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Douglas Fairbanks and his feats of derring-do

February 5, 2009 | 10:45 am

Douglasfairbanks

OK, this is a little awkward. Here on Jacket Copy we like to point to the book coverage that runs in the L.A. Times. And today's review of "Douglas Fairbanks" by Jeffrey Vance is begging for a post because one thing we can't do in the paper, which we can do here, is post some clips from Fairbanks' films, showing him in action.

The awkward part is that you might notice I'm the one who wrote the review, and here I am blogging about it.

If you can forgive that, then let me tell you that Douglas Fairbanks was one of Hollywood's earliest superstars. He came to California in 1915, a successful stage actor lured by the outscale salary of $2,000 per week. He played boyish characters, becoming known for youth and vitality, although by the time his first movie came out he was already 33. He had, by all accounts, tremendous energy; when he wasn't working out, he'd treat the studio lot like an obstacle course, running around and jumping over things.

He swiftly was making as much as Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford; the three teamed up with D.W. Griffith and founded United Artists in 1919. It was there, when he was a top star and controlled his own material, that Fairbanks made his greatest films, all costume action adventures, a genre that, Vance says, was largely his invention.

The first of these was "The Mark of Zorro" (1920). This is a wonderful action sequence, and Fairbanks does all the stunts. Yes, that includes the roof-to-roof leap.

After the jump: A clip from "The Black Pirate" (1926) in what appears to be its hard-to-find two-strip technicolor version.

Fairbanks tackled new technological challenges in his films, including making "The Black Pirate" in color. The two-step Technicolor process was very new and very expensive, and many prints that circulated later were simply made in black and white. Vance describes the look of the technicolor version as mostly brown-oranges and green-blues; this seems to fit the bill. Fairbanks, by the way, is not the scruffy pirate at the beginning but the dashing fellow in the torn black shirt who leaps over the stair rail.

And this is a long clip from "The Thief of Baghdad" (1924), which begins with Fairbanks trying to rob the princess and instead falling in love with her. Anna Mae Wong is the servant he threatens, but even a knife in the back can be funny in a Fairbanks film.

As you can see, the soaring Art Deco sets combine with Fairbanks' exaggerated, dancer-athlete  movements into a distinctly non-natural filmic language. His work must have been as breathtaking as "The Matrix" and "Hidden Tiger Crouching Dragon" -- something that was stylized and grand and beautiful and seemingly borrowed from our dreams.

"Douglas Fairbanks" by Jeffrey Vance with Tony Maietta is out now from the University of California Press.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: "Thief of Baghdad." Credit: United Artists

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