Douglas Fairbanks

Douglas FairbanksOn this day in 1883, the great Douglas Fairbanks was born. His career is quite interesting in what it shows about the American film industry. America had an extremely vibrant industry during the silent era. But when sound came in, we fell in love with it. Films became much less cinematic. Calling them “talkies” is accurate. That’s when Europe and Russia really took off and it took us some time to catch up.

Fairbanks was famous for being an action hero, when that meant something. Let’s just look at one of his masterpieces, Robin Hood, which he also wrote and produced. Note all the wonderful crosscutting, fast editing, great stunts. It is state of the art filmmaking and as thrilling today as ever:

But then sound came in and it really gummed things up. There were suddenly a lot of movies with people standing around talking because the microphone technology demanded it. But Fairbanks’ first sound film was different. It was the first sound version of The Taming of the Shrew, with his wife Mary Pickford playing Kate. But it was made the way that the Italians long made their sound films: silent with dialog and sound added in post-production. As a result, I think the film is great, and Fairbanks as Petruchio is particularly good. It is pretty much the role he was born to play. But it wasn’t received well, despite or perhaps because, it wasn’t like other sound films.

It’s generally thought that the audience turned against him. I guess that’s true. But I think it is more accurate to say that his age forced him to make films that people didn’t want to see him in. I think he was as good as ever, all the way up to The Private Life of Don Juan, his last film. More than anything, I think he was tired. He was apparently a heavy smoker and he died only five years after his last film. His last words were supposedly, “I’ve never felt better.” These strike me as the words of a man who has been hiding physical pain for a long time.

I haven’t been able to find a collection of scenes from his films, but here is a get section of the documentary, The Great Swashbuckler, which has a lot of great material:

Happy birthday Douglas Fairbanks!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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