Sunday, July 3, 2016

The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks

The First King of Hollywood: 
The Life of Douglas Fairbanks
by Tracey Goessel
560 pages
October 2015
Chicago Review Press

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"His story is also the story of the birth of an industry -- the transition of the movie business from a nickel novelty to a world wide phenomenon." - Goessel

Douglas Fairbanks Sr. was a film industry pioneer. Not only did he pave the way for how male actors would influence film and culture, he also was a visionary who molded the fledgling business of making movies into what it is today. He used his influence to create United Artists, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the Motion Picture Relief Organization and Pickfair Studios. Fairbanks' charm, winning smile, penchant for nice clothes and his physicality influenced the culture. He's the reason why getting a tan was preferred over being pale, why leading men started donning mustaches and his mannerisms in his famous swashbucklers and action flicks became the standard for heroes on screen for years to come.

"He's not good-looking. But he has a world of personality -- just worlds of it. His name is Douglas Fairbanks." - Grace George

Born and raised in Colorado, Douglas Fairbanks' father abandoned the family and he was raised by his mother along with his two brothers. His brothers would become Fairbanks' right-hand men when it came to finances and business decisions. They're astute financial savvy kept Fairbanks wealthy for a very long time. Fairbanks himself was an entrepreneur. Even in the infancy of the film industry he had the foresight to become an independent producer and filmmaker.  His mother's influence on him was strong as well. Her commitment to temperance encouraged the young Fairbanks to abstain from alcohol which he did for most of this life.

In Colorado he studied and became an actor at a young age and avoided the vaudeville circuit for the most part. He immediately set his sights high and it wasn't long before he was in New York and on Broadway. Even when things didn't go well for him Fairbanks had a natural drive to succeed and he wasn't satisfied until he was lead actor in a major Broadway production. When he achieved that goal he set his sights higher to Hollywood.

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks
"The next 14 years of their lives would find them inextricably linked in print and in perception and the hearts of the public." - Goessel

The book is a deep dive into Fairbanks' adult life and his career in film as well as his storied marriage to mega-star Mary Pickford. We learn about his first wife Anna Beth Sully, mother of his only child Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and who also served as his first business manager. We also learn about Fairbanks' brief and sad marriage to Lady Sylvia Ashley. But it's his love for Mary Pickford and their famous marriage that drove his career and his fame and made them both the envy of many. Their union is recounted in endless detail in the book with the help of love letters, wires and telegrams.

"If there was one thing that Douglas Fairbanks never did, it was stand still." - Goessel

Fairbanks' personality was what made him famous. He resonated with contemporary audiences and influenced them with his charm and antics. We learn a lot about Fairbanks' quirks including how he could never sit still enough to read a book or even read a full script. He had a major case of wanderlust and loved nothing more than to travel the world. Fairbanks did almost all of his own stunts and was innovative in plotting out action sequences. He was fearless in a way that made him admired the world over.

"He had assumed the role of pioneer so often and so well -- moving from stage to film; embracing production, then distribution; implementing new discoveries such as Technicolor; investing more; building higher; always at the forefront of the new and the better." - Goessel

Fairbanks was a business pioneer in an industry that was still figuring out how to be an industry. He was savvy enough to become an independent filmmaker and producer and made history when he co-founded United Artists along with Mary Pickford and his best friend Charlie Chaplin among others.

"His sunny cheer and astonishing athletic prowess spoke to virtues of America in an era when America had no self-doubts about possessing any." - Goessel

For all his strengths Fairbanks had flaws too. He was incredibly jealous and his restlessness often interfered with his marriages and his work. He had a troubled relationship with his son Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Father and son differed greatly in personality, physical appearance, acting styles and choice of roles. Jr. was a constant reminder to Sr. that he could only be young and popular for so long.
Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
The complexities of this larger than life figure are all captured in The First King of Hollywood. The author weaves a fine a tale delivering to us the most comprehensive look at Douglas Fairbanks' life and career. All of his films are discussed in detail including: The Good Bad Man, Mystery of the Leaping Fish, The Half-Breed, Manhattan Madness, Intolerance, The Thief of Bagdad, The Mark of Zorro, Three Musketeers, The Iron Mask, The Gaucho, The Taming of the Shrew, etc. No film plots were explained which was quite a relief. The focus instead is on the behind-the-scenes making of the film and Fairbanks' involvement.

Years ago author Tracey Goessel purchased a collection of Fairbanks and Pickford's love letters and this treasure trove was the seedling that grew into this book. Goessel is a silent film expert, founder of the Film Preservation Society, on the board of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and has given many talks about Fairbanks and his films.

Goessel's scholarship shows in the level of detail uncovered and shared within the pages of this book. What should make us willingly give our time to a biography should be rich and deep content we can't get anywhere else. I want the fine details and the bigger picture, I want the context, I want the uncovered gems laid out before me. I want more than IMDb and Wikipedia can provide. Goessel delivers that with this biography.

I did have a few issues with the book. I would have preferred the photographs in the book to be placed throughout the text, especially where they made sense in context, instead of in a glossy insert. The author had a tendency to make some remarks that were intended to entertain but instead come off as judgmental. It disrupted the narrative for me when I had to stop to look up the date of a film because the year wasn't referenced. Adding the year would have helped this reader follow along the chronology of Fairbanks' work.

Goessel comes to us an expert on this historic figure and The First King of Hollywood is the definitive biography on Douglas Fairbanks. For anyone interested in learning about this pivotal time in film history and about the man who influenced it, this book is a must read.

Thank you to Chicago Review Press for sending me a review copy of this book.

This is my first review for the 2016 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge.



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