In the days of silent films, Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939) was the king of dramatic actors. He surged across American motion picture screens performing dangerous stunts such as jumping from one high balcony to another or swinging by a rope from an old pirate ship. Fairbanks was an expert swordsman and handler of guns, a fine athlete, and managed to win the hand of the leading lady with perfect manners in almost every film he made.
Douglas Fairbanks was born in Denver, Colorado on May 23, 1883. He was the son of an alcoholic father who left the family when Douglas was five years old. Born into the Jewish faith, he was taught at an early age to conceal this fact because his family considered it embarrassing. By the time he was just eleven years old, Fairbanks was acting in and around the Denver area. But New York City was where the major actors played. Since he knew already what he wanted to be, Fairbanks moved to New York when he was only seventeen years of age. He planned to sweep into the entertainment business, but instead was forced to take odd jobs to earn enough to eat.
Fairbanks worked as a cattle freighter and as a clerk on Wall Street. In his free time, he haunted the theaters trying to get an acting job. Finally, after two years, he made his Broadway debut as Florio in the Frederick Warde Company's production of The Duke's Jester. He was ambitious, hard working, and developing into an excellent actor, but was still unable to get the starring roles despite his handsome appearance. Success continued to elude him, and he began to question his decision to become an actor.
In 1907, Fairbanks married Anna Beth Sully, owner of the Buchannan Soap Company, with offices in the Flatiron Building on Broadway. His father-in-law wanted Fairbanks to forget the acting business and work for the company. Fairbanks worked for the company for six months, then headed back to the theaters. His timing was good, for the Buchannan Soap Company went out of business shortly after he left.
Fairbanks got a string of minor parts, and was seen by important people, but the lead roles still didn't come. His wife Anna, a former socialite who was not accustomed to poverty, became pregnant. Although the marriage eventually collapsed, she gave birth to a son who was named after his father.
Fairbanks received an offer to move West and make "flickers," which is what Broadway actors called the silent films. At first he resisted, but when Hollywood offered over one hundred thousand dollars for a year of movie making, he reluctantly agreed. Fairbanks arrived at the Triangle Film Corporation in 1915, at the age of 31. At first, he failed to impress any of the film people. Director D.W. Griffith, who was assigned to work with Fairbanks, said of the new actor, "He's got a head like a cantaloupe and he can't act."
But Fairbanks proved that he could act, and very well. He made more than 25 films including comedies, romances, westerns, and drawing room satires. None of his early films were the type that made him famous, but they were still quite entertaining. Fairbanks became so popular that he was able to form his own production company, and began producing and writing his own films.
During a tour to sell war bonds in 1917, he met and fell desperately in love with actress Mary Pickford. However, he and Pickford were both married at the time, and having an affair was not acceptable in the early days of film-neither the fans nor the producers would understand. So the two hid their relationship for nearly three years, as both matured into solid actors and business people. In 1919, they formed United Artists with Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, in order to provide an independent distribution channel for artists who produced their own pictures. They hoped to break the practice of "block booking" films into theaters. Fairbanks and Pickford also took the bold step of divorcing their partners and getting married.
For the next few years, Fairbanks made a string of adventure films that have stood the test of time. He made The Mark of Zorro and The Three Musketeers in 1921, Robin Hood in 1922, The Thief of Baghdad in 1924 and The Black Pirate in 1926. These films were extremely expensive, beautiful, and smashing successes. Every detail of each film was handled by Fairbanks, and it was said that you could "feel his heart" in each scene. Pickford, meanwhile, was acting in her own films and becoming increasingly popular as well. The two were quite plainly the "King and Queen" of Hollywood during these years.
By 1927, Fairbanks was 44 years old and knew he was nearing the end of his acting career. He remained active with the management of his business, forming the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and overseeing the first award ceremony. He was also involved in the opening of Grauman's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. The courtyard outside this famous tourist attraction featured the foot and handprints of movie stars, with his own and Pickford's being placed first. Finally, he helped open the Roosevelt Hotel, site of the first Academy Award presentation.
Fairbanks and Pickford lived in a mansion called "Pickfair" in the city of Beverly Hills. Crowds of people hovered around the gates of the estate day and night, each fan hoping to catch a glimpse of the two famous owners riding their horses on the grounds, or boating in the lake on their property. Fairbanks did make some good films at this time. He played the role of a real man with real problems in The Gaucho, The Iron Mask, Reaching for the Moon, and others.
In 1933, to the sadness of film fans, Fairbanks and Pickford announced their retirement from films, and soon after that the breakup of their marriage. They had decided to make a film together, Taming of the Shrew, and it was a disaster. Each blamed the other for the failure. Fairbanks' son, Douglas Jr., was becoming a big star, while his father was fading from the public eye.
After the divorce, Fairbanks married his mistress, Lady Sylvia Ashley. He had been suffering from heart trouble, but in early 1939 started writing a script for a new film in which he planned to star, along with his famous son. The script was never finished. Fairbanks died of a heart attack in his sleep in Santa Monica, California on December 12, 1939.
To show the depth of despair among fans when Fairbanks died, United Press published the following epitaph. "The body of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. lay tonight in an ornately carved bed before a window of his Santa Monica mansion which looked out on the vast Pacific. Through the night and day came a procession of Hollywood great and the forgotten who had worked with and known Fairbanks in his swashbuckling days. For hours Mr. Fairbanks' 150-pound mastiff named Marco Polo whined beside the death bed, refusing to move." The King of Hollywood was gone, and most agreed there would never be another like him.
Carey, Gary. Doug and Mary: A Biography of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, Dutton, 1977
Fairbanks, Douglas, Jr. The Salad Days, Doubleday, 1988.
Hearndon, Booton. Mary Pickford & Douglas Fairbanks: The Most Popular Couple the World has Ever Known, Norton, 1977.
Douglas Fairbanks Profile, http://www.mdle.com/ClassicFilms/FeaturedStar/star1a.htmed ]