Before he became America's first big screen action superstar, Douglas Fairbanks was a leading man on the stage, a natural at light romantic comedy and drama who had a knack for working an acrobatic flair into his performances. It made him a star on Broadway in 1908 and, according to biographer Tracey Goessel, he had his eye on the movies, which were coming of age in the 1910s. He even made a screen test in 1912, but he resisted the leap until 1915, when the Triangle Film Corporation signed him for a ten-week shoot at an impressive $2,000 a week. It was far more than he was making in the theater so he packed his family off to Hollywood to make his feature debut.
Triangle was formed as a partnership between three of the biggest filmmakers in Hollywood – D.W. Griffith (fresh from the success of Birth of a Nation, 1915), slapstick comedy specialist Mack Sennett of Keystone Kops fame and westerns specialist Thomas H. Ince. Fairbanks was signed to Griffith's Fine Arts unit. Griffith didn't direct Fairbanks' debut The Lamb (1915), which he assigned to his assistant William Christy Cabanne, but he supervised the production and recognized a star in the making. He signed Fairbanks to a three-year contract before the film even opened.
Fairbanks was reunited with Cabanne for Double Trouble, a light comic drama with a split personality twist. He begins as timid, fussy banker and Sunday school teacher who, while on vacation, is knocked out by robbers. The blow brings out an entirely new personality, a confident and aggressive self-made man who becomes the corrupt mayor of an oil boom town. It's Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as a romantic comedy.
A train journey plays a central role in the plot, and the filmmakers had the Los Angeles district manager for the Pullman Co. design and supervise the construction of a complete Pullman car in the studio to ensure authenticity. The production found its boom town in nearby Santa Ana, where the mayor welcomed the director with the key to the city and extended the cooperation of the fire department, the police and other public amenities to the production. The final act includes a parade and reportedly 4,000 extras.
Double Trouble was completed quickly and released five weeks after the premiere of The Lamb, making its debut in a program consisting of two Triangle features and two Keystone comedy shorts. Double Trouble was singled out by reviewers as the standout of the program, and Fairbanks was warmly received by audiences and critics alike.
It's a curiosity in the career of Fairbanks. Instead of the gymnastic stunts audiences came to expect, Double Trouble displays his talents as a character actor. And it's the first and last time that Fairbanks would play a villain, even in a comic vein. With his next film, His Picture in the Papers (1916), he found the mix of light romance, can-do enthusiasm and acrobatic flourish that would soon make him one of the biggest movie stars in the world.
The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks, Tracey Goessel. Chicago Review Press, 2016.
American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913-1929, John T. Soister and Henry Nicolella. McFarland and Company, 2012.
Douglas Fairbanks, Jeffrey Vance. University of California Press, 2008.
AFI Catalog of Feature Films