In 1926 Douglas Fairbanks was beginning to sense his own mortality. His elder half-brother John had suffered a paralytic stroke and would be dead within the year. His storybook union to Mary Pickford was strained, her excessive drinking an affront to her husband’s lifelong abstinence. Yet “Doug”, as his fans called him, was at a career peak. The iconic performer and producer of his own films had established new standards for set building and special effects in Robin Hood (1922) and The Thief of Bagdad (1924). The Black Pirate (1926) was the longest film yet to be photographed entirely in a two-strip Technicolor process and remained his biggest domestic box-office earner to date.
Rather than attempting to outdistance his previous technological strides, Fairbanks decided to explore theme and character in greater depth in The Gaucho. The star said he was moved to make a film about a healing shrine after visiting Lourdes, France, where, in 1858, St. Bernadette had reported visions of the Virgin Mary. He transposed his story to Argentina, subverting his screen persona by making his title character a bandit and an overt atheist. (The story was credited to “Elton Thomas,” Fairbanks’s pseudonym but was likely a collaborative effort.) Fairbanks had often played men working outside the law, yet they were on the side of right, fighting against a corrupt authority. As scholars John C. Tibbets and James M. Welsh wrote of The Gaucho, “For the first time, the Fairbanksian hero answers to no belief or dogma—other than his own.”
Fairbanks hired F. Richard Jones to direct The Gaucho. Jones, primarily known for his comedies, had directed “Madcap” Mabel Normand in features such as The Extra Girl (1924). Fairbanks’s storyline was dark, and Jones was able to inject a joyfulness expected by Fairbanks fans. Much of the lightheartedness in the film derives from the female lead, a free-spirited “mountain girl” played by Lupe Vélez. A dancer from the outskirts of Mexico City, she had come to Hollywood and appeared, without credit, in a few Hal Roach comedies. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. shot Vélez’s screen test for his father’s picture, but according to legend she was cast before the footage was even developed. True or not, the story indicates the immediate impact Vélez made in The Gaucho, as perhaps the most prominent of any female character in a Fairbanks picture. The Los Angeles Times wrote, “One can prophecy very much success for her, because she is fiery and seemingly quite unselfconscious.” On the heels of this success, Vélez was cast in the title role of D.W. Griffith’s final silent film, Lady of the Pavements (1929). Soon the new star was working for top directors Victor Fleming, Tod Browning, Henry King, William Wyler, Monta Bell, and Cecil B. DeMille.
Vélez’s bilingualism put her briefly in demand acting in Spanish-language versions of Hollywood talkies—a practice that dubbing later made obsolete. Because of prejudices and audience expectations of “ethnic” performers, she faked a limited command of English, both on screen and in printed interviews. In Motion Picture magazine, she is reported to have said: “I have flirt with the whole film colony. Why not? I am not serious. What harm is a little flirting? No, I do not kiss many mens. But when I kiss them, they stay kissed!” Her leading man on The Gaucho was rumored to have succumbed to her self-proclaimed charms. Observers reported that Fairbanks and Vélez enjoyed practicing their sultry tango moves and embraces in front of the crew, and away from it as well. Pickford was briefly on the set, playing a cameo role as the Virgin Mary, and a dalliance between the costars may have been the beginning of the long, drawn-out end of Fairbanks and Pickford’s marriage.
Despite its romance and introspection, The Gaucho is essentially a good old Fairbanks adventure, with ornately constructed Andean village sets and state-of-the-art special effects. The star was in top physical condition, as demonstrated by the horsemanship and acrobatics he performed. Fairbanks trained with Argentine experts in the use of bolas, a Patagonian hunting weapon, just as he had learned archery for Robin Hood and whip-cracking for Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925). Press materials for The Gaucho trumpet the film’s authentic portrayal of pampas culture, from the costuming and the tango to the nationality of the extras, most of whom were in fact Mexican-American. Fairbanks himself conceived of the film as a timeless fantasy. “Naturally, it will be colorful,” he told the Los Angeles Record, “showing the South Americans as we think of them rather than as they are.” The possibility that audiences might find make-believe interpretations of Latin American culture believable had created trouble for Hollywood before. The Mexican government, reacting to negative portrayals of its people in films such as Fairbanks’s screen debut The Lamb (1915), had just a few years before threatened studios responsible for such images with a national boycott. Allen L. Woll argues in The Latin American Image in American Film that this threat only shifted stereotypes southward, to places like Argentina that were not as crucial a film export market.
The Gaucho premiered at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in November 1927. It became a hit and earned twice its $700,000 production cost. Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks chose the popular film to parody for the second-ever Mickey Mouse cartoon. As The Gallopin’ Gaucho (1928), Mickey smokes a cigarette in the Fairbanks manner, rides a rhea bird up and down the Andes, tangos with Minnie, and throws his tail around like bolas. Disney repaid its debt to the star when the animated mouse appeared in the travelogue Around the World with Douglas Fairbanks (1932).
Fairbanks’s enthusiasm for talking pictures was not as strong as it had been for silents. Indeed, his off-screen accomplishments proved more enduring than his sound-era movies. He co-founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and hosted the first two Academy Awards ceremonies. He helped launch the University of Southern California’s film school. He was instrumental in securing Los Angeles as the site of the 1932 Olympic Games. His film career, however, sputtered. Fairbanks retired from acting after The Private Life of Don Juan (1934), his fifth-straight box office disappointment.
Before his death of a heart attack in December 1939, Fairbanks shipped his entire film collection to the Museum of Modern Art Film Library. This donation and a similar one from D.W. Griffith became cornerstones of the museum’s nascent film archive. Though preservation practices were still primitive at the time—six early Fairbanks films were allowed to deteriorate to the point of no return—MoMA now houses the best extant prints of many of Fairbanks’s surviving films, including The Gaucho. In 1940 the museum dedicated a season to his oeuvre. Possibly the first such star retrospective in the United States, it reportedly drew audiences of all ages and was so popular it had to be extended. While The Gaucho was not among those included in the program, MoMA has since struck a print for new audiences to enjoy.
Presented at SFSFF 2009 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra