Playing Detective with the Douglas Fairbanks Nitrate Still Negatives Collection

Submitted by Guest Post,

Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (Los Angeles, California 1924.) George Eastman Museum Collection.

Not so very long ago, motion pictures brimmed with adventure, enchantment, and romance whenever a certain charismatic cavalier bounded across the screen.  Like a flickering combination of D'Artagnan, Robin Hood, and Zorro, Douglas Fairbanks—born on this day (May 23) in 1883—invited audiences to look upon another age with each dashing performance.  Whether carrying a sword, a bow and arrow, or a damsel in distress, he never failed to carry himself with gallantry and grace, revealing that he was, on screen and off, a modern musketeer in spirit and in his heart.

Yet before stirring imaginations as the quintessential swashbuckler of the 1920s, Douglas displayed a slightly different persona, sporting a suit and tie instead of a moustache and mask. He was an exuberant symbol of the optimism and perseverance of his time, epitomizing that of the all-American dreamer who was always reaching for the moon.  Moviegoers were captivated by his charm, as was the most famous woman in pictures, Mary Pickford, whose blossoming romance with Fairbanks remained a secret courtship for three years as they sought to achieve a goal they both shared—securing complete creative control over their films.

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford (Los Angeles, California 1928.) George Eastman Museum Collection.

What does this overview of Fairbanks have to do with me or the George Eastman Museum?  I, too, have always been very goal-oriented, but why should I ask for the moon when I have the stars?  I adopted Douglas and Mary as my “lucky stars” quite some time ago, so when I arrived at the museum to attend The L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, I delighted over the prospect of working with the Douglas Fairbanks Nitrate Still Negatives Collection.  Thanks to my thoughtful classmates and instructors, my dream came true.

Donated to the museum by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. from Douglas Sr.’s personal estate, over 10,000 negatives visually document the production and promotion of several of his earliest starring vehicles for Artcraft, such as A Modern Musketeer (1917) and Reaching for the Moon (1917), as well as the box-office sensations he produced at the Pickford-Fairbanks Studios, including The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and The Black Pirate (1926), which were distributed by United Artists, the company he and Mary co-founded with Charlie Chaplin and D. W. Griffith in 1919.  Consisting of portraits, production stills, behind-the-scenes publicity shots, costume tests, and set designs, the collection serves as an extraordinary photographic timeline of Fairbanks’ career.

Although many of the stills had already been processed by the time I arrived on the scene, I knew I could be of assistance in some capacity.  My project supervisor, Sophia Lorent, was the last student to tend to the negatives, having scanned The Gaucho (1927).  When we began to assess which part of the collection I should focus on, she had to assuage my excitement a bit.  I was ready to not only scan but rescan everything.  Instead, we decided I should complete Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925), which hadn't been fully processed, before moving on to The Three Musketeers (1921).  This was a better plan considering the time allotted, but as soon as I started scanning, I came upon a set of negatives that weren’t associated with Don Q.  This assortment of images, ranging from 1916 to 1921, included publicity shots of Douglas attending events and mingling with colleagues on location, as well as random shots of cars (a Stutz Bearcat!), dogs, extras, houses, and yes, even a few of someone's hand.  Since many of the stills weren’t connected to the production of a feature, identifying them was going to be a challenge, and there were five more boxes of the same.  More often than not, they captured Douglas in action—climbing, fencing, leaping, and lifting friends in the air—while showcasing his irresistible smile.

While making my way through the stills, I noticed several familiar faces—directors Allan Dwan and Joseph Henabery, writers Frances Marion and Edward Knoblock, the ever-present character actor Charlie Stevens, Douglas’ brothers, John and Robert, his very best friend Charlie Chaplin, and, of course, Mary.  Was this a case of being in the right place at the right time?  Although I couldn't begin to know everything about Fairbanks and Pickford, I certainly possessed enough of their determination to attempt to identify as much of the material as possible.  I started with a simple workflow, in which I scanned master files and updated the records in our database accordingly, describing the size and condition of each negative and whether active decomposition was a concern.  I made notes whenever I recognized individuals or scenes from early features, like The Knickerbocker Buckaroo (1919) and His Majesty, the American (1919).  After creating positive reference files, I proceeded to search for the images in publications from the period.  The Media History Digital Library was incredibly useful, as I was often able to locate the stills throughout articles in trade papers and magazines. 

Left: Douglas Fairbanks (Los Angeles, California 1921.) George Eastman Museum Collection.
Right: Douglas Fairbanks, [Marie Doro], and Charlie Chaplin (Los Angeles, California c. 1916.) George Eastman Museum Collection.

When I was unable to find an image in an article, which was often the case, I simply had to rely on my knowledge of Douglas, which I supplemented with biographies written by those who know far more than I; Dr. Tracey Goessel's The First King of Hollywood was my trusty go-to, especially when it came to determining dates.  For instance, I knew the image above of Douglas with a crate had to be from 1920 or 1921.  It was before production began on The Three Musketeers, as he wasn't donning a moustache.  The message on the crate was my second clue.  I found that “California Ripe Olive Day” was first celebrated on February 21, 1921.  I also considered Douglas' bandaged hand.  I knew Dr. Goessel's book touched upon some of the injuries he sustained while performing his stunts, and she found that as he was leaping through a window for a scene in The Nut (1921), “he caught his foot on the sill and crashed six feet onto the pavement” fracturing his left hand.  Dr. Goessel even mentioned the names of some of Douglas’ dogs, including his Alaskan Malamutes, Ginger and Rex.  Her information combined with a 1917 article from The Photo-Play Journal helped me cross another image off my list.

Two negatives of Douglas and Charlie Chaplin posing with a young woman were of particular interest to those who had worked on the collection in the past.  These candid shots looked as though they had been taken around 1917, but I couldn’t place their guest.  Was she a friend, a relative, or a visitor to the studio?  Was she associated more with Chaplin than Douglas?  I knew the best way to find out would be to enlist Charlie’s dedicated fan base, so I wrote to Jessica Buxton, a knowledgeable researcher and enthusiast who maintains the blog, Discovering Chaplin.  Jessica thought I was correct about the date considering Charlie’s hair was still naturally dark, but she wasn’t sure about the lady in question.  She suggested we ask her equally devoted friend, Dominique Dugros.  Jessica and Dominique graciously dedicated their time to help me search, and they soon determined that our mystery maiden might have been the stage actress Marie Doro.  Chaplin had been quite taken with Doro when they worked together in the London revival of Sherlock Holmes in 1905.  According to a Motion Picture News article from 1916, which was around the time Marie started making pictures for the Lasky Company, she held a reception in Hollywood in which Charlie and Douglas were guests.  I haven’t been able to find this exact candid in any publications, so, of course I will continue to attempt to confirm the possibility, but there is a noticeable resemblance.  Perhaps our mystery has been solved!  Either way, I have made two wonderful new acquaintances along the way.

After scanning over four hundred negatives, trying to decide upon my favorite is difficult.  I was rather excited about all of them, but one discovery was particularly special.  On March 29, I came across an unpublished (to my knowledge) photograph of Mary and Douglas' wedding party exactly one day and 97 years after the event had taken place.  I love informal shots such as this one, because, posed or not, they represent the images we rarely see.  Throughout the rest of my time at the museum, I will work toward linking more negatives with their forgotten pasts, although the term “work” doesn’t seem to apply.  I am just playing detective and having a grand time doing so.  I'm not sure who does the arranging for us in this world—whether our fates are a result of our own doing or we receive a little assistance at times.  As wistful as it may sound, I find comfort in the thought that Douglas and Mary might be watching over me every now and then, and this special project gives me the rare opportunity to return the favor.  By assisting with the museum’s efforts to process the negatives, I feel I am helping to ensure that the collection will someday be accessible, thereby inviting researchers to rediscover a captivating constellation of lucky stars—two “united artists” who illuminated the silver screen and shaped the motion picture industry with their incomparable creativity, dedication, and drive.

As a first-year graduate student in The L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, Katherine Pratt is pursuing a Master of Arts with a special concentration in film and media conservation from the University of Rochester.  She holds a Bachelor of Science in television and film from Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, and has worked in post-production for Turner Classic Movies (TCM) in Atlanta and The Nine Network of Public Media (PBS) in St. Louis.  Her interests include special collections, conservation, digital restoration, public access, and, of course, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.


Tuesday, May 23, 2017