- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 12, 2009

The DVD set “Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer” is designed to showcase the early phase of one of the pre-eminent starring careers of the silent movie period. While doing that with a preponderance of titles, representing about a third of the Fairbanks output between 1916 and 1920, the collection also illustrates, perhaps without intending to, why it ultimately made more sense for this charismatic performer to shift genres at the turn of the decade.

Commencing with the final movie in the set, “The Mark of Zorro,” Douglas Fairbanks became Hollywood’s first great swashbuckling attraction, a happily athletic centerpiece in costume adventure spectacles. While popular with film audiences from the outset, he seems to acquire a harmonious identity as the humorously deceptive and supremely self-confident aristocrat-liberator Don Diego Vega, who assumes the identity of an elusive masked swordsman and paragon called Zorro. Only when ineffectuality is a ruse and invincible heroic prowess defines the true man does the actor achieve a completely satisfying illusion of purposefulness and fulfillment.

A proven leading man in Broadway romantic comedies, Fairbanks signed his initial movie contract for a then-princely sum of $2,000 a week near the end of the 1914-15 theatrical season. He was 32 when he began a movie career, attached to D.W. Griffith’s Fine Arts company at the newly minted Triangle Film Corp., which combined the filmmaking resources of Griffith, Thomas Ince and Mack Sennett. Flush with the success of “The Birth of a Nation” but already preoccupied with preparing its sprawling epic successor, “Intolerance,” Griffith delegated the bulk of his production slate to assistants. Christy Cabanne was the first assigned to direct Fairbanks, in a spinoff of one of his Broadway hits called “The Lamb.”

Griffith himself was not bowled over by the newcomer. He speculated that the Sennett unit might be better suited to exploit a conspicuous comic exuberance. Already more attuned to youthfulness in his leads, the eminent director also quipped that Fairbanks looked a bit funny, since he had a head that was shaped like a cantaloupe. He might have added that it was an oddly flattened, misshapen cantaloupe into the bargain.

Puffy-cheeked and a bit stubby, Fairbanks didn’t appear to offer a decisively heroic profile to the camera until he donned the costumes of Zorro, D’Artagnan and Robin Hood. In contemporary dress, cast as clerks or playboys or improvident artists or fops, he appears a bemusing ringer for maybe Al Jolson or Jack Benny. He never looks like the “boy” or “whippersnapper” that other characters allude to frequently in the intertitles. If anything, his characters suggest a late bloomer, types anxious to grow up and make a mark but prone to groping and flailing for an appropriate role or vocation. Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd were destined to be superior embodiments of such foolish comic heroes throughout the 1920s.

The distinctive, exhilarating aspect of the early Fairbanks is his athleticism, which expresses itself in a spontaneous tendency to vault fences or other hurdles, hop aboard swiftly moving vehicles or climb the facades of apartment buildings or churches. There was an irrepressible elasticity in Douglas Fairbanks that seemed to have a tonic effect on both theatergoers and moviegoers right off the bat.

“The Lamb” (not a part of the DVD set, unfortunately) gave him immediate credibility at the box office. After completing about a dozen pictures during an industrious first year in the movie business, Mr. Fairbanks had his own company by 1917. In retrospect, it’s difficult to credit the seemingly foolproof nature of his ascent. In the case of the early vehicles collected in “A Modern Musketeer,” which borrows its subtitle from a typical example, one deduces that he rose above many a rattletrap scenario while portraying silly protagonists given to harebrained attempts to rescue recently acquired sweethearts from expendable or downright criminal rivals.

Though undeniably playful and amusing in fits and starts, none of these farcical showcases seems durably clever and satisfying. Indeed, each of them is so plot-driven in trifling respects that a wearisome toll weighs down even the chipper comic attributes. Perhaps there’s an optimum sample among the 20 titles left out of the “Modern Musketeer” set, but I suspect that the shortcomings originate in a system of facetiousness that played better 90 years ago than it does now. Not that the current equivalents won’t date even more severely — probably within a decade, or a matter of months, if we’re lucky.

“The Mark of Zorro” brought a quantum leap to Fairbanks’ popularity; he was reluctant to take it, delaying the movie’s release by the better part of a year. Now it seems such a logical consummation that you wonder why he didn’t jump with both feet into storybook adventure a year or two earlier. It’s demonstrably better when Fairbanks impersonates a heroic figure who is absolutely sure of himself.

Zorro disarms villains by outdueling them with ease or running them ragged, Don Diego by pretending to be so passive and unthreatening that he seems to anticipate Charles Grodin as Steve Martin’s listless buddy in “The Lonely Guy.” It turns out that not only physicality brings out the comic zest in Douglas Fairbanks. So can sneaky, bogus immobility, perhaps expressed at its cagiest when Diego sighs, “Late hours weary me” or “So many unpleasant things happen — it’s so fatiguing.”

TITLE: “Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer”

CONTENTS: Five-DVD set with 11 movies that starred Fairbanks from 1916 to 1921

RUNNING TIME: Individual titles range from about 25 minutes to about 105 minutes; the cumulative running time is about 760 minutes

DVD EDITION: Flicker Alley

WEB SITE: www.flickeralley.com

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