Douglas Fairbanks: King of Hollywood

Scott Curtis*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


By 1920, Douglas Fairbanks was one of the most popular stars in Hollywood and, indeed, the world, along with Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin. If the formation of United Artists the year before consolidated his position as a major star and producer, it also prepared the public for an even more powerful merger: the marriage of Fairbanks and Pickford. No one - least of all Fairbanks and Pickford themselves - anticipated the enormous boost this union would give their already lofty stature. They were arguably the first celebrity couple, treated like royalty by the press, by their adoring fans, and even by actual aristocrats. If we look closely at the publicity covering the marriage, we can see certain themes begin to take shape. These themes are especially familiar, since they also appeared in the films of each star and in their individual star discourse as well. But these motifs - namely, rescue, royalty, and the unity of opposites - seem to be borrowed from Fairbanks's films and publicity in particular. The Fairbanks persona, in other words, shaped the discussion of the marriage in general. While Pickford's persona was clearly a factor in the way journalists wrote about the couple, many of their motifs make use of ideas already established in the publicity and films of Douglas Fairbanks. Though it was motivated by love, we cannot discount the strategic advantage Fairbanks enjoyed from this union; it gave him the confidence and security to change his star persona and his product from westerns and modern-era comedies to costumed adventure films. This risky transformation eventually paid huge dividends: his swashbuckling persona delighted audiences, his films were lauded as the pinnacle of silent film art, and his imitators were legion. But this period also represents a significant shift in the Fairbanks persona. If his films from the 1910s emphasized his democratic instinct, the films of the 1920s present fantasies of nobility. Furthermore, the star discourse on Fairbanks in the 1920s emphasizes his role as producer over any other aspect that was underlined in the 1910s, such as author, popular philosopher, patriot, or even film star. Instead, the Fairbanks persona transforms into manager, industry spokesman, artist, and Hollywood aristocrat. As his stock continued to rise in Hollywood, he was hailed as not only a major producer, but also as a civic leader and industry captain. Indeed, it could be argued that his position of leadership in Beverly Hills and as the first president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was due primarily to the enormous success of the Fairbanks star persona. In the late 1920s, with the coming of sound and the weakening of his bond with Pickford, it became increasingly clear that Fairbanks's position as King of Hollywood was securely tied to the silent era.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationIdols of Modernity
Subtitle of host publicationMovie Stars of the 1920s
PublisherRutgers University Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Print)9780813547312
StatePublished - Dec 1 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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