Wednesday, December 9, 2015


Like many people born of the time, Douglas Fairbanks’ early life is a mystery. Maybe his father was John Fairbanks, a rich man from the genteel south. Or maybe it was H. Charles Ullman, a Pennsylvania lawyer who fought for the Union before he took off with his wife and child for the Rocky Mountains. You might read somewhere that Douglas Fairbanks was a prankster that got himself expelled from two schools, or that he attended Harvard University. Then again you might read something different. It isn't until he moved to Los Angeles in 1915 that we can be sure of anything - and in Los Angeles the truth never gets in the way of a good story.

And yet there is something uniquely appealing about this kind of past. One that is full of holes and blank spaces, of differing versions of events and contradictory statements.  We are drawn to it just like we are drawn to books and to movies, and to those people who have a way with words. Story broadens our understanding of human nature and narrative affords meaning to our lives. To audiences in the 1920’s, not knowing where Douglas Fairbanks came from was part of his mystique.

But there are things we can be fairly certain about concerning the silent movie icon. We know that he was a founding member of United Artists along with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith; that his were the first hand prints outside the Chinese Theatre; that he was the first President of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences; and that he presented the first ever Academy Award. He also had a special connection with the Egyptian Theatre – his movie, Robin Hood, opened there in 1922. So it seemed appropriate for me to be back there on Sunday, November 22, for a showing of two lesser-known – though no less charming – Douglas Fairbanks movies: The Mystery of the Leaping Fish and The Good Bad Man. One is perhaps the strangest movie of the actor’s career, and the other might just be his most personal. Tracey Goessel, historian and author of The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks knows everything that is knowable about the actor and introduced both features – giving the audience a sense of the time and place. Additionally, a wonderful pianist by the name of Rick Friend provided live piano accompaniment. 
Rick Friend and Tracy Goessel. Photo by Margot Gerber.
The Mystery of the Leaping Fish is a parodic farce sending up Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes – complete with checkered hat, checkered clothes, and even a checkered car (in case you still didn't get it). Our ‘hero’ is Coke Ennyday, a detective taken to injecting himself with laudanum every couple of seconds, laughing hysterically, and then liberally snorting up the contents of a box conspicuously labeled "COCAINE" in humongous lettering – something he also finds incredibly amusing. In between his personal consumption, he manages to solve a crime and rescue a damsel – defeating a crew of bad guys in the process by simply injecting them and patting them on the back. The whole thing lasts barely 25 minutes, and it’s a pity – this bizarre movie is bursting with humor, charm, and a liberal attitude toward recreational drug use (it was a different time) and nobody would have complained had it gone on for another 25 minutes. That being said, Douglas Fairbanks, if he were alive today, would have denied he was ever in it – though he clearly is. Big stars, even before they became big stars, never starred in two-reel comedies like this; it was beneath their dignity. So Mr. Fairbanks simply denied ever having made such a movie. And if it wasn't for his unmistakable smile, it would be easy to believe it wasn't him – so different is this role from the ones he would later make his own. But that is all the more reason to seek it out. It’s a movie that spotlights the actor’s diversity, and it offers a glimpse of an icon just before super stardom set in.

And from the unusual we moved on to the deeply personal. The Good Bad Man is Fairbanks as people looking back remember him – riding, fighting, and winning; and having a good time whilst doing it. But there is more to this movie than meets the eye. It was the first time Fairbanks had contributed to the story of a movie and the result is a peek into the soul of the man. The actor stars as Passin Through, a bad guy who’s really a good guy. A man who always gives away his loot to orphaned children on account of his own shameful past – he was a child born out of wedlock and abandoned by his father. Or so he thinks. But he finds out from a man named Bob Evans that it isn't so – his ma and pa were married and very much in love, but his pa got shot down by a man called Bud Frazer, a man who was infatuated with Passin’s ma. Needless to say, it all ends well and Passin gets the girl, but the confusion about parentage was one understood by the actor, whose real father left the family when he was a boy. The shame of growing up without a father haunted the actor, who took to claiming – even on his death certificate – that his real father was John Fairbanks; a fact which is generally accepted as actually a falsehood.

But whatever the mysteries and pain of the actor's early life, it was a weight that didn't slow him in his tracks. Here was a man who, despite his relatively short time on life’s stage, did so much with it as to make the rest of us feel somewhat wasteful in comparison. It’s as if he used up all his life in half the time. When he was flying on a carpet in The Thief of Baghdad, or climbing castle walls in Robin Hood, he wasn't acting at all. His real life was just as swashbuckling as his make believe one. There is a story that goes around concerning the reasons why, like so many silent movie stars, Douglas Fairbanks didn't make it in the talkies – apparently he was so disappointed with the limitations of early sound movies that he simply lost interest in making them. His imagination had grown beyond what could be done. I think it’s a good way to remember him.