure. Later he told stories of studying at the Colorado School of Mines (that was probably his brother Robert), of attending bullfights in Spain (where he had never been), of studying at Harvard (which had never heard of him), of a cattle-boat trip to Europe, of hiking across Cuba -- or was it Yucatan? -- on a bet. Fairbanks clearly was a serial fabulist -- as Vance and Maietta put it, "neither a truthful or a comprehensive chronicler of his own life." (His most acute biographer, Booton Herndon, phrased it more delicately: "He would not permit objective reality to interfere.")

What's certain is that like a character in one of his own movies, by luck and pluck Doug insinuated himself early on into the good graces -- and the repertory company -- of a well-known actor-manager of the day. He liked to exaggerate the difficulties he had faced, but in reality he was a shoo-in almost from the start, his trajectory as an actor never wavering once he got going. By 1902, at nineteen, he was on Broadway; by 1908 he was a star.

He was also a husband. Beth Sully, daughter of "The Cotton King," was a pleasing, plumpish -- and rich -- young debutante who fell madly in love with him. Doug loved her enough to marry her, and things went well between them, since Beth dealt with him much as Ella had done -- admired him, spoiled him, and deftly managed his career and his finances. The Cotton King eventually lost his money, but by then Doug himself was rich.

And he was a father. In 1909 a son was born, whom he named Douglas Jr., a decision he was to bitterly regret. He seems to have been utterly without paternal instincts or feelings, from the start ignoring the boy as much as he could. (Doug Jr.: "I always associated him with a pleasant, energetic, and agreeable 'atmosphere' about the house, to which I was somehow attached but which was not attached to me.")

Through the years after his parents separated, Senior barely acknowledged Junior's existence. With his frank and generous nature, Junior, in his memoir Salad Days, tells us, "Mother minded his lack of interest in me dreadfully, but although I was sorry, I didn't brood about it. He remained my distantly related hero." When, however, at the age of fourteen Junior -- needing to help support his mother and himself -- got a start in the movies, his father was furious at the boy's pre-sumption in using the famous name, and did his best to block his career. As he put it to Donald Crisp, who dared to cast the boy, "There's only one Fairbanks."

The great love of Doug's life was Mary Pickford, nine years his junior. They met almost casually and eased into an intense (and secret) relationship. Mary had been married to Owen Moore, a handsome but unreliable actor and drunk, who apart from everything else was loathed by the most important person in her life, her mother, another supremely capable businesswoman.

Mary had had a grim start, barnstorming the country from her earliest years in order to support her widowed mother and her two feckless younger siblings. She had no real childhood -- no schooling, no friends -- and was usually on the road, often alone. It made her strong, anxious, serious, and with an almost compulsive interest in money and security. It did not assuage her anxieties that by the time she was in her earliest twenties she had browbeaten Adolph Zukor -- the head of Paramount and no slouch when it came to negotiating contracts -- into paying her more than half a million dollars a year.

The crucial moment in Mary and Doug's relationship came in 1916, just after Ella Fairbanks's sudden death. Doug was completely unmanned, and one day, riding with Mary in a car in Central Park, he broke down in a tempest of grief and sobbed in her arms. He had found yet another supportive, semimaternal figure, only this time she was also a woman of unique beauty, riches, and prestige -- indeed, the most famous woman in the world. His agreeable, passionless marriage to Beth had no chance; he had fallen madly in love.

Divorces were taboo in those days, particularly for stars with the squeaky-clean reputations of Mary and Doug, but by 1920, with Beth's dignified acceptance and Owen Moore's bought complicity, they were finally able to marry. Terrified that they might fall out of public favor, they slipped away for a European honeymoon -- and were astonished by the greeting they received, literally mobbed by fans wherever they went, even at times in danger from the uncontrollable crowds.

After the madness of the major capitals, they fled incognito to Germany. But, confessed Mary,

it was in Wiesbaden that Douglas and I changed our minds about one thing: no matter how demanding and exhausting the crowds were, they were infinitely preferable to being either completely unknown, or, if known, completely ignored.

"Let's go someplace where we are known," she said to him. "I've had enough obscurity for a lifetime."

This was also a time of rethinking their careers. In 1919, they had joined Griffith and Chaplin in forming United Artists, which allowed them to cut out the studios, financing and entirely controlling their movies and profiting even more greatly from them. Film lore gives most of the credit for this coup to the redoubtable Mary, backed by Ma Pickford, but Chaplin too was obsessed by money, and Doug was considerably shrewder than his devil-may-care image suggested.

The new arrangement gave Doug full license both to switch genres and to push the art of filmmaking in revolutionary ways. Not only were the spectacles that followed The Mark of Zorro, the first of them, on a scale that only Griffith had dared (and Fairbanks's Robin Hood cost twice as much as Intolerance ), but Doug was free to hire distinguished (and expensive) artists and composers, often from Europe -- first-rate action-directors like Allan Dwan and Raoul Walsh, and superb cameramen like Victor Fleming, the future director of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.

And with the help of his engineer-brother Robert, he was able to dramatically expand the possibilities of set construction and special effects -- slow-motion photography, double exposure, use of miniatures, even animation. It was not by accident that The Black Pirate, in 1926, was the first full-scale two-strip Technicolor film -- a daring venture, since the costs of color were daunting, and there was real concern over possible eyestrain! ( The Black Pirate turned out to be a terrific action picture, a huge hit, and the template for all those future pirates like Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, Burt Lancaster, and Johnny Depp.)

Yet despite all the collaboration that Fairbanks solicited and appreciated, he was unquestionably the most active and authoritative figure in the creation of his films. He chose or invented his subjects, cast his fellow actors, co-wrote or polished his scripts, oversaw sets, costumes, props, music, editing. His directors, including Dwan and Walsh, were there to carry out his wishes -- and were glad to do so. "You don't know -- nobody can know, without working with him -- how he is loved and admired by the people he gathers around him," said Al Parker, who directed The Black Pirate.

The Fairbanks heroes in the swashbucklers show more variety than those in the comedies. His performances in Zorro and Don Q, Son of Zorro (he plays both father and son) are sheer scintillating bravura. Although his Robin Hood movie drags at times, and is almost overwhelmed by its mammoth sets, his Robin conquers with his dazzling action sequences and dazzling smile. His young d'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers has the right swagger, although he's considerably less loutish than the Dumas original, and the aging d'Artagnan of The Iron Mask -- the last of the spectacles -- has a moving elegiac tone.

The most strikingly original of the eight extravaganzas is The Thief of Bagdad : there was no precedent for so artistically ambitious a fantasy-adventure. The Fairbanks crew created an elaborately stylized Bagdad and Doug, at forty, depicted a charming young(ish) Thief who was focused less on thrilling audiences with his physical tricks and more on the ease and grace of his flowing and effortless movement. As he soars joyously around -- and above -- the streets of Bagdad, the obvious model is the Nijinsky of Schéhérazade. After seeing The Thief of Bagdad (ten times!) Vachel Lindsay wrote:

The history of the movies is now David Wark Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, and whoever rises hereafter to dispute their title.

The most atypical -- and controversial -- of the spectacles is The Gaucho (1927). On the one hand, it projects a heavy-handed religiosity, featuring a cameo performance by Pickford as a vision of the Madonna -- no one else was considered pure enough to assume the role. (Mary saw it as "a lovely compliment.") On the other hand, The Gaucho is the only one of all his movies in which Fairbanks is frankly sexual. He's a hot-blooded Latin lover, with the equally hot-blooded Lupe Velez (at nineteen) as his love object. When he wraps his bullwhip around the two of them, then tucks his cigarette inside his cheek and mashes her lips with his, he's a long way from The Lamb. But then it was generally assumed that he and Lupe were considerably more to each other than co-stars.

Doug and Mary were now not just the biggest of movie stars and the most famous of married couples, they were the closest America had come to royalty. As a perceptive journalist wrote in 1927, they were

the King and Queen of Hollywood, providing the necessary air of dignity, sobriety, and aristocracy. Gravely they attend movie openings, cornerstone layings, gravely sit at the head of the table at the long dinners in honor of the cinema great, Douglas making graceful speeches, Mary conducting herself with the self-abnegation of Queen Mary of Britain.... They understand thoroughly their obligation to be present, in the best interests of the motion picture industry.

Their famous house, Pickfair, was second only to the White House among America's residences, and there they graciously received Hollywood's most important visitors (the Duke and Duchess of Alba, Lord and Lady Mountbatten, the King and Queen of Siam) as well as the industry's A-list. The table was always set for fifteen, and after dinner and an evening with their guests spent watching movies in the living room, "at around eleven, Albert, 'the majordomo,' passed around fruit and cups of Ovaltine, the guests went home and Mary and Doug climbed the stairs to bed."

By the mid-Twenties, though, the marriage had begun to erode, along with the world that had given birth to them both. Crucial was the coming of sound. Although Doug had a good, stage-trained voice, his world was visual, physical. Silent, he was unique; speaking, he was no more exciting than a lot of other capable actors. As for Mary, she had spent her childhood on the stage, even working for Belasco on Broadway, but her appeal, too, was lessened by sound. In 1929 they made their one and only film together, The Taming of the Shrew. Petrucchio was well within Doug's range, though Mary is clearly pushing herself to achieve shrewdom. The film is respectable, but it proved a major commercial disappointment. Doug went on to several inconsequential sound films, while Mary had a few successes in sound, including the embarrassing Coquette (for which she bobbed her hair and won an Oscar). But both of them knew it was over.

For Doug this was an emotional and psychic disaster. Although he was totally invested in the challenges and solutions of filmmaking, his triumphs were those of a boy at play. On his sets he surrounded himself with pals and hangers-on. When the day's shooting was done, the guys plunged into the pool and sauna or played a free-for-all tennis-like game called "Doug," in which everyone -- except Chaplin -- knew better than to beat Fairbanks. There were constant practical jokes. For Doug, making movies meant having fun, and as he aged, and was constricted on the set by the demands of sound, he stopped having it. In 1928, gazing at one of the new sound stages, he turned to a friend and said, "The romance of motion picture making ends here."

He was overcome by restlessness -- and aimlessness. Leaving Mary behind, he roamed the world with his entourage, filming what amounted to travelogues (which bombed at the box office). "Douglas always faced a situation the only way he knew how, by running away from it," said Mary. "I found I just couldn't keep up the pace with a man whose very being had become motion, no matter how purposeless." He was also increasingly (and snobbishly) engaged with Britain's aristocracy. And his indiscretions grew more and more indiscreet. Mary could no longer deal with them -- or him. She withdrew into drink -- the curse of her family. ("All the Pickfords were alcoholics! All of them!" said Anita Loos who, by the way, wrote nine of the Fairbanks comedies.)

There were last-minute attempts at patching up the marriage, but they came to nothing. In 1936, Doug and Mary were divorced, Doug having backed himself into marrying a notorious lady-come-lately, Lady Sylvia Ashley. (She would later marry Clark Gable.) And by then Mary had entered into a warm and satisfying relationship with the young Buddy Rogers, who had once been her leading man and whom she would eventually marry. As their friend Hal Mohr put it, "We were all glad to see Miss Pickford find happiness with Buddy. Doug was just too much Doug."

The ultimate word on their relationship came from Chaplin, who knew them so well: "If you will read the story of Peter Pan and Wendy, you will know a great deal more about Mary and Doug than you do now."

The public knew only the happy, vigorous, outgoing Douglas Fairbanks, but those closest to him witnessed recurring bouts of depression and self-doubt. Writing years later about the travelogue expeditions, his sidekick Tom Geraghty reported

the mounting conflict that had begun to envelop Doug. He asked Tom to share his room with him; he didn't want to be left alone, even at night. Now, more than ever, he appeared to need companionship to ward off the depression and sense of futility that harassed him.

Everyone was aware of his life-long, almost pathological jealousy -- of Beth, later of Mary, even of his occasional girlfriends, now of Sylvia. He had always insisted, for instance, in being seated next to Mary at dinner parties -- hostesses were warned in advance -- and she was never to dance with another man, not even Prince George (later King George VI). The most virile and buoyant man of his time had in many ways stayed the unsure boy he had once been, depending on perpetual motion and constant acclaim to conceal -- particularly from himself -- the doubts and insecurities of his childhood. When the party ended, he was adrift, unable to deal with the collapse of his career and the encroachments of middle age.

The one happy aspect of Doug's last years was the close relationship that, at last, he developed with his son who, with Mary's support, had never ceased trying to win him over. Junior was with him at the end, attentive, loving, and -- finally -- loved in return.

Richard Schickel, in his book His Picture in the Papers, comments that in Fairbanks's retirement he seemed to the public

little more than a faintly absurd roue and the newspaper photographs of him, heavy and balding, and very often glaring angrily at the camera, confirmed their direst suspicions. The contrast with his previous image -- lithe and clean-spirited, perpetually youthful, cheery, decently romantic -- was unbearable. They did not turn against him, but they did turn away from him.

His death in 1939 -- he was only fifty-six -- was world news. Perhaps it came just in time. Not long before, he had remarked to Raoul Walsh, "There's nothing as humiliating as being a has-been."

Of all the great silent stars, Fairbanks may have given the vast movie audience the purest pleasure -- pleasure untinged by the pathos of Chaplin or Keaton or Pickford. What he offered the world was the fun and vigor of healthy, joyous youth, but when his youth ran out, he had nowhere to go. The all-American boy never grew up into an all-American man.

Robert Gottlieb has been Editor in Chief of Simon and Schuster, Knopf, and The New Yorker. He is the author of George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker and the dance critic of The New York Observer.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Douglas Fairbanks
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One Response to "The Silent Superstar"

  1.  
    Gladys Hobson February 23rd, 2009 at 6:16 am

    I totally agree. Fairbanks (and others like him in similar roles) were good role models. They were tough but 'gentlemen' who could speak with authority without resort to vulgar language. Thrill without sexual gymnastics. We could go to the cinema and not be embarrassed, but, for two hours, live in a world where women were treated with courtesy and respect.

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