Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by James Neibaur

Reaching for the Moon

Reaching for the Moon

5-disc DVD, B&W, 760 mins. Distributed by Flicker Alley.

There are certain performers who represent a particular era so completely that their films are an integral part of the times during which they were produced. Douglas Fairbanks is one of those actors; an absolute staple of 1920’s American cinema and the breezy, devil-may-care attitude that permeated pop culture before the decade culminated in financial ruin and a forthcoming Depression. Along with being a glamorous star, he was a cinematic visionary who began contributing to the production of his films early on, and assumed producer credit even before he, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin formed their own studio.

Fairbanks’s celebrated action/adventure films that established his Roaring 20’s stardom have already been collected in a superb box set issued by KINO in 2004. Films like The Black Pirate, The Thief of Baghdad, and Robin Hood still appear exciting some eighty years after their initial release. Fairbanks started out as a comedian on the Broadway stage, however, and remained one upon his entrance into films in 1915. Based on the examples in this DVD box set, had Fairbanks’s screen career not ultimately taken another path, the actor would likely have settled alongside the lofty likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. He was already making feature-length films while the others were still producing short subjects. He rivaled Chaplin in popularity and high salary. He matched Keaton in amazing stunts. And he preceded Harold Lloyd in exhibiting an Everyman character that captured the audience’s imagination.

Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer, Flicker Alley’s five DVD box set of eleven films, produced by David Shepherd and Jeffery Masino, concentrates on the actor’s often brilliant comedy features from the earlier part of his movie career (1916-1921). It is with these films that the American moviegoer fell in love with the actor they would affectionately refer to as Doug, solidifying his movie stardom as the Teens became the Twenties. Unlike his comic brethren, Fairbanks concentrated on feature films rather than short subjects. His comedy was situational, not based on gags. Doug’s handsome features, comic sense, and often breathtaking stunt work make his comedies more palatable in the twenty-first century than perhaps his better known costume adventures of the Twenties.

The first DVD in this set includes three early films, showing the actor’s initial encounter with the cinematic process under the supervision of D. W. Griffith, after signing with Triangle Pictures in 1915. These films are important not only because they represent Fairbanks’s entry into moviemaking, but also because they document his interest in branching off past Griffith’s cinematic perspective and exploring his own ideas. Griffith, for instance, was not particularly impressed with Fairbanks’s stunt work, preferring a more melodramatic approach. Fairbanks’s athleticism, Griffith felt, was best suited for Mack Sennett’s productions at Triangle. Thus, Griffith put Fairbanks in the hands of writers and directors who had a sense of comedy, including writer Anita Loos and her husband, writer-director John Emerson.

The first film on this disc, His Picture in the Papers (John Emerson, 1916), shows the actor in full comic mode, playing a confident meat eater in a family of vegetarians. His father owns a health-food store, and Doug attempts to prove himself capable of running the business through promotional stunts, and accomplishing what the title states. Some amusing stunt work involving climbing up buildings and participating in a boxing match, as well as a cameo by Erich Von Stroheim, add to this early film’s curiosity value, but it is more significant in its historical context . It shows health-food fanaticism as just another period fad, and offers some amusing shots of upper-crust stereotypes dutifully gorging on products that they clearly find quite tasteless. The American passion for success and publicity is parodied with the sort of style and energy that was already, by his third film, a staple of Fairbanks’s performance.

The second film on the first disc is the only short subject in the set. The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (John Emerson, 1916), is a surreal two-reel Sherlock Holmes parody which casts Fairbanks as the substance-abusing detective Coke Ennyday. One of the most bizarre films of its time, The Mystery of the Leaping Fish also presents Fairbanks performing low comedy with all the scenery-chewing gusto of a Keystone veteran and is filled with wonderful visual ideas. The opening shot presents Doug in the foreground of a well-stocked laboratory with a huge tin of cocaine on his desk. There is a clock on the wall behind him clearly labeled to indicate when it is time for “eats, drinks, dope, and sleep.” The first shot of a man who is said to be “rolling in wealth” shows a close-up of the culprit sleeping, the camera panning back to reveal he is, literally, covered in currency. Coke and his partner, on their way to a case, abruptly stop and begin playing a game of checkers on their car’s checkered fender (during which Coke gives himself a quick injection). A title card indicating “The Police have lost their way,” is followed by a shot of a paddy wagon rapidly circling a small roundabout. The film concludes with Coke thwarting an opium gang by getting himself doped up on “hop” and, ultimately, throwing the powder into the eyes of the criminals.

This first disc concludes with Flirting With Fate (Christy Cabbane, 1916), another offbeat item featuring Fairbanks as Augy, a hapless fellow wallowing so deeply in depression, he contemplates suicide. Never able to muster the courage to end his life, Augy hires a man to do the deed When his life improves somewhat, however, he must somehow call off the murder. While comparatively weak, Flirting With Fate is interesting in how the actors play this comic premise absolutely straight. It is the outrageous circumstances of the lead character from which the comedy flows, the surrounding story performed as if it were a straight drama. Fairbanks plays his role not unlike Harold Lloyd, whose brilliance as an actor overshadowed the fact that he was not the creative gagman that Chaplin or Keaton were.

At this point in Fairbanks’s career we see the seeds of what was evolving into a strong presence in screen comedy. Already tackling feature-length films, Fairbanks benefits greatly from the team of Loos and Emerson. Their clever comic insights of Twenties-era lives and characters are the perfect material for Fairbanks’s good looks, athleticism, physical strength, and sly demeanor. The Matrimaniac (Paul Powell, 1916), the first film on disc two, shows Fairbanks comfortably in his element as a daring bridegroom attempting to elope by train, while fleeing the girl’s father and, eventually, the police force. It is certainly the most frenetic film in this set, functioning at a breathless pace that is as effective now as it must have been for excited moviegoers in 1916.

Although still fairly new to motion-picture production, Fairbanks was already becoming interested in making a greater contribution to his films than merely that of an actor. While his performances were already captivating moviegoers, Fairbanks had a real vision of the cinematic possibilities of his physicality. Thus, Fairbanks decided to establish his own company, moving from Triangle to Paramount Pictures as part of the Artcraft/Famous Players-Lasky unit.

The first Fairbanks-produced Artcraft release in this set is the clever Western satire Wild and Wooly (Emerson, 1917), which is the other feature on disc two. Doug is an Easterner who longs to visit the West. His vision of the West is as depicted in Zane Grey novels, however, not realizing the area is now as built up and modern as the East. When he must travel to Arizona for business, the townspeople, aware of his interest in the Old West, attempt to rebuild the town as it had been some fifty years earlier, including dressing the suit-clad townsfolk in cowboy hats, chaps, six-shooters filled with blanks, and boots with spurs. We can compare this turn with Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1922), in which Lloyd plays an equally naive character who tries to survive in college based on the stories he has read. In Wild and Wooly, Doug must assume real-life heroics when Indians seize the opportunity and expose the charade by attacking the town with real bullets. In The Freshman, Lloyd proves himself on the football field in similar fashion. Fairbanks, now completely involved in the production of his films, gave director Emerson the idea to open the feature with a then-and-now montage of horse-drawn wagons, to streetcars, to trains.

From this point, Fairbanks and his staff continued to investigate contemporary situations that could be played for comic effect, as per the two features found on disc three. Reaching for the Moon (Emerson, 1917) features Doug longing to leave his working-class status and dwell among the elite, only to discover he is heir to royalty. A Modern Musketeer (Allen Dwan, 1917) shows Doug as a bored Midwesterner who dreams himself into the classic tale.

By 1918, Fairbanks was the most popular performer in American movies, and its third highest paid. In February of 1919, he, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith formed United Artists in an effort to control all creative aspects of their films, as well as distribution. The business side of the company was fraught with difficulty (Griffith would drop out completely a few years later), but the creative control for each of the performers resulted in some of their most interesting work. One of the decisions Fairbanks made was to promote his cameraman Victor Fleming to the level of director.

The first United Artists film in the Flicker Alley set, When The Clouds Roll By (Victor Fleming, 1919) shows up on disc four. This feature takes satiric issue with the new method of psychological therapy, as Doug is driven to near suicide through the experiments of a psychologist. It is perhaps even more offbeat than The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, and clearly presents how Fairbanks, now his own boss, was willing to experiment with edgier ideas. When The Clouds Roll By is not the best film in this set, but it could very well be the most interesting.

Of the remaining films in the set, The Mollycoddle (VIctor Fleming, 1919) , the other film on disc four, features Doug as a polo-playing rich boy whose mettle is tested. Of the films on disc five, The Nut (Theodore Reed, 1921), has him as an eccentric inventor; and The Mark of Zorro (Fred Niblo, 1920) marks Doug’s entry into costume adventures, something that would define the remainder of his career. As with each of the titles offered here, the Fairbanks character exudes a sense of passion and frenetic energy so as to make every performance the cause for the film’s rhythm. The Mollycoddle, for instance, is a good example of how Fairbanks enjoyed exploring how a pampered character could evolve into one of stereotypical male ruggedness and virility.

As we examine the films in this set as to their significance in the Douglas Fairbanks canon, we can appreciate how the actor evolved, investigated different ideas, and used his particular talents to increasing advantage. Each film is filled with the gymnastic stunts for which Fairbanks remains best known. Unable to enter his girl’s house, he literally walks up the outside wall and enters through an upstairs window. In an attempt to evade attackers, he climbs onto a ceiling by jumping up to a chandelier and scaling his way upward. In other scenes he flies through the air onto an adversary, or leaps along rooftops. Along with the actor’s abilities, the attitude conveyed is also significant. These lighthearted stunts distill Fairbanks’s vision of his characters. He wanted audiences to enjoy the fun without responding to or even discerning any sense of technique. The stories were basic, the ideas were amusing, and Doug’s likable persona reached out to everyone in the movie houses.

Unlike the films of Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd, the creative aspect of the Fairbanks movies is not based on gags but partly on character, and partly on a breezy attitude, but chiefly through the structure of each film. Even, for instance, the titles penned by Anita Loos for Wild and Wooly take notice of stereotyped Western dialog, with phonetically written lines like, “Don’t y’all be a-skeered, I don’t need no one a-worryin,” structuring the film with western clichés that were already recognizable to moviegoers, who could appreciate them as satire.

What is also interesting about these films, collectively, is their significance to the era in which they were released. As the Teens became the Twenties, America was filled with dreamers who had big ideas. Many of these ideas came into fruition in the Twenties, a decade of genuine accomplishment, success, and prosperity, despite its tragic ending. The Fairbanks comedies collected here frequently present Doug as one of the decade's American dreamers. Only his dreams, as played for comedy, are exaggerated for comic effect. In Reaching for the Moon, for instance, Doug discovers that having an aristocratic life is far less attractive than dreaming about it. Once he does enter that coveted world, he discovers it is fraught with enemies, plots of revolution, and general mistrust. The point of this World War One-era feature was that American democracy is better than European monarchy, not a revolutionary thought. But the film's historical context and its attempt to deliver its underlying message through comedy makes it interesting.

This box set from Flicker Alley offers us a number of the most important of the films that led to and established Fairbanks’s stardom. Not only are these early films every bit as essential as the better-known titles, but it can be argued that perhaps their light comic sensibility and courage to investigate offbeat ideas make them even more important than the established classics that have defined his career.

This DVD set’s bonus materials include a gallery of rare stills from Douglas Fairbanks’s personal collection at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as well as an audio commentary on A Modern Musketeer and an extensive booklet essay by Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maletta, authors of the biography, Douglas Fairbanks (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences/University of California Press, 2008).

To buy the Douglas Fairbanks box set, click here.

James Neibaur has just completed his eighth book, The Fall of Buster Keaton , for Scarecrow Press, and is at work on his ninth, Stan without Ollie: The Stan Laurel Solo Films for McFarland & Co.

Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4