Happy Birthday Douglas Fairbanks: Five Swashbuckling Facts


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Though he is mostly only remembered by classic movie fans today, actor, producer and studio owner Douglas Fairbanks was one of the most important and influential figures of early Hollywood. He was a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, presented at the organization's inaugural award ceremony and was one of the group of filmmakers who started the independent studio United Artists. The actor was also one of the first internationally famous stars and part of the first celebrity couple with his even more incredibly famous wife Mary Pickford.

Famous for comedies, fantasies and swashbucklers, in which he played active, charismatic characters, Fairbanks was just as colorful in real life. In celebration of his birthday, here are a few fascinating facts about the groundbreaking actor:

1. He liked to run in the nude.

Just like the ancient Olympians. Fairbanks was comfortable with public nudity, as long as he was concealed from female eyes, but as the sight of a naked movie star running through the streets of Los Angeles would cause a sensation, he had to find a private way to exercise in the buff. His solution? Fairbanks had a special enclosed concrete trench installed at Pickford/Fairbanks Studios. It was two city blocks long, six feet deep and wide enough for him to make turns while he ran laps.

2. He doubled for his own stunt double.

A enthusiastic devotee of physical fitness, Fairbanks was famous for doing his own film stunts. On occasion, and always under protest, he would be forced to use a stuntman for especially death-defying feats. Despite the stern warnings of studio cohorts, loved ones and directors, the actor would still sometimes find a way to perform these acts of daring.

On the set of Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925), he didn't like the way his double was performing a jump and stepped in to demonstrate how to do it, inspiring the man to suggest that he might as well go home. The actor took his determination a step further on the set of Robin Hood (1922), when he secretly switched places with the stunt person for a dangerous climb up a chain, causing his brother and advisor Robert Fairbanks to slump into a chair in shock when he realized he'd been duped.

3. He played a role in the superhero craze.

When Fairbanks made the swashbuckler The Mark of Zorro (1920), the idea of a double identity hero was not yet common in popular culture beyond the eighteenth century literary sensation The Scarlet Pimpernel. Batman creator Bob Kane has said that the actor served as part of the inspiration for his own hero. The influence of the actor's confident stance: with his head back, hands on hips and wide stance can also be seen in Joe Shuster's first Superman comics series, which debuted in 1933.

4. He popularized the suntan.

Fairbanks was a sun worshipper and delighted in having dark skin, which was at the time associated with outdoor labor and low wage earners. He popularized the practice of sunbathing and the pursuit of golden skin with the elite.

5. He allowed tourists to visit his film sets.

For a few years during the silent film age, Hollywood hotel managers were given a set number of passes to distribute to film fans, who would then be given a tour of Pickford/Fairbanks studio and, conditions permitting, a chance to watch filming. Over 23,000 spectators would ultimately visit the studio. The actor's The Thief of Baghdad (1924) director Raoul Walsh was irked by Fairbank's love of an audience, but did concede that the admirers helped to inject more life into the actor's performance.

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