Restoring a Silent Treasure
In the silent film era, Douglas Fairbanks was Hollywood royalty--both on and off the screen. Handsome, dashing, athletic and debonair, he performed amazing feats of derring-do in one hit swashbuckler after another during the 1920s. His private life was equally colorful. He and his wife, superstar Mary Pickford, held court at their palatial mansion, Pickfair, and attracted throngs of fans when they traveled the world.
Fairbanks also played a key role in the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences 75 years ago and was the organization’s first president.
But surprisingly, given his importance in Hollywood and his Oscar history, the academy’s Margaret Herrick Library--one of the most comprehensive film archives in the world--housed only a meager collection of Fairbanks’ papers and photographs.
In fact, says the library’s photo curator, Robert Cushman, it was the weakest of the library’s collections for major silent film stars.
That changed with the recent donation of a rare collection of Fairbanks’ papers, photographs and scrapbooks. The collection, donated by Fairbanks’ daughter-in-law Vera, is one of the most important the academy has received in recent years.
Cushman acts like a proud parent as he starts going through the four boxes resting on a table in a conference room in the library, pulling stills from such Fairbanks classics as “The Black Pirate,” “Thief of Bagdad” and “The Mark of Zorro.”
The boxes also contain pictures from his early stage work and candid photos of Fairbanks with Pickford; with his only child, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; and with such friends and peers as Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Jackie Coogan.
There is also a massive 28-pound scrapbook that was assembled for Douglas Jr. after the death of his father at age 56 in 1939. The scrapbook, which is in near flawless condition, features telegrams, letters and newspaper clippings.
“It’s almost a who’s who of Hollywood,” says academy acquisitions archivist Howard H. Prouty. “We get a lot of scrapbooks, but the great majority of them are falling apart. I think this one was probably not much looked at. This is so methodically put together, it is obviously the work of a very efficient secretary.”
Collection’s Survival Called Small Miracle
Before the arrival of the collection, the academy acknowledged Fairbanks’ contributions to it by naming the Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Study for him on the academy’s 75th anniversary. Cushman says the academy thought that naming the building for Fairbanks “would be highly appropriate.”
“He’s also one of the few silent stars people are still interested in. He was a combination of someone who was very brash but bright, altruistic, athletic and optimistic. All of that was wrapped up in a bundle of great good humor.”
That the collection survived in good shape is something of a miracle.
For five decades it was housed in various Bekins storage facilities in and around the Los Angeles area. Before that, the collection had been stored at the Fairbanks Ranch in Rancho Santa Fe. “It was an enormous property that Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford acquired in the ‘20s and which has now become a huge development,” says Cushman.
Vera Fairbanks, who was married to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. from 1991 until his death in 2000 at age 90, opened the boxes last year when the collection was being appraised for estate tax. “We opened one of these cartons and these things were crawling around.” She thought the appraiser was going to jump out of his skin.
“We left it there and I called up Orkin Pest Control and I described the situation. They thought it was lice and they said get some mothballs and wrap them in cheesecloth and put them in the boxes.”
Prouty accompanied Fairbanks to the storage area, where they spent an entire day unpacking all the boxes and putting the mothballs in every cartoon. The strangest thing, says Fairbanks, is that the bugs didn’t seem to find the photographs or the scrapbooks appetizing. “They ate around the photographs,” she says. Fairbanks is hoping to find more material and is sending Cushman another box of photographs and original 8-by-10-inch negatives.
“Not having been in this business at all--I am in the field of retailing--I asked Robert what’s so precious about these negatives, and he said it is the closest thing to the person you can get without the person being there.”
Cushman spread on the conference table an array of archival prints that were made the week before from original negatives.
Breathtaking in their quality and clarity, the photos are from Fairbanks’ “Robin Hood.” There are also some undated portraits from the early ‘20s shot by Woodbury, a well-known photographer of the era.
“We probably won’t print all of them because not all of them are worth it,” he says. “We read the negatives and look ... for quality, content and sharpness. We have maybe 300 negatives. It shows you how great these original negatives were. Almost nobody shoots them anymore. It hasn’t been used in the commercial film industry for 50 years.”
Represented in the photo collection are numerous stills from the movies Fairbanks made at Paramount-Artcraft from 1917 to 1919, including “Bound in Morocco,” “The Knickerbocker Buckaroo” and “Mr. Fix-It.” These photographs in particular are rarities, says Cushman.
The Paramount-Artcraft stills were glued into scrapbooks. “Luckily they came out of these albums very easily and they are in gorgeous condition,” says Cushman.
“None of the Artcrafts were identified,” he said. “I pulled what we had on them and printed out the American Film Institute catalog on each one and, based on [that], I managed to identify everything. It took a lot of doing.”
But the work is far from over. In fact, Cushman says, it will take one to two years for the collection to be ready for scholars.
The stills that were in folders need to be cleaned because, after 50 years in storage, a fine dust has settled on them.
“You can’t see it, but you can feel it,” says Cushman. “We are going to have to clean each one.”