Silents are Golden: Silent Superstars – The One and Only Douglas Fairbanks

Silents are Golden: Silent Superstars – The One and Only Douglas Fairbanks

With his endless energy, impressive athletic skills, muscular physique, and winning smile, Douglas Fairbanks was the all-American role model that the early 20th century needed. His films were good, clean, old-fashioned fun, drawing on popular stories like Robin Hood and The Three Musketeers. He and his wife Mary Pickford were key to cinema being accepted as a respectable industry, turning movie stars into a kind of American aristocracy. And Doug himself was a deeply optimistic figure, urging people to “make life worthwhile” and “laugh and live!”

Douglas Fairbanks
Douglas Fairbanks

When Douglas Elton Ulman was born on May 23, 1883, in Denver, Colorado, his parents probably had little idea what a phenomenon their son would be. His strong-willed mother Ella was Roman Catholic, and his father H. (Hezekiah) Charles had a German-Jewish background. The two had married after Ella’s husband John Fairbanks, a friend of Charles, died of tuberculosis. The new marriage didn’t last long, however, since Charles was an alcoholic and a secret bigamist. Ella’s subsequent marriage to the equally-alcoholic Edward Wilcox also ended in divorce. No doubt all this family drama had a deep effect on little Doug, known to be a quiet, rather solemn child. He soon found he was happiest when he was active, frequently attempting all sorts of daring feats (one family anecdote claimed he climbed to the top of a barn roof when he was only three).

And that energy served Doug well when he began showing an interest in acting. Joining Denver’s thriving theater scene at a young age, he performed in summer stock and joined a drama school by the time he was a teen. This proved far more interesting than regular school–and fortunately so. Always a practical joker, he went overboard by cutting the school’s piano wires as a St. Patrick’s Day prank found himself expelled.

Douglas Fairbanks around 1905
Doug around 1905.

This merely gave him more time to pursue acting, which he did with gusto. In 1899 he joined the Shakespearean-trained Frederick Warde’s traveling troupe, and after a couple of years had gained enough experience to hit Broadway. His comic talents and acrobatic feats delighted audiences, and he soon became a major star in productions like The New Henrietta and He Comes Up Smiling. His personal life had some excitement as well–he married Beth Sully in 1907 and the two would have a son, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. ( you may have heard of him).

Doug made the move to films thanks to some fortuitous timing. He and Beth were walking through Central Park one day when a cameraman asked if Doug would like to perform for the camera. He obligingly leapt over a park bench. This amusing footage of the Broadway star made its way to Harry E. Aitken, head of the Triangle Film Corporation, and he promptly offered Doug $2000 a week to move to Hollywood.

Douglas Fairbanks The Matrimaniac (1916)
The Matrimaniac (1916)

Films turned out to be the athletic actor’s destiny–no longer was he confined to the physical limits of the stage. He was a bit much for director D.W. Griffith, who told the irrepressible actor he’d be better off in Keystone comedies. His first starring vehicle, The Lamb (1915), was a big hit and convinced him cinema was the right move. A series of light comedies followed, such as His Picture in the Papers (1916), with witty title cards by Anita Loos and plenty of action. A blend of well-plotted story and fast-paced action was a winning formula for Doug, and he’d happily scale buildings, hang from cliffs and leap through drawing rooms for just the right shot. It wouldn’t be long before he’d be ranked the #2 star in America.

Fairbanks in The Matrimaniac (1916)
Fairbanks in The Matrimaniac (1916)

#1, of course, was Charlie Chaplin –who would become Doug’s closest friend. The two had a lot in common, not the least of which was extreme fame, and would screen their unreleased films for each other. Doug would also get to know another extremely popular and talented star, the great Mary Pickford. During World War I, the trio had incredible success touring the country to sell war bonds–crowds would number in the tens of thousands.

Douglas Fairbanks promoting Liberty Bonds in New York
Douglas promoting Liberty Bonds in New York

By the late 1910s, the name of Douglas Fairbanks was not only famous around the world, but he’d become an American icon of optimism and a role model for good health. He was popular with men, women, and children alike, a cultural hero of sorts (his sun-bronzed skin also apparently popularized tanning). He released a series of ghostwritten self-help books with titles like Laugh and Live, Making Life Worth While, and Whistle and Hoe – Sing as We Go, and would talk about the importance of physical fitness.

There were also big changes in Doug’s personal life. His marriage to Beth grew rocky, and it was revealed that he’d been having an affair with Pickford, who was also married. They both got divorced in order to marry each other but worried about the blow to their images. It’s a remarkable testament to their popularity that little damage was done – indeed, Doug and Mary were all but proclaimed the King and Queen of Hollywood.

Mary Pickford & Douglas Fairbanks
Mary & Doug

In a way, they were the new American aristocracy, moving into a mansion they dubbed “Pickfair” and entertaining royalty from around the world. Perhaps more than any other stars, they legitimized the movie industry as worthy entertainment and an art form to be taken seriously. In 1919, they joined forces with Chaplin and D.W. Griffith to create United Artists, their own distribution company that allowed them to work independently.

Pickford, Douglas, Chaplin, and Griffith - United Artists
Pickford, Douglas, Chaplin, and Griffith – United Artists

After making light comedies for UA (the best being When the Clouds Roll By, 1919), Doug embarked on a new specialty: elaborate costume pictures, starting with the wildly popular The Mark of Zorro (1920). The end of WWI and the beginning of the Roaring Twenties meant audiences were hungry for escapism, and Doug delivered with other classics like The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922), and the beautiful The Thief of Bagdad (1924). In his spare time, he also helped found the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, now host to the Academy Awards.

Douglas Fairbanks The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

Doug’s popularity was unshakeable until the end of the silent era. He made a final silent film, The Iron Mask (1929), at a time when most studios were transitioning to sound and began to uneasily contemplate his future in talkies. His formerly ideal marriage to Pickford was now on shaky ground. They attempted to make a talkie together, The Taming of the Shrew (1930), but production was uncomfortable for all involved and the film itself received mixed reviews. The couple would separate in 1933 and divorce in 1936, and Doug would marry Sylvia Hawkes, the former Lady Ashley.

Doug’s last film would be The Private Life of Don Juan (1934). For the remainder of the 1930s, he would travel the world restlessly until succumbing to a heart attack in 1936. It was perhaps an ending he’d prefer–he disliked the idea of growing old. In 1941 his body was moved to a large, expensive marble monument at the Hollywood Forever cemetery, with its own reflecting pool. But the greatest monument of all was certainly his influence on early cinema, particularly the exhilarating joy of pure escapism.

Douglas Fairbanks Robin Hood (1922)
Robin Hood (1922)

–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.

Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterlyand has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.

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