Moving onto another of the numerous DVD box sets I’ve been accruing in recent months… this time the early works of Douglas Fairbanks; the DVD booklet makes a case for him as the comparatively forgotten man of silent cinema even though he was one of the top stars of his age. Insofar as I myself know him, it’s only from a few of his big 1920s actioners, so seeing him start out in small comedy is going to be interesting… As far as I can tell, quite a number of his early films have gone the way of most silent cinema, but there seem to be several more still extant than what’s in the box, so I presume what we have here is supposed to be a representative sample. Let’s start, then…
His Picture in the Papers (1916):His third film, seems like a fair enough place to start. Here he’s the son of a health food magnate whose enthusiasm for the family business is decidedly less than that of his old man; after his two sisters appear in a vegetarian magazine promoting the business, dad insists he find a way to do the same if he expects to inherit it and marry his intended beloved. Once he has actually has to do something the film starts taking off as Douglas has to come up with ideas to publicise himself, and also ultimately defeat the gang of crooks bedevilling his future father-in-law; the action climax is a nice foretaste of things to come.
The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916): Curious that Fairbanks began in features and only made this one two-reeler once he was established. He apparently hated this astoundingly odd little number, which was made twice with different directors and the participation of no less a figure than Tod Browning; in it he plays drug-fuelled scientific detective Coke Ennyday, sent to bust a drug-smuggling ring trafficking the very stuff he needs in quantities even Aleister Crowley might’ve thought excessive. It’s eccentric stuff on many levels and I’m not really sure it works (and the twist ending shows, a little sadly, that American audiences in 1916 apparently couldn’t be expected to just accept the plain fucking bizarre on its own terms); somehow I’m happy to know it exists, though.
Flirting With Fate (1916): Doug plays a struggling artist; unlucky at making money or making love, he decides to end it all… equally unlucky at suicide, however, he hires a hitman to bump him off. Suddenly luck comes his way and life is worth living again… but the hitman is still out there. The film was criticised in its day, and I think not unfairly, for taking too long to set up the situation, but once the comic business gets going it’s pretty good stuff (I just wish there’d been a little bit more of it after that buildup), as we watch the increasingly paranoid Doug freak out as he tries to avoid the hitman he assumes is still after him, unaware the latter has undergone his own character arc. It’s this aspect that really gives the film its comic flavour.
As a parenthetic note, it’s kind of interesting to see Fairbanks doing the sort of thing Harold Lloyd might well have done in the following decade, there’s a certain similarity of character, although obviously Lloyd was still pretty low-level at the time Fairbanks’ star was rising fast. These films certainly give a feeling of being “early”, too, though I don’t know if I’m just reading them from hindsight… obviously in 1916 no one knew where his career would go in the following decade, but from my perspective nearly a century later I suppose hindsight is inescapable. Knowing where he would go, I got a sense from these films of Fairbanks trying to work out what it was he should be doing. Still, like I said, that’s probably just hindsight talking. Going to enjoy the rest of this set, I think.