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Silent but never still: the surprisingly loud life of Douglas Fairbanks.

If people know anything about the stars of the Silent Film Era, it's probably about Charlie Chaplin, whose "Hitler" mustache, bowler hat and cane are all most people know of that period of time. But what of his best friend and fellow thespian Douglas Fairbanks, who was arguably an even bigger name in the 1910s and '20s, yet is largely forgotten today?

Fairbanks headlined a slew of hit swashbucklers, including The Thief of Bagdad and The Mark of Zorro, was half of one of Hollywood's very first power couples upon his (rather controversial) marriage to actress Mary Pickford, was a founding member of both United Artists and The Motion Picture Academy, and even hosted the very first Oscars ceremony. But his was a star that burned bright for but a short time as the introduction of talking pictures (or "talkies") in the late 1920s stopped his momentum cold and brought his career to a screeching halt.

In The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks (Chicago Review Press, 2016, 581 pgs., $34.95), film scholar Tracey Goessel sets out to tell the unknown story of that other silent film star, the one who didn't Tramp his way into America's hearts.

Goessel's well-researched book paints a rich portrait of Fairbanks. We learn of his humble yet fascinating beginnings (he was born in Denver, Colorado in 1883 to parents who were in a bigamous marriage, since his father never legally divorced his first wife), his love of acting in the theater, his initial reluctance to get into films (which at the time were considered not respectable), and of his eventual rise to fame with star turns in such classics as Robin Hood and The Three Musketeers.

Having known little (well, nothing really) about Fairbanks' life and career, I found Goessel's breakdown absolutely absorbing. She tells of his dogged work ethic, his Tom Cruise-esque insistence on doing his own stunts even when the threat of injury loomed, and his before-his-time anti-racist attitude. Writes Goessel: "All references to 'niggers' and 'coons' that were in his scripts were removed and the characters replaced by whites or simply played by African-Americans with no particular comment on their race. It is to Fairbanks's credit that he used his influence in this manner. He made no particular point of his liberalism; in fact, he was of a uniformly democratic bent, as affectionate and welcoming to a table of cow herders one night as he was slavishly devoted to a household of royalty the next."

Goessel describes how instinct led him to choose his roles ("With Doug, intellect took second place to intuition. He demonstrated a pattern of following his gut, and happily for his reputation and bottom line his gut was to be a reliable measure of the vox populi for the decade ahead") and how he fell into the swashbuckling films that he would become known for, after spending his early years making comedies.


She explains how at the height of his fame, Fairbanks hobnobbed with royalty, spent $100,000(!) on a cruise due to an obsession with travel and took up golfing as practically a way of life. She tells anecdote after anecdote about how he never carried any money, depending instead upon his underlings to handle the dirty job of actually paying for things, and about how the man-child couldn't seem to stand still, displaying a need to run, jump and climb constantly. You get a real sense of the man and just how popular he was at the time thanks to Goessel's deft depictions of the crowds that greeted Fairbanks when disembarking from a ship, and how he thwarted a potential tragedy in his own home when he convinced a group of star-struck would-be thieves to leave with just a handful of cash.

She also adeptly explains how the advent of talkies completely changed his way of life. Although he once ruled the box office, he could no longer bring in an audience. Viewers wanted different things from their silent movie stars than their talking actors. The silent film stars were known for their ability to tell and sell a story through gestures and facial expressions. Talkies needed more subtlety, which Fairbanks couldn't provide. And he didn't realize just how quickly his star would fall. The first feature-length talking picture, The Jazz Singer, was released in 1927. Fairbank's final film, The Private Life of Don Juan, was released in 1934.

But according to Goessel, he actually lost the favor of the audience even earlier than that. In 1931, Fairbanks filmed Around the World in 80 Minutes with Douglas Fairbanks, a vanity project that featured shot after shot of him traveling to expensive locales and hunting wild animals when most of the American public was mired in the daily realities of trying to survive the Great Depression. "The possibility that the Depression audience might not wish to watch the travels of a rich movie star had not occurred to Doug..... That he no longer had his finger on the public pulse was evident."

Although Goessel's clever turns of phrase and nimble storytelling make reading about this all-but-forgotten actor fun, the real meat of the book is the romance between Fairbanks and fellow silent film star Mary Pickford, his longtime lady love. Granted access to a large collection of letters between the two stars--including ones that were written in a code--Goessel manages to make a love story that started out scandalously (they were both married to other people when they met in an era that was far more square than this one) seem sweet.

Goessel writes: "Letter and notes--and even telegrams--came to [Mary] often. He was improvident and reckless, leaving what would have been a very damaging paper trail had any of those missives been discovered ... He poured his heart out on the pages. It was passion, pure and simple. In the current era, when romantic communication seems to the jaded eye to consist largely of scantily clad selfies and more-explicit-than-we-want-to-see sexting, his words evoke a different form of nakedness, having no qualifying irony or detachment."

But sadly, even though they loved each other until their final days--which for Fairbanks came too soon, in 1939--their romance was doomed to end. Badly. With each person cheating and lying. And each unable to say the words they longed to say: "I'm sorry." So it was that silence brought them together (in the form of their shared profession) and silence tore them apart. It is to Goessel's credit that I found I cared about what happened to these two flawed people whose lives' work isn't remembered, but who--thanks to this book--can never be forgotten.
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Comment:Silent but never still: the surprisingly loud life of Douglas Fairbanks.
Author:Rosner, Leah Hochbaum
Publication:Video Age International
Date:May 1, 2016
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