The First King of Hollywood: Douglas Fairbanks

Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Writes the Adventure Movie Hero Rulebook in "The Thief of Bagdad"

“The Three-dollar movie is a reality!” Thus proclaimed the New York Herald on September 24, 1915, the morning after the newly-formed Triangle Corporation presented its first high-priced screening of three films, one from each of its producers: D.W. Griffith, Thomas Ince and Mack Sennett. Triangle brought the movies out of the nickelodeons and into spaces normally reserved for stage productions, in the hopes that sophisticated theatre-goers could be lured to spend more than a small coin or two to see high-quality productions. Their hopes were realized from the outset, as this inaugural presentation at Manhattan’s Knickerbocker Theatre drew a high-powered crowd including William Randolph Hearst. The highlight of the evening was the screen debut of 32-year-old stage comedian Douglas Fairbanks, playing The Lamb, a wealthy good-for-nothing thrust into heroic adventure out West.

Mystery of the Leaping Fish

Bounding immediately to stardom, Fairbanks helped change moviegoing from a lowbrow diversion into respectable entertainment. His smiling persona, his prodigious athleticism and his collaborative creativity made him the ideal pitchman for an untapped middle class motion picture audience. The dozen films he made for Triangle over the next year followed or subverted the formula laid out in The Lamb with variations in the eccentricities of his character. In His Picture In the Papers he’s reluctant vegetarian. In Flirting With Fate he’s a comically suicidal painter. His furthest outlier was The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, a Sherlock Holmes spoof with a story so odd it’s dismissively framed as the actor’s own rejected movie pitch. (In fact it was written by Tod Browning during a hospital stay.) Fairbanks plays a detective literally hopped up on hard drugs, who tries to break up a smuggling ring using inflatable beach toys.

One character in The Mystery of the Leaping Fish sleeps on a pile of wadded-up banknotes. Perhaps ‘Doug’, as by now his fans simply called him, was commenting on his own mounting wealth. If so, he knew that his Triangle employers were getting far richer on his back. In 1917 he escaped his contract and founded his own production company. Two years and thirteen films later, he’d follow this by co-founding United Artists distribution corporation with Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and Fairbanks’ soon-to-be wife Mary Pickford. All through this period, Doug stuck with what he knew his audiences loved: contemporary comedies that grew increasingly polished and elaborate.  When The Clouds Roll By is perhaps the apotheosis of the idiom. A riff on psychoanalysis, its show-stopping dream sequence features gravity-defying special effects that prefigure Royal Wedding and Inception.

While on their honeymoon to Europe, Pickford read Jonathan McCulley’s The Curse of Capistrano, featuring a masked vigilante named Zorro. This was a perfect opportunity for the Fairbanksian hero to inhabit a new setting. That is, an old setting new to him: Alta California just after the Mexican War of Independence. The Mark Of Zorro would be largely faithful to McCulley’s original magazine serial, but would stress the character’s secret identity and introduce a new element: his ‘calling card’ of three sword slashes shaped to a ‘Z’. All subsequent interpretations of Zorro (including McCulley’s later stories) would utilize Fairbanks’s innovations. Even Bob Kane admitted he was inspired by the Fairbanks Zorro when creating his Batman character in 1939.


The Mark of Zorro was a huge hit in the United States, but for the first time in Fairbanks’s career one of his films was just as popular abroad. Doug’s foreseeable future would be the mythologized past. His acrobatic interactions with the modern world had made for delightful comedy, but when transposed to another time period, they seemed simply heroic- though no less delightful.  The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood, and The Thief of Bagdad (from Scheherazade’s Arabian Nights) were each more spectacularly staged than the last, but perhaps his best films were his final two silents: The Gaucho, an Argentina-set fable much darker than his other swashbucklers, and The Iron Mask, his last real success. Talkies made the big action hero seem somehow obsolete for a while. By the time Errol Flynn took up the mantle with Captain Blood in 1935, Fairbanks had already made his final picture, The Private Life of Don Juan. He’d be dead of a heart attack before the decade was over. But he’d forever be remembered by the many millions the world over who ever saw him in motion.

Originally published July 12, 2011.


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