Douglas Fairbanks was one of the biggest movie stars of the silent era. His movies filled theaters around the world. The premiers of his films were huge social events. But he wasn't just a big star; he was also a shrewd businessman and a visionary when it came to the future of motion pictures.
Today Fairbanks is mainly known for his adventure films, a genre he arguably created with films like Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers, and The Black Pirate. Before he drew his first sword however he was known as a comic actor first on Broadway and then on the silver screen. While these early films of Fairbanks are largely forgotten today, they are quite enjoyable and well worth searching out. Flicker Alley, along with David Shepard's Film Preservation Associates, has made that much easier by releasing Douglas Fairbanks - A Modern Musketeer. This five disc set contains 11 movies that chronicle Fairbanks early film career up until he became an action star. It's a wonderfully entertaining set that even non-silent films fans will enjoy.
Born Douglas Elton Ulman in 1883, he changed his name to Fairbanks when he took the stage on Broadway. There he struggled for a time, but by 1915 he had appeared in several successful plays. Hollywood, hungry for talent at the time, offered him $2000 a week to start. Films were still looked down upon, but he had a wife and son to feed, so he reluctantly took it. He reportedly told a friend "Yea, it's a lot of money but, movies?" In Hollywood he had a string hit movies, and a year later his salary had increased to $10,000/week.
Fairbanks signed with the Fine Arts Film Company, D.W. Griffith's part of the Triangle Film Corporation (the other two parts being Mack Sennett's Keystone and Thomas Ince's Kay Bee. Fairbanks films were to be 'supervised' by Griffith, who had recently released Birth of a Nation and revolutionized the way people looked at film. While none of Fairbanks' films were actually directed by Griffith, the director thought the actor's spontaneous antics more suitable for Keystone and in any case he was busy with Intolerance, but the films from this time crafted the persona that would make Fairbanks an international star; a moral, energetic aristocrat who overcomes obstacles, shows up his snobbish peers, and gets the girl in the end. These comedies had a lot of action and stunts, but they were not outrageous slapstick, more farces.
Four of the films Fairbanks made for Fine Arts are included in this set. The first is His Picture in the Papers (1916) the third film that Fairbanks made. This comic romp revolves around Pete Prindle, the some of the canned-food magnate Proteous Prindle whose company's slogan is "Prindle's 27 Vegetarian Varieties." With products like "predigested prunes" Pete isn't too keen on his old man's food and is a big time slacker. While he shows up at the office, he never works and would much rather spend his time drinking or sneaking some meat into his diet. When Pete meets Christine (Loretta Blake) who is also a carnivore, it's love at first sight. In order to show both her father and his that he can run the company he declares that he'll advertise "Prindle's 27 Vegetarian Varieties" by getting his name and the company slogan, in all of the papers in New York. But after faking a car crash and taking on the boxing champ, Pete discovers that it's a lot harder than it sounds.
This is a rollicking, fun film with a lot of humor and more than a little action. The pace is quick and the humor works very well. Not only that, but this movie marks the first teaming of Fairbanks with writer Anita Loos and her (not-quite-yet) husband director John Emerson. Loos would write nine of Fairbanks' films with Emerson behind the camera on seven of them. This trio was responsible for solidifying Fairbanks' screen persona.
The next film is one of the most odd and bizarre films to come from a big studio. Ever. The Mystery of the Leaping Fish has to be seen to be believed. This broad parody of Sherlock Holmes features Fairbanks as the famous detective "Coke Ennyday." Coke is sitting at home in his chair, shooting up whenever he feels himself coming down from a high and drinking odd mixtures of absinthe and acid when the police chief comes to his door needing his help. A man has checked into a seaside resort and is spending large sums of cash with no visible means of support. Will Coke go down and check the man out? After taking a huge inhalation from his gallon-sized tin of cocaine, he agrees and sets off for the seaside. A favorite pastime at the beach is riding the 'leaping fish;' inflated fish shaped balloons that people body surf on. Coke runs into a beautiful young girl (Bessie Love) who works at the leaping fish rental shack as their 'fish blower.' (First seen from behind hunched over and bobbing her head up and down as she blows up a fish.) Together they set out to find the mysterious man and find out the source of his riches. With Coke winning the fights he gets into by injecting his opponent with heroin and taking out a room full of baddies by blowing cocaine in their faces, this is a hilarious and truly odd short. Fairbanks reportedly hated it, but it's a true gem.
The next two films presented in the set are Flirting with Fate and The Matrimaniac. The first starts out a little slow but ends up being a hilarious romp that climaxes with a great chase scene. Augy Holliday (Fairbanks) is a failure at business and love and decides to end it all, so he hires a thug to kill him. His fortune changes immediately after that when he comes into a fortune and his girl agrees to marry him. Now all he has to do is avoid the assassin.
The Matrimaniac has a similar chase premise. Jimmie Conroy (Fairbanks) and his girl Marna (Constance Talmadge) what to get married but her father, not to mention another suitor, will have nothing of it. The pair decides to elope but things go awry when Jimmie leaves the train they've caught to find a preacher. He does, but not before the train leaves. With dad and a rival hot on his tail, you've got all the makings of an amusing film.
After The Matrimaniac Fairbanks made one more film for Fine Arts (The Americano, NOT included in this set) then set off on his own. At the end of his tenure with Fine Arts, Fairbanks was making $15,000/week, and only Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford were paid higher fees. He wanted more control (as well as more money) and so Fairbanks started his own production company (The Douglas Fairbanks Pictures Corporation). He came to an agreement with Artcraft to distribute his films, the same company that was handling the movies of his future wife, Mary Pickford.
His second Artcraft film was Wild and Woolly (1917) one of the more amusing films in this set filled with great movies. The basic premise concerns Jeff Hillington (Fairbanks) a rich eastern who is fascinated by the old west. He plans a trip to Bitter Creek, Arizona thinking it's like the dime novels that he reads. Not wanting to loose a rich settler, the townsfolk remake the city like it was in 1880 including having everyone carry guns, only filled with blanks for safety's sake. When the local Indians hear about this they decide to attack, but with live ammunition.
A great romp, this film has a lot of action, several hilarious moments, and just the right dash of romance to make it all hold together. This was another film written by Anita Loos and directed by John Emerson, and it still holds up well today.
There are two more Artcraft films in this collection, Reaching for the Moon, and A Modern Musketeer, both of which are solid comedies in the fashion of his earlier pictures.
In 1919 Fairbanks teamed up with director D.W. Griffith and actors Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin to form United Artists. This company would not only produce their films but distribute them as well. It was a bold and innovative move, and it upset the balance of power in Hollywood, prompting one studio executive to exclaim "The lunatics have taken over the asylum!"
Fairbanks second film to be released by United Artists is a wildly inventive and incredibly amusing film, When the Clouds Roll By. This time Fairbanks plays Daniel Boone Brown, a superstitious young man who is unknowingly the subject of a scientific experiment. The doctor that lives across the hall, Dr. Ulrich Metz, is testing his theory that psychological upheaval can be enough to drive a man to suicide. His test has worked well so far. The young man is having trouble sleeping and is constantly bothered by strange nightmares. He's perpetually late for work, which causes him to get suspended. Then things start looking up when he encounters a lovely girl in the park who is just as superstitious. This seems to throw a wrench in the doctor's plans, so he doubles his efforts. Will this love cause the nefarious plan's to fail, or will the pressure be too much for young Daniel Brown?
This was a fun film to watch. You know this was going to be a different sort of film right from the start. The credits include footage of the director directing, the writer writing, and photographers filming, which sets the tone for this movie's odd sense of humor. Of course the film is just getting started. The early scene of an onion and lobster dancing around in Douglas Fairbank's stomach was truly unique. There are a lot of great gags and the giant flood scene at the end of the film is a riot.
For his next feature, The Mollycoddle, Fairbanks goes back to his roots, and the standard type of comedy he had been making for years. In the film he plays Richard Marshall V, a foppish American living abroad that uses a cigarette holder, has a monocle and spats. When he agrees to sail to Galveston with some people he meets in Monte Carlo Marshall accidentally finds himself in the middle of a smuggling ring. The 'mollycoddle' must find the inner strength that his ancestors had in order to best the bad guys (a wonderful Wallace Berry in his first Fairbanks film) and win the girl (the lovely Ruth Renick.)
While this is a fun and enjoyable film that has some hilarious moments, and it is very polished too, you could tell everyone working on the picture knew what they were doing, it is very reminiscent of Fairbanks earlier films. Especially when watching this set over a short period of time, it's easy to see why Fairbanks though that he was in a rut and felt the need to change. And change he would with his next film.
His next film would change the direction of his career, not to mention motion pictures and even comic books: The Mark of Zorro. Most people are familiar with the story of Zorro. The masked hero has appeared in dozens of movies, and a popular TV show produced by Disney. But his first screen appearance was in this 1920 Douglas Fairbanks vehicle.
In 19th century California the people are being oppressed. The appointed Spanish Governor rules with an iron fist. Native Indians are beaten for no reason, and even priests are tied up and whipped. But the people have someone on their side, the masked outlaw Zorro! The story starts with a Spanish solider brandishing a "Z" carved into his cheek. (This iconic part of the Zorro legend doesn't appear in the story the movie was based on... it was totally a creation of this film.) He was beating an Indian for no reason when Zorro appeared and scarred him. The sergeant in command, Pedro Gonzales (wonderfully played by Noah Beery) brags to the foppish Don Diego (Douglas Fairbanks) that he'd like to meet Zorro face to face. Soon after Diego leaves someone suggests to Gonzales that if he beats a native, Zorro will surely arrive. True to the prediction, as soon as the Sergeant attacks an innocent Indian, Don Diego returns in the guise of Zorro. He locks the doors and windows and fights the rotund Gonzales leavening him marked with a "Z".
Back at home, Diego's father is disappointed in his idle and frivolous son. If he won't work, the least he can do is marry. So he sends Diego off to court Lolita Pulido (Marguerite De La Motte.) Though the bored Don Diego cannot get the fair Lolita interested in his handkerchief tricks or his latest hat, she is very interested in the dashing Zorro. Will Don Diego be able to win Lolita's heart, banish the corruption in California, and stay alive while doing it?
This one word that best describes this film is "fun." The action starts quickly and keeps on going, and the movie is liberally sprinkled with humor. When there isn't a sword fight or chase, Fairbanks is giving a wonderfully hilarious performance as the effete Don Diego. Another stand out performance was by Noah Beery as the pompous Sergeant Gonzales. He played the oafish sergeant with just the right amount of bravado and stupidity.
The direction is perfectly suited to the picture. It is fast and dynamic, keeping the film moving and didn't let it slow down. The director, Fred Niblo, would also direct Fairbanks in The Three Musketeers, and Valentino in Blood and Sand.
Though the acting was superb, and the direction was good, the main attraction to this movie is the action. There are some great sword fights, and breathtaking stunts. It's amazing to watch Fairbanks scamper up the side of a building and through the second story window as if it were nothing. He leaps and runs over the sets, all the while with a huge grin on his face. All of the buildings and surroundings were constructed to Fairbank's specifications, with hand holds just in the right places and everything tuned to his ample abilities. Even so, he makes the stunts look effortless, and that's the sign of a true master of his craft.
This film had a profound influence on heroic fiction, and still does today. Yes, this movie is based on a previously printed story, but the film was much more widely disseminated, and therefore had a larger impact. Many heroes that came after Zorro borrowed heavily from him. Mild mannered Clark (Superman) Kent and playboy millionaire Bruce (Batman) Wayne both come right from Don Diego, not to mention other heroes like the Green Hornet. The Lone Ranger was profoundly influenced by Zorro, and even Spider-man's witty banter in the middle of fights can be traced back to this film too. This movie is influential and entertaining, quiet a combination.
The final film in this set is 1921's The Nut. Fairbanks wasn't sure his costumed action film would be successful, so to hedge his bets he made another light comedy right after it. Charlie Jackson (Fairbanks) is a wealthy young man who spends his idle time inventing wacky, and pretty much useless, gadgets. Though he's not a genius, he is good-hearted and dotes on his girlfriend Estrell (Marguerite De La Motte). Estrell has an idea to help underprivileged children: if they could play for an hour or two a day at a rich person's home, they'd have good values instilled in them and become better citizens. Charlie is all in favor of this idea and goes out to convince the rich of the plan's merits too, and no matter how inept he may be, he doesn't give up.
The Nut is a nice film with some very entertaining moments but it's no surprise that movie goers of the time were more interested in his costumed adventure flick. A lot of the gags feel a little tired. When Charlie wakes up in the morning, for example, he employs his wild gadgets to get him ready in the morning. While it's mildly amusing, similar stunts had been done in the past (and would be repeated in the future) with more success. The scene where Charlie ends up on a street dressed only in his underwear also induces smiles, but not the out-loud laughter that his earlier film achieved.
One scene that's worth noting is where Charlie entertains a group of people by dressing up and doing impersonations of famous people. When he does Chaplin, it really is the little tramp (in a purposefully inaccurate costume) who scuttles across the stage. Also keep an eye on the audience to see an appearance by Mary Pickford.
While the Mark of Zorro was a huge hit, The Nut did only a mediocre box office. Fairbanks was wise enough to see the writing on the wall and changed over to costumed adventure films. This would be the last comedy he made in the silent era.
Flicker Alley went to the best musicians around for the scores to these films. Such impressive people as Philip Carli, Robert Israel, Rodney Sauer, and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, among others, have created the musical accompaniment. I was very happy with all of the scores. They all brought the films to life and added a nice aural accompaniment to the action on screen.
These films all look great, especially for how old they are. Great pains were made to track down 35mm prints as close to the camera negative as possible. These prints were then remastered (and many of them tinted) to make the movies look as good as one can expect. Yes, there are some spots and scratches and sometimes the contrast isn't as great as I would have liked, but overall these all look very good with sharp images and fine detail.
With all of these great films, I wasn't expecting any extras but Flicker Alley went the extra mile and included some anyway. There are galleries of on the set and behind the scenes photos and press books as well as an informative commentary on A Modern Musketeer by Tony Maietta and Jerry Vance. In the commentary the two film historians discuss the film's importance in Fairbanks' career, point out the actors in small parts and discuss their careers and give some interesting stories about Fairbanks and this production.
There's also an excellent 32-page booklet that has essays by Jerry Vance and Tony Maietta about each of the films in the set.
Douglas Fairbanks wasn't incredibly handsome, and while he was a good actor, he certainly wasn't great. He was very charming though and had a lot of screen presence. He was as nimble as a cat and as agile and a monkey, and when he scampered up and over sets with an ease and grace that belied his short stocky stature, then he'd finish a his stunts with a smile that could light up a room. He was a true star, and this impressive set illustrates how he became on of the most bankable movie stars in the world. A true gem, this set is part of the DVD Talk Collector's Series.