Thursday, December 12, 2013

RIP Douglas Fairbanks (May 23, 1883 – December 12, 1939)


Charlie & Douglas on the set of Douglas' film, His Majesty, The American, 1919

Charlie was introduced to Douglas Fairbanks by Constance Collier in 1916. Charlie later remembered not being very enthusiastic about meeting Doug: "From Constance I had heard much about Douglas Fairbanks' charm and ability, not only as a personality but as a brilliant after-dinner speaker. In those days I disliked brilliant young men--especially after-dinner speakers." Nevertheless, a dinner was arranged at Doug's house. Both men had stories about the night they first met. Charlie tried to feign a headache and Douglas descended to the basement when the doorbell rang.  Despite the nervousness, "that night was the beginning of a lifelong friendship." 1

Over the years, Charlie spent many weekends at Douglas' home in Beverly Hills where they would go for early morning horseback rides to watch the sunrise ("Doug was the only man who could get me on a horse") or indulge in "cliché philosophizing." According to Doug, he and Charlie had a connection, not only off-screen but on-screen as well. During a joint interview in 1919, Douglas told him: "I'm an admirer of yours, Charlie, even if you are a friend. And when I see you on the screen, there's something goes from you to me. I feel an interchange." 2


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Sketch of Charlie by Douglas, 1921

Charlie came to depend on Douglas’ enthusiasm & reassurance when he made his films. For instance, he was so discouraged with his film Shoulder Arms that he considered "throwing it in the ash can." He changed his mind after he showed the film to Doug during a special screening: “From the beginning Fairbanks went into roars of laughter, stopping only for coughing spells. Sweet Douglas, he was my greatest audience. When it was over and we came into the daylight, his eyes were wet from laughing."3


early 1920s

A month before he died, Doug visited the set of The Great Dictator:
Near the completion of The Dictator, Douglas Fairbanks and his wife, Sylvia, visited us on location. Douglas had been inactive for the last five years and I had rarely seen him, or he had been traveling to and from England. I thought he had aged and grown a little stouter and seemed preoccupied. Nevertheless, he was still the same enthusiastic Douglas. He laughed uproariously during the taking of one of our scenes. "I can't wait to see it," he said.
Doug stayed about an hour. When he left I stood gazing after him, watching him help his wife up the steep incline; and as they walked away along the footpath, the distance growing between us, I felt a sudden tinge of sadness. Doug turned and I waved, and he waved back. That was the last I ever saw of him. A month later Douglas Junior telephoned to say his father had died in the night of a heart attack It was a terrible shock for he belonged so much to life.4

Their last meeting, Nov. 15th, 1939

Shortly after Doug's death, his ex-wife Mary Pickford phoned Charlie to discuss United Artists business. Knowing how much he disliked talking on the phone, she was surprised when Charlie himself answered. They spoke for an hour and reminisced warmly about all the happy times the three of them had spent together. Mary later wrote that she realized then, as she never had before, how deep the friendship of Charlie and Douglas had been:
"I've lost the inspiration to make pictures, Mary," he said.
"You mustn't say that, Charlie; Douglas would be furious with you."
"You know how much I depended on his enthusiasm. You remember how I always showed my pictures first to Douglas."
"Yes, Charlie, I can still hear Douglas laughing so heartily he couldn't look at the screen. Remember those coughing fits he'd get at that moment?"
"More than anything else I remember this, Mary: whenever I made a particular scene I would always anticipate the pleasure it would give Douglas."
It all came back to me how Douglas used to treat Charlie like a younger brother, listening patiently and intently, hours on end to his repetitious stories which frankly bored me to extinction. Charlie had a way of developing his scenarios by repeating them over and over again to his most intimate friends--testing them privately to people he had faith in. Only then would he put them on film....I heard a catch in Charlie's voice.  
I couldn't bear to see them put that heavy stone over Douglas."5

Doug, Charlie, & Mary, 1924

Twenty-five years later in his autobiography, Charlie fondly remembered his friend: "I have missed Douglas--I have missed the warmth of his enthusiasm and charm; I have missed his friendly voice over the telephone, that used to call me up on a bleak and lonely Sunday morning: 'Charlie, coming up for lunch - then for a swim - then for dinner - then afterwards, see a picture?' Yes, I have missed his delightful friendship." 6

In May 1941, a marble sarcophagus containing Douglas' body was dedicated at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles. Below are photos of Charlie delivering the eulogy (a close-up and a long shot). Fairbanks’ widow, Sylvia, can be seen sitting behind the sarcophagus, weeping. Chaplin said of his late friend: "To the youth of a decade ago he was the epitome of knightly courage and romance… And as he worshiped heroes, so too did he worship those qualities a hero should possess." His final words, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, are also inscribed on Fairbanks’ tomb: “Good night sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” 7




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1Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964
2 Interview with Chaplin & Fairbanks, Ray W. Frohman, Los Angeles Herald, Dec. 2, 1919
3 Chaplin, MA
4 ibid
5 "My Unpredictable Partner," Mary Pickford, The Legend of Charlie Chaplin, Peter Haining, ed.
6 Chaplin, MA
7 www.allanellenberger.com

10 comments:

  1. That was very nicely written and presented!

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  2. peas in a pod. seeing them together in photos always warms my heart. no matter how much you see him mugging to the camera, it's really telling that you can easily see that doug truly was charlie's only friend in hollywood.

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  3. Never was there a relationship closer in Hollywood than with Chaplin and Fairbanks. Doug Jr called Chaplin to inform him of his dad's death. So sad and a movie could be made about their relationship. Many have written that Doug was Chaplin's only real friend aside from brother Syd. They were titans of the silent era. Mary too. Wouldn't it be great to see a movie about United Artists and how the three of them upstaged the studios of the time?

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  4. I think Doug counseled Charlie on how to live 'well'.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bB5iD_Ft808&sns=em

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    1. Thanks for posting. I'd like to watch that whole documentary.

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  5. Am I the only one who sometimes feels pangs for Charlie because he outlived so many of friends and family even on his own sons?

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    1. I think that's one of the problems of living a long life is that you outlive so many people, but Charlie was luckier than most men his age because he had a much younger wife who was able to take care of him. Charlie was also fortunate to have been healthy and active for most of his life. It wasn't until he reached his 80s that his health began to deteriorate.

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  6. Chaplin was photographed in full hunting gear riding with the English aristocracy in 1930: the images suggest that he wasn't just posing and that he was confident of handling a big,powerful horse at a fast pace.This contradicts his suggested aversion to horses.

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  7. The photographs you mention were taken during a boar hunting trip with the Duke of Westminster in 1931. I wrote a piece about it here: http://www.discoveringchaplin.com/2013/03/world-tour-1931-32-revisited-boar-hunt.html
    Chaplin also describes the experience in his travel memoir "A Comedian Sees The World." I wouldn't say he was a confident rider. He wrote that hadn't been on a horse in years and was very worried about falling off. However he did very well during the hunt and managed to stay on even when the horse took off galloping through the woods.

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