Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Douglas Fairbanks: Best Actor Of 1920 (The Mark Of Zorro) And Producer Of The Best Picture Of 1924 (The Thief Of Bagdad)

The first in a series of essays about the Katie winners of the pre-Oscar era.

He was called "The King of Hollywood" and if any actor during the Silent Era might credibly have claimed to be more popular than Charlie Chaplin, it was Elton Thomas Ullman, better known to his adoring public as Douglas Fairbanks.

The star of forty-eight movies, including some of the greatest action films of all time, he was, along with Chaplin and his wife Mary Pickford, one of the three highest-paid and most-popular actors of his day. On his honeymoon with Pickford, Fairbanks and his bride drew crowds of 300,000 in Paris and London. At home in their mansion, dubbed "Pickfair," the two threw lavish parties and routinely entertained the world's most sought-after celebrities. To receive an invitation to Pickfair was to receive the social blessing of Hollywood royalty.

But Fairbanks was more than just a regular feature of the gossip columns and party circuit. He was also a fine actor and virtually created the modern action hero in a series of swashbuckling adventures that showcased an infectious joie de vivre and an extraordinary flare for stuntwork.

His lead performance in The Mark of Zorro, for which I awarded him a Katie as best actor of 1920, was his first foray into the genre of the period-costume action-adventure. Already a star of comedies, audiences responded with such enthusiasm to Fairbanks's new role that he cheerfully ended up playing variations on it for the rest of his career.

The per- formance was both ground- breaking and one of the most influential in movie history, esta- blishing many of the superhero and action hero conventions we now take for granted. His physique later served as the model for the comic hero Superman and the mask, secret hideaway and foppish alter ego inspired the creators of Batman.

As a co-founder of United Artists, Fairbanks had complete creative control over his pictures and he produced a string of action-adventure classics—The Mark of Zorro, The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood, The Thief of Bagdad, Don Q Son of Zorro, The Black Pirate, The Gaucho—before saying farewell to the genre with The Iron Mask. On each of these movies, he worked not just as an actor but also as a writer (under the name Elton Thomas) and a producer.

The Thief of Bagdad was the best of these movies, one of the finest of its type ever made. Loosely based on stories from One Thousand and One Nights, The Thief of Bagdad is the tale of a pickpocket who falls in love with a princess and who then sets off on a fantastic adventure to prove himself. With the graceful and athletic Fairbanks at its heart, The Thief of Bagdad is as fluid as a ballet while at the same time serving up a rip-snorting yarn filled with the best special effects 1924 could offer.

I selected it as the best picture of 1924 over such classics as Greed, The Last Laugh, The Navigator and Sherlock, Jr. and feel completely justified in doing so. The American Film Institute voted The Thief of Bagdad the ninth best fantasy movie of all time, the only silent film on the list, and along with City Lights, one of only two silent movies on any of the AFI Top Ten lists. In my opinion, it was the best fantasy movie made before The Wizard of Oz in 1939, and was probably the best action-adventure movie before 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Fairbanks continued making swashbuckling adventures until the dawn of the Early Sound Era when he put down his foil and returned to the genre that had given him his start, comedy. He made four movies, including one, The Taming of the Shrew, with his by-then estranged wife, Mary Pickford, then retired from acting altogether.

He later received a commemorative Oscar in recognition of his work as the first president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and his "outstanding contribution ... to the international development of the motion picture."

Douglas Fairbanks died of a heart attack in 1939 at the age of fifty-five. His last words were "Never felt better."


Douglas Fairbanks said...

Thank you for noting my work as an actor and writer.

I know that you've mentioned UA before, and it's also appreciated. But I'm particularly grateful that you brought some of the rest to light.

Tastes and styles change. I will go through eternity, or as long as memory serves, known largely through my get-ups. Shirtless swashbuckling. I'm proud of that work, and can explain the work involved. But I think everyone, regardless of trends in clothes or acting styles, appreciates the effort it takes to mount a feature film, and turn it from an idea [high art, crass commerce, lunacy, or some joyous blend] into a movie that shows up in movie houses, attended by an attentive, appreciative audience.


Douglas Fairbanks said...


Next time, a paragraph to all the major-league tail that I pulled?

You jokers today think that Brad Pitt made 'em swoon.

Fuck the "Man O' a Thousand Faces"; they called me "RiverBringer"!

Mythical Monkey said...

I will say this about "swashbuckling," which is too often a dismissive term: There have been boatloads of actors over the ages who have tried it but to my mind only three were truly great at it, Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn and, as the anti-swashbuckler, Johnny Depp. It's more than just grace and athletic ability or even joie de vivre. There's a fine balancing act going on between taking the work seriously but not too seriously, having fun and letting the audience know you're having fun but never winking at the camera to say to the audience "I'm above this material."

It's that look in Errol Flynn's eye, not exaggerated but there, in the scene in The Adventures of Robin Hood after he's dropped the deer on King John's table and he's leaning back in his chair and he sees the guards closing the exits and preparing to take him, and while there's appropriate apprehension, there's also this gleam like, "Hmm, the odds are 100-to-1. Should be fun."

If there wasn't talent and skill involved, anybody could do it. And quite clearly most can't. I mean, I wouldn't want to see Douglas Fairbanks in Taxi Driver but I wouldn't want to see Robert DeNiro in tights, not even as a joke.

By the way, I think some people would toss Burt Lancaster into that company, but while I'm a big fan of his work overall, his performance in The Crimson Pirate leaves me cold for some reason. Maybe he chews too much scenery.

There's an art to that, too. Just ask William Shatner ...

Mythical Monkey said...

I'm grinding through a particularly busy day today, with an absolutely drop-dead no-extension deadline, but I am taking a breather to address Douglas Fairbanks's second comment, specifically that I detail, as he so artfully put it, "all the major-league tail that I pulled."

As a general rule, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about anyone's sex life other than my own, especially when the person in question has been dead for seventy years, but on this occasion I will pass along what I've been able to glean in the last few minutes from no doubt reliable sources (um, Wikipedia).

Fairbanks was married three times, first to Anna Beth Sully (1907-1919), then Mary Pickford (1920-1936) and finally to Edith Louise Sylvia Hawkes (1936 to this death in 1939).

Sully was the daughter of a wealthy Rhode Island industrialist. The couple divorced after Fairbanks began a long-term affair with Mary Pickford. Fairbanks and Sully had one child, Douglas Elton Fairbanks who performed in movies under the name Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

Of Pickford, you know plenty, or should by this time. Despite being born in Canada, she was known as "America's Sweetheart" and was the most popular actress of her time. The match between Fairbanks and Pickford was passionate. Begun in secret while both were married, the relationship ironically fell apart because the two spent so much time in the public eye, they had no time to be alone together.

Perhaps in retaliation for Pickford's close relationship with Charles "Buddy" Rogers (they later married), Fairbanks began an affair with Lady Sylvia Ashley of London, who began her career as a lingerie model, graduating to chorus girl and stage actress before becoming, so far as I can tell, a professional trophy wife, having married five times, mostly to British aristocrats but also to Fairbanks and from 1949-1952, to Clark Gable.

Beyond that, I'm not sure who Fairbanks slept with. In fact, maybe he didn't sleep at all. After all, he died of a heart attack at age 55 ...

Anyone else know anything concrete (or care) beyond the boastful generalizations of Douglas Fairbanks himself?

Douglas Fairbanks said...

Boastful ?!?!?

Baby, I've undersold it.

Let's just say that Joe Kennedy was a "sloppy seconds" man, and that Greta didn't always want to be alone.

I even tagged Joan Crawford, that conniving little bitch. She had been playing Chaney up in the trades, and in the papers generally, and I wanted to let her know what a real man was like. And let's just say that once I adjusted to the hirsute ice princess, and went to work, she was looking for me to leave a little Z on her ass, if ya follow.


You kill me.

If you want the list, I can give it to you.

And my "number" is not as high as you expect, but what was there was cherce. . . .

Mythical Monkey said...

You've got to admit, you would know better than I ...

Mythical Monkey said...

Actually, I'm hoping Douglas Fairbanks didn't sleep with Joan Crawford given that his son, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., was engaged to marry her.

But you never know.

Could it be you are referring to "tail by proxy," a little-known but often-practiced concept by which a man sleeps with a woman vicariously.

I think in the modern parlance, it's known as "surfing the 'net for porn ..."

Douglas Fairbanks said...

naaah; I banged the broad.

I mean, she wasn't my kin, if you know what I mean.

And my son was a bit of a wuss.

But I'm glad you caught my reference.

I loves me the Wiki

Douglas Fairbanks said...

I'm surprised people aren't still commenting about this post. . . .