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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,635

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This is the grave of Douglas Fairbanks.

Born in 1883 in Denver, Douglas Ullman grew up in a somewhat tumultuous situation. His father was a prominent lawyer and mining investor and his mother had grown up very wealthy in New Orleans but her first husband stole all the money. She divorced him and hired Ullman’s father as the lawyer. They fell in love and married. But then she liked cheating on him and he found out and walked away when their son Douglas was five years old. He completely left the family behind, so she raised the kids and changed their name to Fairbanks, which was the first husband’s name. Anti-Semitism could have something to do with this, since Ullman was Jewish and she might have wanted to hide that for her kids. She was Catholic too. Anyway, Douglas Fairbanks he became.

Fairbanks started acting in local Denver troupes as a child and was pretty good at it. After being expelled from high school for cutting all the strings on the school’s piano, he went on the road as an actor. The touring Shakespearean actor Frederick Warde hired him and worked as an actor and assistant stage manager. He ended up in New York in 1901 and got his first Broadway role in 1902. He worked consistently and when he was between shows, he got jobs as a clerk on Wall Street. He married the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and I really wonder how her family dealt with that fact, given that he was an actor for god’s sake. But they married at her family’s estate in Watch Hill, on the Rhode Island coast, so I guess they decided to live with it, though the marriage very much did not last. Anyway, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is their son.

Fairbanks moved to Los Angeles to try his luck in the pictures. Reader: It worked out for him.

In 1915, Triangle Pictures signed Fairbanks to a contract. D.W. Griffith got to know Fairbanks and helped him out and while I don’t know that Griffith ever directed him (outside of an uncredited brief appearance in Intolerance), the director did point Fairbanks toward some comedic directors that did. Unlike the vast majority of silent actors, most of Fairbanks’ films survive and while I haven’t seen too many of the early ones, the reputation of most of them is OK, which isn’t bad considering that a mediocre silent is really hard to watch today. His first film was called The Lamb, which is this story where he plays “Gerald–Son of the Idle Rich” (God I love silent film) and he and his girl get captured by the Yaqui and he has to prove his real manhood to her by getting them out of their predicament.

My favorite early Fairbanks film is the wild The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, where Fairbanks plays a director named Coke Ennyday who, it so happens, to snort a lot of cocaine as he is solving crimes. Of course it is a Sherlock Holmes spoof but it leans very far into the cocaine jokes. Tod Browning was not yet directing, but he did write this thing, which makes sense once you find this out. If you’ve never seen this, enjoy.

It didn’t take long for Fairbanks to rise to the top of the silent film world and it didn’t take him long to create the business side of his career that separated him from many of the early silent stars who lived hard and died young. He established his own company in 1916 and joined Paramount as an employee of the company, not just an actor under contract.

Fairbanks had met Mary Pickford by this time, they started sleeping together. The affair was complicated. They were both married. He left his wife but she was reticent to leave her husband. He finally told her to get a divorce or the affair was over. That happened and they married in 1920, but Nevada legislators had suggested she hadn’t spent enough time in their state and the state did not officially sanction the divorce until 1922. As an aside, thank god for the no-fault divorce the right-wingers want to get rid of today.

Even before the marriage though, Fairbanks and Pickford were working together for their mutual financial benefit, as well as of course sleeping together. They were two of the four greats who started United Artists to protect and promote actors’ interests over the cheap studio directors. The other two original leaders of this was Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. Originally, William S. Hart was to be involved, but then wasn’t, not sure why. They all owned big chunks of their own company, with William Gibbs McAdoo as outside lawyer, advisor, and lobbyist when needed. They intended to produce big budget pictures with big stars, which started with Fairbanks in His Majesty, the American.

By the early 20s though, Fairbanks became the biggest star in Hollywood. In 1920, United Artists put out The Mask of Zorro, with Fairbanks in the lead. People loved it. He was all of a sudden an action star, along with Valentino the first in film history. Many of his next films followed up on this action and they were mostly huge hits too, such as Robin Hood in 1922, and The Thief of Baghdad in 1924. To say the least, United Artists paid off huge for Fairbanks.

Fairbanks and Pickford became the first truly huge Hollywood power couple. Both started the tradition of putting their prints in wet cement outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, in 1927. Also in 1927, Fairbanks became the first president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and was the host for the first Academy Awards.

But the end of the silents meant a vast change for everyone and while a few people were able to make the transition, most weren’t. We think of the talkies as opening up the world for better cinema, but for Fairbanks, the talkies were quite limiting. Those first years of the talkies saw a decline in the kind of big budget action movie that he specialized in. Moreover, he was screwing himself over by his endless chain smoking. Already by the late 20s, his health had begun to decline thanks to the cigarettes. Freaking out, UA did a radio show thing to show that Fairbanks was good at talking. But he mostly just didn’t want to do it anymore. He still worked in a few films up to 1934. He and Pickford did a talkie version of The Taming of the Shrew in 1929 and his last film was The Private Life of Don Juan in 1934.

The end wasn’t so great for Fairbanks. He and Pickford were not exactly the most faithful partners over the years and they finally ended the relationship in 1933, divorcing in 1936 and with her keeping their giant estate Pickford, home of so many early Hollywood parties. He married Sylvia, Lady Ashley, the second marriage for her but not her last marriage to a Hollywood star. Later she would marry Clark Gable. She was available after 1939, because Fairbanks had a massive heart attack and died. He was 56 years old.

Douglas Fairbanks is buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Hollywood, California.

If you would like this series to visit other stars of silent film, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Lillian Gish is in Manhattan and Buster Keaton is in Hollywood, but a different cemetery. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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