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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Featuring:
Douglas Fairbanks Sr.

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1921-22 Douglas Fairbanks Picturegoer SupplementSimply put, the Fairbanks clan comes as close to vintage Hollywood royalty as it gets. Before the Barrymores, before the Hustons – even before Hollywood and the studio system – one man came blazing into the hearts and minds of the American public. Douglas Fairbanks was a legend in his own time, a self-made man who, within a few years, became the top-grossing entertainer of the young movie industry, and one half of what arguably remains the most powerful cinematic duo of all time.

Fairbanks was born Douglas Elton Thomas Ulman on May 23, 1883 in Denver, Colorado. His father Hezekiah, a New York lawyer, left his former wife and two daughters to pursue business interests in Denver – with another woman, Ella Adelaide Marsh Weeks, whose former husband was named John Fairbanks (stay with me!). Ulman, who had helped Ella with her late husband’s legal affairs at his time of death (and provided her with council during her troubled second marriage), eventually married Ella and they had two sons, Robert and Douglas.

As if this wasn’t drama-laden enough, it turns out that this was a very turbulent marriage. First off, Ulman and Ella never officially married, so their sons were illegitimate. Second, Ulman was Jewish, and Ella told her sons never to reveal this side of their background to anyone – which Douglas, at least, never did.

The years passed, and Ulman was a big devotee of the theatre, to which he would attend with his sons no matter how far they had to travel. Because of this, the young Douglas virtually grew up with the stage. He would also accompany his dad on mining trips, where he developed his more rambunctious, athletic and pioneering sides. But life was not one big adventure like it was in his future movies: Ulman was a very heavy drinker and this only got worse as his business prospects – especially in mining – diminished. He soon took off to New York, leaving his new family behind. While in New York, he began working on Benjamin Harrison’s presidential campaign, and that was the last Denver saw of Ulman. Douglas was five years old.

The family was destitute. Ella was left with both Douglas and Robert, and her oldest son, John1917 Douglas Fairbanks Kromo Gravure Card Fairbanks, from her first marriage. The first thing she did was change her two younger sons’ last name to Fairbanks, probably more to erase the legacy of Ulman than anything else. But she was also aware that Fairbanks, in those days, was a name with clout. Soon, for Douglas, the theatre came calling. He started performing on the Denver stage and by the time he got into his late teens, he was an actor very much in demand. He dropped out of high school and never returned to academia, despite later claims that he attended college. 

It was 1900 – Douglas was 17 – when he moved to New York to pursue is dreams of acting on the stage. Two years later he landed a role in “The Duke’s Jester” on Broadway. Yet, this wasn’t a starring role, and fame didn’t come to him immediately. Luckily he had an extraordinary work ethic, and wasn’t afraid of working odd jobs until his stage career started to take off. He worked like this for a few years; meanwhile, on a personal front, he found the first love of his life and married Anna Beth Sully in 1907. She came from money, and her father wanted Douglas to work for the family company rather that try to forge a career in the less reputable world of acting. For a time, Douglas assented, and began working for the Buchanan Soap Company. This lasted an entirety of six months (the company, fortuitously for Douglas, soon folded). In 1909, his son (the now legendary Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) was born, and his father was already back on stage at this time. His marriage, due to a lack of a substantial income, was strained.

By this time, around 1910, the movies had been around for around 15 years, and were beginning to attract audience fanaticism. Broadway actors (then as now) looked down on this ephemeral entertainment form, but at the same time, there was a real need for motion picture actors, and many companies were coming to New York to look for their future stars. Douglas was offered $104,000 by the Triangle Film Corporation in 1914, a then-enormous sum he couldn’t refuse. A year later, his family packed up and moved to Hollywood.

Douglas was 31 at the time, much older than many of his beers breaking into the business. But he was definitely in the right place at the right time; his new mentor was D.W. Griffith, the highly innovative director who later, in academic circles, became known as “the grandfather of the close-up.” Griffith wasn’t entirely sure Douglas was cut out for the pictures, but he began to appear in some films, and fans almost immediately took to his comedic talents. Suddenly, Douglas found himself traveling in circles that included Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Charlie Chaplin. Not bad for a lad from Denver! Some of his early films included the mostly forgotten: Double Trouble (1915); The Habit of Happiness and American Aristocracy (1916); Down to Earth (1917); Bound 1920's Douglas Fairbanks Picturegoer Postcard #126ain Morocco (1918); and When the Clouds Roll By (1919). The trick was quantity rather than quality here; movies were being churned out in rapid-fire succession, and Douglas was quickly becoming a feature player dabbling in every genre.

1916 was a particularly lucrative year for him, and as a man raised by businessmen, he had the savvy to start his own production company, for which he produced films he thought would capitalize on his talents: he called it The Douglas Fairbanks Pictures Corporation, and operated it under the Paramount umbrella. Audiences came to his films – light-hearted escapism during WWI – in droves.

In 1918, Douglas went on a Liberty Loan Bond Drive tour – as part of his involvement in the war effort – with Charlie Chaplin, and it was during this time that he had his fateful meeting with the then First Lady of the screen, the lovely, Canadian-born Mary Pickford. For two year they kept their relationship a secret, as both of them were married and their fans would be horrified by their images being tarnished in this way. But in 1919, he formed United Artists with Mary, Chaplin and Griffith (interestingly, after folding mid-century, United Artists is now being revived by none other than Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes).

With United Artists, the founders wanted to bring more independent films by artists they respected, to the public, and thereby circumvent the studio system. This wasn’t a popular idea with everyone, but it was influential, it worked, and it drew enormous amounts of talent both behind and in front of the screen away from the moguls who then ran Hollywood. The movies were, thanks to them, becoming artful in America the way they already becoming in Europe.

In 1920, Douglas and Mary divorced their spouses and married each other. Douglas made1923 Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford Picturegoer at Home Photo Card the enormous popular film The Mark of Zorro, his very first film as an adventure superhero. It was a hit of epic proportions, and led to his making more films of this kind, including The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922) and Don Q – Son of Zorro (1925). In 1926, he made his legendary swashbuckling hit The Black Pirate, also an historical film in that it was the first film made using Technicolor’s then brand-new two-tone negative process (the precursor to the process that dominated Hollywood colour cinema for around two decades beginning in 1937).

This era marked the height of his fame. But he was already 43 when he made The Black Pirate, and he knew he couldn’t continue to play these roles forever. He began to set his sites even more on the business side of things. He became an advocate of sound films, and also founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and sciences (and was its first president), and he and Mary were the first to cement their hands at the then-new Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. He also made some films, including some notable successes, such as The Gaucho (1927) and The Iron Mask (1928), though they clearly showed a man ravaged both by time and the real events going on his life. In 1929, he and Mary made their first film together – Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew – but it didn’t do well at all, and caused a lot of rife between the couple.

By the early 1930s, Douglas’s son had risen to fame and Douglas and Mary had become distant1920's Douglas Fairbanks 5x7 Fan Photo memories to the new generation of stars and fans alike. They had championed art film and real cinematic innovation, and lowest-common-denominator genre fare had taken over (sound familiar?). They were trailblazers in a world that now demanded conformity. Their time had passed.

Douglas had become a writer (he’d published around five books), and at this stage in his life he began to travel extensively – he made several travelogues chronicling his adventures. It was 1933 when he and Mary officially retired from the business, and they divorced soon after. He then, after making one more film in 1934 (for Alexander Korda, The Private Life of Don Juan), married his mistress Lady Sylvia Ashley (before she divorced him and married Clark Gable).

Douglas died on December 12, 1939 in California of a heart attack. He was 56. With him, an era truly ended, one he had helped to found, cultivate and turn into lore. When he entered cinema, short films were reaching millions of people at a seemingly astonishing rate. Thanks to Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and his colleagues, the movies were able to turn into an artistic form. It is almost impossible not to think of the work Douglas put into creating the fascinating world of moving images we continue to consume and appreciate today.
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Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in each issue of The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.  Tammy invites you to write her at tammystone444@yahoo.ca  with any questions or comments on her column.

Other Douglas Fairbanks Pages:

The Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Museum on the Web -- From the site: "Our mission is to collect, preserve and interpret artifacts and archival materials relative to the life and work of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., by utilizing our collections and exhibits to provide cultural and educational publications and programs to the public."  If you're a Fairbanks fan you'll find yourself browsing around for quite a while!