I've written about Douglas Fairbanks many times, and the salient facts of his life are probably well-known to you: along with wife Mary Pickford and business partner Charlie Chaplin, Fairbanks was the first great film superstar. He co-founded United Artists in 1919, single-handedly invented the action hero genre in 1920, was elected the first president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927, and received an honorary Oscar in 1940.
After a successful career on Broadway, Fairbanks made his film debut in 1915, but it was really during the following year that he established himself on the silver screen. Including his cameo in the D.W. Griffith epic Intolerance, Fairbanks appeared in a dozen movies in 1916. One, The Good Bad Man, is apparently lost, but the others are readily available.
Here are thumbnail reviews in the order of release (ratings out of five):
His Picture in the Papers—Fairbanks plays Pete Prindle, the amiable but aimless son of a wealthy vegetarian. Pete prefers a diet of meat, booze and cigarettes to the family's line of Prindle's Pre-Digested Prunes, but he can still make pop happy if he can get his picture in the paper and boost the family business. Despite attempting all manner of publicity-getting stunts, including entering an amateur boxing match and wrecking his own car, Pete is a disappointment until he takes on the thugs who seek to muscle in on his father's company.
A pleasant enough comedy. ★★★
The Habit of Happiness—A solid comedy about a college graduate (Fairbanks) determined to put his "habits" for happiness in practice among the denizens of New York's Bowery. The bums are a piece of cake, but the real test comes in the form of an elderly miser who hates life. When gangsters determined to kill the old man for his money show up, Fairbanks has a chance to show off his athletic prowess.
George Fawcett provides solid support as the old grump. ★★★½
Trivia: Fairbanks told dirty jokes to get the extras to laugh in scenes filmed on skid row. When lip readers in the audience complained, the studio reshot Fairbanks's close-ups.
The Good Bad Man—presumed lost, a real pity since this was also the first of the eighteen movies Fairbanks wrote as well as starred in.
Reggie Mixes In—Another comedy with Fairbanks again playing a rich, physically-fit twenty-something with no real purpose in life. This time he takes work as a bouncer in a seedy bar because he's infatuated with a dancer (the always beautiful Bessie Love) and finds himself at odds with the least imposing gangster in movie history, William Lowery in a Trilby hat, striped bow tie and a jacket at least four sizes too small for him. Fairbanks engages in some uncharacteristic knockabout comedy with his butler, played by Joseph Singleton.
The Mystery of the Leaping Fish—Easily the most oddball entry in the entire Fairbanks oeuvre, this comedy short features a drug-addicted private eye who can barely rouse himself long enough to mainline some of the cocaine he keeps in a large pot on his desk, much less make it down to the beach where smugglers are hoping land a shipment of opium. (That's Fairbanks in the long mustache and tousled hair.)
The comedy is a little broad for my taste, but it scores the highest on the Internet Movie Database among Fairbanks's 1916 comedies. Fortunately, you can judge for yourself by clicking here.
Flirting with Fate—In a moment of despair, a struggling artist, Augy Holliday (Fairbanks), hires a notorious gunman to kill him. Almost as soon as the contract is set, though, Augy's ship comes in—his paintings sell, a long-lost relative leaves him a fortune and the girl of his dreams agrees to marry him. Luckily for him, this is a comedy, and the rest of the picture involves wild chases and mistaken identities. George Beranger provides memorable support as the would-be assassin.
The Half-Breed—The only real dud in the set, The Half-Breed is an overripe melodrama set in the wild west. Fairbanks, virtually unrecognizable in buckskins and coonskin cap, lives alone in the wilderness as a mountain man, making only occasional forays into town. On one trip, though, he finds himself rescuing a saloon girl who is fleeing what I presumed to be her pimp, and she and Fairbanks wind up living together in the forest. The notion of Man in his natural state has appealed to philosophers throughout history—Locke, Rousseau, Thoreau—and there have been some pretty good movies inspired by the idea of getting away from it all, but this isn't one of them.
Intolerance—D.W. Griffith's four-part story about the ill effects of religious fanaticism throughout the ages was the best picture of 1916 (read more about it here), but Fairbanks's role as the Man on the White Horse in the French segment amounts to little more than a cameo. No reason not to see it, though, especially since the restored version is available for instant streaming from Netflix.
Manhattan Madness—After a couple of dramatic turns, Fairbanks is back in his element here as a cowboy visiting friends in Manhattan. He longs to return to the range, but his pals are determined to prove that the big city can be just as wild as the west. On a bet, he stays another week and winds up helping a fair maiden escape from dangerous kidnappers—or does he? Fairbanks reversed the basic story to great effect for his 1917 masterpiece, Wild and Woolly, where he plays a naive city boy who heads west for adventure, not realizing the frontier of his dreams is largely a product of Hollywood's imagination.
American Aristocracy—Written by Anita Loos, who along with Frances Marion was then in the process of turning title writing into an art form, the tenth Douglas Fairbanks movie of 1916 begins as a satire of what passes for an aristocracy in a nation of over-glorified shopkeepers, with a seaside gathering of bean barons and milk kings dedicated to the proposition that wherever you go, there you'll find someone you can feel superior to—and thus, the wives of distillers can snub the wives of brewers as "social climbers."
"We ain't got any time for upstarts!"
Into this mix arrives Cassius Lee (Fairbanks), an amateur entomologist hot on the trail of the migratory caterpillar. Lee winds up involved with the heiress to the Hicks' Hatpin fortune (played by Jewel Carmen at the peak of her short-lived career) as well as gunrunners smuggling weapons to Mexico during that country's civil war (presumably to be used against the American forces who had intervened in the conflict). But, of course, this is all just an excuse to show off Fairbanks's athletic prowess and we don't get cheated as he scales buildings, springs into moving cars and swings from telephone wires.
Gotta love a man able to leap both porters and park benches in a single bound.
The Matrimaniac—For me, this is the real gem of the bunch, at least from the standpoint of Douglas Fairbanks. Here, he and one of the silent screen's best comediennes, Constance Talmadge, elope over the objections of her father and a former suitor. Along the way, Fairbanks steps off the train to fetch a minister, then spends the rest of the movie trying to catch up with his bride-to-be when his return is delayed. The result is a wild, stunt-filled romantic comedy that no doubt later served as a blueprint for the get-me-to-the-wedding-on-time storylines of Harold Lloyd's Girl Shy and For Heaven's Sake.
Especially fine is the performance of Fred Warren as the hapless minister—dragged out of the bath by Fairbanks on a moment's notice, he must steal clothes, shoes and various modes of transportation while dodging cops, strongmen and scandal, and winds up conducting the ceremony in the most unlikely of places.
The Americano—For the sake of love, justice and, of course, adventure, a young American mining engineer (Fairbanks) intervenes in a Latin American revolution. Although this a straight action-adventure picture, Fairbanks relies as much on wit and guile as physical prowess and given the picture's setting, it's a short step from here to The Mark of Zorro, the film that in 1920 established Fairbanks as history's first and greatest swashbuckling action hero. Alma Rubens plays the love interest.
A word of warning: Tom Wilson, playing the part of Fairbanks's sidekick, wears black-face makeup throughout to portray an African-American, which modern audiences will, at best, find insensitive if not outright offensive. I won't pretend to defend the use of black-face here or anywhere else other than to say that the practice was standard for the era.
Trivia: Filmed on location outside of Tijuana, Mexico, Fairbanks and his crew were taken hostage by one of the local militias fighting in that country's civil war. After paying a ransom, Fairbanks and his crew hustled themselves across the border and finished the film in San Diego, California.