Douglas Fairbanks The First King of Hollywood - On the Bedside Table

Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. could be described in many terms, "buoyant, breezy, daring, agile, enthusiastic, intensely earnest, peppery, live and wide-awake." In fact, I stole this quote directly from Tracey Goessel's new, and dare I say, landmark biography of Fairbanks entitled The First King of Hollywood The Life of Douglas Fairbanks published this month by Chicago Review Press.  The quote fits.

Douglas Fairbanks was many things besides as swashbuckler, he was also a pioneer, astute businessman, ardent lover and husband, mostly absent father and indubitably, a star. Goessel has been researching her subject for over a decade as well as collecting artifacts related to the star.  This shows in the depth of detail uncovered in this volume and also in the rarity of the images used in the book. (You know me, a photo maven, it's a terrific selection).

Fairbanks happy-go-lucky and famous million watt smile on display.

One of the great strengths in this biography is Goessel's style of writing.  Her prose is exuberant, buoyant and filled with humor, much like Fairbanks himself.  It is rare in today's market for biographies to find one that is so scrupulously researched, so level-headed and crammed with details (especially in the footnotes, many of which made me laugh out loud).  There is a lot of meat in this book, but, it does not feel like a heavy meal on your stomach.  You (me) devour it with the relish of James Beard and are left hungry for more! 

We are not weighed down with psycho-babble analyzing Fairbanks' thoughts and feelings, nor is there any imaginary dialogue.  Quotes are are sourced directly either from the horse's mouth or the person in question.  Goessel does not shirk from calling shenanigans if the memories do not line up with the facts.  Fairbanks had his flaws, and Goessel is also not shy in discussing them.  It's clear as mud she loves her subject (who can blame her for that), but, nothing descends to fangirl blathering.  Again, at the risk of sounding like a fangirl myself, this book is a pure pleasure to read.

Happily, we are also not subjected to page after page of reciting of lengthy plots from Fairbanks' equally long film career.  This is a great blessing since the recitation of plotlines, today, often takes up a good portion of any biography.   Now, this is not to say plotlines are not discussed, they are in brief.  We are talking paragraph summaries, not page after page. (HOORAY).  The various production details concerning the films, stunts and behind the scenes are fascinating to read.

The true gold in this book are the quotations from some of Fairbanks letters to Mary Pickford, which she kept in a box until the day she died.  It's rare to have something so personal not only survive but to end up being curated in such good hands, it's a miracle.  90 years on, it's still a great love story to read.  I confess, I got to the last page of the book and I did shed a tear or two.

It is a pity that Fairbanks is often relgated to a footnote, or only referred to as a swashbuckler from the silent era.  Hopefully Goessel's fine book will do much to bring Fairbanks back to the forefront as a true pioneer (as his wife Mary Pickford is almost universally acclaimed to be) and remembered for his good works, as well as the incredible entertainment enjoyment his films still bring to the viewers 90-100 years later.

In short (or not), I give this book a healthy and solid ***** stars!

You can buy it at bookstores, film festivals and I suggest you check out the Facebook page for the book to keep up with book signings by the author.  I know she will be in San Francisco during the San Francisco Silent Film Festival winter event on December 5th.  She's also going to be in Chicago, New York and Culpeper, Virginia at the Packard Campus.

As an aside, please take a look at the evolution of the cover art for this book from the Chicago Review Press.  I wonder if I might have chosen differently?


Hamlette said…
I really know very little about Fairbanks Sr. (or Jr., really), so I'll keep my eye out at the library for this!
Anonymous said…
I am smack dab in the middle of the book: it is THE definitive book about Fairbanks. UNBELIEVABLE. Nothing even comes close. Tons of myths debunked......and revelations on every single page. The writing is fantastic.

On Saturday, November 14, there is a free screening of "Don Q: Son Of Zorro" at Lincoln Center (last month they showed "The Mark Of Zorro"). The author of this fantastic book, Tracey Goessell, is going to be there, and I cannot wait to tell her how much this book is blowing my mind.

I am at work right now so I can't write all my thoughts about this book, but I just want to say: HIGHLY recommeneded. And if you don't believe me: the endorsements on the back (Kevin Brownlow, Cari Beauchamp, Scott Eyman, Leonard Maltin) all make a point to say that there has NEVER been a book about Fairbanks that even approaches this one.

Brava, Dr. Goessel!!! Brava!!!!!

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