Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Douglas Fairbanks and the American Century

Douglas Fairbanks and the American Century

John C. Tibbetts
James M. Welsh
Foreword by Kevin Brownlow
Greeting by Vera Faiebanks
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 384
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Douglas Fairbanks and the American Century
    Book Description:

    Douglas Fairbanks and the American Centurybrings to life the most popular movie star of his day, the personification of the Golden Age of Hollywood. At his peak, in the teens and twenties, the swashbuckling adventurer embodied the new American Century of speed, opportunity, and aggressive optimism. The essays and interviews in this volume bring fresh perspectives to his life and work, including analyses of films never before examined. Also published here for the first time in English is a first-hand production account of the making of Fairbanks's last silent film,The Iron Mask.

    Fairbanks (1883-1939) was the most vivid and strenuous exponent of the American Century, whose dominant mode after 1900 was the mass marketing of a burgeoning democratic optimism, at home and abroad. During those first decades of the twentieth century, his satiric comedy adventures shadow-boxed with the illusions of class and custom. His characters managed to combine the American Easterner's experience and pretension and the Westerner's promise and expansion. As the masculine personification of the Old World aristocrat and the New World self-made man--tied to tradition yet emancipated from history--he constructed a uniquely American aristocrat striding into a new age and sensibility.

    This is the most complete account yet written of the film career of Douglas Fairbanks, one of the first great stars of the silent American cinema and one of the original United Artists (comprising Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith). John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh's text is especially rich in its coverage of the early years of the star's career from 1915 to 1920 and covers in detail several films previously considered lost.

    eISBN: 978-1-62674-034-1
    Subjects: Film Studies, History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-ix)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Vera Fairbanks and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

    Here are two remarkable men, Douglas Fairbanks and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., father and son, both so different from one another and yet both so accomplished. Included in these pages are the voices that bring both men back to life . . . both men who in the end, although shy of one another, finally come together to form an everlasting bond.

    I knew that life would never be the same once I met Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (1909–2000). Never had I met anyone like him, before or since. To this day, others fade by comparison. Looking back, I wonder, was...

    (pp. xv-1)

    I am delighted to see this newly revised and expanded edition ofHis Majesty the American, which has long been out of print since it first appeared in 1977. It takes me back to my own lifelong enthusiasm for silent films, which was first sparked by Douglas Fairbanks.

    I was just eleven when my parents gave me a hand-cranked 9.5 projector and two short films. It was 1949. The streets off Baker Street, near where I lived in London, were lined with little shops which seemed to make no money. One of these was a photographic shop. I walked in...

    (pp. 3-14)

    At the height of his career in the early 1920s, Douglas Fairbanks was the most popular film star in the world. Since his arrival in Hollywood in 1915, he had quickly vaulted from his former status as a stage star to the power and prestige of a captain of the film industry. Playwright Robert E. Sherwood pronounced his films “the farthest step that the silent drama has ever taken along the highroad of art.”¹ His sermons of hope and optimism pulled high fives with the spirit of the young progressive American century and claimed its privileges. His leaps and bounds...


    • Chapter 1 “Windows Are the Only Doors”: The First Films (The Lamb, 1915, and Double Trouble, 1915)
      (pp. 17-29)

      In the spring of 1915, Douglas Fairbanks left the New York stage and traveled west to the newly formed Triangle Film Corporation in Los Angeles. On the strength of his credentials as a lively and engaging light comedian, Triangle boss Harry E. Aitken promised him the impressive fee of $2,000 per week, with a $500 increase every six months. The leading director of the day, D. W. Griffith, was to personally supervise all of his films (although this promise was not to be fulfilled). The story of how Fairbanks left a successful career as a light juvenile on the New...

    • Chapter 2 “The Leap to Greatness”: The Years at Triangle, Artcraft, United Artists, 1916–1919
      (pp. 30-91)

      From 1916–1919, Douglas Fairbanks rose from the ranks of tyro film actor to a major player in the American film industry. Only Mary Pickford and Charles Chaplin rivaled him in power and popularity. Among his other contemporaries in screen comedy in the mid-teens, only Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Mabel Normand rivaled him in physicality and clownish sweetness. The other great physical clowns, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chase, did not reach maturity until the late teens and early twenties. By all accounts it was an especially happy and vigorous time for Fairbanks. “During my career, I worked with...

    • Chapter 3 “Arizona Jim”: The Fairbanks Westerns, 1916–1920
      (pp. 92-141)
      John C. Tibbetts

      And there is that famous moment in a Douglas Fairbanks western when our hero reigns in his steed and addresses the vast amphitheater of the Arizona canyons below:

      “Hurrah for God!”

      It’s more than a salute. It’s more than a sentiment. It’s a sermon.

      The Arizona canyons and mesas, the Wyoming grasslands, the forested slopes of northern California constitute a vital geography for Fairbanks. This “elastic soil” is, on the one hand, a westward advancing frontier that has no past, only a present, a promise, and a future; on the other, a territory perpetually retreating before encroaching communities and industrial...

    • Chapter 4 “Her Picture in the Papers”: Mary Pickford’s “Growing Girl”
      (pp. 142-169)

      Between 1914–1918, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford became the first major stage stars to score international success in the movies. Coming from Broadway, they had both brought the prestigious aura of the stage to a new medium with global appeal. Working individually and collectively as part of the Artcraft Pictures Corporation—and later as partners in United Artists—they personified a new American century bursting with youth, energy, and enterprise. Unlike many of their older screen contemporaries, writes cultural historian Lary May, these “extremely talented figures,” so full of “cosmopolitan fun and healthy beauty replaced the spiritual symbolism connected...

    • Chapter 5 “On an Odd Note”: Say, Young Fellow! (1918), The Nut (1920), and When the Clouds Roll By (1919)
      (pp. 170-182)

      At the outset, let us make this perfectly clear: Douglas Fairbanks was always Douglas Fairbanks . . . only sometimesmore so. This trio of precostume films demonstrates the point.

      Say, Young Fellow(1918),When the Clouds Roll By(1919), andThe Nut(1921) mark a transition between Fairbanks’s early satiric comedies and the extravagant fantasies of the later costume films. Here are mad worlds where nightmares reign, waxworks walk, and a gigantic lobster comes call. They hold a uniquely bizarre place in his oeuvre and deserve special consideration on their own. Of less interest there is another Fairbanks outing,...


    • Chapter 6 Prologue
      (pp. 185-187)

      As chronicled in detail in our earlier volume,His Majesty the American(1977), the founding of United Artists in 1919 marked an important development in the history of Hollywood and in the trajectory of Fairbanks’s screen career.¹ The story of United Artists is too complex to repeat here, but it is enough to note that when he tumbled through the title credits in the prologue to United Artist’s first release,His Majesty the American, he was entering into a new engagement with the American century. While Hollywood was busily reinventing itself—the major studios were achieving a vertical organization that...

    • Chapter 7 “The Mark of Greatness”: The Adventures of Señor Zorro
      (pp. 188-199)

      Among the varied progeny of the character of Zorro that have appeared since Fairbanks’sThe Mark of Zorrowas released in 1920, we may count the Caped Crusader himself, the Dark Knight: Batman. The creator of Batman, comic book artist and entrepreneur Bob Kane, acknowledged as much in an interview with us in 1989. “When I was a kid growing up in the Bronx, I sawThe Mark of Zorroat the movies,” Kane remembered.

      Zorro was the most swashbuckling daredevil I’ve ever seen in my life. He gave me the idea of the dual identity . . . as...

    • Chapter 8 “A Dance of Free Men in a Forest”: Robin Hood
      (pp. 200-208)

      “We hanker after history,” wrote British film critic Ernest Betts “—and then, like some new planet,Robin Hoodswims into our ken.”

      In his appreciation of the newly released Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler, Betts anoints this “nominally historical, tremendously fictitious” film as the “certain type of historical film [that] will always be popular; is the same reason which has made and will continue to make admirers for Herodotus.” Perhaps never in his most extravagant moments would Fairbanks think to align his new film with the works of the fifth century Greek “father of history,” Herodotus! (And doubtless Herodotus himself would...

    • Chapter 9 “Architecture in Motion”: The Thief of Bagdad
      (pp. 209-218)

      And so we come to Douglas Fairbanks’s extravagant “Arabian Nights Fantasy.” He takes us to Bagdad, the “dream city of the ancient East,” a brutal and magical place, where horses have wings, carpets fly, and princes, despots, and thieves alike contest for the hand of the caliph’s beautiful daughter. Not just the exotic trappings of Richard Burton’sThe Book of the Thousand Nights and a Nightare here, but so is its central theme, encapsulated in this quatrain:

      Seek not thy happiness to steal

      ’Tis work alone will bring thee weal

      Who seeketh bliss without toil or strife

      The impossible...

    • Chapter 10 “A Painted Ship on a Painted Ocean”: The Black Pirate
      (pp. 219-237)

      The Black Piratepremiered simultaneously at the Tivoli Cinema in London and in New York on March 1926. Like all of Fairbanks’s costume films, it offers a wide range of interests. Much has already been written about the casting, the story, and the famous acrobatics—such as the slide down the sail on the knife and the final undersea rescue. Of particular value is a two-part article by film historian Rudy Behlmer forAmerican Cinematographerin 1992.¹ ButThe Black Piratecommands our attention for other reasons. It was shot in color in the relatively untried process of two-color Technicolor....

    • Chapter 11 “Dumas, Douglas, and Delirium”: Fairbanks and the Musketeers
      (pp. 239-257)

      “[The Three Musketeers] is a kind of combination of Dumas, Douglas, and delirium,” enthused theNew York Heraldafter the premiere on August 28, 1921, in New York City of Douglas Fairbanks’s newest costumed adventure.¹ If we reverse the order to “delirium, Douglas, and Dumas,” we accurately describe, in chronological order, all three of Fairbanks’s adaptations of the famous musketeer stories.A Modern Musketeer(1917) comes first, a “delirious” satire on the spirit of chivalry run amok. Next isThe Three Musketeers(1921), which is “Douglas” all over, and handed Douglas the signature role of his career.² Lastly,The Iron...

    • Chapter 12 “The Fall from Grace”: The Gaucho
      (pp. 259-270)

      Sandwiched betweenThe Black PirateandThe Iron Mask(1928),The Gaucho—its original release title wasDouglas Fairbanks as The Gaucho—has been sadly neglected and undervalued since its premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on November 4, 1927.New York Timescritic Mordaunt Hall complained it departed from Fairbanks’s standard “unalloyed cheer,” containing instead a “rather gruesome undertone” and a “somber strain.”¹ In recent years, if it is mentioned at all,The Gauchois usually curtly dismissed. Richard Schickel’s complaint is typical: “The Gaucho, despite Fairbanks’s tricks with the bola, was the flattest of his big-scale adventure-romances. Indeed, it...


    • Chapter 13 Coquette: Goodbye to the Glad Girl
      (pp. 273-282)

      During the production of Douglas Fairbanks’sThe Iron Masklate in 1928, Mary Pickford was busily preparing her first talking picture,Coquette. It premiered on April 12, 1929, just two months after her husband’s film was released. In another two months, both Doug and Mary would begin their first—and only—sound film together,The Taming of the Shrew.

      UnlikeThe Iron Mask, which was essentially a silent film, limiting Fairbanks’s two spoken prologues to scant minutes of screen time,Coquettewasalltalking, affording curious viewers their first opportunity to hear what “America’s Sweetheart” sounded like. It proved to...

    • Chapter 14 A Shrewd Adaptation: The Taming of the Shrew
      (pp. 283-296)

      Consider the Fairbanks-PickfordTaming of the Shrew(1929) at end times—approaching the sobering end of the decadent decade of the twenties, anticipating the eventual end of the Fairbanks-Pickford celebrity marriage, portending the end of the silent film and the beginning of the talkie revolution, and redefining the theatrical roots of the cinema. A kind of logic must have drawn Fairbanks and Pickford towards a Shakespeare project at this time. This experiment would test their talents and patience. It would also result in Hollywood’s first attempt to adapt a complete Shakespeare play into a synchronized-sound film.

      Ironically, numerous Shakespearean adaptations...


    • Chapter 15 Prologue
      (pp. 299-301)

      There is a certain literary archetype, suggests the Australian historian Peter Conrad, author ofCreation: Artists, Gods, Origins(207), that is found in the characters of Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, and Don Juan. It is a compound of bruised ideals, restless wanderlust, and romantic failure. Collectively, these characters “want to go everywhere and become everyone,” to migrate “through time, place and metamorphic changes of identity to declare their ambitions to experience an infinitude of possibilities.” Eventually, Conrad continues, as they enter the global sphere, “they alter and contradict themselves at will: the mythic creature survives in history by mutating; eternity...

    • Chapter 16 Reaching for the Moon
      (pp. 303-305)

      We set sail on the ocean linerl’Amériquebound for England. Quixote-like, Wall Street tycoon Larry Day (Fairbanks) is in pursuit of his Dulcinea, Vivian Bennett (Bebe Daniels), a high-flying aviatrix who is hardly the saintly ideal that Larry presumes her to be.Reaching for the Moon(not to be confused with his silent film of that title) was the first film in which Fairbanks appeared in modern dress sinceThe Nutin 1921. According to musical film historian, Miles Kreuger, the plot, originally suggested by Irving Berlin, had used the background of the 1929 Wall Street crash to test...

    • Chapter 17 Around the World in Eighty Minutes
      (pp. 307-312)

      Which brings us toAround the World in Eighty Minutes, which we rightly regard as a sequel toReaching for the Moon. Shortly before its release November 1931, Fairbanks was quoted:

      I’m not a serious artist at all. In a world such as this to-day, the new fiction is reality. No imaginary story about China is as exciting as China itself. If I can get away with it, I am going to travel.¹

      Although he was purportedly happy with the result, it was dismissedVarietyand garnered poor box office. It remains one of his least frequently seen films today....

    • Chapter 18 Mr. Robinson Crusoe
      (pp. 313-315)

      Viewed today, even the inferior visual quality of surviving prints can’t hide the great charm and visual beauty ofMr. Robinson Crusoe. It premiered in New York City on September 21, 1932. Despite the behind-the-scenes news of difficulties on location with unpredictable weather, and problems with equipment, and rumors of Fairbanks’s own restlessamoursamong the native women, it gives us our last glimpse of Fairbanks’s balletic style and exuberant optimism. This is enhanced by the version available today, essentially a silent film with subtitles, a wonderful music score by Alfred Newman (including the tune that became the popular “Moon...

    • Chapter 19 The Private Life of Don Juan
      (pp. 317-330)

      The Private Life of Don Juanbrings us to the final destination of Fairbanks’s four-film odyssey—and the culmination of his meditations on the conflicts and compromises facing artists and husbands. We have now arrived at legend-haunted Old Seville. Who would blame us if by now, like Fairbanks himself, we are a bit cynical and travel-worn after our encounters with the windmill-tilting Quixote and the globe-trotting Crusoe? But now another mythic figure awaits: Don Juan.

      When Fairbanks and Douglas Jr. set sail to Europe in 1933, the trip aroused a storm of controversy. Father and son were described as believing...

    (pp. 331-332)

    “Films satisfy my desire to keep in motion in a constructive way,” he had once said in 1922. “I had always been interested in stunts and in games and had always worked at them; at first because of mere energy and vitality and the desire to keep in motion, and then because I found that the work was good for me.”¹ Now, his films and his youth behind him, the prospects that his high-flying, self-propelled trajectories would continue unabated—like those optimistic prophecies of speed, science, and technology that launched the American century—are in question. The years of ceaseless...

    (pp. 333-338)
    Brian Faucette

    Throughout the pages of this book we have seen that Douglas Fairbanks choreographed in his films what Alistair Cooke called “athletic adventures [which] taught him to relish American pep, optimism, and cheer.” Those pre-1920 satires, in particular, were breezy responses to an age wherein contemporary notions of masculinity were undergoing considerable challenge and change.

    During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, many white middle- and upper-class American men called attention to the anxiety expressed by men struggling with changes in conventional gender roles. The ideal form of manhood had to be enacted and in many cases performed through works of...

  12. APPENDIX A. “His Own Man”: Interviews with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
    (pp. 339-355)
    Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
  13. APPENDIX B. On the Set of The Iron Mask (1929)
    (pp. 357-398)
    Maurice Leloir
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 399-432)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 433-443)