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The Silent Superstar

Douglas Fairbanks

by Jeffrey Vance with Tony Maietta
University of California Press/ Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 368 pp., $45.00
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Margaret Herrick Library
Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and Mary Pickford, 1917; photographs from Jeffrey Vance’s Douglas Fairbanks

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 déclassé 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 Yucatán?—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.

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