Decades past the silent film era’s heyday, the legacy of one of the genre’s most beloved stars is still alive in Hollywood. Jean Dujardin’s lead character in The Artist was loosely based on Douglas Fairbanks, and an homage to the actor is visible with the inclusion of a Zorro scene in the 2011 film. Fairbanks’ films are still shown on the big screen at film festivals and revivals, with The Thief of Bagdad and The Taming of the Shrew included in the 2013 Wisconsin Film Festival. Even in 2013, his stunts are jaw-dropping, even more impressive knowing he completed most stunts himself.
The WCFTR has several hundred photographs of Douglas Fairbanks, and this selection from his name file showcases the athleticism of the actor. From handstands on mountain cliffs to picking up both Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, Fairbanks was not only a talented actor, but also an incredible athlete.
Fairbanks is perhaps best known for his “swashbuckling” roles, where he portrayed adventurous heroes and participated in exciting swordfights, such as The Thief of Bagdad and The Mark of Zorro. Handsome and athletic, Fairbanks’ fame rose even higher with his 1920 marriage to actress Mary Pickford. Fairbanks and Pickford are considered one of Hollywood’s first power couples, and their glamorous life was well-documented in the press. Fairbanks and Pickford renovated a property into a spacious estate in Beverly Hills, dubbed “Pickfair” by the press, and entertained other Hollywood celebrities with lavish parties.
In this photo taken in 1917, shortly after he met Pickford, Fairbanks is shown doing a handstand after learning a mountain peak in Yosemite would be named after him. Fairbanks was in Yosemite filming Down to Earth, and showed his enthusiasm for the honor. Douglas Fairbanks Peak, according to the notes on the back of the photo, is “on the short zigzag road past Agazpiz Column and Sentinel Rock.” However, park officials must have decided against formally naming the area after the actor. Current Yosemite officials were unable to confirm the existence of a site named after the actor, and 1920s-era Yosemite records do not mention an area in Yosemite either.
While a handstand on a mountain peak is certainly dangerous, Fairbanks performed more daring stunts in his films, perhaps the most notorious in Douglas Fairbanks is Robin Hood. After mounting concerns about the expense of filming delays if anything were to happen to him, Fairbanks reluctantly acquiesced to the use of a stunt double. The concerns were justified, as Fairbanks was injured several years earlier during The Mollycoddle, and was unable to film the final fight sequence because he sprained his wrists and broke an index finger. Filming commenced for the Robin Hood scene with the stuntman, which involved the character running up the chain of a rising drawbridge. The crew was impressed with the agility of the stuntman, and also his resemblance to Fairbanks and even the actor’s mannerisms. After the scene wrapped, Fairbanks revealed he performed the stunt himself.
The Thief of Bagdad is perhaps the largest testament to the actor’s dedication to performing stunts in his films. An epic tale brimming with romance, action, and plenty of laughs, the film was one of the most expensive films made at the time, with a price tag of over $1 million. Fairbanks delved into the role, and kept up a rigorous regimen to ensure he was in prime physical condition for filming. One of the most famous scenes shows an agile Fairbanks escaping a mob by jumping from one large jar to another. Fairbanks trained on trampolines for weeks to perform the stunt, using hurdle sticks to increase the height of the jumps. The jars proved too high for the 5’ 8” Fairbanks, and he ended up using a trampoline to achieve the stunning visual of his character’s escape.
In this undated photo, Fairbanks is shown leaping over a piece of exercise equipment called a “horse.” The image recalls the training Fairbanks underwent for the escape stunt in The Thief of Bagdad. The author of the caption on the back was impressed with the agility and strength of Fairbanks, remarking: “This horse is 4’ 6”. Any ordinarily good athlete can jump off one foot, but mighty few can make it from two feet. A really remarkable test of agility.”
“All muscle and no fat,” remarked director Raoul Walsh when asked about Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad. Fairbanks shows off his muscles in this photo with Bull Montana, and hoists Montana over his shoulder almost effortlessly. Although this photo is undated, actor Bull Montana and Fairbanks did several pictures together during 1919-1920, including His Majesty the American and When the Clouds Roll By. It is likely the photos were snapped during this timeframe.
In addition to many other photographs and films featuring Douglas Fairbanks, WCFTR also houses the United Artists collection. The collection includes correspondence, financial and legal records, and many other documents relating to the corporation’s operation from its formation in 1919 until 1965. For more details about the United Artists collection, please see the WCFTR Finding Aid.
Kathleen Kosiec, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Vance, Jeffrey. Douglas Fairbanks. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008.