Book Review--The First King of Hollywood: Douglas Fairbanks


The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks
Tracey Goessel
2015

Gatsby on a jungle gym.
-Critic Michael Sragow, about Fairbanks

In an epic new biography, pioneering film star Douglas Fairbanks finally gets an in depth exploration of his eventful life. This entertaining book is heavy on the detail, but also humorous and full of compassion for its subject.

Fairbanks was responsible for an overwhelming number of firsts in the Hollywood movie industry. Among the biggies: he co-founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was a founder of United Artists, the first major distribution company for independent filmmakers, and his marriage to fellow trailblazing actress Mary Pickford made them the first celebrity movie couple.

He was one of the first international movie stars, a cultural icon who popularized tan skin, casual dress and a jaunty superhero stance that would inspire comic book artists. When Technicolor was in danger of going out of business, he used the process to tasteful effect in The Black Pirate (1926); he promoted young directors like Victor Fleming who would change the industry (the filmmaker would skip the Gone With the Wind premiere to attend the actor's funeral); and while sound might have hastened the end of his career to some degree, he embraced it and many other new technologies.

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And yet Fairbanks is nowhere near as lauded as his contemporaries. Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and even film director DW Griffith have all won more respect, attention and distribution of their films. He isn't exactly forgotten; the swashbuckling image of the actor is one of the most famous of early film, but he hasn't been given much credit for his contribution to a developing industry, or the consistently high quality of his work.

In her study of Fairbank's life, Goessel has used research from never published material drawn from film historian Kevin Brownlow's files, and the contents of several of the many love letters and cables Fairbanks and Pickford sent to each other. These personal elements, coupled with a thorough examination of the actor's public life do much to reveal his true character. It turns out the enthusiastic, joyful face he showed to the world was much like his own, though he had his weaknesses, including crippling jealousy and the inability to make himself unpopular by rebuking anyone directly, and that especially on the set.

Fairbanks is revealed to be an essentially humble, kind man who rejected social norms like racism and who not only didn't mind that his wife was more famous than he, but promoted her and listened to her advice about how to improve his own films. This is not to say he didn't love the perks of fame, using his notoriety to meet royalty and heads of state, though he was equally at home with prizefighters and cowboys. He had the common touch, but he could also be a snob.

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Aside from the ups and downs of Fairbank's love life, including his scandalous affair, marriage and divorce from Pickford, he managed to avoid public shame or personal degradation at a time when the industry seemed in danger of collapsing due to both. From an early age he rejected alcohol and followed a strict physical fitness regime. Staying fit wasn't difficult for the actor; he could never sit still anyway.

Goessel goes deep into the events of Fairbank's life, recounting stories of a mischievous childhood troublemaker who was on the stage by age thirteen. She offers a detailed, rich portrait of the times he lived in while staying close to her subject. There's a sort of affection in the way she relates his life, even when there is reason to be skeptical of the actor's almost too perfectly organized tales. Lots of Fairbank's quotes are prefaced with, "he claimed".

In keeping with this respectful tone, the author is discreet when discussing more intimate topics, such as the Pickford/Fairbanks affair. The text is revealing, but there is no unnecessary or unseemly detail. 

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While there is plenty of space devoted to his personal life, the production of, and inspiration for his films is thoroughly covered. From his busy stage career to the actor's enthusiastic pursuit of movie stardom, and his rise from comedies like The Nut (1921), and the influential actioner The Mark of Zorro (1920), to his famous fantasy and swashbuckler roles like The Thief of Baghdad  (1924) and Robin Hood (1922), his was an astonishingly successful career.

While the book is doorstop weight, it's lightly humorous, engaging style keeps the many details interesting, rather than overwhelming. It helps that Fairbanks was such a colorful character. There are lots of amusing anecdotes, including stories of the actor demonstrating to his stunt man how a scene should be approached by doing the stunts himself, the enclosed running trench he had installed in Pickford/Fairbanks Studios so he could go on nude runs, and his delight at making practical jokes and clowning around with best friend Charlie Chaplin.

I have to admit that I approached this biography with more a sense of duty than curiosity. It was partly my adoration of Mary Pickford and mostly a dedication to having a thorough cinematic education that drew me in. I didn't expect to enjoy learning about Fairbanks so much. Now I am inspired to see more of his films and revisit some of his classics that I have enjoyed, but maybe not fully appreciated in the past.

Many thanks to Chicago Review Press for providing a copy of the book for review.

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