Making the Leap: Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Talkies

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF DON JUAN, Merle Oberon, Douglas Fairbanks, 1934

To view The Private Life of Don Juan click here.

Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. made his last movie in 1934. The Private Life of Don Juan was, quite accidentally, a fitting farewell to one of the first megastars of the movie industry. It wasn’t clear while filming it that it would be Fairbanks’ last movie but its story, one of a once vigorous and dashing romantic reduced to seeing a physician because he just doesn’t feel he has it in him anymore, fell in line with Fairbanks’s real life condition. He was only 51 but already feeling the effects of decades of chain-smoking, drinking and general living life to its fullest. He could no longer do a lot of the athletic work he had so easily mastered in his early career. Better said, he could, but it exhausted him. But he was also exhausted by the movies themselves, particularly sound movies. He never quite took to them and despite his stardom and seemingly smooth transition to sound, never quite felt at home.

The Private Life of Don Juan was directed by Alexander Korda, a director I’ve covered more than a few times here, and he was surely hoping for a big hit given it not only starred Fairbanks, but starred him in a role cut from the same clothe as his past movie characterizations. Unfortunately, it didn’t even break the top ten for box office that year and, given his health, Fairbanks had little incentive to continue. A part of the problem was the types of movie Fairbanks chose once the talkies arrived. The Private Life of Don Juan is a light film, to be sure, but there’s nothing wrong with a trivial entertainment, especially for a world mired in the Great Depression and looking for escape. The problem was that it was a bit old fashioned at the time of its release, a problem that beset John Barrymore as well, as he continuously opted for stage adaptations to film over new and exciting material written specifically for the silver screen.

When one watches Gunga Din from 1939, starring none other than Fairbanks’ son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, one gets a feel for the type of movies Fairbanks, Sr. should have been going for. Of course, there aren’t many Gunga Dins out there and no one expects a movie like that to be available for the making any old time it’s needed. But seeing how fast the movie world tracked forward after the advent of sound, and observing some of the biggest hits from the very year this was released, like It Happened One Night and The Thin Man, it was clear that the kind of swashbuckling entertainments that Fairbanks excelled at needed some upgrading. That upgrading would happen but with a different actor at the helm, Errol Flynn.

The very next year, in 1935, Flynn had one of his earliest successes with Captain Blood and it is a great example of how you transfer the swashbuckling film to the sound era. It is filled with excitement and action, yes, but a quick wit and rapid fire scenes. And not so much athleticism that it required an athlete to do it. In fact, there’s not a whole lot of athleticism going on for Flynn in the film at all. Fairbanks still looked young enough and handsome enough for the job and probably could have done it. But to put it bluntly, Errol Flynn was made for sound movies and Fairbanks was not.

PrivateLifeofDonJuan_1934_2

Fairbanks simply didn’t have the right charisma for sound film and given how charismatic he was, it’s proof that the two different types of film required quite different talents. No one doubted that Fairbanks had charisma to burn in his silent movies but few actors made the leap to sound with ease. If an actor didn’t successfully go from silents to sound, the excuse usually given was that their voice wasn’t good enough but this was actually pretty rare. Clara Bow sounded just fine. So did John Gilbert, despite the rumors. True, some European actors opted out of Hollywood due to their thick accents, but for the most part, the difference from silents to sound wasn’t about the voice, it was about the charisma — sound film charisma.

Some had the right kind for both; Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Ronald Colman being among the most successful. But for others, it was a one way street. Gary Cooper may have started out doing some bit work in the silents, but it was the talkies that made him a star. Clark Gable? He had the looks for the silent screen but without his voice it’s just not the same. Cagney, Davis, Laughton and others were obviously made for the sound screen and it felt like it was made for them. Spencer Tracy? Sound all the way. His line readings are everything. With Tracy you get very little facial emoting. It’s all in the voice and how he uses it.

So Douglas Fairbanks was probably right to call it quits after The Private Life of Don Juan. He was still handsome and dashing but the movies that made him famous were a relic of another time. Director Korda does a great job of framing much of the movie like a silent film (we only see Don Juan in shadowy silhouettes for his first several appearances) and photographs Fairbanks with love and affection. It’s a fitting and enjoyable swan song for the old swashbuckler. His presence was better suited for a different kind of medium, and to his credit, he got that and went out with style and grace.

Greg Ferrara

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15 Responses Making the Leap: Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Talkies
Posted By Doug : September 24, 2017 3:06 pm

“No one doubted that Fairbanks had charisma to burn in his silent movies but few actors made the leap to sound with ease.”
This ‘charisma’ stuff can be potent.
From the dictionary: “compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others.”
It’s more than physical attractiveness, such as saying about someone that ‘the camera loves them’.
Fairbanks was way before my time, but a good example from our current crop of actors, for me, at least, would be Alyson Hannigan.
I first saw her back in 1988 in “My Stepmother Is an Alien” and was struck by how nice and charming she was in her role as the daughter of Dan Aykroyd’s character.
She continues to have an innate likeability,charisma, through Buffy and How I Met Your Mother and now hosting Pen and Teller’s “Fool Us”.
Was Fairbanks limited by the audience’s expectations of his image? Or by his own expectations?
Many a handsome young star accepted the inevitable, moving from leading man to character actor status.
Perhaps Fairbanks decided to step away from the screen so that he would only be remembered as the dashing young man who buckled swashes and won maidens fair.

Posted By Mitch Farish : September 25, 2017 6:48 pm

“No one doubted that Fairbanks had charisma to burn in his silent movies but few actors made the leap to sound with ease.”

Boy, what a myth! More than just the few mentioned made the “leap” quite easily. When MGM made Grand Hotel, ALL the actors in that film were big stars in the silents. The reason some like Fairbanks and Swanson didn’t last in the talkies is that they had already had long careers and would have retired soon anyway. Clara Bow was still a potent draw at the box office until scandal derailed her. She made a brilliant comeback but retired to raise a family. Schizophrenia, did the rest. Some silent actors who couldn’t make it in silents found making talkies easier than believable pantomime. Carol Lombard and Jean Arthur come to mind.

Fairbanks screen persona was so dependent upon his acrobatics that his appeal had already started to slip in the silent era.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 25, 2017 8:07 pm

Doug, I think Fairbanks most definitely wanted to leave first and foremost because of his health but had he been in perfect health he probably still would have retired for the reasons you say. Why fade into obscurity when you can leave youngish and still a star?

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 25, 2017 8:25 pm

Mitch, it is certainly a myth that silent actors couldn’t make it in sound. So glad I never actually said that. I said few made it with ease. Not few made it, few made it with ease. I take full responsibility for the nebulousness of that statement but I stand behind its intent. Hell, Chaplin had to be dragged into the sound era kicking and screaming. And if John Barrymore doing dusty stage adaptations that never matched his draw in the twenties is “making the leap with ease,” I stand corrected.

Also, Gloria Swanson didn’t retire thanks to a long career, she was still in her twenties when sound came in. Her twenties! And it was only after making not one or two but six sound films that did next to nothing that she bowed out.

Then you mention Clara Bow which is odd since I mention her as making it with her voice – If an actor didn’t successfully go from silents to sound, the excuse usually given was that their voice wasn’t good enough but this was actually pretty rare. Clara Bow sounded just fine. So did John Gilbert, despite the rumors. So, yes, I agree with you, and myself in the piece: Clara did fine.

Then I even mention that there were actors who were fine in both – Some had the right kind for both; Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Ronald Colman.

I’m talking about different charisma in actors from silent and sound. Here’s a good example: Janet Gaynor. Not only was she a huge silent star but she succeeded in sound as well. To a degree. She even got a Best Actress nomination for A Star is Born. But if anyone tries to argue that Janet Gaynor had the same presence in sound productions as she had in the silents, or more than the Katharine Hepburns and Irene Dunnes, they’re just reaching.

That to me is the thrust of the piece, that different actors were suited differently to the two different mediums, silents and sound.

Posted By Doug : September 25, 2017 9:29 pm

This post got me thinking about two of the best whose transition to sound was graceful as their voices perfectly fit their personas-just now grabbed “Bacon Grabbers” off the shelf and laughed as Stan and Ollie attempted to retrieve a radio from Edgar Kennedy. It may be silent, but you can already hear their voices as you watch. Jean Harlow popping in as Edgar’s wife at the end-she didn’t need sound, either.
Two of my favorites who also had great charisma-Myrna Loy and William Powell. Silent or Spoken, they were perfect.

Posted By Mitch Farish : September 26, 2017 9:20 am

Greg,

Please forgive me for getting so worked up and cutting to the chase before reading your whole essay. Yes, it’s about time that the myth about Clara Bow’s Brooklyn accent was laid to rest. Ben Mankiewicz never tires of telling us how few stars made the transition to sound.

But I still think there is a fundamental problem with your piece. When dialogue came in, the problem wasn’t with charisma but technology. Nobody had an easy time with the new technology – not the silent stars with different skills, not the stage actors who were supposed to have the skills to make dialogue work on the screen.

And I’m not sure what “new and exciting material written specifically for the silver screen” there was in 1929. The fact is that the movie world didn’t track forward fast at all after the advent of sound. In ’28 it was still not certain there would be a complete change to talkies. The Jazz Singer itself was not a talkie at all, except for Jolsyn’s adlibs.

As for Swanson, by ’29, when it finally was decided to end silent production the following year, she was 30 – not old for anyone else, but old for a movie actress. She had been in movies for 15 years and couldn’t play those ingenue roles anymore. She was too old to play the lead in her last silent Queen Kelly. The same goes for Norma Talmadge, Blanche Sweet … the list goes on.

As for Gary Cooper, his big breakthrough wasn’t in Victor Fleming’s stiff talking version of the Virginian (1929) – hardly “new and exciting material” – but in the silents, playing opposite Clara Bow in Children of Divorce (1927), and opposite Colleen Moore in Lilac Time (1928).

William K. Everson has said it wasn’t until ’32 that Hollywood got the bugs worked out. It took half a decade of struggling to make movies move again after talking had slowed them to a crawl. Finally the way was clear for the actors still young enough to benefit from the improvements – the Hepburns, the Jean Arthurs, the Carole Lombards, etc.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 26, 2017 3:25 pm

Mitch,

Thanks for coming back. I got worked up too but the fact is, you defend your stance much better than I do mine. While I agree, even now, that they are types of charisma that work better for silent and others for sound, like Janet Gaynor who worked better in silents and Gary Cooper who worked better in sound, your second comment makes a strong case that it was simply a changing of the guard that happened to be coinciding with the dreaded early sound years you mention.

I don’t think I’ve ever really given that as much weight as I should have. It does make a lot of sense though. Also, I would surmise that there were plenty of silent stars, Gloria Swanson probably among them, who felt that the movies had died when they got sound, or at the very least, hadn’t improved much and, thus, it made it easier to call it quits.

I remember back in my college days reading Panofsky’s essay on film style written back in 1934. One of his conclusions is that sound had added nothing to the medium that improved or otherwise enhanced its form. I disagree but that’s because I can look back on Citizen Kane’s use of sound, or The Birds, but M had already been released. Maybe Panofsky didn’t see it. The point is, it was 1934 and at that time there was probably little film work to convince someone that sound had done the art of cinema a service.

Posted By Emgee : September 26, 2017 3:52 pm

“The point is, it was 1934 and at that time there was probably little film work to convince someone that sound had done the art of cinema a service.”

Ok, my time to get worked up. (Well, not really)

I’d say that by that time there had already been plenty of movies made that proved that sound could add an enormous amount to the enjoyment of movies. What about the Marx Brothers? Laurel and Hardy? Lubitsch? the Busby Berkeley musicals? I could go on, but what would be the point. It’s like color or b and w photographs; both are equally valid, but just different ways of artistic expression.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 26, 2017 4:01 pm

I agree, definitely. I just meant that given the clunkiness of early sound cinema, it could easily be seen as not having added much for someone like Panosfky who saw film as a purely visual medium in which sound was an intruder. That’s why a movie like M should have shown someone like him that the possibilities of sound were a lot more than just dialogue or music. He was primarily an art critic and this was the only time he ever delved into cinema.

Posted By Emgee : September 26, 2017 4:08 pm

“this was the only time he ever delved into cinema.”

Probably just as well; no disrespect, i know he is a highly regarded art critic, but he was probably more used to art that didn’t make any sound.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 26, 2017 4:28 pm

At the time, I remember being quite bothered by his assessment of animation. Now, I may be remembering this incorrectly (college was a long, long time ago on a campus far, far away) but he argued that unless animation was animating inanimate objects or imbuing human characteristics in animals, it was futile. In other words, he was not impressed by cartoons that had human figures in them because if that’s the case, why not just film actors? I found the whole idea ludicrous, that animation should be so limited.

Posted By George : September 26, 2017 4:34 pm

“Mitch, it is certainly a myth that silent actors couldn’t make it in sound.”

That myth was perpetrated by writers who hadn’t seen many (or any) early talkies. To be fair, those movies weren’t easy to see for many years. It wasn’t until the advent of home video and TCM (and TCM’s forerunner, TNT) that these movies of 1928-31 were dragged out of the vaults and shown again.

What I found was that many early talkies were NOT crude, and most of the actors had fine voices. John Gilbert didn’t have a high-pitched voice, and Clara Bow’s Brooklyn accent was not too thick. She played working-class characters, so the accent worked for her.

Of course, not everyone made the transition. Try watching Mae Murray in PEACOCK ALLEY (1930) sometime. Her performance, and the film itself, are embarrassingly bad. Not surprisingly, she retired a year later, and director Marcel De Sano never made another English-language feature.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 27, 2017 12:44 pm

George, I think Singin’ in the Rain was probably a pretty strong player in the perpetuation of the myth. Not that it ever intended to be, after all, only one character in the movie has a problem with her voice. But still, it was such a popular and great entertainment that I think a lot of people saw it and just assumed that that was the case all across Hollywood with all kinds of actors.

Never seen PEACOCK ALLEY but kind of want to now.

Posted By George : September 27, 2017 5:30 pm

Greg, PEACOCK ALLEY has to be seen to be believed. It shows an actress using silent film techniques (“emoting”) in a talkie and, well, failing pretty miserably.

Mae Murray reportedly sued the film company, Tiffany, for making an incompetent movie that sabotaged her career.

You can watch it on YouTube.

Posted By Doug : September 27, 2017 6:30 pm

Thank you, George-I watched enough of Peacock Alley to see what you and Greg were talking about-yup. Pretty bad.

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