Tag Archives: douglas fairbanks

Book review: THE FIRST KING OF HOLLYWOOD: THE LIFE OF DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS

Douglas Fairbanks

With his swashbuckling persona, jaw-dropping acrobatics and million dollar smile, Douglas Fairbanks was the definition of what it means to be a movie star. Known equally well for being half of the most influential celebrity power couple of the 1920s, and for his lavish estate known as Pickfair that he owned with wife Mary Pickford, Fairbanks was the personification of Hollywood fame combined with silent-era high living.

Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro (1920).

In her new book, The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks, longtime Fairbanks expert and historian Tracey Goessel writes in exquisite and meticulous detail of the star’s life, rise to fame and his sometimes difficult marriage to Mary Pickford. It is a book written with obvious love, and crafted to give the reader a full and accurate picture of a complex character.

There is truly no one better to write this book than Tracey Goessel. A Fairbanks devotee for decades, she is on the board of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and has contributed enormously to the visibility of both Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in the world of silent film for many years. When I heard that a Douglas Fairbanks biography by Tracey Goessel was coming out, I knew immediately that it was going to be definitive.

Right from the beginning, Goessel gives us the reasons why the man known as “Doug” in the industry (though Mary Pickford always called him “Douglas”) remains important 76 years after his death. Goessel notes the fact that we have Fairbanks to thank for the Oscars (he co-founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences), for Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz (he gave Victor Fleming his start), and for the latest releases from United Artists (he co-founded the company). Her assertions are thought-provoking and accurate. There are very few silent stars who remain as relevant and modern as Douglas Fairbanks, both in his legacy and his onscreen persona.

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D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks signing the contract that established United Artists.

Goessel’s level of detail about Fairbanks’ early life is nothing short of astounding. She has traced his family tree and stories connected with it back several generations, and provides several wonderful stories regarding the early life of the man who would become Douglas Fairbanks. She shows how his early aptitude for mischief, drama and acrobatics affected his rise to fame and shaped who he became onscreen. My favorite story from his early years in film deals with an early role in a film called The Habit of Happiness. Goessel relates that in order to make the blue-collar extras laugh in a scene where they were supposed to be entertained, Doug told the smuttiest jokes he could think of–so smutty, that the lip-readers in the preview audience were offended.

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Before his film stardom, Fairbanks was in a Broadway play in New York when a group of Biograph players, including Mary Pickford, came to see the show. D.W. Griffith said to Mary regarding Doug: “Now there’s a fellow who will someday make a great impression in pictures.” He made a great impression on Mary as well, and they began a relationship, marrying in 1920 very shortly after Mary procured a divorce from her then-husband Owen Moore. As husband and wife they lived at Pickfair, a monumental estate at 1143 Summit Drive in Los Angeles that was host to countless industry parties and get-togethers.

Again, the level of detail in Goessel’s account is marvelous. We are shown the inner workings of the most powerful couple in Hollywood, including all its difficulties when they both stray from fidelity–Mary with Buddy Rogers and Douglas with Lady Sylvia Ashley–and despite trying to make their marriage work, they simply couldn’t.

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Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.

Another triumph of this book is the interweaving of what was going on in Hollywood with the events of Fairbanks’ life. A prime example is the attention that is given to the advent of sound in the mid-1920s, during which all of Hollywood was waiting on baited breath to see what would become of this new technology. Pickford and Fairbanks were in the audience when John Barrymore’s Don Juan premiered, the first full-length film to feature a Vitaphone score, and from the beginning he wasn’t too thrilled with the prospect of sound on film. Indeed, Douglas Fairbanks was one of sound’s victims–his second-to-last film, ironically, was The Private Life of Don Juan.

This is highly recommended reading for anyone with an interest in Hollywood of any era. The modern film aficionado will see countless links to the modern era, while the classics fan will see the rise and fall of one of the all-time great film stars. Tracey Goessel has written a book fit for Douglas Fairbanks. And that’s saying a great deal.

If you would like to order it, here is the link to the book on Amazon.

See you next time!

San Francisco Silent Film Festival DAY OF SILENTS

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Yesterday afternoon at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival hosted its annual Day of Silents, featuring a magnificent lineup of silent films from around the world that whet the festivalgoer’s appetite for the larger festival taking place in June. This year’s Day of Silents included a diverse offering of films that seemed to have something for everybody.

The day started with a screening of The Black Pirate (1926), a Douglas Fairbanks mainstay and one of the first films to be shot in two-strip Technicolor. We were lucky enough to have Tracey Goessel, the author of the new Douglas Fairbanks biography The First King of Hollywood (a very solid and informative read, expect a review on the blog very soon) on hand to introduce the film, and Tracey related a few interesting anecdotes about the filming. Fairbanks’ beard made photography with primitive two-strip Technicolor a bit difficult, and they often had to stop and apply more makeup so that his face wouldn’t turn green in the Technicolor process. But sometimes they couldn’t get to his beard before the Technicolor affected his coloring, so every now and then in the film, Fairbanks’ face turns a slight shade of green.

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Doug looking a bit green.

The movie stars a remarkably beautiful Billie Dove as Fairbanks’ love interest, at the height of her fame and beauty. The plot involves Doug trying to rescue her from a terrible fate, and, of course, he succeeds in the end. The final kiss between Fairbanks and Billie Dove is not between Fairbanks and Billie Dove at all–in fact, for the kissing scene, Mary Pickford was brought in and what we see is a kiss between the biggest Hollywood power couple of the 1920s.

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Doug and Mary at the end of The Black Pirate.

The Black Pirate is a typical Douglas Fairbanks movie, which is to say that it thrills, delights, and incites countless moments of awe at Fairbanks’ swashbuckling acrobatics. Watching a Douglas Fairbanks movie is one of life’s particular cinematic joys, as his brand of daring stunts, achieved without a double, combined with his million-dollar smile and exuberant personality, have scarcely been matched by anyone else in all of film history. He created the prototype, and though many have tried to replicate what he does, few have succeeded. As far as I can think, the person who came closest to replicating what Douglas Fairbanks did was Errol Flynn, with his damsel-in-distress, swordfighting onscreen persona. But even he, with his slight build and boyish face, lacks the unique charisma of the suavely charming, almost sassy Fairbanks.

If you haven’t seen The Black Pirate, the complete film is available to watch on youtube. I highly recommend it.

Some other highlights of the festival included a beautiful series of home movies filmed in China between 1900 and 1948, and a showing of Houdini’s 1919 film The Grim Game. The Grim Game feels almost like a filmed magic show, as the entire plot of the film didn’t matter so much–it was a show piece for Houdini’s talents. The audience laughed with delight when Houdini’s character was in jail and locked up in chains–replicating the famous photo of the magician.

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There was also a subplot that led up to the inevitable famous trick of Houdini escaping from a straitjacket while hanging upside down from a building. Again, the audience knew exactly what was coming, and muttered among themselves knowingly when Houdini had his straitjacket put on.

The Grim Game was recently restored and shown at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, and since then has been making the rounds at several festivals around the country. It is a must-see for Houdini fans and anyone interested in magic, as there are some truly remarkable feats accomplished by Houdini in the film.

The home movies around China were simply breathtaking. Shot by a wide variety of amateur filmmakers, they showed the different provinces of China over a nearly 50-year span, marking the significant historical and social changes that the country went through. In the movies filmed around 1900, we saw nearly everyone in traditional Chinese dress, surrounded by wooden buildings and shops bearing names written only in Chinese characters. By 1915, we were beginning to see evidence of American and European trade and influence, with European men and women riding bicycles through the streets and shop signs transliterated into Latin lettering. By 1930, people had begun to adopt western-style clothing in the cities, and you see the roots of industrialization that were beginning to take shape. It was a beautiful and enlightening history lesson, through the most informative lens we have–the home movie.

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Beijing, 1910.

As always, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival delivers the highest quality silent film experience I have ever had the pleasure to have. I am so fortunate to be able to take part in it every year, and I hope that, if you have never been, you will be able to make it out to the larger festival in late May/early June. Stay tuned for details as it gets closer.

See you next time!

Backlots at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Earlier this evening, I received confirmation that Backlots will be at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival as an official member of the press. This will be my third year at the festival, and it stands as one of my favorite festivals to cover. Held at San Francisco’s beautiful Castro Theatre, I find the ambiance to be perfect, and the programming and festival speakers to be of the highest quality of any film festival I have attended. I feel immensely privileged to be able to have this experience year after year.

THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE (1921).

This year’s lineup features some real treasures, including a presentation of the Rudolph Valentino classic The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as the opening night movie. Painstakingly restored by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, the print comes directly from Brownlow’s Photoplay Productions and the screening promises to be quite an event. It is followed by an opening night party at the McRoskey Mattress Company down the street, which is an opportunity to mingle with other like-minded silent film fans in the glamorous upstairs room of McRoskey’s overlooking Market Street.

One of the things I love about the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is its attention to world cinema–it gives the audience a true smorgasbord of movies, a holistic and full approach to what the tradition of silent film means on a grand scale. Throughout the festival there will be movies from Sweden, the former U.S.S.R., China, and the UK, as well as ample opportunity to see American favorites and crowd-pleasers. The festival is presenting a newly found print of Ramona, and we will see the world premiere of a new restoration of Douglas Fairbanks’ The Good Bad Man, made possible by a collaboration between the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Cinematheque Francaise, and the Film Preservation Society.

Douglas Fairbanks in THE GOOD BAD MAN (1916).

If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, this festival is not to be missed. Please visit their website at http://www.silentfilm.org for tickets and more information. On my end, I will be live-tweeting during the festival and blogging every night, so be sure to tune in for live updates as they happen, beginning on May 29.

See you there!

Live from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Day 4 (Final Day)–“The Mark of Zorro,” “The Docks of New York,” “Erotikon,” “Stella Dallas,” “The Cameraman.”

Dear readers, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has come to a close. Today’s films were all perfect picks for the closing day of a festival, and though I will miss all the live-tweeting and blogging that I have been doing for the past few days, I have had a great time and I look forward to seeing what the festival has in store for next year!

Here is a rundown of today’s events:

First film: THE MARK OF ZORRO

You may think you know Zorro, but you don’t know Zorro until you have seen this original 1920 version with Douglas Fairbanks as the eponymous hero. Produced by his own company, Fairbanks Pictures, the actor gave himself free rein to do whatever he wanted for the film–and that, for him, meant making any desired changes to the original story and, most significantly, doing all his own stunts. Under the studio system, there were often strict rules about stars doing their own stunts, and studios often wouldn’t let their stars get away with it for insurance purposes. Few stars can boast that they did all of the daredevil work themselves, and Douglas Fairbanks is one of them (Gene Kelly is another who did many of his own stunts).

Here is a clip of Douglas Fairbanks doing a particularly impressive stunt sequence in the film:

The movie itself is immensely entertaining and amusing, and in my opinion it loses NOTHING to time. It’s just as fresh and relevant as it was in 1920, and it really feels like you are watching a movie that could have been made yesterday. I had a lot of fun with this one! To top off the thrilling experience of seeing it on the big screen, a number of members of the Fairbanks family were there for the screening, and one of them looked exactly like Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in his later years, which was interesting to see.

Second film: THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK

My friend Marya over at Cinema Fanatic, whom I sat with throughout the festival, was particularly excited about this film. Directed by Josef von Sternberg, known primarily for his dark German films and his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, The Docks of New York was a step away from what he was used to, and from how audiences perceived his work. It is a beautifully simple plotline about a young woman (based on dialogue later, it may be inferred that she is a prostitute) rescued from a suicide attempt by a ship worker named Bill–they fall in some semblance of love and marry quickly in a bar. The next day she is indicted for “stealing some clothes” (clothes used to warm her after her suicide attempt in the icy East River) and sentenced to 30 days. Bill takes the blame for her, is sentenced to 60 days, and the film ends with the woman telling him she’ll wait for him. Elegant and to the point. The speaker before the film compared it to a poem–a simple structure that simply provides a base for emotional output. As he said: “Who knew von Sternberg had a heart?”

Third film: EROTIKON

A funny farce about a woman courted by two suitors is Erotikon, a 1920 Swedish movie concerning an entymologist who seems to know more about bugs than women. The real merits of this film, for me, were aesthetic. The intertitles were really beautiful, written in lovely script with little drawings above the words relating to the current scene. The highlight of the screening for me was to hear the Swedish subtitles read aloud in English rather than seeing them projected on the screen–the man doing it was very funny, and his delivery of the lines often left me giggling well into the next scene.

Fourth film: STELLA DALLAS

If a person knows Stella Dallas at all, it is normally the famous 1937 version with Barbara Stanwyck that immediately comes to mind. However, this 1925 version of the story is the original, and no less heartbreaking than the famous one. The story goes that Stella Dallas, a rather uneducated woman with a young daughter, separated from her husband due to the distance of his work, is trying to give her daughter the best life she can. As the daughter grows, her friends begin to pick on Stella for being a “different” kind of person, and Stella begins to feel that she is not adequately providing for her daughter. Sending her daughter off to live with her wealthier father in New York and finally procuring a divorce so the father can marry a more “suitable” wife, Stella is a selfless woman with great insecurities. I don’t want to give away the ending, but suffice it to say that at the end, Stella is changed, and not necessarily for the better. This story reminded me a little bit of Mildred Pierce, but without the ingratitude that Veda carries, and it is a much softer, gentler story about a mother’s sacrifices.

Fifth film: THE CAMERAMAN

The final film of the festival was what has been called the last great Buster Keaton movie–1928’s The Cameraman. In it, Keaton plays the typical Buster Keaton character–an awkward, clumsy who also possesses a heart of gold and a sweet nature. In this movie, Buster tries to break into the photography business, mostly because a girl he likes works in the office, and he ends up causing mayhem everywhere. Buster Keaton has a very paradoxical aspect about him–in being clumsy, he is agile. I suppose in order to act clumsy, you have to be agile in order to make it work, but his stunts are those of an unusually coordinated person. I adore Buster Keaton, I think he is one of the most endearing characters onscreen, and his legend is well-deserved.

The showing was sold out, and to close the festival, the sponsor, Fandor, handed out Buster Keaton masks and told everyone to hold their Buster Keaton mask over their face for a picture. The audience picture should be up on Fandor soon, so if you’d like, go check them out at fandor.com.

Another special treat from tonight was a special showing of A Trip to the Moon, right before The Cameraman. That movie, no matter how many times I see it, never fails to give me chills and inspire awe.

Here is the complete film of A Trip to the Moon:

That’s it for my festival updates! Regularly scheduled blogging on this site should resume tomorrow.

Thanks for reading, and I can’t wait for next year!