Friday, December 7, 2012

The Private Life Of Don Juan Douglas Fairbanks

I can't help it—I never met a blogathon I didn't vow to skip yet spent so much time thinking about, I wound up writing for it by default.

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.

But instead I find myself making notes for The Private Life of Don Juan, the last film of one of the Monkey's favorite silent film stars, Douglas Fairbanks.

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
If you're reading this, I assume you know who Douglas Fairbanks was. He was arguably the most popular actor of the silent era, a superstar before the word existed, rivaled in terms of fame by Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and no one else.

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.

Later, Fairbanks's Zorro would inspire Bob Kane as he created the comic book crime fighter, Batman.

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.

In 1929, with talkies already well established, Fairbanks made his last silent movie and it proved to be the perfect cap to his action hero career. Set twenty years after the events of his 1921 hit, The Three Musketeers, The Iron Mask reunites d'Artagnan (Fairbanks) with Athos, Porthos and Aramis to rescue the rightful king of France from prison. The movie features plenty of action, as you would expect, but is also a touching buddy movie and commentary on retirement and even death. Fairbanks even recorded a spoken prologue, the first time his adoring fans ever heard him speak on film.

The Legend Becomes Fact
"When d'Artagnan bids farewell to his earthly existence in the final moments of The Iron Mask," Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta wrote, "Fairbanks also appears to be bidding farewell, not only to that character, but to Zorro, the Thief of Bagdad, the Black Pirate, and all the other romantic roles of his swashbuckling past. It would have been a superb swan song to his life and career ..."

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 first of these talkies, 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.)

On their own merits, these films are not bad, but they don't hold up in comparison to his silent work. Audiences didn't much care for Fairbanks's voice, which was nasal and squeaky; and pushing fifty, he was too old for the energetic stunts audiences had loved him for. Worse, though, he was passe, too much associated with silent films to thrive in the new medium.

The Private Life of Don Juan
By 1933, Fairbanks was at loose ends. As he and Pickford drifted into semi-retirement, the combination of infidelity, general lack of purpose and the unaccustomed sting of box office failure cracked the fault lines in their marriage wide open. With free time now plentiful, Fairbanks longed to travel while Pickford preferred the Hollywood social life, and they laid eyes on each other only once that entire year.

Fairbanks turned his attention to the business of running United Artists, and in 1934 took on as a new partner British film producer Alexander Korda. The previous year, Korda had scored a major hit with The Private Life of Henry VIII, a comic look at the tangled love life of England's infamous royal Bluebeard. The film won Charles Laughton an Oscar, and won Korda a legion of admirers, among them Fairbanks.

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.

The movie opens, symbolically enough, on a gushing fountain, before which a balladeer sings of the legend of the great lover, Don Juan. Women smile dreamily as their husbands scowl—what mere man could possibly hope to live up to such a standard?

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.

"Now when I sit down to play a quiet game with a lady," he laments, "I'm no longer sure of holding the cards."

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."

Indeed, despite the careers to be made from claiming to have "kissed" Don Juan, there's only one woman who actually wants him, Dona Dolores (Benita Hume), his long-ago abandoned wife who has gleefully bought up his debts and threatens him with prison unless he comes home to her.

Don Juan prefers prison.

Not that there's anything wrong with Dolores—she's delightful. The problem is within Don Juan himself, because for him, sex and romance are not means to achieving intimacy but avoiding it, and far from revealing himself to his lovers, his practiced, rote wooing is a mask behind which he hides his increasingly bored, lonely self. Before the story is over—am I spoiling anything?—he will learn a valuable lesson, that when it comes to love, lasting triumph lies not in conquest but in surrender, particularly the surrender of posturing, pretenses, and even dignity, the happiest kind of surrender, without which real love, meaning and purpose is impossible.

In the meantime, though, Don Juan agrees to switch places with an aspiring Lothario, and when the lad is killed by a jealous husband, he is able to escape the burden of his legend at last. Turns out, though, he's not quite sure how to fill the hours once he's retired. The question of what a man wants to be when he grows up is apparently a lifelong one, and no easier to answer at fifty than it is at fifteen.

And un-retiring is even more problematic—no one wants to believe this middle aged has-been is the great lover of their memories.

Despite the underlying seriousness of its themes, there's no brooding or melancholy in the movie's tone—nor should there be. Death and decay are as inevitable as the setting of the sun, and the wise man faces an unpleasant but unavoidable task with laughter rather than tears.

Besides, that's why God invented gin and cracked ice.

A Farewell to a Fare-thee-well
Although it definitely plays as a valediction, the studio, London Films Productions, and the film's distributor, United Artists, billed Don Juan as a comeback. If that was indeed the plan, it didn't work —contemporary critics slammed Fairbanks ("the microphone is ruthlessly unkind to him," Andre Sennwald wrote for the New York Times in a typical review) and the picture flopped at the box office.

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.

With the passage of time and the benefit of hindsight, though, Don Juan has proven itself to be an artistic success and a worthy final film for one of the silent era's greatest stars.

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.

"When a man finds himself sliding downhill," Fairbanks said, "he should do everything to reach bottom in a hurry and pass out of the picture."

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!"

In 2005, Jim Jarmusch used The Private Life of Don Juan as a jumping off point to tell his own story, Broken Flowers, of an aging Casanova (Bill Murray, playing a character named "Don," no less), referencing the 1934 film both explicitly (it's playing on the television in the opening scene) and later implicitly (in the way he staged a funeral scene).

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.

That Lady Ashley had begun life not as an aristocrat but as Edith Louisa Hawkes, a chorus girl and lingerie model, only added fuel to the fire.

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.

Either way, Fairbanks was self-aware enough or lucky enough to have chosen his own epitaph, not once but twice (remember The Iron Mask), a rare feat for any artist.

Film historian Sparrow Morgan calls The Private Life of Don Juan "the perfect final film for a great Hollywood swashbuckler." I wholeheartedly agree.


D Cairns said...

Great entry, thanks!

I enjoyed Taming of the Shrew a lot when I saw it, and only later realized what I'd seen was a tightened-up re-edit created years after. Additional music and trimming turned a clunky early talkie into a very zippy comedy, and showed you how good the stars could both have been in sound pictures if they'd been luckier in their choices.

Mythical Monkey said...

You're right, the edited/scored Taming of the Shrew is actually a pretty good movie.

I think the single biggest problem both Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford had was that sound humanized them.

That, and they were suddenly old-fashioned. Like, the Bee Gees didn't suddenly forget how to sing in 1981, but they were so associated with disco, they didn't have a prayer.

Grand Old Movies said...

Great post, which made me feel a little melancholy on reading it; Fairbanks's career really had a bit of a sad diminuendo in the sound era. I think you make a good point in your above comment about sound 'humanizing' Fairbanks. When I saw "Reaching For The Moon," I was shocked by the effect that sound had on his stunts - now you could hear the impact made by his body when he landed, for example, from a jump. What had seemed magical and light-as-air when silent, now became clunky and awkward; suddenly you were aware of gravity. Perhaps his final image for his fans should have been in "The Iron Mask," when he and the 3 Musketeers head for further adventures in the hereafter.

Mythical Monkey said...

When I saw "Reaching For The Moon," I was shocked by the effect that sound had on his stunts - now you could hear the impact made by his body when he landed, for example, from a jump. What had seemed magical and light-as-air when silent, now became clunky and awkward; suddenly you were aware of gravity.

Harold Lloyd had the same problem in Feet First, which was his first sound picture that was shot as sound (Welcome Danger was a silent that was dubbed in post-production). In Feet First he basically recreated the building climbing stunt from Safety Last, but this time you can hear every grunt and groan -- it doesn't really work as comedy any more. He stuck around for a couple more pictures then hung it up.

I agree that The Iron Mask would have been the perfect send off for Fairbanks, but if he had to go out with a sound picture, The Private Life of Don Juan was the right one.

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