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Combining action with comedy

Randor Guy
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Swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks' films were hits around the world. They inspired a host of later actors including M.G. Ramachandran. Randor Guy

Trendsetter: An agile Douglas Fairbanks jumping over a fence.
Trendsetter: An agile Douglas Fairbanks jumping over a fence.

(This is the first instalment of a four part article)

S ome years ago, this writer conducted a workshop at a well-known city college for women in the U.S. It was attended by male students as well. During the sessions, Tamil, Malayalam and Satyajit Ray's Bengali films were screened. The students were impressed by Malayalam and Ray movies. During the screening of the MGR movie, ‘Marmayogi,' many of the students shouted, “That's Douglas Fairbanks!”

During the interaction many students remarked that MGR's action sequences, sword fights, and even his costume were obviously inspired by the Hollywood superstar of the silent era, Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939).

Fairbanks' first action-oriented silent film, ‘The Mark of Zorro' (1920), created movie history and established a new genre…that of the ‘swashbuckler.' His thrilling action sequences such as climbing walls, leaping across chasms, sliding down ships' sails, swinging from chandeliers, jumping over hurdles, standing on horses and other dangerous stunts were performed by him with seemingly effortless ease without using a ‘double'.

To add to the authenticity and excitement, the dangerous stunts were filmed in mid shots, or close-ups so that the audience could see Fairbanks doing all those incredible acrobatics himself.

His swashbuckling feats inspired many later actors such as Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power and his son Douglas Fairbanks Jr. And in India, the Tamil superstar M.G. Ramachandran!

(MGR acknowledged in later years during a chat with this writer that he was inspired by Fairbanks and as a struggling actor in ‘Boys' Company' drama troupe, he had watched the Fairbanks classics.)

Did his own stunts

In the Hollywood studio system, top stars had to have insurance policies against injury while performing stunts, and for a dangerous one, the policy prohibited the insured star from attempting the daredevil acts and stated that a ‘ double' should be used. Even though he had an insurance policy of about half million dollars (a big fortune in 1920s!), Fairbanks did not bother about such restrictions and did all the stunts himself. (This was possible because Fairbanks was the producer.)

A characteristic feature was that Fairbanks combined comedy with action. In a scene from ‘The Mark of Zorro' (1920), he sits cross-legged on a wide table surrounded by a group of soldiers with drawn swords. He smiles as he disarms some of them, nicks somebody's face and lifts a longhaired wig revealing the shocked man's bald head. In another scene, he jumps across a bamboo enclosure followed by the soldiers. One soldier's trousers is caught in the bamboo and Fairbanks comes around and lifts him off the bamboo. The soldier without realising that he has just been helped by the very man he is after, runs off happily to join the chase.

Douglas Fairbanks ( original name, Douglas Elton Thomas Ulman) was born on May 23, 1889 in Denver, Colorado. His mother Ella came from a wealthy background and her first husband, Fairbanks, died early due to tuberculosis. She married Ulman, who soon abandoned the family when Douglas was just five years old. Ulman faced business losses and also drank excessively. It was at that time she took her first husband's name (though she married again), and thus the legendary name ‘Douglas Fairbanks' came about.

Douglas went to school in Colorado and studied at Harvard for a short period. Ulman was an actor involved in theatre and perhaps Fairbanks inherited those genes. Encouraged by his mother, he joined a local theatre group and appeared on stage for the first time when he was hardly 12.

He was active in the New York theatre, until silent films began to make an impact. Fairbanks felt the proscenium too constricting and chose to enter the celluloid world.

During his theatre activity, he had known the founding father of cinematic art, David Wark Griffith, who, before sailing into movies had been a playwright and stage actor under the name Lawrence Griffith. By now he had created a bang with his ‘Birth of A Nation,' which stirred up a storm in America. Surprisingly, Griffith was not impressed by Fairbanks and described him as a ‘jumping Jack and grinning monkey, and can't act!'

However he did give him a ‘See if you can spot him' role as a French soldier on a horse in his immortal classic ‘Intolerance'.

Douglas' debut

Douglas made his debut in ‘The Lamb' (1915). Supervised by Griffith, it was a contemporary American tale with a comic touch. Then came ‘His Picture in the Papers' (1916), again supervised by Griffith. It was scripted by the famous screenwriter Anita Loos, and John Emerson. This film made Douglas popular. It was followed by movies such as ‘ Manhattan Madness' (1916).

By 1917, Douglas had turned producer by forming his own company - ‘Douglas Fairbanks Pictures Corporation'- and his cinematographer was Victor Fleming (whose name was credited as the director in the immortal classic ‘Gone With The Wind'). The film he produced was ‘A Modern Musketeer,' directed by veteran Allan Dwan. D'Aratgnan was the hero, though the story had nothing to do with the novel of Alexandre Dumas.

It was a bold and historic step, when Douglas Fairbanks, his wife Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith formed a company, United Artists, in 1919, to produce and distribute their own pictures so that they would not be under the control of dictatorial and interfering movie moguls. When it was formed a Hollywood executive wisecracked, “The lunatics have taken over the asylum!”

With his own production and distribution company, Fairbanks took a leap forward when he launched the swashbuckler genre which would elevate him to the status of immortal icon of cinema. Besides, he had built his own ‘Douglas Fairbanks Studios' in Santa Monica, near Los Angeles, U.S.

(To be continued)

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