Fairbanks, Douglas

views updated May 17 2018


Nationality: American. Born: Douglas Elton Ulman in Denver, Colorado, 23 May 1883; mother reassumed the name of her first husband, Fairbanks, after divorcing Douglas's father. Education: Attended Colorado School of Mines, until 1900; special student at Harvard University, 5 months. Family: Married 1) Anna Beth Sully, 1907 (divorced 1918), son: the actor Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.; 2) the actress Mary Pickford, 1920 (divorced 1936); 3) Sylvia Ashley, 1936. Career: Made first stage appearance with Denver theatrical troupe at age 12; 1900—toured with Frederick Warde theatrical company; after traveling company failed, studied briefly at Harvard and worked at various jobs including Wall Street clerk; 1902—Broadway debut in Her Lord and Master; 1905—featured stage role in A Case of Frenzied Finance; 1906—first stage hit, The Man of the Hour; 1907—left stage briefly after marrying Anna Beth Sully to work in her family's soap company; 1913—established as stage star with HeComes Up Smiling; 1915—last stage appearance in The Show Shop; 3-year contract with D. W. Griffith's Triangle Film Corporation; film debut in The Lamb; 1916—first screen success in His Picture in the Papers; 1917—formed Douglas Fairbanks Pictures Corp., releasing through Artcraft, a subsidiary of Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount); 1919—with Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith, formed United Artists distribution company; 1927—first president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; 1929—first sound film, The Taming of the Shrew, opposite Mary Pickford; 1936—announced retirement from acting; 1938—formed Fairbanks International production company. Died: 12 December 1939.

Films as Actor:


The Lamb (Cabanne) (as Gerald); Double Trouble (Cabanne) (as Mr. Amidon/Mr. Brassfield)


His Picture in the Papers (Emerson) (as Pete Prindle); The Habit of Happiness (Laugh and the World Laughs) (Dwan) (as "Sunny" Wiggins); The Good Bad Man (Passing Through) (Dwan) (as "Passin' Thru," + sc); Reggie Mixes In (Mysteries of New York) (Cabanne) (as Reginald Morton); Firting with Fate (Cabanne) (as "Augy" Holliday); The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (Emerson—two reels) (as Coke Anneyday); The Half Breed (Dwan—rereleased in abridged version as Flames of '49) (as Lo Dorman); Manhattan Madness (Dwan) (as Stever O'Dare); American Aristocracy (Ingraham) (as Cassius Lee); The Matrimaniac(Powell) (as Jimmy Conroy); The Americano (Emerson) (title role); Intolerance (Griffith) (as extra)


In Again, Out Again (Emerson) (as Teddy Rutherford); Wild and Wooly (Emerson) (as Jeff Hillington); Down to Earth (Emerson) (as Bill Gaynor, + story); The Man from Painted Post (Henabery) (as Fancy Jim Sherwood, + sc); Reaching for the Moon (Emerson) (as Alexis Caesar Napoleon Brown); War Relief (short)


A Modern Musketeer (Dwan) (as Ned Thacker); Headin' South (Rosson) (as "Headin' South"); Mr. Fix-It (Dwan) (title role); Say! Young Fellow (Henabery) (as "Young Fellow"); Bound in Morocco (Dwan) (as The Boy); He Comes Up Smiling (Dwan) (as Jerry Martin); Sic 'em Sam! (Parker—short); Fire the Kaiser (Henabery—short)


The Knickerbocker Buckaroo (Parker) (as Teddy Drake, + sc); His Majesty, the American (One of the Blood) (Henabery) (as William Brooks, + co-sc as "Elton Banks"); When the Clouds Roll By (Fleming) (as Daniel Boone Brown, + co-sc); Arizona (Parker) (as Lt. Danton, + sc)


The Mollycoddle (Fleming) (as Richard Marshall, + co-sc); The Mark of Zorro (Niblo) (as Don Diego/Zorro, + sc as "Elton Thomas")


The Nut (Reed) (as Charlie Jackson, + co-sc as "Elton Thomas"); The Three Musketeers (Niblo) (as D'Artagnan, + co-sc as "Elton Thomas")


Robin Hood (Dwan) (as The Earl of Huntingdon/Robin Hood, + sc as "Elton Thomas")


The Thief of Bagdad (Walsh) (as The Thief, + sc as "Elton Thomas")


Don Q, Son of Zorro (Crisp) (as Don César de Vega/Zorro)


The Black Pirate (Parker) (as Michel, the Black Pirate)


The Gaucho (Jones) (title role)


The Iron Mask (Dwan) (as D'Artagnan, + sc as "Elton Thomas"); The Taming of the Shrew (Taylor) (as Petruchio)


Reaching for the Moon (Goulding) (as Larry Dacy); Around the World in 80 Minutes (Around the World with Douglas Fairbanks) (Fleming) (as himself, + sc)


Mr. Robinson Crusoe (Sutherland) (as Steve Drexel, + story as "Elton Thomas")


The Private Life of Don Juan (Korda) (title role)


By FAIRBANKS: books—

Laugh and Live, New York, 1917.

Making Life Worth While, New York, 1918.

My Secret Success, Los Angeles, 1922.

Youth Points the Way, New York, 1924.

By FAIRBANKS: articles—

"Combining Play with Work," in American (New York), July 1917.

"The Development of the Screen," in Moving Picture World (New York), 21 July 1917.

"Roping Doug Fairbanks into an Interview," by Frederick Smith in Motion Picture Classic (Brooklyn), September 1917.

"A Photo Interview with Douglas Fairbanks," by Alfred Cohn in Photoplay (New York), October 1917.

"Douglas Fairbanks' Own Page," in Photoplay (New York), November 1917-April 1918.

"Why Big Pictures?" in Ladies Home Journal (New York), April 1924; also May and September issues.

"What Is Love?" in Photoplay (New York), February 1925.

"The Magic Carpet of My Life as Told to Stuart Jackson," in Pictures and Picturegoer, 18 March 1933–1 April 1933.

On FAIRBANKS: books—

Florey, Robert, Douglas Fairbanks, Paris, 1926.

Talmey, Allene, Doug and Mary, and Others, New York, 1927.

Leloir, Maurice, Cinq Mois à Hollywood avec Douglas Fairbanks, Paris, 1929.

Cooke, Alistair, Douglas Fairbanks: The Making of a Screen Character, New York, 1940.

Hancock, Ralph, and Letitia Fairbanks, Douglas Fairbanks—The Fourth Musketeer, New York, 1953.

Eisenschitz, Bernard, Douglas Fairbanks, Paris, 1969.

Carrol, David, The Matinee Idols, New York, 1972.

Lahue, Kalton C., Gentlemen to the Rescue: The Heroes of the Silent Screen, New York, 1972.

Schickel, Richard, His Picture in the Papers, New York, 1973.

Thomas, Tony, Cads and Cavaliers—The Film Adventurers, New York, 1973.

Fairbanks, Douglas, Jr., The Fairbanks Album, introduction and narrative by Richard Schickel, Boston, 1975.

Carey, Gary, Doug and Mary: A Biography of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, New York, 1977.

Tibbetts, John, and James Welsh, His Majesty the American: The Cinema of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., New Brunswick, N.J., 1977.

Herndon, B., Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks: The Most Popular Couple the World Has Ever Known, New York, 1977.

Richards, Jeffrey, Swordsmen of the Screen: From Douglas Fairbanks to Michael York, London, 1977.

Ford, Charles, Douglas Fairbanks ou La Nostalgie de Hollywood, Paris, 1980.

Fairbanks, Douglas, Jr., The Salad Days, New York, 1988.

On FAIRBANKS: articles—

Hornblow, Arthur, Jr., "Douglas Fairbanks, Dramatic Dynamo," in Motion Picture Classic (Brooklyn), March 1917.

Zeidman, Bennie, "Trailing Dynamic Douglas Fairbanks," in Photoplay (New York), May 1917.

Naylor, Hazel, "The Fairbanks Scale of Americanism," in Motion Picture Magazine, February 1919.

Bates, Billy, "The Pickford-Fairbanks Wooing," in Photoplay (New York), June 1920.

St. Johns, Adela Rogers, "The Married Life of Doug and Mary," in Photoplay (New York), February 1927.

Mercer, Janet, "The Fairbanks' Social War Is On," in Photoplay (New York), August 1936.

Lambert, Gavin, "Fairbanks and Valentino: The Last Heroes," in Sequence (London), Summer 1949.

Behlmer, Rudy, "Swordplay on the Screen," in Films in Review (New York), June-July 1965.

Beresford, Bruce, "Swashbuckling Movies," in Granta, 3 May 1967.

Bodeen, DeWitt, "Douglas Fairbanks," in Focus on Film (London), Winter 1970.

Gow, G., "Doug," in Films and Filming (London), May 1973.

Schickel, Richard, "Douglas Fairbanks" in The Movie Star, edited by Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1981.

Carbonnier, A., "Douglas Fairbanks," in Cinéma (Paris), January 1982.

Podheiser, J., "Pep on the Range, or Douglas Fairbanks and the World War 1 era Western," in Journal of Popular Film (Washington, D.C.), Fall 1983.

Oakes, Philip, "That Fairbanks," in Listener (London), 26 January 1984.

Schickel, Richard, "Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.: The Fabled House of Hollywood's Fabled Couple," in Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), April 1990.

Katchmer, George, "Remembering the Great Silents," in Classic Images (Muscatine), October 1995.

Herpe, Noël, "Festival Fairbanks," in Positif (Paris), May 1995.

Tibbetts, John C., "The Choreography of Hope: The Films of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.," in Film Comment (New York), May-June 1996.

Uffelen, René van, "Selfmade Swashbuckler: Retrospectief Dougalas Fairbanks," in Skrien (Amsterdam), December-January 1998–1999.


Birth of a Legend, produced and directed by Matty Kemp, released 1966 to accompany widescreen, rerecorded, and rescored version of The Taming of the Shrew.

* * *

The significance of Douglas Fairbanks is linked to the development of early screen comedy and the later development of the star system in the American film industry. His early career parallels Chaplin's—both began as silent comedians at approximately the same time and both succeeded in developing popular and distinctive screen personas. In 1919 they were both celebrities with sufficient autonomy to enter into a partnership with Mary Pickford and D. W. Griffith to form the United Artists Association, a very important precedent for movie stars, since its adjunct operation, the United Artists Corporation, was to give them control over the distribution of their films. No longer would stars of their rank necessarily be salaried employees. Of the "artists" involved, only Fairbanks was not bound by a long-term contract, and he was the first to complete films distributed by the new corporation, His Majesty, the American and When the Clouds Roll By, both in 1919. The following year would see a major shift in his style and his image, guaranteeing him continued popular success for the following decade.

Fairbanks had held a conventional desk job for a while before turning to Broadway and a serious theatrical career. By 1914 he was a popular success and under contract to make films for the Triangle Film Corporation, which offered him $2,000 per week for his services. By 1916 he had become one of Triangle's top stars at double his original salary, after having made 13 films in 18 months. When Triangle balked at his demand for a $15,000 weekly salary, Fairbanks offered to form his own corporation that would produce eight features yearly to be purchased for $200,000 each. By March of 1917 the Douglas Fairbanks Pictures Corporation, centered in New York, had been set up, with the movies to be distributed by the Artcraft Corporation.

The first Fairbanks screen persona emerged out of his theatrical roles: a cheerful young man of natural good humor, capable of integrating rural and urban values, often a rich idler wrenched from the city and rejuvenated through being challenged by the American wilderness. His early comedies tapped popular interests—the "social gospel" of Billy Sunday, for example, and the rugged individualism of Teddy Roosevelt. In The Mollycoddle, a picture that drew its title from a word Roosevelt had coined, the Fairbanks character is costumed to resemble Roosevelt. Both Fairbanks and Roosevelt were obsessed with physical culture and the "gospel of strenuosity." The typical Fairbanks character of this period attempts to integrate the values of the east and the American west.

The great redefinition of the Fairbanks character came in 1920 with The Mark of Zorro, the first of his extremely popular costume films, but here and subsequently Fairbanks remained primarily a comedian in costume, a satirical swashbuckler inclined to laugh in the face of danger. Fairbanks managed to cover his popularity from several angles. He married Mary Pickford in 1920, making a business connection into a family tie, and the matinee idol was to reign over Hollywood with "America's Sweetheart" from the palatial estate of Pickfair for about ten years. Singly, each was tremendously popular; together they were unbeatable, the very embodiment in the popular mind of "Hollywood happiness." Fairbanks certainly knew how to attract and sustain the attention of the American public.

Oddly enough, however, Fairbanks and Pickford did not star in a picture together until 1929, when their marriage was on the verge of breaking up. The picture, Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew (with "additional dialogue by Sam Taylor"), was itself strangely ironic, with Fairbanks as Petruchio playing against Pickford's Kate. By this time, however, Fairbanks had already peaked. No picture made after The Taming of the Shrew would match the artistry or popularity of his great costume films—The Black Pirate, The Thief of Bagdad, Robin Hood, or The Three Musketeers, though some very interesting work was also done towards the latter end of the decade in The Gaucho and The Iron Mask. None of the post-Pickford films—Reaching for the Moon, Around the World in 80 Minutes, Mr. Robinson Crusoe, or The Private Life of Don Juan—worked well for him. After his divorce from Pickford in 1936 (they had separated, finally, in 1933), and his third marriage to Lady Sylvia Ashley, his film career was in fact over, but he had managed to sustain a youthful and energetic image far longer than most men could have done.

—James M. Welsh

Douglas Fairbanks

views updated May 18 2018

Douglas Fairbanks

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.

An Offer from Hollywood

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.

United Artists was Formed

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.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

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.

Further Reading

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 ] □

Fairbanks, Douglas

views updated Jun 11 2018

Fairbanks, Douglas (1883–1939) US film actor, b. Julius Ullman. In 1919, he founded United Artists (UA) with Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, and his wife Mary Pickford. Fairbanks' swashbuckling acrobatics made him a screen idol in adventures such as The Mark of Zorro (1920) and Robin Hood (1922). His son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr (1909–2000), appeared in films such as The Dawn Patrol (1930), Catherine the Great (1934), and The Prisoner of Zenda (1937).

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Douglas Fairbanks

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