Swashbuckling Star of the Silent Screen, Douglas Fairbanks is one of the most enduring legends in the history of film.
Douglas Elton Ulman was born on May 23, 1883, in Denver, Colorado, the second son of Charles Hezekiah and Ella Adelaide Marsh Ulman – he had two elder brothers, Robert, born in 1881, and John Fairbanks, Jr., from Ella’s first marriage to the senior Fairbanks, who had died of tuberculosis in the late 1870s. Charles Ulman was a prominent New York attorney, whose love of the theatre rubbed off on his younger son Douglas. Ulman’s alcoholism began to strain the marriage, ultimately causing him to abandon the family in 1888. Ella had Douglas’ and Robert’s surname legally changed to Fairbanks soon thereafter, in an attempt to erase all influence of the name and memory of Ulman on the boys.
Douglas began to manifest his love for the stage at the age of eleven, performing in amateur theatre in and around the Denver area – he was soon a local sensation. Knowing that he was on his ultimate career path, he dropped out of Denver High School (silent film comic Harold Lloyd attended the same school) in his senior year, and moved to New York. His Broadway debut was in 1902, in The Duke’s Jester, performing alongside the legendary stage talent Frederick Warde.
Doug married a beautiful blonde society girl, Anna Beth Sully, in 1907, and the two settled in New York City. Their union would be blessed with a son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., on December 9, 1909. However, the financial challenges of stage performance – less than steady work, with less than stable pay – kept Doug struggling to support his family. His talents, though, were evident, and he was noticed by the pioneers of the burgeoning genre of motion pictures (to be sure, the new industry was less than respected by the proponents of “the legitimate stage,” as the live theatre was nicknamed). In 1914, The Triangle Film Corporation made Doug an offer he could not refuse: $104,000 a year to move to Los Angeles, and star in a series of comedies.
His first 26 films were just that: funny, madcap, satirical, and riotous. This might come as a surprise to the uninitiated Fairbanks film viewer, but he was primarily known as a comedian throughout the balance of the teens. His directors included such visionaries as W. Christy Cabanne, Allan Dwan, and John Emerson – and the titles of some of these films are funny themselves: The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916); The Matrimaniac (1916), and Knickerbocker Buckaroo (1919).
In 1917, he formed his own company, Artcraft, producing and often writing his own vehicles (Fairbanks was a very talented scribe, author of four books, including Laugh and Live from 1917, and Making Life Worth While from 1918). The year 1917 found Doug working feverishly on behalf of War Bonds, rallying the American public in support of the troops in World War I. It was during that time that he met and befriended actress Mary Pickford, who was then married to actor Owen Moore. The two fell in love and, in late 1919, both took the bold step of divorcing their mates (which honestly could have killed both careers, in retrospect), ultimately marrying on March 30, 1920.
The resultant “Doug and Mary Mania” actually enhanced both their careers – they both enjoyed big professional boosts from their participation, in 1919, as part of the quartet that formed the United Artists Corporation (along with Charles Chaplin and D.W. Griffith; western star William S. Hart had been an original member of UA, but backed out from the partnership at the eleventh hour). Now, Doug was ready to forge ahead with a new company, and a new specialty genre: adventure epics.
A representative sampling of the films that followed this drastic career change read like a “must-see” list of silent film classics: The Mark of Zorro (1920); The Three Musketeers (1921); Robin Hood (1922); The Thief of Bagdad (1924), and Don Q., Son of Zorro (1925). Timeless treasures, each – owing, largely, to interesting and captivating stories, “no-expense-spared” sets and costumes, and the glittering and electric personality of the star himself (yes, Fairbanks did do his own stunts). So influential and masterful were these films that each, at one point or another, has been remade – never equaling Fairbanks’ level of excellence, but certainly trying.
Such a physically demanding career as Doug’s could not last indefinitely: by the dawn of sound films, in 1927, Fairbanks was forty-four years old, and fully aware that his cinematic focus needed revamping. In the fashion of his usual “larger-than-life” tendencies, he re-created himself by founding The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, becoming its first President. However, this did not spell the end of his acting career, by a long shot: he made two sound films in 1929 (The Iron Mask, remade in 1998 as Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Man in the Iron Mask, and The Taming of the Shrew, which is chiefly remembered today for one of the opening credits: “By William Shakespeare, with Additional Dialogue by Sam Taylor”), two films in 1931, one in 1932, and his final film, The Private Life of Don Juan, in 1934. None of these films approached the popularity of Fairbanks’ silent swashbuckling masterpieces, much to the star’s chagrin.
The box-office disappointment of his films – one of which (The Taming of the Shrew) co-starred wife Mary Pickford – caused the fairytale romance and marriage of the Fairbanks’ to dissolve. He began to stray; she took to drink increasingly; they witnessed, as the 1930s dawned, the creative and executive power they once held over Hollywood significantly, if not totally, diminished. By 1933, Doug and Mary had separated and retired from film. On January 13, 1936, the divorce decree was finalized – within sixteen months, Mary Pickford would marry former co-star Charles “Buddy” Rogers, to whom she would remain married until her death in 1979. Doug, however, remarried in less than two months: on March 7, 1936, Lady Sylvia Ashley, his longtime mistress, became the final Mrs. Douglas Fairbanks. This would not be her final marital union: in 1949, she would become the fourth of five women to be called Mrs. Clark Gable.
The final three years of the life of Douglas Fairbanks were filled with travel and peaceful relaxation at his Santa Monica home. He developed heart trouble, however, and his health became increasingly frail. Pondering a return to film, perhaps as a tonic for rejuvenation of both health and livelihood, he began writing a script, but never finished it.
On December 12, 1939, Douglas Fairbanks suffered a fatal heart attack, at home, in his sleep, at age 56. Hollywood, and all the world, paid tribute to the man who contributed so much to the industry, both in terms of his artistry, his generosity, and his vision. He was laid to rest at Hollywood Memorial Cemetery (now Hollywood Forever Cemetery), in a marble tomb and monument that, by its completion in 1941, cost a whopping $50,000 (at the time, the most expensive monument in Southern California). The dedication of the “Fairbanks Garden,” complete with reflecting pond and brass profile relief of the star surrounded by olive branches, was held on what would have been the 58th birthday of Douglas Fairbanks, May 23, 1941.
Today, Fairbanks is not only remembered as the father of a star with his own unique brand of talent and popularity, but as a real original – a true star of the highest magnitude – a delightful human being whose smile could light the sky, and whose silent screen acrobatics and heroics remain, to this day, as fresh and delightful as in their day.