What Does the First Movie Action Hero Say About the Heroes of Today?

Before there was Cruise, Stallone, and Schwarzenegger, there was Douglas Fairbanks.

What Does the First Movie Action Hero Say About the Heroes of Today?

Next March, Batman and Superman will “meet” in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But they’ve met before, actually at the very dawn of the film industry. Ever wonder why Batman wears a mask? Why does Superman stand with his hands on his hips in the now-classic “hero” pose? The answer to both questions is the same: Douglas Fairbanks (shown above). Before Cruise, Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and all the rest, there was Fairbanks, swashbuckling his way into audiences’ hearts all around the world. The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks by Tracy Goessel reminds of who Fairbanks was and why he’ll always be the once, and always, king.


  • Image: Movie poster for The Mark of Zorro (1920). Image source: Wikipedia.
  • Fairbanks arose from the mythic beginnings of American film. Much of that myth Fairbanks himself created, which is why Goessel’s mythbusting, meticulous research makes this new, definitive biography so powerful. Goessel, a member of the board of directors of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and founder of the Los Angeles–based Film Preservation Society, spent the last eight years trying to peel away the mythic mask worn by the man who starred in The Mark of Zorro (shown above). (Batman’s creator Bob Kane acknowledged his debt to Fairbanks by having the Wayne family watch The Mark of Zorro before their life-changing walk in an alley.) Fairbanks “deserves our attention,” Goessel argues, “because although we do not recognize it, he is still here” in everything from the superheroes dominating modern screens to the Oscars awarded each year to even the idea that a tan makes you look healthier. Goessel builds a compelling case of how Fairbanks still matters.


  • Image: Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Image source: Wikipedia.
  • Before “Brangelina” there was “Pickfair” and “DougandMary” — the first Hollywood power couple of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford (shown above). Fairbanks and Pickford established the template for celebrity in modern America and, in many ways, the world. The only star bigger than Fairbanks was Pickford, while the only star who rivaled their status was Charlie Chaplin — their closest friend, frequent houseguest, and co-founder of United Artists, the distribution company that allowed them to break free of the studio system and raise film from just a business to an art form.

    Goessel’s purchase of the previously unstudied Fairbanks-Pickford love letters adds a whole new dimension to this biography and our view of their relationship. “In the current era, when romantic communication seems to the jaded eye to consist largely of scantily clad selfies and more-explicit-than-we-want-to-see sexting,” Goessel writes, “[Fairbanks] words evoke a different form of nakedness, having no qualifying irony or detachment.” Just as Fairbanks’ films evoke a simpler, uncomplicated style of storytelling, his love letters to Pickford reveal his unapologetically romantic side — the hero with a heart of gold.


  • Image: Movie poster for The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Image source: Wikipedia.
  • Goessel traces Fairbanks’ career back to its stage origins, correcting many of the inaccuracies he introduced to tell a “better” story for the fans. Rather than resist film, which at that time was considered a lower art form than live theater, Fairbanks pursued a film career, perhaps recognizing its potential and how its bigger stage better suited his larger-than-life persona. Starting out with comedies that allowed him to play the honest but goofy hero, Fairbanks went on to make bolder, more creative works such as Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers, and The Thief of Bagdad. Audiences of the 1920s thrilled to the spectacle surrounding Fairbanks’ acrobatics and stunts, most of which he performed with a megawatt smile. 

    The common thread of all these films was Fairbanks’ personal appeal. When a film such as 1916’s The Half-Breed, it was because critics saw “no Doug in it.” We’re used to “Tom Cruise” brand films today, but Fairbanks built a brand before the idea even existed. Fairbanks’ brand borrowed heavily from that of Theodore Roosevelt. “Fairbanks was the genuine personification of Roosevelt’s edict of living the strenuous life,” Goessel claims. On film, Fairbanks became TR’s “man in the arena” fighting the good fight, getting up from every knockdown, and always smiling — all with a dose of humor and chivalry that drew every eye in the room to him. “His sunny cheer and astonishing athletic prowess spoke to the virtues of America in an era when America had no self-doubts about possessing any,” Goessel adds.


  • Image: Douglas Fairbanks in The Iron Mask (1929). Image source: Wikipedia.
  • Fairbanks was definitely a man of his time, which made it harder for him to be a man of later times. Goessel parallels the end of Fairbanks’ marriage with Pickford with the coming of sound pictures that brought an end to the style and romance of silent films, especially those Fairbanks specialized in. Fairbanks could still strike the hero’s pose in his last (mostly) silent film, 1929’s The Iron Mask (shown above), but the aches that came with years of stuntwork as well as technological progress proved unvanquishable foes. “After he left Mary,” Goessel writes concisely, “nothing seemed to go right.” Whereas America had no doubts before, the 1929 Stock Market Crash and resulting Great Depression left nothing but doubts. The Fairbanks that rose to fame couldn’t survive in that new, less-enthusiastic, less-hopeful environment. 1927’s The Gaucho represents Fairbanks attempt at an “anti-hero” for the changing times, resulting in a film appreciated now more than by his contemporaries, who still wanted more “Doug.”


  • Image: Fairbanks speaking in front of a crowd at a 1918 war bond drive in New York City. Image source: Wikipedia.
  • Our heroes, ourselves. We forgot Fairbanks in the amnesia that comes with changing times and the need for new heroes. Goessel’s The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks resurrects Fairbanks the fallen hero but also shines a spotlight on how much America has changed and how our heroes reflect that change. Ronald Reagan’s 1980s proved the perfect incubator of jingoistic dreams such as John Rambo and Tom Cruise’s Top Gun “Maverick,” anti-heroes who loved their country — right or wrong — in the end. There once was a time when a movie star such as Douglas Fairbanks could proudly campaign for war support before adoring throngs (shown above), but the innocence of such scenes seems impossible today in our more jaded, less certain world. Goessel’s book will thrill you with the stories of Hollywood’s first king, but it may also make you nostalgic for the days (however illusory they may have been) of bolder, less complicated heroes such as Douglas Fairbanks — a Superman for all seasons.

  • [Image at Top of Post: Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Image source: Wikipedia.]
  • [Please follow me on Twitter (@BobDPictureThis) and Facebook (Art Blog By Bob) for more art news and views.]
  • A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

    An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

    Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
    Surprising Science
    • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
    • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
    • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

    The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

    Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

    "It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

    The Barry Arm Fjord

    Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

    Image source: Matt Zimmerman

    The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

    Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

    Image source: whrc.org

    There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

    The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

    "This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

    Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

    What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

    Moving slowly at first...

    Image source: whrc.org

    "The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

    The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

    Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

    Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

    While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

    Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

    How do you prepare for something like this?

    Image source: whrc.org

    The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

    "To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

    In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

    Your genetics influence how resilient you are to the cold

    What makes some people more likely to shiver than others?

    Surprising Science
    Some people just aren't bothered by the cold, no matter how low the temperature dips. And the reason for this may be in a person's genes.
    Keep reading Show less

    Harvard study finds perfect blend of fruits and vegetables to lower risk of death

    Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.

    Credit: Pixabay
    Surprising Science
    • A massive new study confirms that five servings of fruit and veggies a day can lower the risk of death.
    • The maximum benefit is found at two servings of fruit and three of veggies—anything more offers no extra benefit according to the researchers.
    • Not all fruits and veggies are equal. Leafy greens are better for you than starchy corn and potatoes.
    Keep reading Show less