Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on November 19, 2015
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.
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.
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.
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