Friday, September 11, 2015

The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks

Author:  Tracey Goessel
Genre:  Biography

Hardcover, e book
ISBN#: 9781613734049
Chicago Review Press
560 Pages
$24.89 Amazon; $23.65 Kindle
October 1, 2015

Five Stars

Silent film superstar Douglas Fairbanks was an absolute charmer.  Irrepressibly vivacious, he spent his life leaping over and into things, from his early Broadway successes to his marriage to the great screen actress Mary Pickford to the way he made Hollywood his very own town.  The inventor of the swashbuckler, he wasn't only an actor - he all but directed and produced his own movies, and in founding United Artists with Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, he challenged the studio system.

But listing his accomplishments is one thing and telling his story is another.  Tracey Goessel has made the latter her life's work, and with exclusive access to Fairbank's love letters to Pickford, she brilliantly illuminates how Fairbanks conquered not just the entertainment world but the heart of perhaps the most famous woman in the world at the time.

When Mary Pickford died, she was an alcoholic, self-imprisoned in her mansion, nearly alone, and largely forgotten.  But she left behind a small box; in it, worn and refolded, were her letters from Douglas Fairbanks.  Pickford and Fairbanks had ruled Hollywood as its first king and queen for a glorious decade.  But the letters began long before, when they were both married to others, when revealing the affair could have caused a great scandal.

Now these letters form the centerpiece of the first truly definitive biography of Hollywood's first king, the man who did his own stunts and built his own studio and formed a company that allowed artists to distribute their own works outside the studio system.  But Goessel's research uncovered more:  that Fairbanks's first film appearance was two years earlier than had been assumed; that his stories of how he got into theater, and then into films, were fabricated; that the Pickford-Fairbanks Studios has a specially constructed underground trench so that Fairbanks could jog in the nude; that Fairbanks himself insisted racist references be removed from his films' intertitles; and true cause of Fairbanks's death.

Fairbanks was the top male star of his generation, the maker of some of the greatest films of his ear; The Thief of Bagdad, Robin Hood, The Mark of Zorro.  He was fun, witty, engaging, creative, athletic, and a force to be reckoned with.  He shaped our idea of the Hollywood hero, and Hollywood has never been the same since.  His story, like his movies, is full of passion, bravado, romance, and desire.  Here at last is his definitive biography, based on extensive and brand-new research into every aspect of his career, and written with fine understanding, wit, and verve.


What can you say about Douglas Fairbanks?  Those who know of him, already know what he meant to Hollywood.  They know he was married to Mary Pickford, and they, along with Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, created United Artists.  It was Douglas Fairbanks who created the original swashbuckler pictures (which his son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., continued to make through the years), and helped begin the career of that marvelous director, Wild Bill Wellman.

But this book is so much more.  At a whopping 560 pages, Ms. Goessel has done her research well.  She begins with Douglas's grandparents, his deep relationship with his mother, Ella, that was strained by his first marriage to (Anna) Beth Sully; her father's attempt to manipulate himself into Douglas's career, his deep and abiding love for Mary, which foundered only when his career began to decline and his natural restlessness took him in other directions.

There is much information given on the life and career of Douglas Fairbanks, what drove him, what he considered important, what molded him into the person he became both on screen and off.  I found the book to be quite riveting, if slow at times.  The reason I mention this is because like other books of this genre, much is given to the films he made - not the fact that they were made, which is quite important, indeed; but the fact that every single detail about the plot of each and every film is listed.  What part he played, the co-stars, the scenes in the movies; indeed, there is so much information given that one need not even see the films because it is much like reading the screenplay of each one.  (In this I have always believed that the filmography belonged in the back of the book, and the biography front and foremost, where you would expect it to be).  That notwithstanding, this is a very good book indeed.

Douglas Fairbanks was a man who decided very early on he was going to be an actor, and never gave up.  He made the transition from theater to film quite seamlessly, always keeping his goal in mind - to be a star.  This was helped by the fact that he was energetic, had an optimistic personality, and did his own stunts beautifully as he was also quite athletic.  He had a smile that was dazzling, a personality that was brilliant, and was witting and entertaining.  He was a shrewd businessman who knew what he wanted, and would usually get it.  He was fearless and masculine, yet insanely jealous, a trait he was never able to escape. He was generous and gave tirelessly of himself to charitable causes throughout his life.  He treated all men the same, and Charlie Chaplin called him 'his only friend.'  He built a magnificent estate for himself and Mary, Pickfair, (which she retained when they divorced years later).

Douglas and Mary were extremely powerful back in the early days of Hollywood, and when they created United Artists, they were able to break "film blocking," in which theaters had to rent other films along with theirs, causing the profits for their films to go down.  Mary counted every penny and this was important to her.

But the advent of talking pictures changed everything.  Mary didn't think they would last, and Douglas didn't want to do them.  Perhaps they liked the relative freedom of doing silent films; no lines to remember, or perhaps there were other reasons that we will never truly know.

Ms. Goessel's research included the letters between Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, giving us a view of their love for each other.  We see the rise of Douglas Fairbanks's brilliant career, and in the advent of talking pictures, his decline.  He made only a handful of talking pictures before he retired in 1934.  When he died in 1939, Hollywood lost not only a legend, but a man who had the foresight and ambition to create a lasting legacy.

The one thing I would have liked to have seen in this book is photos.  Since I received an ARC, and I can't be sure that they just weren't in my copy, I am not going to say definitely that there aren't any.  For those who have not been exposed to Mr. Fairbanks, photos would have been a welcome touch, and for those who know who he is, an added bonus.

Regardless, this book will be valuable to anyone who wishes to know more about the original swashbuckler of Hollywood.  Highly recommended.

There is one interesting side note to this all - Mary Pickford's first two husbands, Owen Moore and Douglas Fairbanks, both died in 1939, and both of a heart attack.  Just an odd coincidence...  


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