Life Advice from Douglas Fairbanks

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TCM’s evening programming tonight spotlights silent film star and original action hero Douglas Fairbanks. If you tune in you can catch him in The Good Bad Man (1916), The Half-Breed (1916), The Mark of Zorro (1920), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), The Black Pirate (1926) and The Private Life of Don Juan (1924) beginning 8PM EST and 5PM PST. Coincidentally, I recently finished reading a great new biography about Fairbanks titled The First King of Hollywood by author Tracey Gossel. The book is one of the best actor biographies I’ve read in recent years and provides an extensively researched, extremely thoughtful and informative look at one of the biggest Hollywood stars of the silent era.

I learned a lot about Fairbanks from Gossel’s book that I didn’t know before. One of the more memorable takeaways was discovering his progressive views on race that greatly impacted the films he made. I was also impressed by the depth of his lifelong friendship with Charlie Chaplin and disappointed to learn that his relationship with his son (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) was so strained. In addition, it was a treat to discover how he expressed himself with the written word in passionate love letters to his wife and fellow screen icon, Mary Pickford. And I was even more surprised to learn that Fairbanks had written some inspirational self-help books in association with his friend and personal secretary, Kenneth Davenport.

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In The First King of Hollywood, Gossel describes these books as “directed at young adults” and goes on to say “While the language is of the sort found in second-rate youth literature at the time, the ideas are pure Fairbanks . . . The percussive quality of Fairbanks’s speech survives in these little homiletic tomes, as does the simplistic, albeit enthusiastic, advice.”

I agree with the author on all counts. The ideas expressed in the books are often ridiculously simplistic and there is a lot of focus on physical fitness, which preoccupied much of Fairbanks’s time. The actor’s fixation with exercise and maintaining his health is typical of someone whose career relies on him being physically fit but it’s also a rather modern approach to living that predates our current preoccupation with good health and Hollywood’s obsession with body image. In retrospect, Fairbanks’s health advice seems somewhat ironic considering we now know he died at the young age of 52 following a heart attack. It’s an unfortunate reminder that despite our best efforts death is unavoidable and waits for no one.

Fairbanks was also a rather prudish God-fearing man who didn’t drink alcohol until late in life and stressed the importance of maintaining “wholesome” thoughts while seeking out “wholesome” entertainment. He seemed to reject the darker aspects of our existence which comes across as naïve and self-serving at times. Despite my criticisms and misgivings, I enjoyed reading Fairbanks’s books and they’re interesting time capsules that present a fascinating portrait of a hugely successful and powerful Hollywood star from another era.

After combing through Fairbanks’s first book, Laugh and Live (originally published in 1917) I decided to collect some of my favorite pieces of life advice from Douglas Fairbanks to share with readers. Some of his advice might seem rather outdated today but many of Fairbanks’s ideas can be applied to modern life and will sound familiar to anyone who has watched an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show or read a best-selling self-help book such as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People.

This post might be an interesting companion piece to last weeks Fellini: The Cartoonist that focused on the director’s illustrations. Maybe I should have titled this Fairbanks: The Self-Help Guru instead? Fairbanks’s books reportedly sold well and earned the actor some extra income so lots of people were following his advice or at the very least reading his books.

There is one thing in this good old world that is positively sure—happiness is for all who strive to be happy—and those who laugh are happy. Everybody is eligible—you—me—the other fellow. Happiness is fundamentally a state of mind—not a state of body. And mind controls. Indeed it is possible to stand with one foot on the inevitable “banana peel” of life with both eyes peering into the Great Beyond, and still be happy, comfortable, and serene—if we will even so much as smile. It’s all a state of mind, I tell you—and I’m sure of what I say. That’s why I have taken up my fountain pen. – Douglas Fairbanks, from Laugh and Live by (1917)

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Experience is the real teacher, but the matter of how we are going to succeed in life should not be left to ordinary chance while we are waiting for things to happen. Our first duty is to prepare ourselves against untoward experiences, and that is best done by taking stock of our mental and physical assets at the very outset of our journey. What weaknesses we possess are excess baggage to be thrown away and that is our reason for taking stock so early. It is likely to save us from riding to a fall. – Douglas Fairbanks, from Laugh and Live by (1917)

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In taking stock of ourselves we should not forget that fear plays a large part in the drama of failure. That is the first thing to be dropped. Fear is a mental deficiency susceptible of correction, if taken in hand before it gains an ascendency over us. Fear comes with the thought of failure. Everything we think about should have the possibility of success in it if we are going to build up courage. – Douglas Fairbanks, from Laugh and Live by (1917)

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Nothing brings a greater self-reward than a service done in an hour of need, or a favor granted during a day’s grind. The generous man who climbs to the top of the ladder helps many others on their way. The more he does for someone else the more he does for himself. The stronger he becomes—the greater his influence in his community. Doing things for others may not bring in bankable dividends but it does bring in happiness. Such actions scorn a higher reward. We have only to try out the plan to learn the truth for ourselves. A good place to begin is at home. Then, the office, or wherever life leads us. And in doing these things we will laugh as we go along—we will laugh and get the most out of living. – Douglas Fairbanks, from Laugh and Live by (1917)

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The world loves the man with an open mind. This is the usual spirit of the progressive citizen. He wants to know—and by reason of his accessibility knowledge is brought to him. No one cares to take up the task of informing the egotist who already knows it all. Such is his inherent cussedness that we would rather let him warp in the oven of his own half-baked knowledge. Life is too short to waste our time in educating him. – Douglas Fairbanks, from Laugh and Live by (1917)

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We all have friends who are pretty well along in years by virtue of their carefully planned physical training, plus their cheerful dispositions. They are as sprightly and companionable as though they were many years younger. We should come to know early in life what a large part good humor plays in physical fitness. In previous chapters hearty laughter was extolled as one of the very best of exercises. It is an organizer in itself and opens up the heart and lungs as nothing else will do. It makes the blood go galloping all through the system. It is one of the best automatic blood circulators in the business. – Douglas Fairbanks, from Laugh and Live by (1917)

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The problem of life is to fill our days with sunshine. In so doing we shall find that the “little graces” are those which will lend us the most help. Tiny favors extended, words of encouragement, courtesies of all sorts, unselfish work carried out in an open manner, true friendships and love, a hearty laugh, a sincere appreciation of the other fellow’s struggle to keep his head above water, the conscientious carrying out of all tasks assigned us—these are our helpmates and they are the products of our physical and mental equipment. Through these we come into our knack of detecting friends among those who are the salt of the earth. – Douglas Fairbanks, from Laugh and Live by (1917)

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We must make our own opportunities otherwise we are children of circumstance. What becomes of us is a matter of guesswork. We have no hand in compelling our own future. Diffidence is a species of cowardice. It causes a man’s courage to ooze out at his toes faster than it comes into his heart. Such men often have big ideas, but having no confidence in themselves they lack the power to compel confidence in others. When they go into the presence of a man of personality they lose their self-confidence and all of the pent-up courage which drove them forward flies out at the window. Their weakness multiplies with each failure until finally “the jig is up”—their impotency is complete. – Douglas Fairbanks, from Laugh and Live by (1917)

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This quality of self-strength and self-dependence is not confined to any race of people, but in nations where personal liberty survives initiative is at its best. Somehow, whenever the emergency, the man comes forth to do and dare. The great world war, still raging as these lines are penned, has furnished untold thousands of examples of courageous action—-enough to last until the end of human affairs, but they will go on and on in multiplied form, each day’s score superseding those of the day before. It would be bully to know that we are doing our share in safeguarding the supply of Initiative and Self-reliance needed in this world. – Douglas Fairbanks, from Laugh and Live by (1917)

If you’d like to read more of Douglas Fairbanks’s life advice you can find free ebook copies of Laugh and Live as well as Making Life Worth While (originally published in 1918) at the Project Gutenberg website.

3 Responses Life Advice from Douglas Fairbanks
Posted By doug n : November 20, 2015 4:27 am

You can hear echoes of Theodore Roosevelt’s doctrine of “the strenuous life” in Fairbanks’ philosophy.

Posted By Mitch Farish : November 20, 2015 2:57 pm

Thanks, Kimberly for posting such a beautiful blog. I’m looking forward to reading The Fist King of Hollywood. I didn’t know until reading a review that Doug was so ahead-of-his-time in his attitudes on race. I’ve always been fascinated by his relationship with Charlie Stevens, the grandson of the Apache chief Geronimo, and wondered how they met. He’s been in just about every Fairbanks movie I have seen, and I was wondering if I would see see him in the two films from 1916 last night. Sure enough, Stevens was in The Good Bad Man.

Posted By Mitch Farish : November 20, 2015 10:59 pm

Of course I meant the “First” King of Hollywood.

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