Cinema and Media Studies Douglas Fairbanks
Tracey Goessel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0211


Douglas Fairbanks (b. 1883–d. 1939) is primarily remembered today for his swashbuckling films of the 1920s, and, less often, for his loopy modern-dress comedies of the 1910s. Indeed, the grace and wit and sheer physicality of his remarkable stunts would suffice alone to establish his reputation, but he was much more than his athletic parts. He was born in Denver, Colorado, to a bigamous marriage. His father deserted the family when he was five, and he left school at fifteen. Still, his charm, intelligence, charisma, and athleticism led him to leading man roles, first on Broadway, and finally in the fledgling film industry. After a mere year and a half as an employee-actor at the Fine Arts division of Triangle Films, he left to form his own production company, distributing his films initially through Paramount’s Artcraft Corporation. He was a producer of courage— both artistically and financially. He cofounded (with Mary Pickford, best friend Charlie Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith,) United Artists, a distribution firm representing independent producers. He cofounded the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and served as its first president. He served as the template for both Batman and Superman. He also provided the template for the appearance of über-celebrity, a phenomenon new to the young century. He married the most famous and beloved woman in the world, actress Mary Pickford. They lived in a converted hunting lodge (dubbed “Pickfair”), turning the then-undeveloped Beverly Hills into a desirable address. Their marriage (both needed to divorce their first spouses) threatened to be one of the first Hollywood scandals, but because each was so beloved by the public, they quickly weathered the storm. With the onset of sound and the failure of his marriage in the 1930s, Fairbanks’s life and career dwindled. He had always represented the embodiment of youth, and he did not handle the indignities of middle age well. He died at fifty-six in 1939.

Critical Analysis

Although the past fifty years have witnessed academic respectability conferred on the world of slapstick (there is no lack of literature on the existential meaning of Buster Keaton or the anti-capitalistic impulses of Chaplin’s Tramp,) and the demonstration of the development of film as cinema (analyses of the work of D. W. Griffith and his peers abound,) academics largely ignore Fairbanks. Still, an occasional foray has appeared into a discussion of the significance of his work and the phenomenon of modern celebrity, which he pioneered and embodied. Schickel 1974 is an unreliable history, but a pointed and intelligent treatise on the nature of celebrity. Cooke 1940 remains the touchstone of the meaning of Fairbanks as a creature of his own mythic (and filmic) creation. Tibbetts and Welsh 2014 is an expansion of the decades-earlier Tibbetts and Welsh 1977, and both are academic discussions of the meanings and origins of the work of Fairbanks. Wagenknecht 2014 is a series of essays on silent stars, films, and the author’s childhood relationship to the flickering images on the screen. Putney 2003 explores the movement of “Masculine Christianity” that gave birth not only to the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), but also to icons such as Billy Sunday and Douglas Fairbanks, while Studlar 1996 approaches the masculinity of Fairbanks as seen through the lens of “boy culture.”

  • Cooke, Alistair. Douglas Fairbanks: The Making of a Screen Character. Museum of Modern Art Film Library 2. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1940.

    The earliest piece on the significance of Douglas Fairbanks remains (justifiably) the most quoted. Cooke’s prose is as elegant as it is insightful.

  • Putney, Clifford. Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880–1920. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

    Fairbanks’s masculine athleticism constituted one wave in a cultural tide that occurred in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th: muscular Christianity. Putney’s work discusses how the ideal of Christian manliness sprung from the Protestant church and from America’s fears of the sedentary effects of office work.

  • Schickel, Richard. His Picture in the Papers: A Speculation on Celebrity in America Based on the Life of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. New York: Charterhouse, 1974.

    Schickel plays fast and loose with biographic detail but the elegance of his writing and the clarity of his discourse on the nature of celebrity and fame is without peer.

  • Studlar, Gaylyn. This Mad Masquerade: Stardom and Masculinity in the Jazz Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

    An analysis of four movie stars of the 1920s (Fairbanks chief among them) and a discussion of how they evoked masculinity within separate cultural memes (in the case of Fairbanks, “boy culture”).

  • Tibbetts, John C., and James M. Welsh. His Majesty the American: The Cinema of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes, 1977.

    A film-by-film analysis grouped into categories (Anita Loos satires/Western Tradition/Gymnastic Evangelist/Social Climbing. . .) roughly arranged in chronological order, this work expands on the seminal analysis of Cooke 1940.

  • Tibbetts, John C., and James M. Welsh. Douglas Fairbanks and the American Century. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014.

    The 2014 book is a revision and an expansion of the 1977 publication, containing more biographical material. Both volumes embody detailed discussions of the themes and artistic origins of the work of Fairbanks.

  • Wagenknecht, Edward. The Movies in the Age of Innocence. 3d ed. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014.

    Originally published in 1962. Part memoir (Wagenknecht was a small boy in the silent years), part biography, and part critical essay, this slim volume has stood the test of time on all fronts.

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