Friday, December 7, 2012
The Private Life Of
Don Juan Douglas Fairbanks
Shadowplay (which bills itself as "The Willfully Eccentric Film Blog") (as opposed to this one where I strive daily for what Warren G. Harding dubbed "normalcy" and yet fail with bewildering regularity) (I mean seriously, dammit, have you ever met me? I'm about as quirky as a coatrack. And yet this site ends up filled with jibber jabber like this!)
(Um, where was I?) (Oh, yes.)
Shadowplay is hosting The Late Show Blogathon, which so far as I can tell—I can't actually find the original announcement—is a collection of essays about the last film of a director or actor or caterer or anybody else connected with movies. Which means, theoretically, I could write about my sole foray into film, back in 1982, when I held the camera for and acted in Pete Wilson's (or was it Dees Stribling's?) student film, Das Volkswagen.
I chose his last film because, unlike most actors who have little control over their choice of a final film project before they die, retire or simply peter out, Fairbanks specifically selected a vehicle to sum up—and blow up—his image and career before settling into a well-earned retirement.
Douglas Fairbanks: A Silent Legend
After starring in a series of athletic comedies between 1915 and 1919, Fairbanks practically invented the action-hero film genre with 1920's The Mark of Zorro. Admittedly, his Don Diego Vega—Zorro to you—had no supernatural or extraterrestrial powers, ala Superman or the Hulk, but he was the first film hero with a secret identity and hideaway, a costume, a mask, a sidekick and a backstory, not to mention a compulsion to carve a "Z" on the anatomy of oppressors and evildoers while fighting for truth, justice and the old Spanish California way.
Fairbanks followed up The Mask of Zorro with a series of the greatest swashbuckling action-adventure movies in history, the best of which are The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and The Black Pirate, an early Technicolor film from 1926. 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. And simply put, The Black Pirate is the best pirate movie ever made.
The Legend Becomes Fact
Unfortunately, as is often the case with middle-aged men who have outlived their ability to delight those who once loved them, Fairbanks didn't have the good grace to immediately drop dead. Instead, he lingered for another decade, during which time he divorced, traveled extensively and, more to the point for our purposes, dabbled in talkies—four features plus a documentary, none of them successful box office performers.
The Taming of the Shrew, paired him with Mary Pickford for the first time as leads. Given that the couple was on the verge of divorce, it was a particularly catty choice, and while the film turned a profit, it didn't help either star's standing with the public. Reaching for the Moon was originally an Irving Berlin musical, but after a preview, all the songs (including one Fairbanks number) were excised. What was left wasn't worth the effort. Mr. Robinson Crusoe, with Fairbanks living alone on an island for a year on a bet, was a throwback to his pre-swashbuckling films of the World War I era, but moviegoers were not in the mood.
(I haven't seen the documentary, Around the World in 80 Minutes with Douglas Fairbanks, but it sounds like a forerunner of the "Pete Smith Specialties," with a trip around the Pacific Rim that is more comedic than informative.)
The Private Life of Don Juan
The two men cast about for a follow-up project and came up with L'homme à la Rose, a play about Don Juan that had been a hit for Henry Bataille in 1920. Rather than a reverent or romantic look at the notorious libertine, the story mocks the legend, and mocks our obsession with fame and myth-making. If Don Juan is not quite up to Henry's standards, that doesn't mean it isn't a lot of fun, and it emerged over time as the one talkie worthy of inclusion on Fairbanks's lustrous resume.
None, of course. Not even Don Juan himself, as it turns out. Despite the appearance of a mysterious stranger in town, the real Don Juan (Fairbanks) is a weary, middle aged hypochondriac, with a spreading waistline and a waning libido. Whether he was ever worthy of the legend surrounding him is a matter up for debate, but there's no question his best days are behind him.
Nicely put, and separate bathtubs weren't required.
Delivered in Fairbanks's thin, reedy voice, the confession is (perhaps unintentionally) hilarious, a bit like Woody Allen boasting of the "coiled sexual power of a jungle cat," but in a similar way is highly effective, for this is a movie about the seductive power of our imaginations. Even if the young women in the story could climb into a time machine and bed the Don Juan of legend, as their mothers claim to have done, the act would never be half as satisfying as the anticipation of it.
In the film, every woman wants to boast of having slept with Don Juan, but nobody really wants to meet him. As John Ford taught us in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
Don Juan prefers prison.
And un-retiring is even more problematic—no one wants to believe this middle aged has-been is the great lover of their memories.
Besides, that's why God invented gin and cracked ice.
A Farewell to a Fare-thee-well
No doubt Fairbanks and Korda were surprised by the commercial failure of their finished film, but they probably shouldn't have been. While audiences don't mind laughing at a king, they're very rarely keen on laughing at themselves—and it's very much the audience and its worship of celebrity that's the subject of the film's derision. Nor do people much care to see that their heroes have feet of clay. That Fairbanks spent the entire film with his metaphorical shoes off must have been distressing to the few people who bothered to watch.
The screenplay is light and witty, the direction fast-paced, and the supporting performances, particularly those of Merle Oberon, Binnie Barnes and the aforementioned Benita Hume, very good. But mostly, of course, it's worth watching because Douglas Fairbanks spends the entire 89 minutes of the film's running time so gleefully—and ruthlessly—taking the piss out of himself. Even William Shatner, the master of self-parody, has never subjected himself to such lacerating onscreen introspection.
Don Juan was not the first movie to feature a self-referential commentary on a star's life—1933's Bombshell, for example, began as a comedy about Clara Bow but wound up as a comic examination of the life of its star, Jean Harlow. But Don Juan was one of the first to so thoroughly skewer its own star, to make his shortcomings the butt of the movie-length joke.
"[I]t is fair to say," wrote one film historian, "[Fairbanks] was a bit of a Don Juan himself, his marriage to Mary Pickford began as an affair and ended with one as well!"
Fairbanks didn't much enjoy filming Don Juan, largely for personal reasons that had nothing to do with the production itself. Shortly after arriving in London for the shoot, he began an affair with Lady Sylvia Ashley and was soon named as co-respondent in Lord Ashley's divorce suit. The British tabloids, the most vicious in the world, hounded Fairbanks day and night, the story crossed the Atlantic, and Pickford, who had always ignored Fairbanks's peccadilloes so long as they remained private, made Fairbanks acutely aware of her wrath.
I've seen conflicting accounts of Fairbanks's feelings about the film. Some have suggested he hated the script—it "played to all his fears of getting old"—but others insist he was eager to address honestly his inability to live up to the legend he himself had created. Given that Fairbanks wasn't under contract to anybody but himself, and that he had tightly controlled his material and image from the beginning of his career, I'm inclined toward the latter view, with any ill-feelings on his part revisionist sour grapes after the film failed at the box office.
Film historian Sparrow Morgan calls The Private Life of Don Juan "the perfect final film for a great Hollywood swashbuckler." I wholeheartedly agree.