On Douglas Fairbanks’ Contributions to American Comedy

The foregoing is adapted from my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube

Douglas Fairbanks’ early career is today overshadowed by his later reputation as a swashbuckling adventure hero. Largely forgotten is the fact that his first five years upon the screen (roughly a quarter of his film career), were spent as a light comedian. And as such he was a huge star, the third most popular screen actor in the country after Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. When he collaborated with those two and Griffith to found United Artists in 1919, he did so as a comedy star; his conversion to historical costume adventures was still a couple of years away. If he had never made a swashbuckling picture, Fairbanks would still have been significant in the history of Hollywood cinema on the strength of this first leg –the comedy stretch — of his career alone. I concur with Gerald Mast who wrote in The Comic Mind that any history of silent comedy is incomplete without him.

It was Fairbanks and his creative team who essentially solved the problem of how to take comedians into features. These folks form one of the most vital links in the Chain of Fools, yet are usually left out of silent comedy histories, mostly because Fairbanks, while both “physical” and a “comedian”, was not per se a “physical comedian”.  That is, while athletic, agile and acrobatic, he was more what we think of as a high comedian than a low one: upper class, charming, generally not clumsy or given to ungentlemanly scraps. He was good looking and, in the end, heroic. As a swashbuckler, he was the prototype of Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power, but as a comedian, also of Cary Grant, William Powell, and Ronald Colman. His comedy tended to be more sophisticated and dignified than that of the slapstick clowns. Any time the comedian is also the romantic lead as opposed to mere comic relief the lineage is bound to lead back to Fairbanks.

Already 32 by the time he joined D.W. Griffith’s Fine Arts division of Triangle in 1915, Fairbanks had been acting on the stage since he was a teenager, with a couple of brief detours into the business world, life experience that would greatly impact his stage personality. By the mid-teens he was a well-known light comic actor who’d been featured in several hits on Broadway and had toured big time vaudeville in comedy sketches. George M. Cohan had even written a vehicle for him, Broadway Jones, but Cohan had liked the part so much he decided to play it himself.

Before even going into films Fairbanks was well on the way to forging his famous persona, and had begun incorporating his natural athleticism and gymnastic ability into his stage roles. Reliable accounts of Fairbanks’ childhood in Denver make him sound something close to what we now call hyperactive; he was forever jumping off of roofs and causing disruptions at school. As a young man, he became an early convert to what was then called “physical culture”. This was the age of Teddy Roosevelt’s gospel of “the Strenuous Life”, of Sandow the Strongman, of the seemingly invincible Harry Houdini. Fairbanks religiously spent time every day applying himself to self-improvement in the gymnasium.  He was unique in incorporating his athleticism into a stage character that in turn owed something to George M. Cohan’s image: lively, American, vigorous, kinetic. Whereas Cohan was somewhat urban, pushy and “street”, Fairbanks was every inch the All-American milk drinking WASP and somewhat aristocratic in mien, cloaking his upbringing in a broken home in the Wild and Woolly state of Colorado.

Not just light on his feet but light on his hands — a heartstopping handstand at the rim of the Grand Canyon in “Wild and Woolly”

One of the first things Fairbanks did upon arriving at Griffith’s studio was set up a makeshift gym of his own, allowing him to indulge in highly public workouts on the rings, the pommel horse, and so forth. The serious-minded Griffith reportedly had no use for this kind of cheeky showboating. Nor did he think much of Fairbanks, whom he felt had been foisted on him by the back office. Griffith’s opinion was that the vigorous upstart would be better off with the Mack Sennett division of Triangle, where he could leap and gambol to his heart’s content. Fairbanks found the concept insulting. He considered himself an actor, not a clown, backflips notwithstanding. The decision to remain in Griffith’s division was the correct one. By way of illustration:  in his very first film The Lamb (1915), Fairbanks does indeed take a pratfall within the first five minutes of the movie, absentmindedly leaning on a hedge as he talks to a girl and tumbling to the ground.  By contrast, in a Sennett comedy such events would happen within the first five seconds and then at five second intervals thereafter. That is the difference. Sennett didn’t care enough about story to devise a sustainable feature (he made 18 features; it’s a question how sustainable any of them were). The ideal length for a Sennett farce was 10-20 minutes, and even at that, some of them seem excessively long. Fairbanks was a Broadway star, he demanded film vehicles that would be comparable in scope and quality to his recent stage successes.

The Lamb was just that. An adaptation of his most recent Broadway hit The New Henrietta, it established the formula that would continue for the next several years: an effete but healthy and good-hearted rich boy from the Northeast is busy having a good time, but lacks a purpose, a mission. Then like the heroes of old, he is called and he ends up proving himself, usually in some more challenging milieu, most often the American West. In The Lamb, Fairbanks plays a young society fellow who must fight to keep the attention of his fiancé from straying to the virile chap from Arizona they have recently met.  In the end, he defeats a bloodthirsty band of Mexican cut-throats using a machine gun and his new jiu-jitsu skills. That’ll do it.

Fairbanks’ humor is an outgrowth of his personality and his unique attainments as an amateur gymnast. He is insanely likeable. In the films, you watch him charm the other actors even as he’s charming you. It’s a “gosh, gee whiz” sort of personality, mixed with the assertiveness we associate with old-fashioned salesmanship. In theory, it may sound off-putting. In practice, one is disarmed. Fairbanks’ bonhomie is genuine. One gets a real sense of him being an American’s idea of a gentleman, which might best be described as the opposite of the European idea. The American conception is not a matter of birth or class, but of manners – someone who is absolutely nice and respectful to everyone he meets no matter who they are, rich, poor, black or white. And Fairbanks embodies that in these films, even if, as in The Americano (1916), the black man is unfortunately played by a Caucasian in blackface**. The key is that Fairbanks’ overwhelmingly cheerful, positive personality has physical manifestations. He literally jumps for joy, clicks his heels, turns handsprings. In American Aristocracy (1916) he is so energetic that he appears to have trouble restraining himself from humping a tent pole. And this is just in the early parts of his films. In the third act when he is busy saving the day, the dynamo kicks into overdrive. That’s when Fairbanks scurries up the facades of buildings, leaps across roofs, swings on tree branches, scales trellises and telephone poles. And he is really doing those things; it is not a stunt man. Fairbanks’ audiences were buying tickets to a true spectacle.

Defying gravity in “The Matrimaniac”

I mentioned Fairbanks’ creative team earlier. His public image benefitted from the input of many collaborators. One of the most frequent of his scenario writers, but by no means the only one, was Anita Loos, best known nowadays for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which she wrote a few years later. Loos had been writing for D.W. Griffith since 1912. One of Hollywood’s first salaried screenwriters, she had penned some of Griffith’s best known early films, including 1912’s The New York Hat (with Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore) and the path-breaking 1912 urban crime film The Musketeers of Pig Alley (featuring Lillian Gish and Elmer Booth). At the moment she was writing the titles for Intolerance, but was only too happy to be part of the staff that would devise original vehicles for Fairbanks.

In His Picture in the Papers (1916), Loos would strike a new note that would become a major dimension of the Fairbanks idea for the next half dozen years: satire. In that movie, Fairbanks plays a decidedly meat-eating son of a vegetarian health food magnate. The young man is challenged by his father to bring in some positive publicity for their family-owned company, much as a tribal chieftain might instruct his heir apparent to prove himself by going to bag a wild boar. This was the age of Pulitzer and Hearst, mind you – Loos was identifying a brand new phenomenon that would only intensify with the advent of radio, television and the internet. Fairbanks’ persona lent itself very nicely to ironic nose-tweaking of American foibles. In many of his films, not just the ones penned by Loos, this would be an important ingredient in the mix.

A surprising number of variations could be rung on Fairbanks’ character. In Manhattan Madness (1916) he plays a young westerner who bets his New York friends that nothing exciting will happen to him while he is in the city (as compared with the riding and roping fun to be had back home.) He is of course immediately entangled with crooks and kidnappers (a development which turns out to have been an elaborate prank arranged by his friends). In The Habit of Happiness (1916) he is a privileged young man who preaches the gospel of laughter for health and wealth. He proves the efficacy of his doctrine by getting a girl, a job and the acceptance of his father by implementing his philosophy. (The next year, Fairbanks emulated his own character by releasing a self-help book called Laugh and Live).

In perhaps his most famous film from his comedy period Wild and Woolly (1917) he plays the son of a railroad magnate who’s obsessed with the Wild West. When Pater wants to build a spur line to an Arizona mine, he sends the boy as his advance man to investigate. The town folk, seeking to impress the kid, put on an old west charade so their modern town will seem more like what he expects. Meanwhile a crooked Indian agent and his hotel clerk lackey conspire to do actual crimes while Fairbanks is distracted with fake ones. Naturally he surprises everyone (including himself) by solving all and saving the day.

Some of the films play somewhat more like fairy tale romances than comedies. Reaching for the Moon (1917), a full blown Loos satire, starts the trend. Fairbanks’ plays an overeager office boy who drives everyone crazy with his dreams of glory until the day he learns that he is a European prince and gets more of a taste of what real rulers face than he bargained for. Subsequent movies, however, lavish happy endings upon him without the didacticism. In The Americano he is a young mining engineer sent to a Central American country during a coup. In this one, he not only gets the girl and the job – but control of the army! In His Majesty, the American (1919) the character learns that he is the heir apparent to the throne of a troubled Eastern European country.  Just so we know that he’s an alright guy, though, he announces that he plans to run it like America. These pictures pave the way for the shift in emphasis in the twenties, when he will be taking on fare like Robin Hood and The Thief of Baghdad.

Seldom a climax without climbing: from “A Modern Musketeer”

The Fairbanks films are an interesting hybrid; comic in tone until the last act, when his character must come to the rescue in dead earnest. We are still wowed by his physical feats, but we are no longer laughing at him, we are rooting for him to accomplish his goals. This aspect of the Fairbanks formula would influence not only Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton but films down to modern times. (I am dating myself I guess by thinking of examples like Eddie Murphy’s 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop).

So it was Fairbanks as much as Chaplin who pioneered something like real story telling in the comedy film, providing a pathway for comedians like Harold Lloyd and many others to come.  Others who emulated Fairbanks included Douglas MacLean, Reginald Denny and Johnny Hines. Of these, only Lloyd made so lasting an impression in silents that his popularity has survived until the present day.

For much, much more on silent and slapstick comedy please see my 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

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.