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06 October 2015

Imported from the USA: Douglas Fairbanks

On today's programme of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone is this afternoon The Mark of Zero (1920), with elegant, dashing, and athletic American actor Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939) in one of his best swashbuckling roles. With his marriage to Mary Pickford in 1920, the couple became Hollywood royalty and Fairbanks was referred to as ‘The King of Hollywood'. His career rapidly declined with the advent of the 'talkies’. He finished his film career in Europe, with the British production The Private Life of Don Juan (1934).

Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
French postcard by Cinémagazine edition, no. 168. Sent by mail in Belgium in 1925. Photo: United Artists. Publicity still for The Thief of Bagdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924).

Douglas Fairbanks in Don Q Son of Zorro (1925)
French postcard by A.N., Paris, no. 171. Photo: United Artists / Regal Film. Publicity still for Don Q Son of Zorro (Donald Crisp, 1925).

Douglas Fairbanks
Swedish postcard by Stenders Kunstforlag, no. 37.

Free-wheeling farces


Douglas Fairbanks was born Douglas Elton Thomas Ullman in 1883 in Denver, Colorado, the son of H. Charles Ullman, a prominent New York attorney, and ‘Southern belle’ Ella Adelaide Marsh. Ullman abandoned the family when Douglas was five years old and he and his older brother Robert were brought up by their mother, who gave them the family name Fairbanks, after her first husband.

Douglas Fairbanks began acting at an early age, in amateur theatre on the Denver stage, performing in summer stock, and becoming a sensation in the local theatre community. Fairbanks moved to New York to pursue an acting career. He joined the acting troupe of British actor Frederick Warde who had seen Fairbanks performing in Denver. In 1902, he made his Broadway debut as Florio in the Frederick Warde Company's production of The Duke's Jester.

In 1907, Fairbanks married Anna Beth Sully, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. They had one son, Douglas Elton Fairbanks (1909), who later became known as actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. In 1915, the family moved to Los Angeles. The then 31-years old Fairbanks signed a contract with Triangle Pictures and began working under the supervision of D.W. Griffith.

His first film was titled The Lamb (W. Christy Cabanne, 1915), in which he debuted the athletic abilities that would gain him wide attention among theatre audiences. His athleticism was not appreciated by Griffith, however, and he was brought to the attention of Anita Loos and John Emerson, who wrote and directed many of his next films.

Fairbanks became the top moneymaker for Triangle, starring in an average of 10 pictures a year for a weekly salary of $2000. He specialized in comedies-not the slapstick variety, but free-wheeling farces in which he usually played a wealthy young man thirsting for adventure. In 1916, Fairbanks established his own company, the Douglas Fairbanks Film Corporation, and would soon get a job at Paramount. His films ranged from romances to wacky, madcap comedies; from social satires to westerns.

At a party in 1916, Fairbanks met actress Mary Pickford, and the couple began an affair. In 1917, they joined Fairbanks's friend Charlie Chaplin selling war bonds by train across the U.S. Pickford and Chaplin were then the two highest paid film stars in Hollywood. To curtail these stars' astronomical salaries, the large studios attempted to monopolize distributors and exhibitors. By 1918, Fairbanks was Hollywood's most popular actor, and within three years of his arrival Fairbanks's popularity and business acumen raised him to the third-highest paid.

In late 1918, Sully was granted a divorce from Fairbanks, the judgment being finalized in early 1919. To avoid being controlled by the studios and to protect their independence, Fairbanks, Pickford, Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith formed United Artists in 1919, which created their own distributorships and gave them complete artistic control over their films and the profits generated. The company was kept solvent in the years immediately after its formation largely by the success of Fairbanks's films.

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford
Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. This postcard was probably issued for their European honeymoon tour in 1921. They look quite happy here, but in London, Pickford was dragged from her car and trampled by fanatics fans who wanted to touch her hair & clothes.

Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks
Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 581/5, 1919-1924. Photo: B.B.B. Collection: Didier Hanson.

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks in Berlin
Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in Berlin. Vintage postcard, no. 960/2. Probably a vintage reprint of a Ross Verlag postcard. In 1926, Pickford and Fairbanks visited Berlin and stayed at the Hotel Adlon near the Brandenburg Gate, which is in the background of this picture.

Douglas Fairbanks and Julanne Johnston in The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 40/4. Photo: IFA / United Artists. Publicity still for The Thief of Bagdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924). Julanne Johnston played the Princess.

‘Everybody's Hero’ and ‘America's Sweetheart


Douglas Fairbanks was determined to have Mary Pickford become his wife, but she was still married to actor Owen Moore. He finally gave her an ultimatum. She then obtained a fast divorce in the small Nevada town of Minden and the couple married in 1920. The public went wild over the idea of ‘Everybody's Hero’ marrying ‘America's Sweetheart.’ They were greeted by large crowds in London, Amsterdam and Paris during their European honeymoon, becoming Hollywood's first celebrity couple. Fairbanks and Pickford were regarded as ‘Hollywood Royalty,’ famous for entertaining at their 42-room mansion in Beverly Hills, Pickfair.

By 1920, Fairbanks had completed twenty-nine films (twenty-eight features and one two-reel short), which showcased his ebullient screen persona and athletic ability. By 1920, he had the inspiration of staging a new type of adventure-costume picture, a genre that was then out of favor with the public; Fairbanks had been a comic in his previous films.

In The Mark of Zorro (Fred Niblo, 1920), Fairbanks combined his appealing screen persona with the new adventurous costume element. This genre-defining swashbuckler adventure was the first film version of The Mark of Zorro. It was a smash success and parlayed the actor into the rank of superstar.

For the remainder of his career in silent films he continued to produce and star in ever more elaborate, impressive costume films, such as The Three Musketeers (Fred Niblo, 1921), Robin Hood (Allan Dwan, 1922), The Thief of Bagdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924), The Black Pirate (Albert Parker, 1926, the first full-length Technicolor film), and The Gaucho (F. Richard Jones, 1927) with Lupe Velez.

Fairbanks spared no expense and effort in these films, which established the standard for all future swashbuckling films. In 1921, he, Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, and others, helped to organize the Motion Picture Fund to assist those in the industry who could not work, or were unable to meet their bills. During the first ceremony of its type, in 1927, Fairbanks and Pickford placed their hand and foot prints in wet cement at the newly opened Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Fairbanks was elected first President of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences that same year, and he presented the first Academy Awards at the Roosevelt Hotel. Today, Fairbanks also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7020 Hollywood Boulevard.

Douglas Fairbanks
German postcard by Ross-Verlag, no. 1686/3, 1927-1928. Photo: United Artists. Publicity still for The Black Pirate (Albert Parker, 1926).

Douglas Fairbanks
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 5052/1, 1930-1931. Photo: United Artists. Publicity still for the silent adventure film The Black Pirate (Albert Parker, 1926).

Douglas Fairbanks
French postcard by Europe, no. 453. Photo: United Artists / Regal Film. Publicity still for The Iron Mask (Allan Dwan, 1929).

Douglas Fairbanks
French postcard by Europe, no. 452. Photo: United Artists / Regal Film. Publicity still for The Iron Mask (Allan Dwan, 1929).

Colossal Disaster


While Douglas Fairbanks had flourished in the silent genre, the restrictions of early sound films dulled his enthusiasm for film-making. He was 44 years old, and could no longer look the part of the youthful swashbuckler or romantic lead, nor could he safely perform the dangerous stunts his audiences expected of him.

In 1929, at Pickford's bungalow, United Artists brought together Pickford, Fairbanks, Charles Chaplin, Norma Talmadge, Gloria Swanson, John Barrymore, D.W. Griffith and Dolores del Rio to speak on the radio show The Dodge Brothers Hour to prove Fairbanks could meet the challenge of talking movies.

Fairbanks's last silent film was the lavish The Iron Mask (Allan Dwan, 1929), a sequel to The Three Musketeers (Fred Niblo, 1921). The Iron Mask included an introductory prologue spoken by Fairbanks. He and Pickford chose to make their first talkie as a joint venture, playing Petruchio and Kate in William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (Sam Taylor, 1929). The film was a colossal disaster, and the pair fought constantly during it's making. When it flopped at the box office, Doug and Mary blamed each other.

Doug’s subsequent sound films, were also poorly received by Depression-era audiences. The last film in which he acted was the British production The Private Life of Don Juan (Alexander Korda, 1934), with Merle Oberon. The film is a revealing look at the life of the aging Don Juan, whose reputation has outrun him. The film, based on the 1920 play L'homme à la Rose by Henry Bataille, was made by Korda's London Film Productions at Elstree Studios and distributed by United Artists under an agreement Korda had recently signed with them.

Fairbanks and Pickford separated in 1933, after he began an affair with Sylvia, Lady Ashley. They divorced in 1936, with Pickford keeping the Pickfair estate. Within months Fairbanks and Ashley were married in Paris. He continued to be marginally involved in the film industry and was disturbed by the new direction of his own company, United Artists, now under the iron fist of Samuel Goldwyn. His health continued to decline, and in his final years he lived in Santa Monica, California, although much of his time was spent traveling abroad with Sylvia. At the end of 1939, Fairbanks had a mild heart attack. He died later that day at his home in Santa Monica. He was 56. Fairbanks's famous last words were, "I've never felt better."

Douglas Fairbanks
German postcard by Ross-Verlag, no. 5212/1, 1930-1931. Photo: United Artists. Publicity still for The Taming of the Shrew (Sam Taylor, 1930).

Douglas Fairbanks
German postcard by Ross-Verlag, no. 5267/1, 1930-1931. Photo: United Artists. Publicity still for The Taming of the Shrew (Sam Taylor, 1930).

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in Taming of the Shrew
German postcard by Ross-Verlag, no. 5215/4 1930-1931. Photo: United Artists. Publicity still for The Taming of the Shrew (Sam Taylor, 1930) with Mary Pickford.

Douglas Fairbanks
German postcard by Ross-Verlag, no. 6515/2, 1931-1932. Photo: United Artists. Publicity still for Mr. Robinson Crusoe (Edward Sutherland, 1932).

Sources: Hal Erickson (AllMovie), Ed Stephan (IMDb), The Douglas Fairbanks Museum, Wikipedia and IMDb.

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