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The Douglas Fairbanks Collection

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy the The Douglas Fairbanks Collection DVD.

What makes Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. so cool?

Just take a look at his 1920 feature film The Mark of Zorro. He joyously swashbuckles his way through the movie while dressed as Zorro, whipping his sword at bad guys, leaping over tables and hedges and generally moving like a dart with wings.

But look at him again when he dresses as his mild-mannered alter ego, Don Diego Vega. He slumps around, yawning, performing lame magic tricks and thinking he's the center of attention. But he can't help leaving others in the dust. When visiting his would-be fiancée, he takes off his hat but keeps ahold of the elastic string. Whenever anyone tries to take it, he casually lets it bounce back into his hands. It's a gag worthy of Keaton, and Fairbanks pulls it off with gorgeous nonchalance.

Fairbanks was a seemingly carefree, dazzlingly casual performer who grinned as if he was having the time of his life (and he probably was). In real life, he was a superior businessman, forming his own production company as well as joining Chaplin, Griffith and his wife Mary Pickford to form United Artists. He wrote his own scenarios under an assumed name and spaced his films out to one a year so as to build up public appetite.

The Mark of Zorro was his first swashbuckling feature film after a series of low comedies, and it has already been released on a fine DVD by Kino. Now Kino presents a lovely Fairbanks box set featuring six films in all.

Included as a second feature on the Zorro disc is the film's sequel, the 1925 Don Q, Son of Zorro. Fairbanks stars as his own son, this time a sharp-dressed dandy, handy with a bullwhip. He falls in love with Mary Astor (later in The Maltese Falcon) and is wrongly accused of murder. An aged Zorro (Fairbanks in age makeup) comes to the rescue to help out his son. It lacks the spice of the original Zorro legend, but it's even faster and more streamlined than its predecessor.

The Three Musketeers (1921) is probably the box set's weakest entry. It hadn't quite developed the scale of the later pictures, and Fairbanks had to share the spotlight with the three title characters. Moreover, Kino's disc appears to have been mastered at the wrong projection speed; the images move a little too fast. The disc also comes with no extras, but it's still an exciting, well-paced picture in comparison to many others of its day and it was a huge success.

Afterwards, Fairbanks had enough clout to put together the most expensive movie of its time, Robin Hood (1922), (though Erich von Stroheim may have spent just as much on his Foolish Wives the same year). It's by far the best and most joyous Robin Hood movie ever made; beside Fairbanks, even Errol Flynn appears to be standing still. This Robin Hood even explains why, if Robin Hood is such a sterling fighter, didn't he go off to fight in the Crusades with King Richard? Director Allan Dwan had worked with Fairbanks on several two-reelers, and would go on to direct his last silent film, The Iron Mask (1929). Dwan would continue working, making "B" pictures up until the 1960s, and finishing up with something like 500 films on his resume before he died. But Robin Hood is arguably his masterpiece.

All of these films are wonderful, but unquestionably the greatest of them all was The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Director Raoul Walsh and art designer William Cameron Menzies spent over two million dollars (topping the previous record set by Robin Hood) to build gigantic sets and design intricate special effects to tell the story of a strapping pickpocket who falls in love with a princess and must bring back the most priceless object he can find to win her hand. The immense space -- both vertical and horizontal -- in this film finally seemed enough to contain Fairbanks' sheer gusto. He really has room to stretch out here. Not to mention the amazing sequences in which he flies on a magic carpet and battles a huge dragon. Anna May Wong nearly steals the picture from him in her few scenes as a slinky, sexy handmaiden. Kino's new Thief of Bagdad improves on Image Entertainment's previous disc with its excellent orchestral score and a host of extras: an introduction by Orson Welles, 20 minutes of outtakes, images from the souvenir booklet, and clips from two earlier silent films Paul Leni's Waxworks and Georges Melies' Arabian Nights, which clearly inspired Fairbanks.

Finally, we have The Black Pirate (1926). For it, Fairbanks scaled back, turning in his shortest and least extravagant film. Instead he concentrated on the use of two-strip Technicolor, which was still a novelty. A lesser filmmaker would have simply saturated his film with it, but Fairbanks carefully layered the colors to better depict the story. The only original tale of the six films, it has Fairbanks as a sailor out to avenge the death of his father by joining a band of pirates and bringing them down from the inside. Historian Rudy Behlmer provides a commentary track and narrates 19 minutes of outtakes.

March 18, 2004

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