Archive for star

Helene Costello: Born with Summer; the Rest Was So Much Winter

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2017 by travsd

Helene Costello (1906-1957) was born the first day of summer, June 21. She is usually spoken of as part of a pair with her older sister Dolores Costello, also an actress. Both were daughters of the patriarchal thespian Maurice Costello. Dolores is best remembered today for having been married to John Barrymore, and for starring in The Magnificent Ambersons. Helene was married and divorced herself four times; her most famous husband was actor and director Lowell Sherman.

Dolores and Helene started out as child actresses in productions of their father’s, on the legit stage, in vaudeville and in silent movies. They appeared in the 1924 edition of George White’s Scandals together. Helene was voted a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1927. As talkies began to be phased in, she was in some notable landmark features, including the semi-talkie Lights of New York (1928), and the musical revue Your Show of Shows (1929), in which she performed a number with Dolores.

At this stage, she was poised for a great career in sound films, but a long list of personal problems (two divorces, a custody battle, money woes, and drug and alcohol problems) conspired to keep her away from the camera for the first half of the 1930s, crucial years to miss. By the time she attempted a return with a small role in Riffraff (1936) it was too late to regain momentum. There followed two more decades of the very same sorts of personal difficulties, and a single walk-on role in The Black Swan (1942). She died in a psychiatric hospital in 1957.

For more on the history of show business consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold. For more on early film, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

Rebla: Funny Music Hall Juggler

Posted in Comedy, Jugglers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by travsd

Here’s another one for World Juggling Day. Thanks, Todd Robbins, for introducing me to this interesting artist. Albert Rebla, usually billed simply as “Rebla” (Albert James Stevens, 1880-1963) was a comedy juggler in English music hall who modeled his act very much on W.C. Fields’. British Pathe made a film short of his act in 1935; you can see sections of it on Youtube. The debt to Fields is observable in the body language. The casual, lackadaisical manner with which he manipulates the balls, as though he were just doing his job, is quite hysterical. His ability to juggle tight and small formations rapidly, and bounce balls off the floor, are also reminiscent of Fields. On the other hand, as Todd points out, his voice and patter show similarities to Joe Frisco. 

“Rebla” is of course his real first name “Albert”, reversed, minus the “t”. Rebla started out touring with the Agoust Family of Jugglers as a teenager. Originally from London, he worked with a succession of partners for years, one of whom had been as assistant to Chung Ling Soo. In addition to dates in the U.K. and on the Continent, he also appeared in American vaudeville. One finds references to him playing U.S. theatres during the teens, and Joe Laurie referred to him his book Vaudeville: From Honky Tonks to the Palace. 

In 1918 he co-produced and co-starred in a revue at the Shafterbury Theatre with Harry Lauder. he appeared in several silent films and early talkies in addition the Pathe short we mentioned, often as an actor (as opposed to simply doing a juggling turn). In 1939, he performed in an early television experiment. By the early 1940s he had moved to Australia, as many did, to work the Tivoli circuit. He died in Melbourne in 1963.

For more on the history of vaudeville and jugglers like Rebla,  consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold.

On the Acerbic Mary Wickes

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2017 by travsd

Beloved character actor Mary Wickes (Mary Wickenhauser, 1910-1995) was born on June 13. The gawky, wise-cracking Wickes was ubiquitous on screens big and small for half a century, usually playing maids, nuns, nurses and other no-nonsense types on the periphery of the main action but just close enough to see what was going on and make an exasperated and cutting joke about it.

I almost certainly first knew her from her regular role on the Sid and Marty Krofft kid’s show Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (1973-1974). (Though she was also a regular on the sit com Doc around the same time too so it was probably both). Thus I was already a fan (without knowing it, perhaps) from about age eight. Wickes’ screen character aged extremely well. When she was young, because of her attitude and her crone-like drawl, she had always seemed older than she was. When she actually became older, she simply WAS.

Still, there was in evolution, if an incremental one. If you look at the photo at the top, when she was very young she was, if not pretty, at least pretty-adjacent. She was not in the Margaret Hamilton category as a type. Wickes was quite young when she began her career on Broadway. She is said to have been in the original production of Marc Connelly’s The Farmer Takes a Wife (1934), though, if she was, it was probably either as a walk-on or a replacement as she is not listed in the IBDB credits. She was in the original productions of two George S. Kaufman plays, Stage Door (1936) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939-1941). The 1942 film version of the latter was her big screen Hollywood debut.

She had been in at least one film prior to The Man Who Came To Dinner, however. As a sometime member of Orson Welles’ and John Houseman’s Mercury Theatre, she had appeared in Welles’ legendary Too Much Johnson (1938). She also acted in the Mercury’s stage production of Danton’s Death (1938) and on radio with Mercury Theatre on the Air.

From 1942 until her death she was almost constantly on movie screens; starting in 1948 it was also true of television. Notable films include Now, Voyager (1942), On Moonlight Bay (1951), By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953), The Actress (1953), White Christmas (1954), Cimarron (1960), The Music Man (1962), How to Murder Your Wife (1965), Postcards from the Edge (1990), and the Sister Act films (1992 and 1993). She also appears in comedies of Abbott and Costello, Ma and Pa Kettle, and Blondie. Lucille Ball LOVED her and used her in a dozen episodes of her various tv shows I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, and Here’s Lucy. She also appeared memorably on The Doris Day Show, Columbo, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, M*A*S*H and many other shows. Her last screen credit was a voice over in Disney’s animated The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).

For more on show business history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold. For more on  film comedy, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

Dorothy Stone: Broadway Legatee

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2017 by travsd

Stage and screen performer Dorothy Stone came into the world on June 3, 1905. The daughter of Broadway and vaudeville legend Fred Stone (the original Scarecrow in the Broadway version of The Wizard of Oz), Dorothy managed to crawl past her dad’s large shadow, but only just barely. Most of her Broadway credits were either shows that she appeared in with her dad, or shows in which she replaced the original star. The first Fred Stone shows she appeared in were Stepping Stones (1923), Criss Cross (1926), and Three Cheers (1928; Will Rogers replaced his friend Fred prior to opening when the latter was injured in a plane crash).

By 1930 the elder Stone had recovered and Dorothy appeared with both her parents as well as her younger sister Paula and Charles Collins, in Ripples (1930), an updated version of Rip Van Winkle. Collins became her dance partner; the two were married in 1931. Other “family affairs” included Smiling Faces (1932) with Fred and Paula; Sea Legs (1937), with Collins; a revival of You Can’t Take It With You (1945) with Fred and Collins; and The Red Mill (1945) with Collins; and the film shorts Shave it with Music (1932) with Fred and Collins, and Paree Paree (1934) with Collins and Bob Hope; A Radio Hook-up (1938) with Collins; and Latin High-Hattin’ (1938) with Collins.

As a replacement, she went in for Ruby Keeler in Show Girl (1929), and Marilyn Miller in As Thousands Cheer (1933), and got glowing notices in both cases, although these seem to have been her only outings without either a father or a husband around to team up with. Apart from one very special exception…

In 1936 she starred in the interesting horror movie Revolt of the Zombies, which we wrote about in this post about zombie films. That film, as well as the aforementioned Paree Paree, which is one of Bob Hope’s very first screen credits, is what she is best known for today. I managed to watch both films somehow without realizing that Dorothy was Fred Stone’s daughter.

Another frequent co-star of Dorothy Stone’s was Eddie Foy, Jr, who appeared with her in Show Girl, Ripples, Smiles, and The Red Mill. Foy’s dad was of course a contemporary of Fred Stone’s; this close connection is almost like yet another family connection. In addition to Paula, a third Stone sister Carol had a successful career on stage, and in film and television, one that was a bit more independent and longer lasting. While Collins managed to land some minor roles throughout the decades, Dorothy Stone’s last credits were in the late 1940s, scarcely outlasting the career of her dad. She died in 1974.

To learn more about vaudeville, show business, and Fred Stone, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever illuminating books are sold.

Andy Griffith: Good Cracker

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2017 by travsd

Andy Griffith was born on June 1, 1926. Look at that face! It seems strange to exist in a world without him. He and his best known character seem like Benjamin Franklin or something, part of the bedrock of America. While he occasionally played villains (in fact, his best known role, apart from Andy Taylor, was a villain), Griffith seemed to radiate decency, a good heart, and sound judgment — our fantasy of what we’d love a small town sheriff to be. (As opposed to the dude who catches you in his speed trap, glares at you impassively through his sunglasses, chucks you in a cell when you can’t pay his “fine” and then kicks the shit out of you while calling you a “Yankee”).

Griffith defied the Southern stereotype in all sorts of ways. Born and bred in rural Mt Airy, North Carolina (on the Virginia border) he discovered singing, acting and playing musical instruments when in high school and was strongly encouraged by some wise teachers in those pursuits. Later he attended the University of North Carolina. Something clicked into place when I read that he appeared for several years in one of Paul Green’s historical pageants called The Lost Colony. I have yet to blog about Green, an interesting figure whom I learned about through my studies of the Group Theatre. Green’s play The House of Connelly was the Group Theatre’s first production. It was one of the things I was thinking about when I named my play House of Trash. 

In the 50s, Griffith first gained widespread notice as a comedy monologist and storyteller in nightclubs. His 1953 comedy record What It Was, Was Football became a popular seller.

This led to him being cast as the lead in the tv, Broadway and film versions of Ira Levin’s No Time for Sergeants (tv and stage versions were 1955; film was 1958). His character in the story was a cheerful rube and bumpkin, which formed much of the basis for the Andy Griffith spin-off series Gomer Pyle, USMC. 

In 1957, he enjoyed what ought to have been a cinematic breakthrough. He was cast as the lead in Elia Kazan’s amazing film A Face in the Crowd. Written by Budd Schulberg, it’s a political story about a seemingly affable good old boy named Lonesome Rhodes who becomes enormously popular on records, television and in films as a folk singer…but then becomes power mad, not just for success in show business but for political office. He’s a crazy demagogue using the power of television just as Huey Long had used radio a couple of decades earlier. It seems clearly inspired by the phenomenon of Elvis Presley, who had no such political designs, but might have been a formidable and damaging force if he had. This dystopian vision would see a later incarnation in the 1968 acid nightmare Wild in the Streets. And then, in 2016, the nightmare became true when a ruthless tv reality star became President of the United States, which is why interest in A Face in the Crowd has been increasing over the last several months, just as copies of The Origins of Totalitarianism have been flying off the shelves.

Anyway, Griffith is incredible in it, just an explosion of raw, animal power. People didn’t know what to make of the film at the time; reviews were mixed. In some ways it might have seemed a career killer for Griffith to play a character so similar to himself, and yet so ugly. (For another example, there’s Milton Berle’s 1949 Always Leave Them Laughing, where Berle’s character is a total jerk who seems oddly like…Milton Berle).

Griffith’s electric performance did not lead to a stellar movie career, but Griffith did come to dominate television for three and a half decades. He had a guest shot on Danny Thomas’s Make Room for Daddy in 1960 in which he played a southern sheriff. This led to his own series, (produced by Thomas and Sheldon Leonard), The Andy Griffith Show, which ran from 1960 through 1968 (Griffith left in 1967).

This show (in re-runs) was a major staple in my home when I was growing up. It’s mesmerizing, not just for the terrific writing and acting, but for its level of FANTASY. In a way, it is just as unreal a TV show as Bewitched or I Dream of Jeanie. It takes place in an idyllic Southern town called Mayberry, North Carolina, clearly based on Griffith’s home town of Mt. Airy. But while it takes place in contemporary times (the 1960s) the town’s quiet, isolated nature feels as though it were happening in much earlier times, decades earlier. People seem to spend all day sitting on porches in rocking chairs, swatting flies, catching fish, having picnics. Most episodes, a stranger will drive into town, stirrin’ up trouble of one kind or another, interrupting the placid stillness of this rural Shangri La.

The only kind of people who DON’T drive up, or live there to begin with, are BLACK people. And this would be exceedingly odd in a North Carolina town, would it not? Furthermore, the entire show aired during the Civil Rights Era, when interracial strife was happening throughout the country. The omission is glaring; it speaks volumes. But the creators of the show were on the horns of a dilemma. More than one actually. This was a time of transition. America was ostensibly past the era of overt, intentional racism in entertainment, the ridiculing of African Americans, the hiring of actors like Stepin Fetchit or Mantan Moreland to be the butt of jokes. And Griffith was a liberal; that wouldn’t have been his style anyway. (He later campaigned for Barack Obama). But, unless you did a period show, there’d be NO WAY to include African Americans without talking about the changes going on in the country (as in later shows like I’ll Fly Away or In The Heat of the Night). And that was far beyond what anyone in tv was ready for at that stage. It wasn’t until the advent of All in the Family (1971) that that line would be crossed. And yet you couldn’t NOT talk about it either! How do you show black people in a Southern town without showing racists? That would be even more of a fantasy! So the solution seemed to be to set the show in an alternate universe where there were NO black people in North Carolina. The unintentional (I think) by-product ends up being just as racist in the long run. The producers didn’t just avoid controversy — they wrote black people out of the story of America. There’s something Orwellian about it.

Griffith said in later years that he was embarrassed about his acting in the first couple of seasons of the show, which hearkened back to the country rube he had played in No Time for Sergeants. But eventually he found his stride, which was, as sheriff, was to be the straight man in a town full of crazies. He kept his cool, and let everyone else in town be the nitwits. In this, he set a template that would be riffed on in many a later show: such as the titular character in Barney Miller, or Alex Reiger in Taxi. The job is to be the sensible guy, who solves everyone else’s problem’s. His genius comedy partner was Don Knotts, whom he’d worked with in No Time for Sergeants. As Deputy Barney Fife, Knotts job was to go overboard, and LOSE his head, and the chemistry and the acting between them was stellar. Other characters included Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier), his son Opie (Ron Howard, who became one of Hollywood’s top film directors), Floyd the barber (Hoard McNear), Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors), Goober (George Lindsey), County Clerk, Howard Sprague (Jack Dodson), Otis the town drunk (Hal Smith), Emmet the handyman (Paul Hartman) and the crazy hillbilly Ernest T. Bass (Howard Morris) and many others. It all adds up to something like Our Town. But we regret that it exists in a parallel universe that only includes Anglo-Saxons. Which I guess means it’s not YOUR town?

Griffith left the show early and very much on purpose so that he could pursue other projects. Other series were tried, and failed. He was in a lot of memorable tv movies, though. He’s in the notorious anti-drug film Go Ask Alice (1973). He played a cop who actually solves crimes in Winter Kill (1974). When he was cast in movies for cinematic release, they tended to cast him as parodies of himself, as in Hearts of the West (1975) and Rustlers Rhapsody (1985). And of course, he became the highly visible pitchman for Ritz Crackers, inspiring the title for this post. We thought that campaign was hilarious when it came out, both for how it played on Griffith’s persona, but also became of the lameness of the slogan. But ya know what? We did imitations of it incessantly — and that is what advertising is all about.

Then, amazingly, his career got another burst of wind when he played a small town southern lawyer in Matlock (1986-1995). This show aired precisely when I was watching very little tv. To this date I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an entire episode. Although, my former brother-in-law, who was a musician in the L.A. area, was hired to play guitar in the background on one episode, and got to chat with the gracious Griffith, who played guitar himself — as if you didn’t know.

Griffith passed away in 2012. His last screen credit was in 2009.

On the Fearless Peggy Fears

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Drag and/or LGBT, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2017 by travsd

The legendary Broadway figure Peggy Fears (1903-1994) was born on this day.

Originally from New Orleans and later Dallas, Fears was the daughter of a wealthy banker. She was all of 14 when she ran away from home and was cast in her first Broadway show the Bolton-Wodehouse musical Have a Heart (1917). From here she went into the Morris Gest show Midnight Whirl (1919-1920). Next came three Florenz Ziegfeld shows. There are two different stories about how she came to Ziegfeld’s attention. One says she was heard singing at a country club by Ziegfeld star Helen Morgan; another (Fears’ own account) says she bumped into him in his offices (after making a concerted effort to do so). At any rate, he put her in the shows Louie the 14th (1925), the Ziegfeld Follies of 1925 and No Foolin’ (1925).

Fears was bisexual. As a young girl she is said to have attempted to elope with a cattle heir named Tom Wharton, and to have dated John Hay “Jock” Whitney. While on the Ziegfeld shows she was the lover of Louise Brooks. In her memoir, Brooks writes of the experience, and of the two of them palling around with W.C. Fields, who always had booze, in his dressing room.

Fears’ last Broadway show strictly as a performer was Rufus LeMaire’s Affairs (1927). In that year she married the real estate millionaire Alfred Cleveland Blumenthal. In the 30s, she and Blumenthal produced several Broadway shows, including the Preston Sturges play Child of Manhattan (1932), the farce Nona (1932), the Oscar HammersteinJerome Kern show Music in the Air (1932-1933), and the play A Divine Moment (1934), in which she also appeared as an actress. This is the last show she produced, and I imagine the date tells the story. We are now in the depths of the Great Depression, when Broadway was in danger of going under for good.

Next she tried her hand at Hollywood. She appears in only one film: The Lottery Lover (1935), with Lew Ayres, Sterling Holloway and Reginald Denny. It was a bit of stunt casting. In the film she plays a night club singer, a star of the Folies Bergere named “Gaby Aimee”. The film was a bit of an outlier for her. A nightclub singer was what she actually was, touring extensively throughout American and Europe for the next few decades.

Fears and Blumenthal separated, divorced and remarried several times, finally splitting up for good in 1950. In the ’50s she purchased land on Fire Island and built the Yacht Club at Fire Island Pines, which she later sold to John B. Whyte in 1966. During the Fire Island years, she was the lover of the radio actress Tedi Thurman (who may be known to some readers from Ed Wood’s 1954 movie Jail Bait). Thurman spoke of their relationship in the 2003 documentary When Ocean Meets Sky.

For more on show history, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

On Douglas Fairbanks’ Contributions to American Comedy

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Douglas Fairbanks, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2017 by travsd

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

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