Katharine Hepburn on ‘silent’ movies from her famous interview with Dick Cavett:
‘Everything becomes different. They don’t look silly to me. Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, a lot of those pictures, a lot of the comedies…You look at Silent Pictures with a different point of view because they are different but some of them are thrilling’
Tracey Goessel’s The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2016) is such a marvellous book; superbly researched, including exclusive access to Mary Pickford’s letters, full of new information and elegantly written. The reasons to be interested in Fairbanks are innumerable: an icon of his age, founder of United Artist, a man who helped shape our understanding of entire genres (swashbuckler), still potent archetypes (Zorro, Robin Hood, ‘The Gaucho’, D’Artagnan) and mythos (The Thief of Baghdad). His influence is everywhere still: his Zorro is what inspired Bob Kane’s Batman, particularly the Bruce Wayne/ Batman dual identity. In fact he was one of the main shapers of what we’ve come to understand as Hollywood.
I wish I had more time to write more extensively on the book and the actor. But since I don’t, I’d like to point you to Thomas Gladysz excellent ‘Best Film Books of 2015′, which is how I came across the book, assert its many virtues and offer you an idea.The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks extensively documents how from the moment Fairbanks moved to the Triangle Picture company in 1916, where he started his first independent production even before he officially formed his own production company, Fairbanks had enormous control over what projects he starred in and how they were shaped. This is true from beginning with In Again, Out Again (d: by John Emerson, scripted by Emerson and Anita Loos, USA, 1917) right to his founding of United Artist along with Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, and Charles Chaplin in 1919.
Once he started at UA, he was not only financing his films but helping to shape their every aspect, from the narrative of The Mark of Zorro (Fred Niblo, USA, 1920), camera placement and stunts in The Three Musketeers (Fred Niblo, USA, 1921) the cutting and distribution of all of his works throughout the 1920s, and even the look of the two-strip Technicolor used in The Black Pirate (Albert Parker, USA, 1926). He was clearly as much the author of his films as anyone; and as the one with final say, much more so than any director. The book doesn’t quite make the argument of star as auteur in silent cinema but it is there implicitly, at least as regards Fairbanks. The book also implicitly makes the case that this would be true of Mary Pickford and by implication anyone else who had a similar kind of control and final say over their pictures. Perhaps silent cinema is awash with female authorship that we have yet to discover or render explicit. It’s a thought.