Douglas Fairbanks, the first king of Hollywood

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1934 Publicity photo of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. for his final film, “The Private Life of Don Juan.” Photo credit: Public domain

51f5otaRTXL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_When we think of people in the movie business who’ve played major roles both in front of and behind the camera, names like Robert Redford, Woody Allen, and Angelina Jolie tend to come to mind. But there was a much earlier generation of movie stars who did it all—one of them was Douglas Fairbanks.

Tracey Goessel is the author of a new Fairbanks biography, “The First King of Hollywood.”

“So much of the DNA of the entertainment industry today is because of that man’s thumbprint,” Goessel told KCRW.

Fairbanks had a hand in the founding of the first film school, USC School of Cinematic Arts. He was a founding member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. He was also its first president as well as the host of the first Oscars in 1929.

“When we sit down at the Oscars, it’s because of Doug,” said Goessel.

His iconic swashbuckling roles like Zorro, Robin Hood, and d’Artagnan inspired the creators of some of the 20th century’s most enduring characters. According to Goessel, “Batman and Superman were both based on him.”

D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin (seated) and Douglas Fairbanks at the signing of the contract establishing United Artists in 1919. Lawyers Albert Banzhaf (left) and Dennis F. O'Brien (right) stand in the background. Photo credit: Public domain
D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin (seated) and Douglas Fairbanks at the signing of the contract establishing United Artists in 1919. Lawyers Albert Banzhaf (left) and Dennis F. O’Brien (right) stand in the background. Photo credit: Public domain

His greatest contribution to the film industry might be the model for production that he helped establish at United Artists. Fairbanks founded United Artist alongside Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith in 1919. The company aimed to be an alternative to the studio factory system that dominated Hollywood in that era. United Artists wanted to shift the way the film industry operated.

At the time, there was a debate happening in Hollywood. “How were films going to made? Is it going to be a factory system where a studio cranks out a film a week and they own the distributorship and they own the theaters? Or could individual artists devote time to a film and make it as large or as small as they want and still have the power, a network of distribution, to get it out to the theaters?”

United Artist has a legacy not only for the films it produced, but also the way it made the films. “The founders wanted to make films the way they wanted to make them,” Goessel said. Fairbanks and the other founders of United Artist are, in some ways, the godparent of the independent film movement. “The fact that people can make independent films and find a distribution venue is because of him.”

Fairbanks is responsible for many contributions to culture, from the iconic “happy warrior” that he so often portrayed on the silver screen to the concept of the artist as producer.

“There’s so much of what he did and he developed and he fostered that remains as part of our national personality,” Goessel said.