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 …