In the 1920s, Douglas Fairbanks found great success in and popularized the costumed hero. Never before had moviegoers seen such a spirited, all-American, brawny man dash across the screen in such a dazzling manner. It drew movie fans in and resulted in Fairbanks becoming dubbed the King of Hollywood. Despite his reluctance to become a costumed hero, Fairbanks has been immortalized in film history as the first swashbuckling hero of the silver screen and set the standard for future generations of movie heroes.
The first, arguably most important, step in creating a swashbuckling hero is creating the costume. A swashbuckling hero must exude confidence, charm, and even a little danger. They should also stand out from the other characters as being something greater. In other words, they should look a certain way that is distinguishable and sets them apart from everyone else in the cast. This is not always necessary for unlikely heroes, anti-heroes, or everyday heroes. But it is an integral part of the swashbuckling hero.
Fairbanks entered swashbuckling movies in 1920 with The Mark of Zorro. It took a bit of convincing on the part of agent Ruth Allen but he finally gave in and decided to risk his modern image for a period piece. Fortunately for Fairbanks, The Mark of Zorro turned out to be his most successful film up to that time. As the first screen star to portray Zorro, Fairbanks established a look that has stayed mostly consistent throughout the years. His portrayal of Zorro also inspired the creation of another important costumed hero, Batman. It is this movie that Bruce Wayne’s parents attend on the night they are killed outside the theater.
Immediately after the success of Zorro, Fairbanks immersed himself in The Three Musketeers. Despite the box office rewards that Zorro produced, Fairbanks was still apprehensive about making costume pictures. He still wasn’t sure if audiences would be accepting of a costume story set in another time period. At the time, audiences were craving modern stories but Fairbanks knew that it was more important to relate to audiences through personality rather than costume. He stated, “Costumes change, but customs do not to any great extent.”1 With that attitude, Fairbanks determined to take a chance on The Three Musketeers and it turned out to be a wise choice. The Three Musketeers was a smash hit grossing over a million dollars. An interesting little tidbit about Fairbanks’ D’Artagnan is that it was the first time a film hero sported a mustache. It was also the first time Fairbanks grew a mustache for a film role and from then on he was never without. The mustache became an iconic part of his image and even changed the general attitude toward mustaches. Until The Three Musketeers, mustaches and facial hair were only seen on villains. Mustaches became in vogue in Hollywood after Fairbanks’ decision to sport one as D’Artagnan.2
Fairbanks’ next swashbuckling role would be that of the timeless hero Robin Hood. By now, Fairbanks had started to perfect his swashbuckling characteristics and antics. He was superbly athletic, exaggerated, and even slightly comedic in his portrayal of costumed heroes. Fairbanks’ Robin Hood exhibits all of these characteristics and his growing comfort with this type of role is evident. The costumes were designed by Mitchell Leisen and it is the first of Fairbanks’ swashbuckling films to have a credited costume designer. Leisen was responsible for a remarkable amount of costumes that hit the thousands. But the biggest issue with Fairbanks’ costume was the wig. He had worn a wig before in The Three Musketeers but this particular wig posed quite a problem. Fairbanks wanted the wig to appear as authentic as possible. It needed to be accurate for the time period and it needed to look real. Apparently he tried on around twenty wigs before deciding on the one seen in the movie. In addition, Fairbanks wanted even more authenticity by cutting the wig with a knife and not styled by curling iron or spray. “Leisen recalled, ‘One of the tough things was to get Douglas’ wig, the long hair, to fall naturally. It was always so stiff; no matter what you did with your head, the hair stayed there.'”3 The final solution was to have George Westmore create wig out of toupee hair. But even it was quite troublesome in that it would constantly shed.
The success of Robin Hood led to some interesting promotions involving the costumes, specifically the famous hat. In her book The First King of Hollywood, Tracey Goessel explains how department stores promoted the film. First, stores were given costumes from the film to use in window displays. Secondly, there was a promotion based on the hat that Fairbanks wears in the film. Goessel writes, “The Wormser Hat stores placed cards in their windows: WEAR THE MARK OF CHIVALRY! THE ROBIN HOOD FEATHER. ONE WITH EVERY WORMSER HAT. The trend caught on, and soon other stores were selling their versions of the Robin Hood hat, eventually leading an entire generation of baby boomers wondering why their grandfathers wore little pheasant feathers in their fedoras.”4
Once again, Fairbanks found great success in Robin Hood. What he had entered so reluctantly was paying off in huge proportions. And it was only to get greater with his next picture: The Thief of Bagdad. This was set to be Fairbanks’ most ambitious project yet. Much of the inspiration for doing the story and the creation of his character stemmed from a trip he and Mary Pickford took to Sicily. For this role, it was imperative that Fairbanks be in the best shape possible. Not only for his rugged good looks in this movie but also for the physically taxing stunts that he performs. According to Fairbanks, Jr., his father had a gym set up to ensure he was as fit as a fiddle. Fairbanks, Jr., wrote, “Over the entrance hung a sign signifying that this was the ‘Basilica Linea Abdominalis’ (Temple Dedicated to the Waistline). Inside there were rings and bars and mats and a badminton (DOUG) court for games and exercise. The game of DOUG that my father invented was based on badminton but used heavier shuttlecocks and racquets and a larger court.”5 After working out, Fairbanks would head to the Turkish baths for a steam, dry heat room, ice-cold plunge, masseur, and tomato sandwiches. All of this was to keep his body in top-notch quality. After all, he was 40 years old.
Fairbanks’ costume for The Thief of Bagdad was actually very minimal. But nonetheless a large amount of time and money were spent on the costumes. Goessel writes, “The naked torso, the flowing harem pants, the lyric, fluid gestures – only an actor with a reputation as masculine as Fairbanks’s could have pulled this off and not been the butt of crude jokes.”6 Goessel is absolutely accurate in this statement. Other actors such as Rudolph Valentino were often targets for their lack of masculinity in how they dressed and moved. But Fairbanks embodied the American ideal of masculinity and therefore was safe from any type of ridicule. And it is true that he makes this costume extremely sexy without a hint of femininity.
With four highly successful costume epics under his belt, Fairbanks had established himself as the swashbuckling hero of the silver screen. His career never quite reached the same heights after The Thief of Bagdad but he continued to play the swashbuckling hero role for the remainder of his career. In 1925, a year after The Thief of Bagdad, he made a sequel to The Mark of Zorro called Don Q Son of Zorro in which he plays a double role. This allowed Fairbanks to reprise his role as Zorro as well as establish a whole new character in Zorro’s son, Don Q. This required lavish costumes that distinguished the two characters.
After Don Q Son of Zorro, Fairbanks moved on to another huge endeavor: The Black Pirate. The epic adventure tale was made in technicolor, a rarity in the silent era indeed, which caused serious considerations to be taken for costuming. Fairbanks was insistent that the color aspect of the film not distract from the story itself. As Goessel explains, the film’s coloring was meant to look like a classic Rembrandt painting with muted tones. Therefore, their color palate had to consist of greens and browns. Goessel writes, “Dual sets of costumes had to be made, as it was discovered that they photographed differently under artificial lights versus outdoor sets.”7 The coloring also forced Fairbanks to have to shave twice a day to keep his beard from photographing green.
Once again, Fairbanks’ athletic physique was on display in his pirate garb. The torn up outfit bared his chest as well as his muscular legs. It almost appears gymnast like with pirate accents such as the large waist belt, the boots, and jewelry. In many ways, his costuming was not that of the traditional pirate. A traditional pirate costume wouldn’t have allowed for him to show off his athleticism and brawny body.
His next costume role was in The Gaucho. The film was a new direction for Fairbanks in that he played a different kind of role. He was still clothed in a lavish costume but portrayed a more disenchanted character which resulted in unhappy audiences. However, the film is good and displays Fairbanks’ skills as an actor. In 1929, Fairbanks brought D’Artagnan back to the silver screen in what he hoped would be his last great swashbuckling picture: The Iron Mask. In this role he recreated his look from The Three Musketeers with a few tweaks and updates. This was not to be his last costume piece despite his hope that it would be. There was one more to be made that would star his wife, Mary Pickford, as his leading lady: The Taming of the Shrew.
The Taming of the Shrew was the only time that Fairbanks and Pickford starred together in a movie. The costuming was elaborate and really well done but the film did not do well overall. It had all the makings of a good film – good actors, plenty of money, solid story – but the strained marriage was perhaps beginning to take its toll on the two. The film also did not end up being Fairbanks’ last costume piece. He made two more in the 1930s, The Private Life of Don Juan and Mr. Robinson Crusoe. Neither of the films did very well and it was evident that he had grown tired and weary from heartbreak as well as age. The costumed hero had taken his final bow and would no longer appear in another swashbuckling role.
The impact of Fairbanks’ costumed roles has been undeniably significant. As mentioned before, Batman was inspired by Zorro but Superman was inspired by a sum of all of Fairbanks’ swashbuckling roles. From his stance to his appearance, Superman was a product of Douglas Fairbanks. But even beyond that, he popularized a role that audiences had rejected for many years. Because of Fairbanks actors such as Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, and Johnny Depp have been able to have the careers that they had/have. Fairbanks’ unique way of portraying a costumed hero in a period story in a way that modern audiences could relate to was undoubtedly important in his success. It showed audiences that a hero from another time could still be just as relevant as a modern character.
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., too would reluctantly enter his father’s domain of swashbuckling and found success in doing so. Though he never reached the same heights as his father did in the genre, his swashbuckling films were received well by audiences. Despite his fear of disappointing his father and following too closely in his father’s shadow, Fairbanks, Jr., won the approval of his father after his portrayal of Rupert of Hentzau in the Prisoner of Zenda. Fairbanks, Jr., went on to star in a number of swashbuckling roles in which he found success. He even used his father’s sword in The Exile. His last major swashbuckling role was that of Sinbad, the Sailor which brought him many accolades. It was evident that he had the same knack for derring-do as his father and the favourable reactions suggested that fans still enjoyed a swashbuckling hero.
Even today the costumed hero still exists in the form of superheroes. The swashbuckling heroes of long ago times have been replaced by caped heroes that have no set time or place and wield their super powers to do good in the world. Perhaps we will never stop needing these heroes to help us escape from the reality but also to give us a hopeful reminder that good does exist. And luckily, we have Douglas Fairbanks to thank for making the costumed hero film popular and relevant for ages to come.
- Tracey Goessel, The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks (Chicago: Chicago Review Press Incorporated, 2016), 257.
- Ibid, 262.
- Ibid, 291.
- Ibid, 296.
- Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., The Salad Days: An Autobiography (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 96.
- Goessel, The First King of Hollywood, 320.
- Ibid, 344.