Douglas Fairbanks was one of the great stars of silent movies and in many ways encapsulated all that was best and most intriguing about Hollywood cinema before the coming of sound. Highly acrobatic – he performed all his own stunts – he had a screen persona for which the word ‘swashbuckling’ was virtually invented. The epitome of celluloid optimism, he seemed always to be smiling, even if his permanent grin can seem to modern viewers arch and irritating. The consensus is that he imbued audiences with a ‘feelgood factor’ before that term had been invented, that he was a kind of tonic or that he dispensed laughing gas on the silver screen. The fact that he was so often airborne – swinging from ropes, chandeliers or ship’s rigging – led Alistair Cooke to dub him a second Ariel: he was ‘a young vigorous man as uncompromising as his splendid physique, unfazed by tricky problems of taste and class behaviour, gallant to women, with an affection for the American scene tempered by a wink’. He was known as the first ‘King of Hollywood’ (interestingly, the King of Hollywood in the early sound era, Clark Gable, had the same irritating permanent grin) and lived with his wife Mary Pickford in a Hollywood palace known as ‘Pickfair’, where the visitor’s book recorded the presence of such notables as Chaplin, Shaw, Eisenstein, H G Wells, Mountbatten, Scott Fitzgerald, Amelia Earhart, Noël Coward, Max Reinhardt and Conan Doyle.
Famously, Fairbanks was one of the four celebrities who founded United Artists in 1919, enabling him to distribute his own movies. Jeffrey Vance feels that while the other three in the founding quartet – Chaplin, D W Griffith and Mary Pickford – have received massive critical (usually laudatory) attention, Fairbanks