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The Silent Superstar

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Margaret Herrick Library
Douglas Fairbanks with his son, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., on the set of Jump for Glory (retitled When Thief Meets Thief for American distribution) at Britain’s Worton Hall Studios, 1936

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 roué 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.

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