When the Clouds Roll By is a dazzling comic spree of action and fantasia. The second film Douglas Fairbanks released through his own distribution company, United Artists, it was one of the last of his “Coat and Tie” films, made before he transformed himself into the screen’s most popular swashbuckler.
Throughout 1918 and 1919 Douglas Fairbanks, the biggest male star in the film industry, had been on the hunt for good scripts. While his popularity was unabated, he had felt the tugs of negative criticism at his sleeve for his most recent spate of films. In fact, it was predominantly the negative reviews he pasted into his personal scrapbook, and which he studied. He set out to do something different.
To understand the story behind the making of Clouds, it is necessary to know the backstory behind his first release for UA, His Majesty, the American. It was a Ruritanian romance/comedy scripted and directed by Joseph Henabery who, along with cameraman Victor Fleming, had recently returned from the war. “Doug promised to include in his next release some favorable propaganda in behalf of President Wilson’s League of Nations idea, which was hailed as world lifesaver,” Henabery recalled in his 1997 autobiography, Before, In and After Hollywood.
“Doug wanted me to write a story that would incorporate some of the President’s ideas in the upcoming picture. The Government wanted some emphasis given to each of Wilson’s proposed Fourteen Points. The danger was that propaganda could easily overburden the story, unless great care was taken to weave it in subtly.” Then political reality set in. “Wilson’s Fourteen Points went down the drain, and I, in a way, went with the Fourteen Points. I could conceive of no way to salvage the picture without doing damage by the removal of material relating to the propaganda, but the job had to be done. Luckily, some excess material, for which there was no room in the first cut, was available.”
But pro-League of Nations material wasn’t all that was removed from the first edit of Majesty. For some reason, the team elected to cut one of the best parts of the film: a wildly funny nightmare sequence. Happily, they didn’t discard it but worked it into their next release.
When the Clouds Roll By is the story of a comically superstitious young man slowly being driven mad by his evil-scientist neighbor. The memorable and striking nightmare scene graces the first reel. Film historians have been lavish in handing credit to fledgling director Victor Fleming for this witty, surreal sequence, not knowing that this section was directed by Joseph Henabery for Fairbanks’s previous film. The press book for Majesty referenced the “wild and delirious nightmare,” including the slow-motion chase and the moment when Fairbanks enters a ballroom full of matrons clad only in his underwear. A correction slip had to be published and included with each press kit, urging exhibitors to eliminate any reference to the nightmare. Henabery’s recollections were specific:
The revolving room—that was my idea. I made this barrel-like thing, had the hawsers around it to revolve it so that when he was running on the ceiling he was really running on the floor. The camera was upside down. It wasn’t used because we had too much fit so that when he was running on the ceiling he was really running on the floor. The camera was upside down. It wasn’t used because we had too much film. Another thing we had in that … where Bull Montana is socked in the nose and fell down and comes up again …. I had a counterweight on him so he was pivoted on the floor. You’d push him down—course he was aided by a wire—but the weight below would bring him right back up. In other words, Fairbanks couldn’t knock him down.
The revolving room innovation, where the set was an open cube, with both floors and ceilings, which rotated much like a hamster wheel, created the illusion that Fairbanks was walking the walls and cutting capers on the ceiling. The effect has been reproduced twice since (without attribution)—in Royal Wedding with Fred Astaire and in certain shots in the modern thriller Inception. A sharp eye will note the pajamas from His Majesty and the right side of the bedroom set from the first film to the second. The omission of the nightmare from His Majesty deprived Henabery of some rightful credit, but the sequence fits in splendidly with the story of When the Clouds Roll By.
The opening credits set the loopy tone—Fleming filmed scenarist Geraghty, himself, the cameramen, and Fairbanks with the actor’s favorite Alaskan malamute, Rex, to accompany the names. The intertitles followed suit. The one introducing Fairbanks’s character reads:
It is midnight along New York’s water front. It is also midnight in the Wall Street district. However, this has nothing to do with our story, except it is likewise midnight uptown where we first meet Daniel Boone Brown—an average young man.
Our tale proper opens with the eating of an onion—
The title card backgrounds were painted by popular illustrator Henry Clive and written by Thomas Geraghty. The issue of authorship came into brief contention shortly after the film’s release. Louis Weadock was a newspaperman and short story author who reportedly joined the scenario staff before Clouds was produced. He leaked a story to Variety that both he and Thomas Geraghty were “rather incensed over the fact that the employer-star failed to give them credit for having evolved what seems to be the greatest hit that Fairbanks has had in a year.” This was met with a quick denial by United Artists, also published in Variety:
The story was the original idea of Douglas Fairbanks and the scenario was written by Tom Geraghty … Weadock, it is declared, was engaged by the Fairbanks organization as an apprentice at a small salary, and was present at the studio during the making of the story. His ideas, however, did not come up to the standard required by Fairbanks and before the completion of the production he was removed from all affiliation with the company.
This, for all intents and purposes, appeared to settle the hash of the disgruntled writer, who was not heard from again. (Possibly because his palm was appropriately greased. Fairbanks biographer Jeffrey Vance notes that the star paid Weadock $500 to settle a claim of libel.)
Fairbanks pulled out all stops in the last reel of the film. Four enormous electric pumps drew more than a million gallons of water from the Sacramento River into an elevated reservoir in the Cascade mountains. Once released, the flood washed out the town: a convincing combination of miniatures and life-sized buildings. For the post-flood sequence, a flooded plain near Seal Beach was filled with trees, houses, and even a floating church (handy for providing the minister at the film’s happy ending).
When the Clouds Roll By was a tremendous success, earning the second highest returns of any of his productions to date. And it was a critical darling, to boot. Photoplay’s critic wrote: “If he had begun his United Artists’ career with it he would have given that new connection a boost which His Majesty the American failed to impart.”
Douglas Fairbanks was on the cusp of his move to swashbuckling costume films in the 1920s, with the Mark of Zorro coming the following year. Clouds raises a parlor-debate question: if all his coat-and-tie films had reached this stunning standard, would he ever have donned a cape or grasped a sword?
Presented at SFSFF 2016 with live music by Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius