Sunday, January 14, 2018

Laugh and Live by Douglas Fairbanks

The world was at war when Laugh and Live was published on April 10,1917. Fairbanks was at the height of his popularity as a film star, but his best work was still to come. His reputation had been built on a series of romantic adventure comedies and some Westerns as a contract player for Triangle Studios. He was a household name. Fairbanks was among the first “Movie Stars” and the rise in popularity of silent films changed our culture. When Laugh and Live was published he was making at least half a million a year. He was about to embark upon a series of film projects that he felt strongly about, and in so doing he would change the film industry forever and leave a lasting impression on a generation of actors and writers. Fairbanks was a force to contend with. The historical importance of these facts is lost upon today’s digital audience, and none but the devoted film student might appreciate the enormity of his popularity. Fairbanks made a series of public appearances during World War I that drew incredible crowds. Streets were blocked off and he commanded his audience with motivational speeches delivered through a megaphone. He had become what is now referred to as an “acrobatic evangelist” similar to Billy Sunday, but without the hellfire and brimstone religious overtones. With Fairbanks you received a homespun philosophy, a grin and a bushel of enthusiasm. So popular was Laugh and Live that copies were sent to US Troops overseas to help with morale. The book sold briskly and a second printing was ordered within two weeks; an unprecedented literary success. Illustrated with publicity photos of Fairbanks or scenes from his films, Laugh and Live delivers a populist philosophy that is All-American, intelligent, logical and infused with the principals of hard work and fairness. Fairbanks begins with the dictum that laughter should be frequent on one’s life. He espouses the virtues of cleanliness, organization, being considerate of others, being frugal when necessary, and being physically and mentally fit. He concludes with the practical self-assessment – “Fresh air is my intoxicant – and it keeps me in high spirits. My system doesn’t crave artificial stimulation because my daily exercise quickens the blood sufficiently. Then, too, I manage to keep busy. That’s the real elixir – activity!” He goes on to promote reading, inner reflection, and honesty. There’s no question in my mind that Laugh and Live was the first best-selling self-help book for the literate, self-motivated individual. A year later, Fairbanks published a follow-up volume, Making Life Worthwhile, which was equally popular. Although, Making Life Worthwhile is likewise illustrated with photographs, it also includes custom drawings, artist unknown, one of which sums up the Fairbanks philosophy. Right after the first title page, there is a jarring illustration that gives one pause; It has a caricature of Fairbanks in the bottom right glancing up at a cigarette smoking skull, a vison of Death itself. The caricature doesn’t have Fairbanks laughing as you would expect, but rather looking bemused. In a crucial chapter, Fairbanks makes the point that half-baked knowledge is counter-productive to a self-determined individual. In other words, sow productive seeds in useful places. Be aware that failure and ignorance, and even death, are common enough, but since you’re here, strive on. Many years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (twice actually) and I suspect he was very much like his father. He possessed that same hearty goodwill and enthusiasm, and, in fact, called me up several times without solicitation and offered some advice on research I was attending to. After my biography on Errol Flynn was published, I intended on writing a duo-biography of Fairbanks Sr. and Jr., an effort I’ve abandoned. Yet the Fairbanks legacy is difficult to ignore. Soon after Making Life Worthwhile was published, Fairbanks embarked upon a series of minor films before jumping into The Mark of Zorro, The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood and The Thief of Bagdad. Of these marvelous silents, The Thief of Bagdad is an astonishing achievement; a film of visual splendor, wild imagination, high adventure, and abiding romance. I will never forget science fiction author Philip Jose Farmer telling me how important The Thief of Bagdad was to him. Having seen the film as a child, his imagination was sparked by the many incredible scenes, including the battle with the giant spider and the magic carpet ride. I rarely see copies of either Laugh and Live or Making Life Worthwhile during my constant inquisitive book hunting. The copies I own are low-grade, lacking the dust-jackets, but well-read and dog-eared. They are now both one hundred years old and they offer yet another glimpse into a lost world.

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