Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Douglas Fairbanks feature His Majesty, the American (1919).
His Majesty, the American was the first film ever to be released by United Artists. It opens with an announcement as to this fact…Doug jumps through the words and gives us his slangy hopes that we’ll like it.
No clips are available online so here’s my encapsulation of its events:
The first act is the best and funniest part of the film. Doug is a rich young man, the source of whose wealth is a mystery. He’s just grown up being taken care of by servants and handlers. Meanwhile he’s become a thrill hound and a sort of amateur adjunct to the police and fire departments. His house is full of memorabilia and equipment. When he gets word of a fire (he has an alarm bell in his house) he goes down a fire pole which leads to his garage, races to a spectacular tenement fire, swings over to the burning building on rope from a building across the street and rescues a family one by one — including a kitten. Then he gets a ticker tape message from the police department and races to a crime scene where a wanted man is hiding out. Cops raid the house, but figure to have lost the man again, but Doug spots him (disguised in drag) and catches the guy.
Then, bad news: a new official at city hall neuters the police and fire departments. The police are now all sissies and the firemen all fat. There is nothing going on (seems like there ought to be MORE going on, with no one to catch crooks or put out fires, but no matter). Doug leaves town looking for a little excitement. He heads to Mexico, hoping to get in on a little Pancho Villa action. On the way there, he gets off the train at a Texas town that sounds lively (he literally hears explosions.) He learns too late that he’s only been hearing Fourth of July firecrackers.
He then heads into Mexico on foot, with donkeys. A long sequence in the desert. It is so hot, he is able to light a cigarette on a rock. Finally, he makes it to the town he was looking for—it’s called “Murdero”. Unfortunately all the bad guys are dead. Then it looks like some action is on the way. Pancho Villa’s men are coming. A very impressive spectacle, scores of guys on horseback ride through town….and keep going! They wont be back for a year. Doug is disappointed.
Then he gets a telegram. He is summoned to the mythical European country of Allaine. He arrives and gets drawn into intrigues. The people are restless. The king’s plan is to give them a bill of rights and political say. But his unscrupulous cabinet minister insists that the way to quiet them is through an advantageous marriage. There follows all sorts of business with notes and spies. It finally turns out (of course) that Doug is the hereditary prince of this country. He arrives just in time to stop the king from signing a document he is being coerced into signing. There’ll be a coronation. He announces from now on American principles “By the People, For the People” etc.
Talk about having your cake and eating it too! Fairbanks’ early films often walk this very line, mixing elements of fairy tale and aristocracy with Americanism. Audiences embraced it despite all the inherent contradictions. Come to think of it, the American audience remains confused about that same philosophical oxymoron to this day.
To learn more about early comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.