Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939)
In the 1920s, Douglas Fairbanks was the King of Hollywood. His daring stunts fascinated audiences. His clean-cut looks and good-naturedness gave him a glow on screen, and his talent for filmmaking and business would make him one of the greats in Hollywood history.
The rugged terrain of the Rocky Mountains was the backdrop for Fairbanks' early years. Born in 1883 in Denver, he was named Douglas Elton Thomas Ulman. When his hard-drinking father abandoned the family, he left five-year-old Douglas with a lifelong hatred for alcohol. His mother took a surname from a previous marriage for the family, and young Douglas became Douglas Fairbanks.
Fairbanks, like his contemporaries Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, went to work in theater as a child when his family needed money. By age 11, he was performing on stage and he quickly became popular. He received acting offers which were so tempting he soon dropped out of school.
Fairbanks' passion for theater brought him to New York in 1900. still a teenager, with hopes of finding work on Broadway. His perseverance and talent led him to various roles, and in 1906 the acclaim he received for his role in Man of the Hour elevated him to star status. In 1907 he married Anna Beth Sully, the daughter of a prominent businessman, and two years later they had a son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
Fairbanks worked briefly for his father-in-law, but when Triangle Film Corporation offered Fairbanks his first film role in 1914, he accepted. He went to work in Hollywood with the innovative filmmaker D.W. Griffith. The two found that they were not very compatible, but their early films together were tremendously successful.
In his first film, The Lamb (1915), Fairbanks played a resourceful, amiable hero, a role he would replicate in many of his films. The public loved confident, cheerful leading men -- and Fairbanks oozed optimism. Another of Fairbanks's strengths was his athleticism: he could do handsprings, swing from ropes, and even leap from rooftops. His acrobatics, done with a broad smile, were instant crowd pleasers.
Soon after his Hollywood debut, Fairbanks met his match in Mary Pickford. The two were immediately attracted to each other, but both were married, and Fairbanks had a son. Concerned that infidelity or divorce would ruin their careers, they tried to hide their feelings and then their romance.
A Royal Marriage
In 1917 Pickford, Fairbanks, and Chaplin toured the country together, rallying support for World War I by selling Liberty Bonds. It was a wonderful excuse for the secret lovers to be together as they continued to agonize over their situation. Finally, in 1920, they quietly divorced their spouses and married each other. Their fans received the news of their marriage with elation. The couple was crowned King and Queen of Hollywood. Their castle was called "Pickfair," a sprawling estate high in Beverly Hills, a wedding gift from Fairbanks to his bride.
The Creation of United Artists
Fairbanks, along with three of the top names in Hollywood, founded United Artists in 1919. His partners, Pickford, Chaplin, and Griffith, determined that they could distribute their own films and eliminate their financial obligation to distributors. The venture was unprecedented in Hollywood and permanently altered the film business.
Swords and Swashbuckling
In 1920 Fairbanks made his first foray into a new genre -- adventure -- in The Mark of Zorro. In the years that followed, Fairbanks made some of his most popular films, with lavish sets, brilliant costumes, and Fairbanks's signature swashbuckling: The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), The Black Pirate (1926), and The Gaucho (1927).
At the age of 44, Fairbanks recognized that his screen career was on a downward spiral. The shift to talking pictures had begun and audience tastes were changing. His son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., remembered that his father did not like "talkies," because he thought of his movie acting as a kind of ballet that could not be accomplished with early sound technology. Fairbanks focused his attention on the larger film industry. He and Pickford helped establish the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and Fairbanks became its first president.
Retired and Divorced
Pickford, too, was coping with aging under the glare of public scrutiny. To boost their careers, the couple starred in a film together, The Taming of the Shrew, in 1929. The picture was a flop, and it reflected their disintegrating marriage. Hollywood's favorite couple retired from acting in 1933 and divorced in 1936, in large part because of Fairbanks' infidelity. Fairbanks soon married Lady Sylvia Ashley, his mistress, and the couple traveled the world together. In 1939 Fairbanks died of a heart attack at age 56.