Made early in Douglas Fairbanks’s film career, The Good Bad Man is the fifth of his 12 feature-length films made for the Fine Arts division of the Triangle Film Corporation, and the second of ten collaborations between Fairbanks and director Allan Dwan. It is also among his earliest films to explore themes and ideas that recurred throughout his work—including issues of identity and a passion for the history of the American West. In The Good Bad Man, Fairbanks plays the cheerful and aimless outlaw “Passin’ Through,” whose holdups include robbing a train conductor of his ticket punch and stealing food from the town store and giving it to a friendless orphan. Passin’ Through has a special affinity for orphans. Underneath his happy-go-lucky nature, he hides the sorrow and anxiety of not knowing his own parentage.
Passin’ Through has a run-in with the leader of a gang of outlaws called The Wolf, played by Triangle’s regular heavy Sam de Grasse. He also meets and falls in love with the daughter of one of the outlaws (Bessie Love). When Passin’ Through shoots up a saloon, he is arrested by a United States Marshal (Pomeroy Cannon) who happens to know his history. The Marshal uses the opportunity to console the good-hearted bandit with the information that his father and mother were legitimately married and he was born in wedlock. Learning the truth of his parentage gives him the courage to escape captivity and face the villainous Wolf.
Passin’ Through’s unresolved relationship with an absent father and concerns of illegitimacy were also central to the identity of the offscreen Fairbanks, born Douglas Ulman. His mother, Ella Fairbanks (née Marsh), had been twice married before meeting attorney H. Charles Ulman, the son of German-Jewish immigrants. An alcoholic and bigamist, Ulman abandoned his new family when Douglas was five years old. At that time, Douglas’s mother changed the family’s surname to that of her deceased first husband, “Fairbanks.” H. Charles Ulman died in 1915 and was undoubtedly in Fairbanks’s thoughts in early 1916 when he developed the story of The Good Bad Man. The personal concerns and anxieties Fairbanks felt toward his identity were deeply concealed, which makes their exploration with his film’s restless hero fascinating to watch.
Fairbanks’s predilection for stories concerning lineage throughout his career suggests the actor’s preoccupation with recasting himself in light of his celebrity. Whether in this early effort or in later films like His Majesty, the American (1919), The Mollycoddle (1920), Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925), or The Black Pirate (1926), Fairbanks attempted to reconcile the contradictions within himself between the self-made man and the aristocrat. Another common thread in Fairbanks’s stories was the American West, its history, literature, and art. His great hero was Theodore Roosevelt and he embraced Roosevelt’s philosophy of the physically strenuous life. He adored the adventure fiction of Richard Harding Davis, who had covered the Spanish American War and helped build the myth of the Rough Riders. Fairbanks also was an enthusiastic collector of paintings of the American West by Charles M. Russell and Frederic Remington.
The Good Bad Man skillfully weaves the comic and the dramatic with Fairbanks’s sympathetic and dynamic performance as the film’s foundation. A “good bad man” was a term current in the 1910s and best illustrated in cinema of the time with the westerns of William S. Hart, including the classic Hell’s Hinges, which came out the same year.
The Good Bad Man was filmed at the Fine Arts Studio in Hollywood and on various locations (trade paper accounts suggest southeastern California) over four weeks. Dwan’s picturesque compositions of western landscapes and a fine shoot-out climax add to the film’s appeal. Victor Fleming (the future director of the 1939 Hollywood classics Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz) was the film’s cinematographer. Fleming was one of the crew members whose career Fairbanks nurtured. He took Fleming with him when he left Triangle in 1917 to form his own production unit and entrusted the young cinematographer with directing the technically complex When the Clouds Roll By (1919), Fleming’s directing debut.
Fleming proved his abilities on The Good Bad Man when he cleverly employed a make-shift matte and double exposure to give Fairbanks’s horse jump over a wide ravine the illusion of possibility and, more importantly, effortlessness. Allan Dwan remembered to Peter Bogdanovich, “Stunts per se were of no interest to [Fairbanks] or to me. The one thing that could possibly interest either one of us was a swift, graceful move—the thing a kid visualizes in his hero.”
Passin’ Through’s love interest, the teenaged Bessie Love, was chosen by Fairbanks’s then-wife, Beth Fairbanks (neé Sully), as his new leading lady. That same year, she also appeared opposite Fairbanks in two other films, Reggie Mixes In and the bizarre two-reel comedy The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, in which Fairbanks played a cocaine-addicted detective. Love later recalled of Beth Fairbanks, “It was no secret that she was not exactly wearing the pants, but [was] the manager. She was a little bit stern, a little bit the manageress. But never mind, she was a good one.” The angel-faced, diminutive Love, who went on to a successful career as a leading lady that lasted through the early sound era, wrote in her 1977 autobiography, “Nothing was ever accidentally good about Fairbanks’s work. Everything was carefully planned.”
Cinema impresario S.L. “Roxy” Rothapfel chose The Good Bad Man to open his new 1,900-seat Rialto Theatre in New York City on April 21, 1916. The reviews of the film were uniformly excellent. The New York Dramatic Mirror extolled, “The Good Bad Man has the charm of being unique … Furthermore, it has the added charm of introducing Douglas Fairbanks in a brand new screen role, that of a typical westerner of the old days … We had supposed that Douglas Fairbanks would be satisfied with his well-earned laurels as a first class comedian, but lo and behold, he must now set out and endeavor to take those of William S. Hart and Frank Keenan.” The industry trade paper Variety took special note of Fairbanks’s original story, “In his writing for the screen Mr. Fairbanks discloses a fine sense of what the public wants in pictures and gives it to them.” The New York Times praised Fairbanks the actor: “His expressive face, radiant, toothsome smile, immense activity, and apparent disposition to romp all over the map make him a treasure to the cinema. No deserter from the spoken drama is more engaging in the new work than Douglas Fairbanks.”
Fairbanks did not hold his Triangle-Fine Arts productions in high regard and they were altered and reissued without his involvement. The Good Bad Man has been available for decades in a pictorially sharp 35mm exhibition print, but the intertitles and narrative order were compromised by alterations from the Tri-Stone Pictures reissue of 1923 as well as later revisions made by film distributor Raymond Rohauer. This new restoration of the 1923 version enhances our appreciation of this early Fairbanks effort. As for Fairbanks and Dwan, their greatest collaborations were to come in the 1920s: Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922) and The Iron Mask (1929).
Presented at SFSFF 2014 with live music by Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius