The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks

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When Chicago Review Press sent me Tracey Goessel’s The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks, I was especially excited to read it for two reasons: I found myself in a position where I had the opportunity to learn about and teach others of Douglas Fairbanks, and that I was curious to discover what Goessel has been able to contribute to the immense amount of conversations that have already surrounded the illustrious career of Douglas Fairbanks.

I hold a background in education and have been fortunate enough to add Film Study as part of my repertoire. Since this course encompasses the history of film and I had just received this book at the beginning of the school year, I thought it could not have arrived at a more appropriate time. After all, Douglas Fairbanks was a pioneer of early cinema and was essentially a part of the medium since its beginning.

When I teach film, I do so chronologically, and emphasize how one innovation stands on the shoulders of the next as we gradually make our way into the present. But so much of my curiosity and respect remains with those adventurous years of early cinema. Here, every feat dealing with this strange new medium of film was being achieved for the first time. Here, everything was revolutionary.

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While there are several other individuals who I classify as pioneers of early cinema, Fairbanks was by far a more resilient and energetic force. He played swashbuckling with such panache, fervor, and grace and exuded charm on and off camera. Though audiences quickly counted Fairbanks among their favorite Hollywood stars, consequently resulting in him being one of the first celebrities in the film industry, accessing the real and unscripted Fairbanks was difficult. His career is nothing short of legendary, but his personal life is also one that has been mostly shrouded in myths, legends and tall tales—courtesy of Fairbanks himself.

Goessel’s biography of Fairbanks is not only a thorough volume about his life, but also acts as a testament to a passionate search for the truth behind the life of Fairbanks. Many myths have arisen regarding his career over the years, but Goessel is quick to verify these tales and to debunk them as needed. While Fairbanks may not have divulged completely accurate information about his life prior to Hollywood throughout various interviews, Goessel’s work offers a fascinating overview as to how these stories were borne.

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The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks takes audiences through a chronological exploration of Fairbanks’ life, opening with his humble beginnings and family life in Denver, Colorado. One of the most memorable moments of the book is its presentation of Fairbanks as a rambunctious little boy who falls off a roof and hurts himself. This moment reportedly sparked his interest in acting. Fairbanks carried this physicality with him to Hollywood, when he began to work for D. W. Griffith. Fairbanks once said, “D. W. didn’t like my athletic tendencies, or my spontaneous habit of jumping a fence or scaling a church at unexpected moments which were not in the script. Griffith told me to go into Keystone comedies.” It is easy for a viewer to see glimpses of this young boy who fell of a roof and grinned when watching Fairbanks execute amazing stunts in his films.

As Goessel narrates the ups and downs of Fairbanks’ life, she discusses his co-creation of United Artists, alongside D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and Mary Pickford. Just one year after being hired on to work for D. W. Griffith, he formed his own production company with these fellow cinematic pioneers.

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Fairbanks’ relationship with Mary Pickford is an iconic romance within Hollywood’s past. The first celebrity couple, the two married and built the “Pickfair” Mansion (a combination of their last names) as their love nest. Goessel acquired love letters between Pickford and Fairbanks at auction, which add a fascinating new layer to the story of Fairbanks and his relationship with “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford.

Courtesy of the Chicago Review Press, I was able to interview Tracey Goessel about this biography, and am pleased to share our exchange here.


Annette: The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks is wonderful way to learn about the life of film pioneer Douglas Fairbanks. What inspired you to begin the project of writing about his life?

Tracey: I have a twofold answer to that. In one sense, I wanted to write a biography of Fairbanks since I was a teenager, in the early 70’s. But life intervened; I studied biochemistry and molecular biology, not the liberal arts, in college, and became a physician. I remained a rabid silent film fan, but tackling a biography of this larger-than-life topic was no longer on my radar. Good biographies were out there, and I couldn’t imagine adding anything.

Then the love letters from Douglas Fairbanks to Mary Pickford came to auction, along with other treasures from Pickfair. I had a substantial Fairbanks collection at this point – mostly posters – and wanted to add the letters to it. Primarily, I didn’t want the letters to be acquired by dealers to be separated and sold. So I bid at the auction – bid far higher than reason would dictate – and won the lot.

Having done so, and having sorted and ordered the collection, I was next faced with the question: what to do with them? Donate to an archive?

A dear friend suggested that the letters could be the core of a little book about the Pickford-Fairbanks love story. But this would not work, I thought. Doug was many magnificent things; but he was not a true writer. The letters could not stand on their own. “They would form the core of a wonderful biography,” I replied to my friend. “But that would take ten years.” (It ended up being eight.)

She agreed. But then a thought intruded. Those ten years would pass, whether I wrote the book or not. Why not try?

So I did. Nights and weekends I worked on newspaper archives (I kept the day job.) I traveled to libraries and Fairbanks-related locations during my holidays, and began to discover that the love letters weren’t the only new thing I could bring to the table. There was gold hidden in account books, tax letters, legal depositions – all the dull stuff that folks never bother to look at.

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Annette: I am amazed at how much research clearly had to occur to make this book into the credible volume it is today. You spend several moments clarifying fact vs. fiction, as Douglas seemed to be prone to sharing “tall tales” about his life to people who happened to be documenting it. Can you share how you happened to arrive at your conclusions regarding how these tales may have been reshaped, as well as detecting any seeds of truth within them?

Tracey: As everyone else, I had accepted the original yarns as truth. Only when I started going to primary source material did I start to see the contradictions. The easiest example is the Allan Dwan tale that Doug was going to cancel Robin Hood after he saw the huge sets. I had no reason to disbelieve him; he had told the tale to Kevin Brownlow more than once. But even there, the telling grew with each version – suggesting creative exaggeration. So when I found a presentation Dwan gave to students at Columbia University in the fall of 1922, I was intrigued to see that he described Doug seeing the sets and didn’t claim that he wanted to back off. First clue.

But I didn’t decide that he was telling a tall tale until I found Robert Florey’s account of the same day. People miss this because it was written in French and not published in America. But Florey was working publicity for Fairbanks at that time, and gave an incredibly detailed description of the day. And it matched Dwan’s 1922 account, not the story he was telling by the 1970’s.

I found I debunked a lot of Dwan – but not all. He told a tale of a tame lion, D.W. Griffith, and Doug on the back lot of the old Fine Arts studio. A charming tale, but as a responsible historian, I needed to decide if it was true. Otherwise, I’m just doing a cut and paste job of other people’s books. What evidence was there to support this? Thinking the lion might have been in Intolerance, I reviewed the production records carefully at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. (I could tell you the exact date they rented the elephants from Selig’s Zoo!) But no lion. I did a slow motion review of the Babylonian sequence of the film to double check. Still no lion.

But I kept looking. And finally, in a 1916 Film Magazine, I found a picture of D.W. Griffith with a tame lion that was used for a DeWolf Hopper film made for Triangle. So while I can’t prove it happened, I can’t rule Dwan’s anecdote out. It could have happened, as he claimed. Which is how I left it in the book. I only “debunked” a story if I found direct and convincing evidence to contradict it. Primary source material is always best.

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Annette: Since we’re on the topic of research, what was the most exciting or shocking part of your research process for this book?

Tracey: So many days brought “Bingo!” moments, but I think my favorite was finding the jogging track/trench built for Doug to jog in the nude. I went to the studio and spent hours there with a wonderful man named Dave Del Prete. I wanted to see the buildings that survived; to sit in the steam room and be able to describe the color of the tiles. I did all that, and more. But I never expected to find the track. The studio folks have known about it all along. But until that moment, no one ever showed up to ask.

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Annette: I was especially fascinated by your discussion of Fairbanks’s time spent in his hometown of Denver, Colorado. How has his legacy been preserved within his hometown, if at all? Do you know if he is honored in other towns in which he resided? 

Tracey: He is little known or remembered in Denver. The folks at Elitch’s Garden’s Theater know of him, of course, and take great pride. The high school that expelled him still has memories through its Alumni Association. But stop the average Denver denizen on the street and ask him about Douglas Fairbanks, and you get a blank look.

LA is better. There is the Fairbanks Center, which houses the Herrick Library. And there is a statue of him at USC.

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Annette: There is so much written about Douglas Fairbanks, but this book seems to stand out to me as a source worth exploring. What are you most proud of regarding your work on this book?

Tracey: Any time I found something new – a letter from his grieving valet after his death; a lawsuit from an outraged father in law, who was on the take within the Triangle Corporation (as I said, account books can be telling!); a telegram that no one had noted before – I would get a small thrill. But overall I am most proud to have received so much generous support from friends, family, and fellow film scholars. People were truly amazing in their willingness to help.

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Annette: Douglas Fairbanks is such a pivotal figure in the the history of cinema. How can we best preserve the legacy and story of Douglas Fairbanks?

Tracey: Watch his films! If you want to do something material, consider contributing to Film Preservation Society. It is tax deductible, and to date we have contributed to the restoration of Mr. Fixit, The Half Breed and The Good Bad Man. We are currently working with MOMA on The Three Musketeers, and with the Library of Congress on Double Trouble.

We do non-Fairbanks films as well. I could tell you about the paper print project, but I suspect that would be a whole other blog post!

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Goessel’s book is a fantastic tribute to the marvelous life and career of Douglas Fairbanks. Coupled with well-researched accounts, new information, and beautiful pictures, this new volume about Fairbanks is sure to delight.

The biography is available for purchase at various bookstores, as well as online.

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