Fair play: Douglas Fairbanks (here in The Gaucho, screening at the SF Silent Film Festival) had a carefree, confident, physically fearless persona that remains completely winning to this day.

SF Silent Film Festival

Dennis Harvey July 9, 2009

When silent cinema first became voguish again via TV and occasional theater revivals in the 1950s and 1960s, its appeal was primarily nostalgic, campy, antiquated. (This was no doubt in part to the use of cartoonishly sped-up projection that was misleading and historically inaccurate.)

But what surprised even then, and certainly does now (especially since we’ve gotten the projection thing right) is how timeless in appeal some of the films and personalities from that era have turned out to be. They stare at us from a celluloid remove of almost a century, yet the communication is as immediate as it is with whatever’s at the multiplex today. (Though I’m pretty sure Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is only going to look nostalgic, campy and antiquated in a fraction of that time.)

Case in point: 2009 S.F. Silent Film Festival calendar coverboy Douglas Fairbanks. An actor-mogul who was the movies’ first star swashbuckler, he was wildly popular for much of the pre-talkie era. While these days he may not to be the trendiest revival figure—flapper Louise Brooks, a comparative nonentity at the time, is now much more likely to ring a recognition bell—his carefree, confident, physically fearless persona remains completely winning.

Certainly that’s the case in The Gaucho, the Fest’s opening night film and Fairbanks’ official final silent feature. (Two years later, 1929’s The Iron Mask would tack on some talking scenes, sound effects and recorded music to accommodate the talkie "fad.") It’s not one of his great vehicles, but it’s an amiable demonstration of how his charisma could lift—or even float entirely—material that would have been quite routine without him.

He is, simply, El Gaucho, a rakish bandido king who steals from the Argentine rich and…keeps it. But his altruistic finer instincts are roused by the injustices wrought by "Ruiz, the Usurper" (grim-faced popular villain Gustav von Sayffertitz), a corrupt military general who terrorizes an Andean village for its gold deposits.

Before the big cattle-stampede climax, he finds time to romance and spar with a "Mountain Girl," who’s no shrinking violet either. Played by newly arrived Mexicana Lupe Velez, this smitten peasant lass doesn’t refrain from throwing crockery at a rival or even engaging El Gaucho himself in some knock-down wrasslin’ when her temper runs hot. Velez was just 18 at the time, less than half Fairbanks’ age (44)—yet he seldom if ever had a leading lady so equally full of piss’n‘vinegar.

Directed by F. Richard Jones, a comedy specialist who died just three years later from tuberculosis at age 37, The Gaucho is a splashy production that makes good use of the star’s still-impressive athleticism. (His somersaults on and off a horse are startling, even if the backwards one might be a camera trick.) It has a bit of a mystery/horror element in the much-feared hooded figure of a "Black Doom" plague victim whose identity provides one late surprise. And it has, alas, an ill-fittingly pious, maudlin subplot in a shepherdess whose vision of the Virgin Mary (played by Fairbanks’ equally famous wife Mary Pickford) leads to miracles, gratuitous Ten Commandments plugs, and El Gaucho’s religious salvation.

Cutting through any hokum, however, is Fairbanks’ sheer exuberance. This costume role—Robin Hood in flamenco pants—was essentially no different from any other he essayed in his peak years. Born to a well-off East Coast family, educated at Harvard, he attained Broadway stardom before entering the motion pictures. A series of good-humored, uncomplicated modern adventures were built around his mile-wide smile and acrobatic physicality. He was Yankee "can-do" personified, fearless and full of fun, allergic to pretense.

That didn’t change even as his settings became more exotic in the 1920s "superproductions" made for United Artists, which he founded with Pickford and Charlie Chaplin. These cast him as Zorro, D’Artagnan, and other sword-wielding, balcony-leaping jolly knaves with hearts o’ gold. 1924’s fantasy spectacular The Thief of Bagdad is probably the most enduring and beloved among them.

These were all major cinematic events. Yet when sound arrived, "Doug and Mary" had a hard time of it, hugely rich and popular though they were. Both well past 40, she could no longer play the adorable young "girl with the curls"(heavily featured in the Festival’s Biograph Shorts program), nor could he keep up the leaping lothario act. Amidst a strain that also cost their marriage, each made just a handful more films before reluctantly retiring.

That Fairbanks had no idea what to do with himself was underlined by his fatal heart attack at age 56 in 1939—he seemed less the victim of lifestyle excesses than forced inertia. His purported final words were "Never felt better!," a last laugh at fate from a man who never gave audiences anything but joy onscreen.

Other highlights during the three-day Silent Fest include films from China (Wild Rose), Czechoslovia (Erotikon) and Russia (Aelita, Queen of Mars). You can catch very early works by Walt Disney (with his pre-Mickey cartoon star Oswald the Lucky Rabbit) and an incongruously young, slim W.C. Fields (1926’s So’s Your Old Man). Victor Sjostrom’s The Wind and Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld are classic American dramas. Likely to be a revelation to many is Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher, a 1928 French version of Edgar Allan Poe’s story that was co-adapted by Luis Bunuel and stands as a hypnotic, beautifully atmospheric nightmare.

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