The image of Douglas Fairbanks is that of the swashbuckling hero from The Mark of Zorro (1920), Robin Hood (1922), and The Thief of Baghdad (1924). But the cornerstone of Fairbanks’s fame was as a popular romantic comedy lead. And in 1919 and 1920, several life-changing events would not only cement his legend, but also change the course of Hollywood history.
Born Douglas Elton Ulman in Denver, Colorado, on May 23, 1883, Douglas Fairbanks took to the local stage by the time he was 11. In 1900 he moved to New York and worked at odd jobs until finally making his Broadway debut in 1902. Although ambitious and hard-working, he wasn’t the huge success that he had been in local theater. In 1907, Fairbanks married his first wife, Beth Sully, the daughter of wealthy industrialist Daniel Sully. Their union produced a son, Douglas Jr., who later became a movie star in his own right. Fairbanks Sr. was convinced to work in the family business as a soap salesman, but this lasted only a few months before he returned to the stage, where he soon gained fame.
In 1915, Fairbanks accepted a $2,000 a week, 100-week guarantee from the Triangle Film Corporation to relocate to Hollywood. His rise to stardom alongside friends such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin was swift, and his comedies and social satires became some of the most popular films of the early 20th century. Films such as The Matrimaniac (1916) helped to secure Fairbanks’s fame and allowed him to form his own production company. It was also at this time that Fairbanks met and fell in love with Mary Pickford, beginning one of the most famous unions in Hollywood history.
When the Clouds Roll By was one of Fairbanks’s last romantic comedies before his switch to larger pictures, and one of his best. The story of a superstitious young underachiever who is unwittingly being manipulated by his boss and by a crazy doctor, the film was written by Fairbanks and directed by Victor Fleming. Fleming, a no-nonsense “man’s man,” went on to become one of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s most reliable directors of classics, including The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Gone with the Wind (1939).
Fleming keeps the action in When the Clouds Roll By moving at a fast pace, using brisk editing to stay one jump ahead of the audience. More importantly, he allows Fairbanks to show off the acrobatic abilities that soon took his career in a different direction. Using ingenious movie trickery, Fairbanks even pre-dates a famous Fred Astaire sequence by more than 30 years. Wisely, the acrobatics are plot driven. As Fairbanks said, “I have never in the pictures performed a stunt for the stunt’s sake. Such athletic things as I have done on the screen were done to get over my interpretation, my idea of youth.”
When the Clouds Roll By also anticipates future Fairbanks films with its production values. The film employs large sets and state-of-the-art special effects. A short 77 minutes, the film manages to run the gamut from intimate scenes to spectacle, keeping Fairbanks’s endearing character front and center.
At the time Fairbanks made When the Clouds Roll By, he had just formed United Artists with Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith. This was the first time that a group of major stars broke their ties to the studios to make and distribute their own movies. The company revolutionized Hollywood and changed the star system forever. Because of their huge popularity, the foursome was able to make United Artists successful enough to lure other top actors and directors to their films.
During this period, Fairbanks and Mary Pickford were hiding their romance from the public because they were both married, and they feared their careers would be ruined by a scandal, as had happened to other stars. They finally were married in 1920, and the marriage only increased their popularity. Prior to the wedding, Fairbanks remodeled his hunting lodge into a mansion that the couple rechristened “Pickfair.” They became two of the earliest residents of Beverly Hills, and the reigning King and Queen of Hollywood.
Ahead of his time when it came to personal fitness, Fairbanks kept himself in top physical shape, never drank, and was a proponent of vigorous exercise, despite his three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. So, at the advanced age (in movie years) of 37, he was able to transition into the role of swashbuckler, thanks to his good health habits and personal magnetism.
Why the switch? In an article he wrote for Ladies Home Journal in 1924, Fairbanks explained: “In my own career, there was nothing deliberate about getting into big productions … I was playing a sort of young man about town who was essentially the same in each play, and stories were fitted to that end. I became fed up with the sort of thing I was doing, and I was afraid the public would become so too.”
In 1920, Fairbanks released the first of his swashbuckler films, The Mark of Zorro. It was a big hit, making effective use of Fairbanks’s charm and physical prowess to re-invent him as the heroic swashbuckler. No one had done this type of film before, and the gamble paid off, setting Fairbanks on a new and even more successful career path. By 1922, he was such a superstar that the opening of Robin Hood set the standard for subsequent premieres. Fairbanks and Pickford were also the first stars to put their hand and footprints in cement outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Fairbanks was one of the original owners of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and, as a founding member and first president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he presided over the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929 at the hotel.
By the late 1920s, Fairbanks’s reign as film superhero was coming to an end. Now in his mid-40s, he couldn’t continue to maintain the appearance of youthful vigor. Sound films were revolutionizing the industry. Although it is frequently assumed that Fairbanks was a casualty of the industry’s switch to sound, this wasn’t the case. The stage-trained Fairbanks had no speech or voice problems; the public simply lost interest in many of the silent era’s stars and their “old fashioned” films. When Fairbanks and Pickford released their only film together, a sound version of The Taming of the Shrew (1929), it had only a modest success. The film also had the misfortune of being released at the time of the stock market crash.
The couple formally announced their retirement from movies in 1933, and shortly thereafter they separated. Among the factors contributing to the end of the marriage were Fairbanks’s philandering, Pickford’s alcoholism, and money woes from the crash. The divorce was finalized in 1936, and within months Fairbanks married Lady Sylvia Ashley, who later married Clark Gable. In 1939, Fairbanks began working on a script for a new film to be titled The Californian, but he never finished the script. On December 12, 1939, Douglas Fairbanks suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 56 years old.
Douglas Fairbanks’s legacy isn’t just that of swashbuckler hero. He was one of the true founders of Hollywood, and a visionary who saw the potential of what films could be. He was one of the first who could do it all — actor, comedian, stunt man, screenwriter, director, businessman … and superstar.
Screened with 1916’s The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. as Coke Ennyday
Presented at SFSFF 2004 with live music by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer