Silent movies are meant to be seen on the big screen and accompanied by an experienced organ player, but not even my parents saw them that way growing up in a dinky Illinois farming community. Ironically, a number of special event venues are cropping up today to offer an ultimate silent film forum that many Jazz Age people never experienced. As a pleasant diversion from the usual movie offerings in Phoenix, I checked out one of the infrequent "Silent Sundays" at the downtown Orpheum, a classic art deco theater complete with a wonderful Wulitzer organ, where the program this time were two oldies by Douglas Fairbanks—The Americano and The American Aristocracy.
Of course, I've heard of Douglas Fairbanks, one of the leading stars of his era, and have seen the usual clips from his star vehicles from the 1920's: The Three Musketeers, The Iron Mask, and The Thief of Bagdad. During his silent heyday, Fairbanks averaged nearly ten films a year, but I'd never seen a whole Fairbanks feature.
Just from the earlier two short 1916 features, it's easy to understand the reasons for his popularity. Fairbanks personifies screen charisma, dominating every scene he's in. An excellent athlete, he has pronounced flair when leaping chairs and walls, so his physical abilities match the silent era perfectly. Fairbanks' easy smile signifies confidence, and his slightly cynical humor pokes fun of the pretentious�and he always gets the girl. He's the All-American guy.
In The American Aristocracy Fairbanks plays Cassius Lee, an entomologist on the grounds of a snobby New England resort in search of a rare caterpillar. In pre-World War I America, the noveau riche buy their way into upper crust society, and Fairbanks (with the aid of some satirical inter-cards) does his best to puncture their pretenses, foiling a pirating conspiracy and winning the heart of the heroine Geraldine Hicks (Jewel Carmine), daughter of the U.S. hat-pin king.
A simple melodrama in which Fairbanks directly contrasts with Geraldine's villainous pursuer, the film provides formulaic entertainment. Due to similar build and clothing, Fairbanks essentially acts as his competitor's stunt man to win her favor, wildly driving a Stanley Steamer like a NASCAR driver and daring to fly a hydroplane for the first time. True to form, the script calls for numerous dazzling leaps and falls that normally would call for real stunt men, but Fairbanks does his own. Also famous for his free-wheeling physical comedy, Fairbanks' comic timing is best exemplified in a scene where he contemplates another trademark impossible leap before finding a much easier solution.
American Aristocracy represents a nostalgic time in American cinema, ruled by silent stars who played themselves in role after role that produced a plethora of light entertainment and good old American values. Douglas Fairbanks personifies the American ideal here—the robust, good natured, righteous, regular guy with a healthy dose of humor. It does make me wonder how bad his acting voice was, however. With as much screen charisma as he demonstrates in this 1916 melodrama, why did he fail to make the transition to Talkies?