Daredevil Douglas Fairbanks did all the incredible stunts without using a double. The huge success of these films spawned many clones including ‘Malaikallan' and ‘Marmayogi’.
(This is the second of a four-part article)
The first film Douglas Fairbanks produced under his own banner, the first of the swashbuckling movies, was the classic, ‘The Mark of Zorro' (1920) - a landmark in his career. It was his 13th film and looked at the early 19th century Spanish California, which was under the oppressive rule of the governor and his henchmen.
A masked avenger, Zorro (Fairbanks), fights for the oppressed, punishing officials and protecting the poor. Whenever he floors an enemy, he carves the alphabet ‘ Z' on his face. Nobody knows his identity. A young woman falls for him. A young foppish nobleman, who comes to town, falls in love with her. His only qualification is doing tricks with his handkerchief. But the woman rejects him. Ultimately, the denouement reveals that the fop is the man behind the mask.
Directed by Fred Niblo, the film was based on a magazine story by Johnston McCulley - ‘The Curse of Capistrano' – and there was no reference to the mask or ‘Z' carved on the bad guys. These were added by Fairbanks, which elevated the film to its ‘ classic' status.
The stunts Fairbanks performed in ‘Zorro,' became the signature of his films. The climax is a fight sequence, which is considered one of the finest swashbuckling scenes. He fights the villain and his men in his characteristic style, with a comical touch. During the fight, he takes a breather by having a snack. His advice to the woman whose hospitality he enjoys, “Good lady… never do anything on an empty stomach…” (As the film was silent inter-title cards were used.)
‘The Mark of Zorro' was a huge success and recovered its investment within a week. It performed well even in foreign markets including India. It became a model for all swashbuckling movies that followed later.
S. M. Sriramulu Naidu, the Coimbatore movie mogul (Pakshiraja Studios), and many critics told this writer that the famed Tamil scholar Namakkal Va. Ramalingam Pillai was indeed inspired by the ‘Zorro' movie and the Robin Hood legend (which Douglas Fairbanks produced and acted in) to write his classic story ‘Malaikallan.' This story was later made into a film by Naidu, in many languages including Hindi (‘Azad' with Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari). ‘Malaikallan', a major hit, showcased MGR playing the Zorro-style role.
The success of ‘…Zorro' galvanised Douglas to launch another swashbuckler classic in 1921, ‘The Three Musketeers.' It was adapted from the novel by French writer Alexandre Dumas. Douglas played the role of D'Aratgnan. He worked on the screenplay, apart from producing and acting, but used only parts of the novel.
Besides the usual Douglas-style stunts, he does a one-handed handspring during a fight scene. It is considered one of the greatest stunts of early cinema, which has never been repeated. It lasts a mere nine frames on the screen (in silent cinema there were 16 frames per second while in a talkie it is 24).
‘Douglas Fairbanks In Robin Hood' (1922 ) was his next film, which was another mega success. The familiar story of the kind-hearted bandit of the Sherwood Forest, England, became a favourite, thanks to the film.
During the making of the film, he established Pickford Fairbanks Studios in West Hollywood. The Nottingham Castle set was the largest ever built in Hollywood at that time. After the shooting was over the set was left intact for some time and it turned out to be a huge draw for visitors. In a fine gesture, Douglas allowed the gaping tourists to watch the film making and they cheered loudly every time he did an amazingly incredible stunt.
The story of the do-gooder bandit and his merry men has been remade in many languages and the character Robin Hood was adapted in Tamil cinema too. MGR played the good-natured Robin Hood in many of his films. MGR's successful film ‘Marmayogi' had good doses of Robin Hood in the storyline. (It was written by the noted Tamil writer-director A. S. A. Sami,)
His next film was the immortal classic, ‘The Thief Of Baghdad (1924), which has also been made in many languages including Tamil. Although MGR's ‘Baghdad Thirudan' was more inspired by the Tony Curtis–starrer, ‘The Prince Who Was A Thief,' it had many features of the Fairbanks movie.
(In this film, Fairbanks escapes from soldiers by climbing up a flag-mast and pole- vaults spectacularly to the next fort tower. He did it without a double. This wonderful sequence was copied in Sundar Rao Nadkarni's mythological ‘Valmiki,' 1946, in which the bandit who later becomes Valmiki, played by C. Honnappa Bhagavathar, is shown doing the stunt, using a double, of course!)
The screenplay was by Fairbanks. The noted filmmaker Raoul Walsh directed the film. It was another huge success.
(The silent film was screened for a famed Telugu movie star who was stunned by Fairbanks' performance. He told this writer that it was impossible to believe that the Hollywood actor had done the stunts without using a double!)
(To be continued)