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By S.T. Karnick
A Practical Romantic
Those rare souls who know anything about Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., probably associate his name with amazing stunt work in silent films. He is indeed justly known for that, but he should be appreciated for much more. Fairbanks, the great "swashbuckling" actor, was also one of the first important film auteurs, coming on the scene shortly after D.W. Griffith demonstrated the powerful effects a feature film could accomplish. Fairbanks put together a surprisingly coherent body of work, set a standard for film acting, and established conventions of film action (adapted from stage and page, of course) which have remained in place ever since.
In his films, Fairbanks embodied the American spirit, what I call practical romanticism: his characters were optimistic, hard-working, cheerful, openly affectionate toward friends and intimates, fond of domestic comforts but always seeking a new challenge, a new adventure. The Fairbanks hero is by no means perfect but is certainly laudable overall—the kind of person you'd want watching your back in a fight.
Fairbanks himself was no superman. Rather short, thin, and bandy-legged, he had a weak chin, high forehead, thin upper lip, and indistinct jawline—not the kind of face we associate with masculine resolution and heroism—yet he made no great effort to hide any of these presumed deficiencies. And that was the right choice, because his superficial physical limitations made his accomplishments that much more impressive.
The narrative formula for his work was set at the very beginning of his career as a movie star (he was 32 years old when he made his first feature), and Fairbanks seldom deviated from it until the talkies and the Depression made it no longer viable. Fairbanks typically plays an ordinary fellow, often one trapped in a dull office job, who yearns for adventure—and gets it but good. Alternatively, he might portray a spoiled rich swell forced by a series of disasters to prove himself a true American, a figure of grit, pluck, and resolve. ...