Reflections on Douglas Fairbanks

By Susan Doll

Recently, I hosted an open screening of The Thief of Bagdad starring Douglas Fairbanks at the arts college where I teach film studies. I began by asking how many people had heard of Fairbanks; a few people raised their hands. I asked how many had seen a Fairbanks film; only one raised his hand. And, yet, Fairbanks was the most valuable male star of the silent era. It was not just his enormous popularity with the public that made him important; he was a powerful figure in the film industry, which supported his innovations and ideas. Fairbanks produced some of the era’s most ground-breaking adventure tales.

Sadly, silent films are off the radar of the average moviegoer, even for those who watch the occasional classic movie and have a passing knowledge of the legends of the silver screen. This realization hit hard for me, because, like most cinephiles, movie-lovers, and TCM addicts, I regularly watch movies from all eras and all countries. But, I have come to accept that silent films are not conducive to the way most of us watch movies these days, which is on small screens in the privacy of our homes while being distracted by a hundred different interruptions. Silent films do not have spoken dialogue, the scale of their productions is large, and the acting is a broad, pantomime style. They require our undivided attention, a complete suspension of disbelief, and a theater environment -- none of which mesh with the contemporary viewing habits.

And, yet these films and the artists that produced them have been influential in our culture in ways not imagined, which leads me back to Fairbanks. Fans of Superman know the comic-book hero’s familiar, heroic stance, with his hands on his hips and legs apart, but few know that this was Fairbanks’ trademark gesture. The young artist who first drew Superman idolized the actor; and, so, a little bit of Fairbanks lives on in the universe of superheroes. Without Fairbanks, color film may have occurred much later, or at least took a different path. In the 1920s, he helped save the Technicolor company from going under when he invested in color for The Black Pirate. He cofounded United Artists with his wife Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith, because he believed filmmakers should have creative control over studio execs. The old U.A. is a model for indie filmmakers who try to escape the clutches of the studios. 

And, then there is my favorite Fairbank cultural influence: he was the first to make getting a tan popular!

More importantly, Fairbanks -- and other filmmakers from silent cinema -- thought movies should be an imaginative experience in which viewers escaped from their daily lives. They integrated set design, costuming, and character to create a world where viewers suspended disbelief to become totally engrossed.  Viewers were transformed and transferred by the visual design and the charismatic lead characters into another time and place that had nothing to do with reality. That was the point; that was the appeal.  

As star and producer, Fairbanks was the creative center of The Thief of Bagdad. He constructed the plot and themes and also conceptualized the visual design. He hired 27-year-old William Cameron Menzies as the art director to execute his concepts.  Fairbanks wanted the film’s style to be fantastic and unreal but also “light and airy,” almost ethereal.

The trick to accomplishing this goal was to emphasize the vertical in the set design--height over mass, lift over solidity. The Thief climbs a great deal in this movie -- walls, stairs, even ropes -- so the vertical design fit the character. To help emphasize height, the trees were painted black, and light colors were used in the background instead of the typical dark colors. Buildings were painted darker at the top than at the bottom, so they would not look so heavy and solid.  The tour-de-force of the set design was the black floor, which kept the crew busy because it needed to be cleaned and polished daily. The shiny black floor reflected elements in the sets, which emphasized the verticality. 

Unlike other monumental sets of the Silver Age of Silents, the set design was relatively sparse and light. Menzies, a former illustrator, conceived designs that look almost like pen-and-ink drawings on the screen. He was clearly influenced by Art Nouveau because of the rhythmic, curvilinear lines in some of the interior décor, including the unique-looking bedroom of the Princess.

If the set design was airy, it matched Fairbanks’ character, who was definitely light on his feet. Fairbanks was enthralled by the Ballet Russes, which was extremely influential on modern dance in the 1920s and was famous for its imaginative set design. Fairbanks’s performance style is intentionally dance-like, meaning it is exaggerated and artificial on purpose.  While this works fine in action scenes, it does become awkward in love scenes. And, unfortunately, not every actor was as graceful and charismatic as Fairbanks. For me, costar Julanne Johnston, who played the Princess, lacked the actor’s charisma and graceful movement. Her acting is an example of the broad exaggeration often used to poke fun at silent-film performances. But, that is a small observation that does not detract from the film as a whole. 

If Fairbanks and the major filmmakers of the silent era worked hard to make the movies a truly immersive experience, then theater managers who operated the big movie palaces in the major cities matched them in their efforts. Movie premieres could be momentous occasions not only for the stars but also for moviegoers. When The Thief of Bagdad opened at the Lyric in New York City, the theater was outfitted with Middle Eastern décor, including magic carpets. Drummers and Arab vocalists enhanced the exotic atmosphere, as did the smell of incense and perfumes that had been imported from Bagdad. During intermission, handsome ushers in Arabian attire served Turkish coffee to the ladies in the audience. 

The comic-book genre currently dominates Hollywood, and, like the story-book adventures of Fairbanks, they seek to immerse viewers in another time and place through set design, character, and costume. But, the CGI-created sets look all the same in their steely, industrial design and color, while the narratives lack imagination, and the characters are often unlikable or dull.  Much can be learned from past films and filmmakers; their influence is there for the taking. 


A graduate of Northwestern University’s film program, Susan has been an instructor of film studies at several universities and colleges. She currently teaches at Ringling College of Art and Design. Parallel with her teaching career, she has worked as a researcher and writer in pop culture-related topics for Encyclopedia Britannica, Publications International, Facets Multi-Media, Field Museum of Chicago, and Turner Classic Movies. She is the author of Elvis for Dummies, Understanding Elvis, The Films of Elvis Presley, Marilyn: Her Life and Legend, an interactive children’s book titled I Love Lucy, and Films in Florida (co-authored).