Douglas Fairbanks


Actor

About

Also Known As
Elton Thomas, Elton Banks, Douglas Elton Ulman, Douglas Fairbanks Sr.
Birth Place
Denver, Colorado, USA
Born
May 23, 1883
Died
December 12, 1939
Cause of Death
Heart Attack

Biography

Between 1915 and 1934, actor Douglas Fairbanks displayed unparalleled athletic prowess marked by a naturally optimistic zest for life in over 40 films that turned him into one of Hollywood's biggest silent era stars. During the height of his fame in the 1920s, Fairbanks portrayed historical characters of incredible exuberance and unbounded energy, as he jumped, swung, leaped and, most im...

Family & Companions

Anna Beth Sully
Wife
Married in 1907; divorced in 1919; she later married Jack Whiting; Rhode Island soap company heiress.
Mary Pickford
Wife
Actor. Married on March 28, 1920; separated in 1933; divorce granted in January, 1935; final divorce papers signed on January 14, 1936; had previously been married to Owen Moore.
Lady Sylvia Ashley
Wife
Chorus girl. Married from March 7, 1936, until Fairbanks' death in 1939; divorced from Lord Ashley, heir of the Earl of Shaftsbury; married briefly to Clark Gable in 1949.

Notes

"Mr. Fairbanks, with his flashing smile and the vaulting agility of an acrobat, was the romantic personification of male perfection, the athletic idol of small boys and the screen's most adored superman."--NY Times Obituary (December 13, 1939)

Biography

Between 1915 and 1934, actor Douglas Fairbanks displayed unparalleled athletic prowess marked by a naturally optimistic zest for life in over 40 films that turned him into one of Hollywood's biggest silent era stars. During the height of his fame in the 1920s, Fairbanks portrayed historical characters of incredible exuberance and unbounded energy, as he jumped, swung, leaped and, most importantly, smiled his way across American movie screens. After a successful New York stage career, he entered the film business as one of D.W. Griffith's stars in films like "The Lamb" (1915) and "Double Trouble" (1915), but soon found himself put to better use under different directors as an upper class dynamo in "American Aristocracy" (1916), "Wild and Woolly" (1917) and "Reaching for the Moon" (1917). After a brief hiatus to sell war bonds for World War I, Fairbanks returned to Hollywood and dropped his aristocratic persona in favor of playing cheery swashbucklers in the day's most popular movies, like "The Mark of Zorro" (1920), "Robin Hood" (1922) and "The Thief of Baghdad" (1924), all of which featured the actor performing his own elaborate stunts. At the same time, he married star Mary Pickford and the two became Hollywood's first celebrated couple. Meanwhile, he formed United Artists with Griffith, Pickford and Charlie Chaplin to distribute movies and exercise creative control over their films. He went on to star in hits like "The Black Pirate" (1926) and "The Guacho" (1927), before entering the talkie era with the partial sound film, "The Iron Mask" (1929). But with his declining health - not to mention his divorce from Pickford - Fairbanks retired from acting after making "The Private Life of Don Juan" (1934) and died five years later. Remembered for his groundbreaking movies, elaborate stunts and always sunny optimism, Fairbanks remained one of early Hollywood's most enduring stars.

Born on May 23, 1883 in Denver, CO, Fairbanks was briefly raised by his father, Charles Ullman, a Jewish New York lawyer who had traveled West to pursue mining interests, and his mother, Ella Marsh, a Catholic Southern belle whose first husband's business partners swindled her well-to-do family out of their wealth. Encouraged by his father to recite Shakespeare, Fairbanks began acting in amateur theater at an early age while receiving his education at the Jarvis Military Academy and East Denver High School. Fairbanks later claimed that he attended both the Colorado School of Mines and Harvard University, though no official records existed for the former and his stay at the latter was brief at best. In 1900, he began performing with Frederick Warde's touring company and made his debut with a small role in "The Duke's Jester," which staged in Richmond, VA. Two years later, Fairbanks moved to New York and made his Broadway debut with a bit part in "Her Lord and Master" (1902). He soon had his first leading role with a Broadway production of "As Ye Sow" (1905), only to leave the theater entirely to travel Europe with friends.

Upon his return to the States, Fairbanks found work at the brokerage house, De Coppet & Doremus, before trying his hand at the hardware manufacturing business. But he returned to acting on Broadway with "Mrs. Jack" and in 1907 married his first wife, Anna Beth Sully, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. Two years later, the couple had a son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who would later follow his father into showbiz, becoming a bit of a matinee idol himself. After playing the leads in "He Comes Up Smiling" (1914) and "The Show Shop" (1914), Fairbanks wrapped up his successful theater career and entered motion pictures by signing with Triangle Films at a salary of $2,000 per week. He soon found himself under the wing of D.W. Griffith. With his Victorian sensibilities, the director had no feel for Fairbanks's 20th-century dynamism and the star's first films, "The Lamb" (1915) and "Double Trouble" (1915), traded on his Broadway successes rather than the actor's obvious charm. When Griffith delegated to others the task of molding his screen persona, Fairbanks sought more compatible collaborators. With "His Picture in the Papers" (1916), director-writer John Emerson and writer Anita Loos joined the Fairbanks camp and immediately hit on the right approach. The Loos/Emerson combination created a peppy satire featuring the up-and-at-'em Fairbanks athleticism, a response to the increasing industrialization and encroaching commercialization of the American landscape.

The trio continued to mock commercial faddism and celebrity pretensions, with Fairbanks often playing an upper-class dynamo who shows up his fellow aristocrats in such films as "The Half Breed" (1916), "American Aristocracy" (1916), "Manhattan Madness" (1916), "The Matrimaniac" (1916), "The Americano" (1917), "In Again, Out Again" (1917), "Wild and Woolly" (1917), "Down to Earth" (1917) and "Reaching for the Moon" (1917). With "The Habit of Happiness" (1916), another Fairbanks stalwart, director Allan Dwan, came into the fold. But as his career was truly taking off, Fairbanks was sidetracked by World War I, for which he toured the U.S. alongside actress Mary Pickford and comedy star Charlie Chaplin to sell war bonds. In fact, Fairbanks and Pickford had begun an affair in 1916 that eventually led to his first wife to file for divorce in 1919. At the time, Pickford was married to actor Owen Moore, and also filed for divorce. Fairbanks and Pickford were married on March 28, 1920, much to the delight and excitement of the motion picture goers, and became Hollywood's first celebrity couple. In fact, Fairbanks and Pickford were something like Hollywood royalty, entertaining everyone from fellow celebrities to world leaders and even presidents at their rolling Beverly Hills estate dubbed "Pickfair" by the press.

Fairbanks increased his business stature by forming the Douglas Fairbanks Picture Corporation with Emerson, but it was his formation of United Artists with Pickford, Chaplin and Griffith that truly solidified him as a major Hollywood powerbroker. Meanwhile, after returning to filmmaking in the wake of his war bonds tour, Fairbanks faced the sobering truth that audiences no longer identified with his anachronistic persona of a carefree aristocrat. So with "When the Clouds Roll By" (1919) and "The Nut" (1921), he began introducing fantasy elements into contemporary stories. In the 1920s, Fairbanks shifted to lavish costume action-adventures that placed his pre-war optimist into historical and fairy-tale settings. In "The Mark of Zorro" (1920), Fairbanks deftly combined romance, comedy and swashbuckling swordplay in this 80-minute adventure in which he played the wealthy son of a land owner who masquerades as the masked Robin Hood-like Señor Zorro. He displayed his athletic prowess as d'Artagnan in "The Three Musketeers" (1921), where Fairbanks - who did his own acrobatics - pulled off a one-handed sword grab that was one of his finest stunts.

Fairbanks delivered one of his most iconic performances in "Robin Hood" (1922), one of the decade's most expensive movies to make and the first-ever to receive a Hollywood premiere. A classic of the silent era, "Robin Hood" cemented the actor's place as the era's most important and popular movie star. Fairbanks reached the height of his artistic and commercial abilities with "The Thief of Baghdad" (1924), an extraordinary swashbuckling adventure that featured superlative special effects - for its day, at least - including a stunning ride through the streets atop a magic carpet. Meanwhile, Fairbanks' optimistic hero leaped and dashed his way to the rescue, putting his unparalleled athletic abilities on full display. After a reprisal of Zorro in "Don Q, Son of Zorro" (1925), he played the titular role in the epic adventure, "The Black Pirate" (1926). At the apex of his popularity, Fairbanks made the lavish adventure "The Gaucho" (1927) before playing an aging d'Artagnan in "The Iron Mask" (1929), which marked his last silent film - though it was in fact a part-talkie - while putting an end to the lavish adventures that defined his career throughout the decade.

Following the release of "The Iron Mask," Fairbanks publicly declared his intention to retire from the movies, due in part to his athletic abilities and health going into decline due to age and heavy smoking. And with the stock market crash of 1929, optimism - which was so effortless conveyed by Fairbanks - was dealt a death blow. Meanwhile, he entered the talkie era alongside Pickford, playing Petruchio to her Kate in the first-ever sound adaptation of William Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" (1929). With his career slowing down, Fairbanks made his last two pictures, "Mr. Robinson Caruso" (1932) and "The Private Life of Don Juan" (1934), after which he retired from acting. By this time, his marriage to Pickford was on the rocks due to his affair with socialite Sylvia Ashley. Fairbanks' divorce from Pickford was finalized in 1936, with the actor leaving his former wife with their famed Pickfair estate, where she lived until her death in 1979. Fairbanks went on to marry Ashley in Paris the same year his divorce became official, and was only loosely associated with the filmmaking and the business during his final years, choosing instead to travel abroad with his new wife. His health continued to fail, however, and Fairbanks suffered a heart attack in his Santa Monica home. He died the following day on May 23, 1939. He was 56, and left behind a legacy as being Hollywood's first true action hero.

Filmography

 

Director (Feature Film)

Around the World in Eighty Minutes with Douglas Fairbanks (1931)
Director

Cast (Feature Film)

The Great Chase (1962)
Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937)
Himself
The Private Life of Don Juan (1934)
Don Juan [later known as Captain Mariano]
Mr. Robinson Crusoe (1932)
Steve Drexel
Reaching for the Moon (1931)
Larry Day
Taming of the Shrew (1929)
Petruchio
The Iron Mask (1929)
D'Artagnan
The Gaucho (1928)
The Gaucho
Show People (1928)
Himself
The Black Pirate (1926)
The Black Pirate [Michel]
Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925)
Don César de Vega/Zorro
The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
The Thief of Bagdad
Robin Hood (1923)
The Earl of Huntingdon/Robin Hood
The Nut (1921)
Charlie Jackson
The Three Musketeers (1921)
D'Artagnan
The Mollycoddle (1920)
Richard Marshall
The Mark of Zorro (1920)
Don Diego Vega/Señor Zorro
His Majesty, the American (1919)
William Brooks
The Knickerbocker Buckaroo (1919)
Teddy Drake
When the Clouds Roll by (1919)
Daniel Boone Brown
Say, Young Fellow! (1918)
The Young Fellow
Headin' South (1918)
Headin' South
Bound in Morocco (1918)
The boy
Mr. Fix-It (1918)
Mr. Fix-It
He Comes Up Smiling (1918)
Jerry Martin
Arizona (1918)
Lieutenant Denton
Sic 'em Sam! (1918)
Fire the Kaiser (1918)
Wild and Woolly (1917)
Jeff Hillington
Reaching for the Moon (1917)
Alexis Caesar Napoleon
Down to Earth (1917)
Bill Gaynor
In Again--Out Again (1917)
Teddy Rutherford
A Modern Musketeer (1917)
Ned Thacker
The Americano (1917)
Blaze Derringer
The Man from Painted Post (1917)
"Fancy Jim" Sherwood
National Association's All-Star Picture (1917)
War Relief (1917)
The Habit of Happiness (1916)
Sunny Wiggins
His Picture in the Papers (1916)
Pete Prindle
Manhattan Madness (1916)
Steve O'Dare
Flirting with Fate (1916)
Augy Holliday
American Aristocracy (1916)
Cassius Lee
The Good Bad Man (1916)
"Passin' Through"
Reggie Mixes in (1916)
Reggie Van Deuzen
The Matrimaniac (1916)
Jimmie Conroy
The Half-Breed (1916)
Lo Dorman
Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)
Reggie Mixes It (1916)
The Martyrs of the Alamo (1915)
Double Trouble (1915)
Florian Amidon/Eugene Brassfield
The Lamb (1915)
Gerald

Writer (Feature Film)

When the Clouds Roll by (1919)
Story
The Man from Painted Post (1917)
Scen
Down to Earth (1917)
Story
The Good Bad Man (1916)
Scen

Producer (Feature Film)

The Gaucho (1928)
Producer
The Nut (1921)
Producer
The Three Musketeers (1921)
Presented By
The Mollycoddle (1920)
Supervisor
The Mark of Zorro (1920)
Producer
When the Clouds Roll by (1919)
Supervisor

Cast (Short)

Character Studies (1923)

Life Events

1900

Became stage actor with Frederick Warde's touring company; first stage appearance in small role in "The Duke's Jester" in Richmond, Virginia

1900

Legally changed name to Douglas Fairbanks (Fairbanks was name of his mother's first husband; she reverted to name after divorcing H. Charles Ulman) (date approximate)

1902

Broadway debut (bit) in "Her Lord and Master"

1905

First lead role on Broadway in "As Ye Sow"

1915

Signed three-year contract with Triangle Company at salary of $2,000 per week

1915

Film acting debut with Triangle in "The Lamb"

1916

Obtained release from contract and salary escalated to $10,000 per week

1917

Formed the Douglas Fairbanks Pictures Corporation with director John Emerson (distributed through Artcraft subsidiary of Famous Players-Lasky)

1917

Made 1st film with newly formed Douglas Fairbanks Pictures Corporation

1919

Formed United Artists Company (with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and D W Griffith)

1919

First film for UA, "His Majesty the American"

1925

Formed Elton Corporation production company

1929

Made first talkie, "The Taming of the Shrew" (also his first film with Mary Pickford)

1934

Last film as an actor, "The Private Life of Don Juan"

1938

Formed Fairbanks International production company; first film was to have been "The Californian" starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr (never made)

Photo Collections

The Black Pirate - Movie Posters
The Black Pirate - Movie Posters

Videos

Movie Clip

Three Musketeers, The (1921) - Behind The Luxembourg The obligatory and comical if deadly inaugural bonding event, as ruffian D’Artagnan (producer Douglas Fairbanks, in his first film in his newly-formed United Artists venture) engages in duels with the three established musketeers (Leon Barry, George Siegmann and Eugene Pallette as Athos, Porthos and Aramis), soon devolving into a larger scrap with Cardinal Richelieu’s guards, in The Three Musketeers, 1921.
Thief of Bagdad, The (1924) - Happiness Must Be Earned Aphorisms at the opening, then the first scenes in Bagdad where the jaunty title character (star and de facto producer Douglas Fairbanks) is up to his daily hijinks, in The Thief Of Bagdad, 1924, directed by Raoul Walsh.
Thief of Bagdad, The (1924) - Thief To Be Flogged Undeterred at seeing a compatriot punished, Douglas Fairbanks (title character) conducts business, escapes with his magic rope, and joins "His Evil Associate" (Snitz Edwards), in The Thief Of Bagdad, 1924.
Good Bad Man, The (1916) - Passin' Through The opening in which the author and star, Douglas Fairbanks, appears only in disguise, common folk marveling at his virtues and his clever nom de guerre, from The Good Bad Man, 1916, one of Fairbanks earliest feature hits.
Good Bad Man, The (1916) - I'm Here To Stay! The just-introduced villain “The Wolf” (Sam De Grasse) arrives to court reluctant Amy (Bessie Love) while the new semi-bandit boarder “Passin’ Through” (Douglas Fairbanks, also author and producer) makes friends with her father, before their first clash, in The Good Bad Man, 1916.
Half-Breed, The (1916) - L'Eau Dormante Confirmed in the prologue as the orphan of a despicable northern Californian and a scorned Indian mother, producer and star Douglas Fairbanks appears in a loincloth in the title role, and learns of the cruel ways of the white man, in The Half-Breed, 1916, from a Bret Harte story.
Half-Breed, The (1916) - My Father Was A White Man! Welcomed at first into a California town, “Lo Dorman” (Douglas Fairbanks), as he’s known to Indian brethren, is separated from Nellie (Jewel Carmen) by her pastor father (Frank Brownlee) then encounters the crooked sheriff (Sam De Grasse), neither knowing of their kinship, in The Half-Breed, 1916.
Black Pirate, The (1926) - Even On This Dark Soil Writer, producer and star Douglas Fairbanks doesn’t appear in the opening, as we join the prologue, pirates looting a taken ship, with general and specific callous acts of murder, Anders Randolf their captain, in the third feature made with two-strip Technicolor, from United Artists, The Black Pirate, 1926.
Black Pirate, The (1926) - I Would Join Your Company! The pirates (Anders Randolf the leader, Donald Crisp their second) who took the ship on which he traveled have appeared on the island where survivor Douglas Fairbanks (the co-writer, producer and star) has just buried, and sworn to avenge, his father, launching his infiltration scheme, in The Black Pirate, 1926.
Black Pirate, The (1926) - Single-Handed Undertaking a test he proposed, in order to gain membership to the pirate band that murdered his father, Douglas Fairbanks (title character) begins the work of taking the “next ship you pick” single-handed, with some famous stunts, in The Black Pirate, 1926.
Mark of Zorro, The (1920) - Don Diego We all know who he really is, but Don Diego (Douglas Fairbanks) is quite sure the drunken Sergeant Pedro (Noah Beery) remains in the dark, in The Mark of Zorro, 1920.
Mark of Zorro, The (1920) - Lolita Much personality is revealed in the swordfight as Zorro (Douglas Fairbanks) drops in on Captain Ramon (Robert McKim) who's been mistreating Lolita (Marguerite De La Motte) in The Mark of Zorro, 1920.

Trailer

Family

H Charles Ulman
Father
Lawyer. Jewish New York lawyer who had gone west to look after mining interests and remained there; returned to New York c. 1900; amateur Shakespearean scholar.
Robert Fairbanks
Brother
Film executive. Worked as corporate secretary for Douglas's film company.
John Fairbanks
Half-Brother
Film executive. Worked as treasurer for Douglas's film company.
Douglas Fairbanks Jr
Son
Actor. Mother Anna Beth Sully.

Companions

Anna Beth Sully
Wife
Married in 1907; divorced in 1919; she later married Jack Whiting; Rhode Island soap company heiress.
Mary Pickford
Wife
Actor. Married on March 28, 1920; separated in 1933; divorce granted in January, 1935; final divorce papers signed on January 14, 1936; had previously been married to Owen Moore.
Lady Sylvia Ashley
Wife
Chorus girl. Married from March 7, 1936, until Fairbanks' death in 1939; divorced from Lord Ashley, heir of the Earl of Shaftsbury; married briefly to Clark Gable in 1949.

Bibliography

Notes

"Mr. Fairbanks, with his flashing smile and the vaulting agility of an acrobat, was the romantic personification of male perfection, the athletic idol of small boys and the screen's most adored superman."--NY Times Obituary (December 13, 1939)