The Black Pirate (1926)

Through the Internet Archive, you can follow Douglas Fairbanks’ career pretty well. From one of his earliest bit parts in The Martyrs of the Alamo (1915), through to his last leading role in The Private Life of Don Juan (1934), you can follow almost every important turn of his rich and interesting life in Hollywood. Pretty much in the middle, you will find The Black Pirate, often considered to be one of his greatest.

Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate (1926)

The Black Pirate has all the trademarks of Fairbanks’ romantic adventure epics of the 1920s. There are splendid costumes, magnificent sets, swashbuckling action, breathtaking acrobatics. There are also most of the clichés you would expect from any good pirate movie. Hidden treasure, mutiny, cannon fire, walking the plank. Basically the same kind of stuff you will find in the latest Pirates of the Caribbean, only Fairbanks did it first. And in some ways just as good. In fact, a few unique scenes have never (to my knowledge) been duplicated, such as the crew of seamen swimming underwater. Marvellous stuff!

The film, of course, was not created out of a vacuum. It has been said that Fairbanks was mainly inspired by Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (1903; also available at the Internet Archive).

The Black Pirate was one of the first films to be entirely shot in colour, albeit a limited two-colour process. Unfortunately, the copy at the Internet Archive is black and white with some tinting. Also, the IA copy is cursed with a very bad score, consisting of random classical music.

This film is best enjoyed by lovers of the pirate genre. The Black Pirate stands at the portal of everything that followed, and it is still good enough to compete with the best. If you care to spend the money, the DVD with restored colour is much preferable, but the IA copy is nevertheless enjoyable.

Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate (1926)

The Black Pirate
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Year: 1926
Running time: 1 h 23 min
Director: Albert Parker
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (640×480)
Soundtrack: Poor; random classical music
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (629 M)

The Iron Mask (1929)

Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Three Musketeers has become one of the most popular stories to adapt onto the silver screen. By 1920, there had already been a number of adaptations. Douglas Fairbanks took film swashbuckling to new heights with The Mark of Zorro, and he was to follow it up in 1921 with The Three Musketeers, which became the first classic film of the tale.

The version of The Three Musketeers available at the Internet Archive, unfortunately, has fairly poor image quality and has no soundtrack. But before the 1920s was over, Fairbanks had made a sequel, The Iron Mask, which is just as good.

Douglas Fairbanks as d'Artagnan and Marguerite De La Motte as Constance Bonacieux in The Iron Mask (1929)

In The Mark of Zorro, Fairbanks had introduced the world to the swashbuckling adventure romance genre of film. It was still pretty rough by modern standards, but with The Three Musketeers he really broke new ground. This type of film, with a historical setting, lavish costumes and majestic sets, was something he would continue to do until the end of the silent era, after which he more or less gave up on film making. Some of his great movies include Robin Hood (1922) and The Thief of Bagdad (1924).

The Iron Mask was to become his last silent film, and one of the last major silent productions of any kind. Though it was made mainly as a silent, there were originally a couple of talking sequences and a score with synchronized sound effects. However, the original score has never been completely restored, and the version at the Internet Archive, along with several similar ones, is effectively silent, with a soundtrack of classical music. (A version with partly restored soundtrack was released on DVD some years ago.) Yet another version was released in 1952; it was somewhat cut, but with an added introduction and a narrative track by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. That version is also available from the Internet Archive, but I personally do not like the narration, so I prefer the original, even without the sound.

The Iron Mask, along with Fairbanks’ other adventure films from the 1920s, still hold up well. Not only are they impressive in scope and well produced, but Fairbanks was also a good actor, and his athletic stunts continue to amaze almost 100 years later.

A curious and little-known fact is that The Iron Mask was in fact the third time that Douglas Fairbanks played d’Artagnan. In addition to The Three Musketeers, he also played the French adventurer in a brief prelude to the 1917 comedy A Modern Musketeer.

This film is best enjoyed after having first seen The Three Musketeers. Fans are divided regarding which is the better film. I personally prefer The Iron Mask.

One for all and all for one: Tiny Sandford as Porthos, Douglas Fairbanks as d'Artagnan, Leon Bary as Athos and Gino Corrado as Aramis in The Iron Mask (1929)

The Iron Mask
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Year: 1929
Running time: 1 h 41 min
Director: Allan Dwan
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; classical music synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.1 G)

The Private Life of Don Juan (1934)

Douglas Fairbanks was, first and foremost, an actor of the silent era. Like many other major silent stars, he failed to make the transit to sound film. He made only a handful of talkies, and it is symptomatic that his very last one, The Private Life of Don Juan, was filmed and produced in England.

Merle Oberon and Douglas Fairbanks in The Private Life of Don Juan (1934)

The Private Life of Don Juan was directed by Alexander Korda, and is typical of Korda in the sense that very little can be taken for granted. Korda makes effective use of shadows and angles, and even though some scenes may be a bit overworked, they are nevertheless excellent examples of film artistry that can be reproduced in no other medium.

The story, briefly, is that the aging Don Juan is returning to Seville, but a young admirer and impersonator is killed, leaving everyone to believe Don Juan dead. The aged womanizer sees his chance to lead a life in peace, but finds that he can never quite live up to the legend of himself.

The film’s title was probably an attempt to capitalize on the previous year’s success with The Private Life of Henry VIII, also directed by Korda.

This film is best enjoyed for Douglas Fairbanks in his very last role. Talking or silent, Fairbanks still in his, relatively speaking, old age of 51 had enormous sex appeal and he could do acrobatics and stunts that most men half his age would envy him. He also showed his great qualities as an actor, and that he could handle spoken dialogue just as well as the exaggerated body language of a silent.

Douglas Fairbanks in The Private Life of Don Juan (1934)

The Private Life of Don Juan
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Year: 1934
Running time: 1 h 27 min
Director: Alexander Korda
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (698 M)

Robin Hood (1922)

The origins of the Robin Hood legend goes back to mediaeval times, and is shrouded in the veils of time. Robin may or may not have been a historical person, and he may or may not have been a rebellious fighter for the justice of the poor. Side characters such as Little John and Will Scarlet may or may not have been part of the original story, whereas Friar Tuck, Alan-A-Dale and Lady Marian are probably later additions.

By 1922, Douglas Fairbanks was making great leaps in the advancement of filmmaking. Two years before, he had made The Mark of Zorro, the first true romantic adventure movie, and in 1921 he followed it up spectacularly with The Three Musketeers. This year it was time for the making of the next classic movie adventure, Robin Hood.

Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922)

While Fairbanks’ Robin Hood was not the first screen version of the character, it was the first feature-length film, and it seems to have been an important step in bringing together many of the characteristics of the modern Robin Hood.

Many accounts associate Robin Hood with Robert of Locksley, a historical character, though it is by no means proven that he has any real connection with the Robin Hood of legend. The early accounts are in agreement, however, that Robin Hood was a yeoman, a free man below the nobility in status. Fairbanks, however, makes Robin into one of King Richard’s most trusted advisers, before voluntarily becoming an outlaw in order to better be able to rebel against Prince John. In this version, Robin Hood is the Earl of Huntingdon, an identity that was ultimately derived from a 17th century play.

One of the most influential Robin Hood tales in popular culture is Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe. Fairbanks shows that he is influenced by Scott’s work, not only by the Lionheart connection, but even more clearly by having King Richard appear as an anonymous knight after his return to England.

Robin Hood remains an excellent picture, over 90 years after its premiere. The sets are splendid and majestic. In fact, the mediaeval halls and castles were never so spectacular in real life as they are in Hollywood. Fairbanks weaves legend and fairy tale, and he does so with an elegance that few later Robin Hood accounts can match.

This film is best enjoyed for Fairbanks’ athletic version of Robin Hood. There are a good many nice stunts, especially towards the end of the movie.

Douglas Fairbanks as Earl of Huntingdon and Enid Bennett as Lady Marian in Robin Hood (1922)

Robin Hood
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Year: 1922
Running time: 2 h 12 min
Director: Allan Dwan
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.7 G)

The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Depending on what sources you care to trust, the masked hero Zorro turns 95 either tomorrow or nine days ago. And while he would seem to be as vital as ever, he would probably not have become famous at all, if not for the film The Mark of Zorro.

Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro and Robert McKim as Capitán Ramón in The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Zorro was the brain child of one Johnston McCulley, who invented the character and wrote a series of stories about him. But McCulley’s first story, quite frankly, was not very good, nor very interesting. His Zorro was just another masked Western hero, interesting only because of the catchy name (which was not originally in the title of the first story) and the secret dilettante identity (which, frankly, was not very well handled). The trademark Z, carved in the opponent’s flesh, was only added as a throwaway gimmick towards the end. Today, the story feels stale, not only becuase the writing was awkward even by pulp standards, but moreso because it reeks with sexism, racism and lack of historical accuracy.

No, Zorro would have been quickly forgotten, if it was not for Douglas Fairbanks. He was already a popular star in comedies (see my review of The Nut for more information), but wanted more. He was looking for a good franchise to turn into an adventure movie, and found what he was looking for in Zorro.

In adapting the story, Fairbanks changed the title to put focus on the hero and his signature. He also introduced many other dramatic improvements, such as: the black hat and cape; Don Diego’s horseback and fencing skills can be kept secret since he just returned from a long visit to Spain; the underground secret hideout (which was later to become the inspiration for Batman’s cave); the faithful servant who knows the secret; just to mention some of the changes that have come to stay with the character. And, to top it all off, he added his own set of acrobatic stunts and coreographed fights, something which has become characteristic of the entire adventure film genre.

Adventure movies had already existed for some years, especially within the Western subgenre. But the action in those movies was fairly simple, usually taking the shape of gunfights, fistfights or chases with relatively simple stunts and choreography.

In the comedies, on the other hand, geniuses such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton had started to experiment with more advanced stunts, using complex choreography and trick filming, among other things.

Douglas Fairbanks merged the two genres, and threw in his own magnetic screen personality as a bonus. This proved to be enormously successful, and has basically shaped the entire motion picture industry into what it is today.

This film is best enjoyed for its historical significance. The Mark of Zorro has had a tremendous impact upon Hollywood filmmaking. It has more or less by itself defined the entire romantic adventure subgenre, a genre which has not significantly altered during the past 94 years since its origins.

Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro and Marguerite De La Motte as Lolita Pulido in The Mark of Zorro (1920)

The Mark of Zorro
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Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 14 min
Director: Fred Niblo
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.3 G)

The Nut (1921)

When one talks about film comedies of the 1920s, there are mainly three big names to consider: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Had history taken a side step, however, a fourth name could have outshone them all: Douglas Fairbanks.

Fairbanks had already become the leading Hollywood comedian, and in fact the leading actor of any kind, in the late 1910s. Come the new decade, he was at a critical junction. His spectacular 1920 success The Mark of Zorro had been an experiment with a new kind of romantic adventure film, and needed to be followed up. During 1921, Fairbanks was to release two new films. The first was a traditional comedy, The Nut.

Douglas Fairbanks and Marguerite De La Motte in The Nut (1921)

Fairbanks plays an inventor who is in love with a beautiful woman. He tries to impress her by holding parties in benefit of her charity mission for homeless children, but things go all wrong and he even lands himself in jail before he can try to set things right.

Had The Nut been more tightly written and directed, it would perhaps have been the success normally associated with the Fairbanks name. Had that been the case, who knows but that the ever business-minded Fairbanks might have decided to take up the race with the great comedians. But even though The Nut is both fun and inventive, it was no match for the competition. The same year, Chaplin released The Kid, Keaton was perfecting his genius with films such as The Boat, and Lloyd developed his thrill comedies with Never Weaken. Given such competition, The Nut is simply not good enough. Instead, it appears to have been Fairbanks’ last silent comedy, as he chose to pioneer the romantic adventure genre instead.

This film is best enjoyed for its playfulness, such as the use of a parrot with a word balloon (a very rare device, indeed, in silents), the crazy morning routine inventions, or the corny litter which carries itself. In addition, it is said that Charlie Chaplin makes a cameo appearance (Chaplin and Fairbanks had been among the co-founders of United Artists two years previously). I missed him, but if you catch him I would appreciate a comment about where he appears.

Douglas Fairbanks in The Nut (1921)

The Nut
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Year: 1921
Running time: 1 h 15 min
Director: Theodore Reed
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (604 M)

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The Arabian Nights. The very name suggests oriental mystery. Genies, flying carpets, tale-spinning princesses and giant rocs. The truth, though, is that the cultural fingerprint of the Nights is just as much a product of Western imagination as of Eastern. Even the first European translator, Antoine Galland, interpreted the original texts in his own ways, and added considerably from other sources. Thus, most of the well-known stories, such as those about Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sindbad, are not even part of the original collection.

The influence of The Arabian Nights on European culture during the past three hundred years has been tremendous, and early film makers were not late to catch on. On the Internet Archive can be found a delightful little French film from as early as 1902 titled Ali Baba et les quarante voleurs.

Douglas Fairbanks and Julanne Johnston in The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The first feature-length production, however, was probably Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad. Fairbanks, at the time, was the most brightly shining star in Hollywood, and had more or less single-handedly created the costume adventure genre, as it still appears in Hollywood. Already, he had played Zorro, Robin Hood and d’Artagnan in interpretations that continue to define them to this day. No mean feat, that.

Unlike previous cinematic attempts, Fairbanks’ version of The Arabian Nights did not follow any of the original tales exactly. Instead, Fairbanks and his writers took bits and pieces from various tales and stitched them together with other elements, most notably the ever-present Hollywood romantic drama as the core of the story.

By and large, however, Fairbanks was still true to the original themes. The thief, although far from typical, exists as a heroic character in at least one tale, and the story of the poor boy who becomes a prince is of course from Aladdin. Most other major plot elements can also be traced to Galland’s version of the work, and archetypal objects, such as the flying carpet, exist more or less within their original dramatic contexts.

In the years following immediately after its release, however, The Thief of Bagdad was less important as an interpretation of The Arabian Nights. Its immediate effect was to reinforce Fairbanks’ status as “The King of Hollywood” and, in particular, the master of the costume adventure.

This film is best enjoyed for the magnificent sets, Fairbanks’ cat-like athletics, and his powerful screen personality. It is literally cinematic history in the making, and thoroughly enjoyable at that.

Snitz Edwards and Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The Thief of Bagdad
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Year: 1923
Running time: 2 h 20 min
Director: Raoul Walsh
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (320×240)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (629 M)