Recommended Reading

"Douglas Fairbanks"

by Jeffrey Vance (University of California Press, 2008 , 368 pages)

It's about time! Douglas Fairbanks' name certainly stands among the top five male stars of the silent era some 80 years after the genre saw its demise - and no one has truly paid adequate tribute to him . . . until now. The best Fairbanks biography up to this time has been Richard Schickel's His Picture in the Papers; A Speculation on Celebrity in America Based on the Life of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. As the title suggests, it is too analytical to suit the tastes of most silent movie fans who have yearned for a straightforward biography on the star. Highly regarded biographer Jeffrey Vance, who has collaborated on sumptuous biographies on Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, as well as an excellent solo effort on a Chaplin biography, brings us exactly what has been overdue for a long time - a true tribute to a great star and one of Hollywood's foremost pioneers. Vance admits up front that dependable biographical materials on Fairbanks are "scant." "Although there are many books and articles attributed to him, the truth is that he seldom remained still long enough to write anything of any length," Vance tells us, adding, "Fairbanks was neither a truthful nor a comprehensive chronicler of his own life." Therefore, Vance chooses to write about what is known of the man - mainly the fabulous legacy he left on celluloid - and spare us the speculation or embellishment that is found in so many biographies. He devotes less than 15 pages to Fairbanks' life prior to his entry in the movies in 1915 choosing instead to focus the bulk of this book on his film-making with engaging explanations, tantalizing behind-the-scenes anecdotes and fascinating facts about Fairbanks' films, his times and his contemporaries. The chapter titles make the purpose of this book clear - "Making His Mark: The Mark of Zorro," "The Great Leap: The Three Musketeers," "Scaling the Heights: Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood," and so on. This is not to say Vance ignores or even shortchanges the reader regarding Fairbanks' personal life, for, to varying degrees, every star's life impacts their art. His courtship, marriage and divorce from Mary Pickford are given appropriate coverage without attempts to dramatize. The years after his prime and decline in the thirties are the topic of the concluding portion of the book, as it should be, but is written with style and dignity. Vance deserves credit for not falling into the present day trend of trying to sell a biography by sensationalizing or scandalizing. This effort honors the great star and his contributions to motion pictures and will give the reader a much greater appreciation for and enjoyment of the films that he left for future generations to enjoy. The fabulous photographs must also be mentioned and, by themselves, highly recommend this book. Robert Cushman, photograph curator and photographic services administrator of the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is the photographic editor of the book, and his collaboration with Vance is truly what sets this book apart. Photos are not only crystal clear, but this volume is littered with fresh, new, heretofore-unseen photos which will intrigue the reader. Behind-the-scene photos, location photos, publicity photos, candid photos and more - they're all a delicious treat for the eyes. Enjoy!

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