When production began early in 1918 on Mr. Fix-It, the world was in the grip of the Great War, the fires of revolution were burning in Russia and Mexico, and modernism was turning the art world upside down. France and Germany, two centers of world cinema, were devastated, and, while Hollywood was affected, film production was by no means interrupted. In fact, a fruitful collaboration between an ingenious director and a charismatic star who helped define American silent cinema was well underway.
Director Allan Dwan was two years younger than Douglas Fairbanks but entered filmmaking about six years earlier than the actor. In 1909, while working as an arc light specialist for a lighting company, Dwan delivered four mercury vapor tube lights to Essanay Studios in Chicago. While on the set ensuring the equipment worked properly, he became fascinated with the filmmaking process. When he found out the going rate for producible stories ($25 each), he sold Essanay a few of his own. Soon he was working at the studio as a scenario editor, and, when most of the staff left to form the American Film Manufacturing Company, they asked Dwan to be the chief scenario editor. He spent a few months in Arizona functioning “as a sort of unit manager … and work[ing] on stories,” until management sacked the Tucson operation. Rehired in 1911, he was sent to California to check on a stalled production and discovered that the director had decamped to Los Angeles “on a binge.” When he wired the home office about it, he received the reply: “You direct.”
From May 1911 until late 1915, working for American, Universal, Famous Players, and then Triangle, Dwan directed and/or wrote hundreds of films, most of them split- or one-reelers. Many were features running four or five reels. At a time when the industry had not yet settled on standard procedures and formats, Dwan learned to insist on autonomy, and he built steadily on his experience of innovating by doing. He’s generally credited with moving the static camera in Famous Players’ production of David Harum (1915). At Triangle, on D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), Dwan figured out how to photograph the sprawling Babylon set.
Douglas Fairbanks was the creation of Coloradoan Douglas Elton Ulman. Born in 1883, he was renamed by his thrice-married mother to honor her first husband, John Fairbanks. A born risk-taker with a fondness for dangerous stunts, he began appearing on stage in school and in local theater productions, joining a touring company in 1899. At the age of 19, Fairbanks headed for New York, where his first starring role caught the eye of actress Grace George, whose husband William A. Brady was a successful producer. Brady enjoyed watching the now 22-year old working off his backstage boredom with acrobatic feats, like climbing up and down a long staircase set on his hands. Soon the actor began to work such physical bits into his scenes, and audiences began to expect them as part of Brady’s productions.
In the summer of 1907, a 24-year-old Fairbanks married Beth Sully and, two years later, the couple had a son. On stage, Fairbanks continued to flourish in action-packed comedies, occasionally working at his father-in-law’s soap factory. Fairbanks family lore has it that a chance encounter in Central Park with a motion picture cameraman resulted in some footage of Fairbanks’s athletic capering being seen by Harry Aitken, cofounder of the new Triangle Film Corporation. In fact, Aitken and Fairbanks had already been in discussions and, on the strength of his New York stage successes, Fairbanks went west in the summer of 1915. His first Triangle release, The Lamb (1915), was a hit, and he returned to New York, where he attended the film’s premiere that September. Soon after, he met Mary Pickford for the first time at the home of a mutual friend.
Triangle Film Corporation put its full weight behind its new star. D.W. Griffith at least nominally supervised the new player’s projects, some of which were scripted by up-and-comers Anita Loos and John Emerson. Fairbanks’s fourth film at Triangle was The Habit of Happiness (1916), the first of eleven collaborations with Allan Dwan. The two men shared an immediate affinity. “Stunts per se were of no interest to him or to me,” Dwan later said. “The one thing that could possibly interest either one of us was a swift, graceful move—the thing a kid visualizes in his hero.” Fairbanks also became involved in the scriptwriting process, as Anita Loos recalled in 1939: “[H]e sat in on the writing and contributed as much as we did.… No writer could object to having help from a brain as fertile, as stimulating and as original in its story conceptions as Doug’s.”
In early February 1918, production was about to begin on Mr. Fix-It, a comedy in which Fairbanks impersonates his Oxford roommate to save the friend’s inheritance. By this time, Douglas Fairbanks Pictures Corporation (formed a year earlier) had already produced seven pictures. Despite the autonomy that owning his work enabled, Fairbanks himself was more concerned with the war effort. He had tried to enlist when the war broke out but, according to Douglas Fairbanks Jr., “the White House intervened” on his father’s behalf, as he could contribute more as a celebrity fund-raiser than as a soldier. Frederic Lombardi, author of the forthcoming book Allan Dwan: Pioneer in Exile, explains that there was some urgency on the set of Mr. Fix-It because Fairbanks was scheduled for a nationwide tour to sell war bonds. The shoot was able to proceed more quickly because Dwan’s script required, as Lombardi notes, “mostly interior settings. Since film stock was not fast enough at that time to shoot outdoor night scenes, filming in both day and night could be done only with interiors. … The film’s ‘exteriors’ included New York streets constructed in a studio.”
The picture opened at New York’s Rivoli Theatre on April 15, 1918. Fairbanks, Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin (soon to found United Artists with D.W. Griffith) had been in New York since the previous week for a Liberty Loan rally that attracted thousands. No one in the crowd knew that Pickford and Fairbanks had been secret lovers for more than a year. “The King of Hollywood” and “America’s Sweetheart” finally married in 1920.
In 1918, Dwan and Fairbanks made two more pictures as producer and star: Bound in Morocco and He Comes Up Smiling. But their greatest work was still ahead. Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922) included complex action sequences and an elaborate castle set that dwarfed Griffith’s Babylon set for Intolerance. Their final collaboration, The Iron Mask (1929), was another action-packed spectacle that combined the stories of The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask. It also marked the beginning of the star’s decline. Fairbanks’s first sound picture was limited to brief appearances as D’Artagnan in which the aging musketeer fittingly bids farewell. Dwan went on to a career that spanned five decades, touching on nearly every film genre. But he was particularly proud of his silent career, telling Peter Bogdanovich in the late ’60s, “There wasn’t any comparison—there was nothing we could do except make it up—and that’s inspiration.”
Roberto Landazuri is the corporate archivist at Dolby Laboratories Inc. and has written on historical topics for the Smithsonian, the San Francisco Public Library, and the University of California, Berkeley, among many institutions.
Film preceded by the orphan film Chumming with Chipmunks (1921)
Presented at SFSFF 2011 with live music by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer