- Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer
Many serious film viewers are familiar with Douglas Fairbanks's swashbucklers from the 1920s, which have been widely available for home video since the 1990s. But fewer have seen more than one or two of his pre-1920 films, in which he established his exuberant presence on screen and paved the way for his later costume adventures. Now, ten of these films, including a remastered The Mark of Zorro (the first of his costumed swashbuckler films), are available from Flicker Alley, timed to coincide with the publication of a new biography of the star written by film historian Jeffrey Vance (Vance and Tony Maietta also provide a helpful companion essay to accompany the box set). The discs are a superb contribution to cinematic history and a delight even for those with no knowledge of the Fairbanks persona. Watching these films, one can see clearly why "Doug" quickly became one of America's great movie stars, the incarnation of the energy and wherewithal of a newly burgeoning country that was beginning to flex its muscles on the world stage.
Douglas Fairbanks was born Douglas Ullman in Denver, Colorado, in 1883. His mother, Ella Marsh, was born into a well-to-do Massachusetts family and had three unfortunate marriages. Her first husband, John Fairbanks, died young; her second was abusive; and her third, a lawyer named Charles Ullman (Douglas's Jewish father), abandoned the family, prompting her to retake her first husband's surname. Finding herself without money or connections, Ella Fairbanks invested her hopes and dreams in her son. In his teens, Fairbanks found work in the theater and, in his twenties, achieved moderate success on Broadway. His entry into film was part of the first wave of theater-to-film migrations in the early and mid-teens at a time when Adolph Zukor's Famous Players in Famous Plays company attempted to make movies more respectable by borrowing subject matter and performers associated with live theater. With studios competing to recruit stage stars, Fairbanks was hired by Triangle Film Corporation in 1915 and assigned to D. W. Griffith's unit, the Fine Arts Film Company. However, Fairbanks's exuberant and vehemently masculine style did not fit Griffith's female-centric aesthetic. His first film, The Lamb, which Griffith supervised but did not direct, was initially dismissed by the company as negligible (Fairbanks appeared slathered in white makeup, perhaps as a jibe at his dark skin). Nonetheless, the film turned out to be a hit, earning Fairbanks a degree of autonomy in his subsequent films for Fine Arts that he would build on as his career progressed.
If theater had served to relay some sense of Fairbanks's gifts, cinema gave him a context that would fully exploit them. On screen, he continued to play the good-natured boy-next-door roles that he had on the stage, but he now had a degree of control over how he appeared that the theater had never afforded. As Alistair Cooke noted in the first monograph ever written on Fairbanks, "'Doug' could breathe freely on the tops of church steeples, hanging from a mountain crag, or diving through a window pane; the only things that choke him are the scent and epigram of the boudoir."1 Space, [End Page 156] air, and movement were the vital adjuncts to Fairbanks's success—and cinema amply supplied them.
The hallmark of Fairbanks's early films was the extension of the American myth of the West into new contexts. These movies often played on presumed distinctions between urban life and frontier life and then proceeded to puncture or revise stereotypical notions of what these American sites were like. Ultimately, these early Fairbanks pictures were about finding the spirit of adventure in any circumstance by bringing energy, alertness, ingenuity, and enthusiasm to bear on a problem. Often, this resulted in the transformation of his character: a coddled, foolish, or naive individual who, when faced with a crisis, emerged more manly and ingenious than his counterparts. From his earliest on-screen appearances, Fairbanks embodied the American potential to remake...