A lively biography of a lauded actor.
Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939) and his wife Mary Pickford (1892-1979) reigned as Hollywood royalty in the 1920s, when she was “America’s Sweetheart,” and he, the “top male star of his generation,” was featured in dozens of movies, notably Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro. Although film historians have largely ignored Fairbanks, Goessel, in this hefty, well-researched biography, defends Fairbanks’ reputation as one of the most significant stars of his time. Besides a prolific acting, directing, and producing career, he co-founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and United Artists; “innovative, fearless, and deep pocketed,” he was an early backer of Technicolor. Goessel chronicles his ardent romance with Pickford and his “bromance” with Charlie Chaplin, who was such a close friend that he had his own bedroom at the couple’s estate, Pickfair. Though he traded on his suave looks and athleticism, Fairbanks was also hardworking and quickly achieved success, attracting crowds of fans wherever he appeared. When he and Mary arrived in Copenhagen, for example, they were greeted by mobs so large that they disrupted tramway service. In 1927, though, dogged by rumors of infidelity, their marriage began to unravel. Each had affairs, and they reunited, separated, and finally divorced in 1936. By then, however, Fairbanks’ fame had plummeted; neither he nor Mary flourished in the age of talkies, whose advent Goessel examines in detail. For Fairbanks, talkies ended “the romance of motion picture making.” Partly, Goessel argues, the fault lay with the studios, which did not know what to do with the new technology nor how to incorporate sound to enhance actors’ performances and plot. Fairbanks married English model and socialite Sylvia Ashley, but, Goessel believes, loved, and longed for, Mary. He died of a heart attack in 1939. Mary, who had been an alcoholic even during their marriage, deteriorated over the next four decades.
An informative, engaging life of a film icon.