Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Douglas Fairbanks romantic comedy American Aristocracy (1916).
This has always been a special Fairbanks film for me because it was shot in the town where I was born, Westerly, Rhode Island — to be specific the seaside resort of Watch Hill, an area of mansions and hotels where many of New York’s upper crust would spend their summers, and where Fairbanks himself often vacationed. In the Fairbanks film (written by Anita Loos), the name has been changed to mash-up of two other Rhode Island resorts, Narragansett and Newport, becoming “Narraport”. One of the points of interest of this film is seeing a milieu we associate with Henry James and Edith Wharton — in roughly the real time, in the real place. The post-war Jazz Age and the burgeoning middle class of the Roaring Twenties would change the energy of the entire country, but this movie is a rare window into the period before all that.
It’s all centered in a big hotel (the actual Ocean House hotel, built 1868). Jewel Carmen plays the daughter of a millionaire hatpin manufacturer (Charles De Lima). Doug plays a scion of older money from Virginia, also vacationing there. He doesn’t seem to have a job; he’s an amateur entomologist who goes around catching butterflies. He is full of pep and life and falls instantly in love with the girl. But the father doesn’t approve; he is a kind of reverse snob who believes only in useful work, and doesn’t seem to know or care that Doug’s character is rich. The father seems to be setting the girl up to marry the young head of a malted milk factory (Albert Parker). This character is, of course, evil and sinister. Unbeknownst to the other characters, he is a smuggler; we see him passing messages to a certain “dark skinned” bell boy. Doug pokes around the guy’s factory and learns that it produces gunpowder to send to Mexico. The bad guys catch him and knock him out, leaving him in the factory. Then they kidnap the girl and her father and take them on their boat. Fairbanks comes to and rescues them by flying out in a hydroplane, then swimming over to the boat, holding the bad guys at gunpoint until a Navy destroyer pulls up and sailors come over and seize all the crooks. In the end, the hero ends up inventing an improved hatpin so we know he’ll be permanently in good with the family. (This is the patented Loos satirical touch).
To learn more about 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 learn 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.