Except for his best friend, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks was the biggest and best known superstar of silent films. He basically established the swashbuckler sub-genre with films like The Mark of Zorro, The Thief of Bagdad, The Three Musketeers and Robin Hood. Before Errol Flynn, before Tyrone Power ever picked up a sword, Fairbanks and his acrobatic style brought new adventures and thrills to early film audiences.
In her fascinating new biography, The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks, biographer Tracey Goessel traces the life and career of cinema’s original daredevil. Fairbanks though was more than just a swaggering on screen adventurer. Behind the scenes, he helped mold the Hollywood we know today; as a director, producer, co-founder of United Artists, along with Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, and a founding member of the Motion Picture Academy. Clearly, Fairbanks influence is still felt today. Married to “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford, the couple were the Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie of the day.
Goessel happily stays away from the gossipy style of many Hollywood biographies, instead focusing on his life, his personality and his career. That’s not to say she avoids his flaws and transgressions. For example, he wasn’t the greatest father. A non-drinker for most of his life, in his final years he drank too much, and there were infidelities and divorce. That said, Goessel’s affection for her subject is clearly evident throughout the book. It comes out thanks to her years of exhaustive research and access to much never before published material including love letters Pickford saved and were discovered after her death.
Goessel avoids diving into page long plot detail about every film, but she does not shy away from what I found most interesting; the behind the scene production details of his films as well as how many of his famous stunts were designed and achieved.
With the arrival of the talkies, Fairbanks career spiraled downward, as did Pickford’s. It just seems he wasn’t made for the talkies, and personally felt it took the romance out of making movies. Was it Fairbanks own fault for his failed career in sound or the studios? Goessel presents her own theories which come across as reasonable. Douglas Fairbanks died of a heart attack in 1939. He was 56.
The book is a great addition to any film lovers library. While not forgotten, Fairbanks has not been given his due in many circles. Hopefully, this book will start to rectify the situation.
My thanks to the Chicago Press Review for providing a review copy of the book.