Saturday, February 15, 2014

Jeffrey Vance — ‘Douglas Fairbanks’

The first time I heard of Douglas Fairbanks was in Kate Bush’s song ‘Moments of Pleasure’, with that line about him waving his walking stick. And do you know, she actually meant Michael Powell, doing an impression? The man himself only lived to 56, and died of a heart attack, so he wouldn’t have had much use for one; but if he had, he would certainly have waved it about, imagining it into a sword. Fairbanks’ sword fighting on film is ridiculous and exhilarating. This week I’ve watched The Mark of Zorro, Robin Hood and The Iron Mask, all wonderful films, and certainly in the latter two there are moments where he’s single-handedly driving back ten or twenty other swordsmen with his bold but wild flailing and thrusting (Zorro has more one-on-one fighting and nimble escapes). Even if you know nothing about fencing, it’s completely implausible, and there’s a lovely tongue-in-cheek bit in The Iron Mask where one of the King’s Guard turns from Fairbanks (as D’Artagnan) and flees for his life, arms aloft, straight towards the camera, after only a few seconds of fighting. In Robin Hood, he is almost overcome by sheer numbers, on a balcony in a castle, but performs a magical escape, sliding down a curtain almost as easily as if it concealed a slide beneath the cloth. Which it did, of course.

The second time I heard of Fairbanks was when the DCA cinema showed The Black Pirate, ten or more years ago, with some great piano accompaniment (have you ever heard a piano make the noise of an exploding ship?) It’s such a great film, simpler and shorter than the others because, as Jeffrey Vance points out:
Technicolor’s inherent limitations and cost at the time had the effect of unfettering the Fairbanks production from pageantry and visual effects, thus producing what is in essence a straightforward action adventure film. The result was a refreshing return to form and a dazzling new showcase for the actor-producer’s favourite production value: himself. (p. 203)
That’s right, a colour film in 1926 — the first one, says Vance, with a few caveats (it was the first ‘major Hollywood’ (p. 205) film for which the Technicolor process was ‘carefully tested’ before production; and earlier films such as The Ten Commandments (1923) had featured colour sequences). The most striking thing about the colour in The Black Pirate is its subtlety: sometimes it hardly looks like it’s in colour at all. Audiences in the 20s had exactly the same concerns about colour as people did about 3D when it made its comeback a few years ago. Fairbanks wrote:
The argument has been that it would tire and distract the eye, take attention from acting, and facial expression, blur and confuse the action. (p. 204)
He adds, winningly, ‘Personally I could not imagine piracy without color’. The colour he ended up using, therefore, was the opposite of the garish, saturated look of Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood or The Wizard of Oz in the following decade. It’s interesting that this extravagant star, whose acting and characterisation were made in the broadest, most generous strokes, could be a subtle colourist. His Black Pirate, shaved chest on show, up to his eyeballs in cutlasses, dastardly plots and powder trains, is amazing to watch, capturing a ship single handedly and sliding down its main sail on his sword. You have to laugh, but then, I’m sure you’re supposed to. Fairbanks’ films are not technically comedies, but they are hilarious at the same time as they are exhilarating, and many of his mechanisms (particularly chase sequences) are shared by comedies of the period. It’s interesting that Buster Keaton’s The Saphead was based on a play in which Fairbanks starred (well before his swashbuckling days). Their personas are so different, but there is much in their appeal that is similar: the ingenuity, the boundless energy. The innocence, too.

Vance’s book is a treat for any fan. It’s beautiful, lavishly illustrated, a real coffee table item. As a biography, it’s a little unusual in its extreme concentration on the work: the bulk of it happens between 1920-9, with a chapter each for the films made during this decade. There’s copious information on each production, and very little indeed of what one would usually consider real life. There’s the awkward relationship with Douglas Fairbanks Jr, who made his father jealous by being younger, prettier and also in motion pictures, trading on his name. There’s his brother John’s stroke, apparently caused by the strain of the Robin Hood production. He died a few years later, but neither the stroke nor the death gets more than a passing mention, and an indication that the relatively dark The Gaucho owes some of its mood to the bereavement. Likewise, Fairbanks’ marriage to Mary Pickford is just there, during the glory years, you don’t get a sense of their relationship at all. Then sound happens and it turns out that they don’t have much in common, with all that time on their hands. Although their first joint venture, and Fairbanks’ first sound film, Taming of the Shrew, is another interesting first: the first sound Shakespeare film. But it was not a happy production, and was the beginning of the end of their marriage.

Published jointly by California University and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, of which Fairbanks was the first president, you would expect this biography to lionise, and it does. But it is not uncritical, drawing attention, for example, to holes in the plot of The Gaucho, nearly sabotaging its own argument for the film’s rehabilitation. I can’t shake the sense that there is another story to be told, about the people behind the work, but still, what work it is, and this is a fine critical appreciation. Oh, and about that favourite production value of Fairbanks’:
Between four and five o’clock, he stopped work altogether for a game of his own creation, a combination of tennis and badminton known as ‘Doug’, which enjoyed a brief popularity in the 1920s. (p. 161)

This is the dumbest thing you will ever see.
And this the most swashbuckling (though it’s only the black and white version).

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