There is of course Chaplin. His Little Tramp is revered to this day and rightly so. Charlie Chaplin combined comedy and pathos so skillfully that few if any have ever come close to approaching his artistry.
Then comes Old Stone Face Buster Keaton. Keaton took physical comedy to new heights with stunts that are to this day breathtaking in their risk and execution to go along with his dead pan reactions.
Harold Lloyd is the third great silent movie comedian. Lloyd could also do the high wire comedy of a Keaton. What separated him was the look; the persona of young man on the go that struck a chord with audiences of the 1920’s. The glasses and those amazing “chase” sequences made Harold Lloyd one of the most popular actors in Hollywood.
You wouldn’t think to put Douglas Fairbanks on that list given his defining of the swashbuckler in movies like Robin Hood, The Black Pirate and The Mark of Zorro. These were roles well suited to Fairbanks’ charisma and athleticism backed by first rate production.
But previous to that era there was another Douglas Fairbanks worlds apart from what he would play later on. The Douglas Fairbanks who before his transformation to buccaneer was one of the best silent movie comedians ever.
It’s that Fairbanks that you rarely hear about. Like Lloyd in the twenties Fairbanks represented that young man on the go in the teens. The difference was that more than a few of Fairbanks comedies are… Well. Strange.
The Mystery of Leaping Fish is a good example. Fairbanks plays the brilliant detective Coke Ennyday (that’s not a typo) whose whole existence can be summed up in one word: Drugs.
He injects every couple of minutes, drinks concoctions that would stop an elephant in its tracks. Later on he tastes some opium and dances merrily down the street. It’s that same opium by the way that gives him the wherewithal to beat the thunder out of the villain.
But it’s the scenes at the beach that really showcase Fairbanks’ comedic skills and athletic prowess. The first is trying to save a woman in obviously shallow water from drowning. Ennyday takes a leap off the pier and promptly gets stuck upside down in the mud underwater.
Now the savee turns into the savior as the woman has an incredible time turning Ennyday right side up, getting the seaweed off of him and carrying him back to beach house. Fairbanks is absolutely hilarious the way he makes her struggle every step of the way.
Having not quite learned his lesson Ennyday attempts to body surf. Like Chaplin and the others Fairbanks was terrific with props. In this case the props are a floatation device and water which he uses to take all kinds of laugh out loud pratfalls.
Yet he was also very capable when it came to playing it more subtle. Flirting with Fate made in 1916 is the story of Augy Holliday a young man so distraught by how his life has turned out that he hires someone to kill him.
Their first meeting is in some hole in the wall dive where Automatic Joe shows Augy his weapon of choice. Holliday doesn’t want to know when, where or what as he tries to push the gun out of site. Fairbanks reaction to what he’s about to embark on is priceless.
Then suddenly Augy’s life takes an upswing. He’s even going to get married except that he remembers Automatic Joe is still out there and hasn’t gotten the memo to cancel the agreement.
From then on Augy is a nervous wreck. His paranoia particularly at the wedding shows a great comedian at work.
There are numerous examples of Fairbanks touches. The surreal moment in the Martrimaniac when a mule rears on it two hind legs and rest on Fairbanks shoulders. Richard Marshall in the MollyCoddle who attempts to speak to a Native American by using sign and body language. The actor who played the part has a great comeback which Fairbanks obviously appreciated.
It’s a given that Douglas Fairbanks is known for his adventure movies. Not only was he the first but he did it with style to burn. But Douglas Fairbanks the comedian was no slouch either. He made his mark making people laugh before changing himself into the swashbuckler and as these movies demonstrate he could hold his own with the Big Three of silent movie comedy enny day.