Director: Irvin Willat
Cast: Warner Baxter, Billie Dove, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Mary Brian
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Length: 8 reels (6,976 feet)
Status: Four of eight reels are preserved at the Library of Congress
In 1925, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. returned to Hollywood after being uncertain of his future movie career when Stephen Steps Out failed at the box office. The fall of 1923 had been a whirlwind for the teenage Fairbanks. He arrived in Hollywood in October to much fanfare to begin his movie career, and by December 9th, his fourteenth birthday, a defeated Fairbanks and his mother were headed back east on the Twentieth Century Limited. Two years later, he was a little wiser, had grown a bit more into himself, and was ready to give Hollywood another go. Jesse L. Lasky was also ready to give the young Fairbanks another shot and once again, Fairbanks and his mother were in dire straits financially. This time around Fairbanks wasn’t going to be in the lead role nor would there be any major publicity surrounding his return. But unlike in 1923, Fairbanks’ movie career stuck after his second role and his star began to slowly rise.
It happened out of the blue. Billy Elliot, an old family friend who had helped promote Fairbanks, Jr.’s movie career in 1923, proclaimed that he had finally persuaded Jesse Lasky to give Fairbanks another chance. This time his contract did not guarantee any star billing, would have to be renewed each year, and decreased his salary from a thousand dollars a week to only a hundred a week. As was common practice, he was also forbidden from working for any other studio unless Paramount made the decision to loan him out.
Initially upon returning to Hollywood, Fairbanks was not given an assignment besides a few uncredited walk-on roles. He roamed the various sets, learning about Klieg lights and helping prop men, and casually urging directors to give him a shot. They finally decided to do so with The Air Mail, described by Fairbanks as, “melodramatic nonsense.”1
After World War I, the aviation industry was booming and becoming more commercialized. One such service that grew out of the aviation industry was the air mail. In 1925, the air mail was in the spotlight with the passing of the Air Mail Act of 1925, also known as the Kelly Act, which freed air mail from being controlled solely by the United States Post Office Department. Men who served as airmen during the war were of the first air mail flyers. It was revolutionary and exciting and opened up new possibilities for the mail service despite it being too expensive for most people to utilize. As Fairbanks describes, “In 1924-25 the mail was flown in two-seater biplanes and, although they never flew at night, letters sent from one coast to the other took only an amazing three days to deliver instead of six.”2With the aviation craze came movies showcasing all forms of aviation.
The Air Mail tells the story of a Russ Kane, played by Warner Baxter, a criminal who becomes a pilot to steal air mail cargo. He finds himself going straight after he meets and falls in love with Alice Rendon, played by Billie Dove, during a forced stop in a desert ghost town. The climax occurs when Rendon’s father finds himself in need of medication and the only way to get it to him quickly is via air mail. Kane takes matters into his own hands and flies his airplane to get the medicine. On the return flight, he and his co-pilot “Sandy”, played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., are chased by another airplane of criminals. “Sandy” must parachute out of the airplane to ensure Rendon’s father receives the medicine in time. In the end, Kane saves the day and wins the girl.
Filming locations included Death Valley National Park and the ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada. Rhyolite was a former mining town that was established in 1905 and by 1920 was essentially abandoned. In the 1920s it became a popular location for moviemakers and has continued to be used as a filming location intermittently throughout the past century. One of the well-known buildings, the Bottle House, was restored by Famous Players-Lasky for The Air Mail in particular. Billie Dove and husband, Irvin Willat, stayed in the Bottle House while the rest of the company and crew stayed in a school and church building. Dove had the Bottle House cleaned and decorated to make it feel more like home, complete with furniture and curtains. She even celebrated her birthday at the Bottle House during filming. Other well-known building ruins include the railroad depot, a school, a general store, and a bank. According to one theatre owner in Mariette, Oklahoma, “The scenes of the deserted town are worth the price of admission.”3
Director Irvin Willat used his own patented camera lens to film aerial scenes. It was a telescopic lens that allowed him to capture better shots of the airplanes from the ground. Willat began his career as a cinematographer and by 1925 had already spent a decade directing silent films. In 1919, he directed Harry Houdini in The Grim Game, another picture that relied heavily on aviation and stunt work. Willat was praised for his moviemaking skills and his technical advancements with the movie camera. He directed his final picture in 1937. During the filming of The Air Mail, Willat was married to lead actress Billie Dove.
Part of what made an aviation movie so exciting was the danger it involved. Fairbanks learned this firsthand on the set when he was expected to jump from an airplane with a parachute. In one of the final scenes, Fairbanks’ character makes an emergency exit from an airplane carrying a precious package. For the scene, the airplane ascended into the air with a camera attached to the pilot’s cockpit and the pilot hand-cranking the camera while clutching the joystick between his knees. Fairbanks stepped out onto the airplane’s wing with no helmet or goggles. The only protection he had were blackened tennis shoes for grip and a parachute on his back. He stepped out onto the wing and froze. Fairbanks later wrote:
I looked down – far down – way down. I knew he [the pilot] wouldn’t flip me off as that would spoil the shot. But I stalled and stalled. And reconsidered. And got more and more frightened. Both my arms clung to that last strut and to the stuffed old mailbag. In my mind’s eye my hand was ready to grasp and pull my parachute ring. I reviewed my instructions, ‘Jump! Count ten! Pull!’ That was it. But I just couldn’t let go. Then, suddenly, the fourteen-and-a-half-year-old boy inside me rose to the surface and, damn it, I began to cry. Ashamed of my fear but incapable of conquering it, I crawled back along the wing and into my seat. We turned around, descended, and landed.4
Fairbanks was met with a disgruntled but silent Willat, who felt that time was wasted. A double went up into the air and performed the stunt as Fairbanks sat by filled with shame. He was met with kindness by co-stars Mary Brian and Warner Baxter who consoled him. Fairbanks’ mother, who was required to be there as his chaperone, was livid when she discovered that he had been put in harm’s way and made it known to Willat. She had not been on set when the stunt was attempted by Fairbanks. The whole disaster caused the teenage Fairbanks a great amount of embarrassment and he was ready to move on from the experience.
Reviews for The Air Mail were generally positive and the movie was well-received by most audiences. Theatre owners claimed, “Seems to have something that pulls them in,” and “Real up-to-date drama with lots of action and thrills in the last few reels.” The theatre owner in Marietta, Oklahoma who commented on the scenes of the ghost town also amusingly wrote, “Wish we could get more like it in place of so much disgusting love making and kissing.”5
Theatres across the United States drew in crowds with elaborate lobby displays featuring miniature and near to life-size airplanes. The Riviera Theatre in Anderson, Indiana had airplanes flown over the city to drop movie passes and film heralds to promote the movie. Spectators could look up into the sky and see The Air Mail written across the underside of the airplanes wings. The Hippodrome Theatre in Fort Worth, Texas, offered cash prizes to army aviators for building miniature airplane models. Three models were put on display in front of the theatre with a larger model airplane with a working propeller and motor. Even the United States Postal Service vehicles contained advertisements for the film.
A partial copy of The Air Mail exists on 35mm at the Library of Congress but is unavailable on home video. From what I’ve read, not enough of the film survives for the narrative to make much sense but the aerial and ghost town scenes make for an interesting watch.
Read last month’s “Fairbanks at the Movies” on Stephen Steps Out (1923). Next month I will be covering Fairbanks’ third movie Wild Horse Mesa (1925).
- The Salad Days: An Autobiography, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., page 99
- Exhibitor’s Herald, June 6, 1925, page 80
- The Salad Days, page 100
- Exhibitor’s Herald, June 6, 1925, page 80