‘That Radiant Rascal’: Week of June 19th, 1920

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had an announcement that was a “sensation”: the “two of the most famous film folk in the world” planned to costar in a picture.

That’s exactly what Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, who are now honeymooning together in London, intend to do, according to private advices received by friends of theirs here. So you see these two devoted ones won’t be separated even in the studio.

No, they’re not going to do a stroke of work while they’re abroad. But when they get home, they’re going to appear in a film version of Johnston McCully’s “The Curse of Capistrano,” published serially in a popular magazine.

However, it seems as if Doug may have rather the best of it, in a way, as he will play a dual role. But perhaps they’ll put enough of Mary in her own sweet person, to make up for Doug’s double impersonation.

As you probably know, those friends were misinformed about Pickford co-staring in Fairbanks’ next movie (she would have been fine as Lolita Pulido, but she needed to make her own films to keep their new company, United Artists, afloat), but the rest was correct. Renamed The Mark of Zorro, it went on to be a huge hit and a turning point in Fairbanks’ career.

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Fairbanks’ staff spilled the beans to Kingsley fast. According to his biographer Tracey Goessel, the newlyweds got on the boat to England on June 12th, and during the trip Pickford read McCully’s story, which his staff had recommended. She immediately saw that it was perfect for him. He trusted her judgment and wired instructions to buy it (he didn’t read it himself until they were on the train home from New York to Los Angeles).

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Opening night crowds were immense. Here’s Fairbanks leaving the show. (Exhibitor’s Herald, January 8, 1921)

After they returned in August, he got right to work and the movie debuted at the new Mission Theater in Los Angeles on December 1st (publicity wasn’t the only thing that moved quickly then). Kingsley didn’t get to review it; her editor Edwin Schallert kept the assignment for himself. Most of his piece was a description of the new theater. After five paragraphs of that, he got around to the movie, writing “It is a picture notable chiefly for its mystery and excitement, which carries the interest steadily. Fairbanks himself is seen in a role of moderate opportunities for his type. There is a good sweep of picturesqueness in the locale and setting which enriches.”

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Goessel points out that many of the ads didn’t leave anyone guessing about who was behind the mask. Marguerite De La Motte was his leading lady.

His dismissiveness wasn’t typical; for instance, Film Daily said “’Doug’ probably gives one of the best performances in his screen career” (December 5, 1920). The audience loved Zorro and it played at the Mission for over a month, at a time when most films stayed for a week.

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This ad is prettier.

He’d already begun to make another comedy, The Nut, but after that he made the adventure movies that he’s most famous for now, starting with The Three Musketeers.

Now Zorro is considered a classic. Fairbanks himself made a sequel in 1926 and it gets remade regularly. Fritzi Kramer reviewed and really enjoyed it in 2013.

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This week, Kingsley showed how a review of a Fairbanks movie ought to be written:

“Leave ‘em smiling when you say good-bye” is evidently the motto of that radiant rascal Doug Fairbanks. He made The Mollycoddle, which is on view at the Rialto this week, and then he went away on a honeymoon, giving those of us who see that last clever picture spasm of his every reason to wish he’d hurry back. Anybody who has an idea that Fairbanks is passing away professionally has only to go take a look at the line in front of the Rialto, and listen to the roars of joy issuing therefrom, to realize he’s got another guess coming.

Once again the comedian yanks comedy out of thrills and puts thrills into comedy…The Mollycoddle is itself vivid, high-power comedy, with something snappy doing every minute, and with a fresh background and droll ideas. There are some wild doings, too, so that at moments it appears like a sort of sublimated serial.

So the change in Fairbanks’ career wasn’t completely abrupt, other than the new costumes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tracey Goessel, First King of Hollywood, Chicago Review Press, 2016.

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