Released Nov 7, 1915, "But that was just a starter. His first picture, The Lamb, showed Fairbanks at his most active best, and it went over with a terrific bang." ~ Ralph Hancock and Letitia Fairbanks from their 1953 bio "Douglas Fairbanks: The Fourth Musketeer"

The Lamb (1915)

Ralph Hancock & Letitia Fairbanks set the stage for Douglas’ entrance into Hollywood in 1915, when he arrives to film his first motion picture, The Lamb:

[Director DW] Griffith was engrossed with the apparently limitless range of the motion picture camera. Its power to “delay the tempo of conventional acting and to focus casual facial expressions into meaningful detail,” as one writer has said, was an innovation of revolutionary form. Fairbanks, who tended to underact rather than elaborate any detail, bounced rudely into this serious preoccupation of the great director.

The role of Bertie, “the lamb” which Douglas Fairbanks had played in The New Henrietta on Broadway, was adapted and expanded into his first screen play and entitled The Lamb. Although actually directed by W. Christy Cabanne, it was under Griffith’s supervision, and a typically Griffith crew could hardly be expected to feel very sympathetic toward an interloper from Broadway. They took a dislike to Douglas not as a person but as a symbol. As Alistair Cooke has said in his book for the Museum of Modern Art: “There had been much speculation over the move to recruit theater stars, and by the time Fairbanks arrived the crew had come to the conclusion that they were against It. Fairbanks’ hearty good nature defeated their expectations but they were not so easily to be denied their little resentment …” They plotted a mild act of malice, seeing to it that Fairbanks was given a wrong and rather ghastly make-up.

Douglas took it as he took any practical joke-for it never appeared to matter much whether he was the recipient or the giver; If It was a good joke he enjoyed it. The crew capitulated, but Griffith’s first taste of Fairbanks’ acrobatic levity was enough to convince him that there was no place in his ambitious program for Douglas’ style of acting. He told Douglas he would be more successful in Keystone comedies and urged him to see Mack Sennett, who, doubtless, could find a suitable place for him in one of his slapstick productions.

”I’ll put in a word for you with Mack,” said Griffith, “and perhaps he will team you up with Mabel Normand.” Although Miss Normand was the leading comedy star of the Sennett stable, Douglas thought costarring with her in a two-reel comedy was hardly what he had come to Hollywood to do. Obviously, in Griffith’s opinion, Fairbanks was a liability. Before the fade-out for The Lamb was shot, Douglas, like most of Griffith’s unsolved problems, was shunted into the care of Frank Woods, “who acted as a sort of cowcatcher to Griffith productions, sweeping accumulated embarrassments away from the path of the Master.”

~ Ralph Hancock & Letitia Fairbanks, Douglas Fairbanks: the Fourth Musketeer, 1953, US Edition, pages 120-121

But Director Christy Cabanne knew what to do with the athletic and perpetual-motion-machine known as Douglas Fairbanks, and let Douglas do what he did best: be a show-off. It was a successful packaging and Douglas Fairbanks became a star overnight.

The film actually debuted on September 23, 1915 at the gala opening of the Knickerbocker Theatre in New York City. The theater wanted a DW Griffith picture to inaugurate it’s opening, since Griffith had proved earlier that year, with the release of his seminal and ground-breaking Birth of a Nation, that audiences were ready, willing, and able to pay regular theater prices for a moving picture show.

None of the Triangle executives thought The Lamb was a remarkable picture, but it was the only thing they had ready to release when the theater opened, so they gave it their blessing and reluctant consent.

~ Ralph Hancock & Letitia Fairbanks, Douglas Fairbanks: the Fourth Musketeer, 1953, US Edition, pages 120-121

The film proved so popular, and Fairbanks proved to be such a boxoffice draw – that the film was released for general viewing on November 7th, 1915.

Some of their apprehension was reflected by the star of the show, for he failed to see the premier of his first picture. A long time afterward Douglas admitted that he was so sure it would be a flop he didn’t have the nerve to attend its first showing.

He and Beth [Sully, Douglas’ first wife and mother of Douglas Fairbanks Jr.] left for New York when the picture was finished, but they stopped off for a visit with his brother Robert in Utah. Robert and his wife were induced to join them and they were all en route to New York when they read the first reviews of The Lamb. Jan Ignace Paderewski was a guest of honor at the historic opening, said the New York Times, and celebrities like Howard Chandler Christy, Irvin S. Cobb, and Rupert Hughes were on hand “to show there was no ill feeling toward the motion picture’s new pretensions.” The movies had arrived and, socially at least, were considered no longer vulgar, the difference, obviously, between vulgarity and virtue being a dollar and ninety cents.

The Triangle chiefs could relax. Henceforth, stage and movie actors could be regarded as a common caste, and anything the stage could do the movies could do as well or better. But the Triangle chiefs’ grateful sighs were faint beside the new exuberance of Douglas Fairbanks. Hollywood was a great place, California a wonderful state, the movies the only medium that gave him real freedom of expression. And action! Why, the stage could never hold a footlight to the kind of action he could get in the movies!

~ Ralph Hancock & Letitia Fairbanks, Douglas Fairbanks: the Fourth Musketeer, 1953, US Edition, pages 122-123

And with that, a star was born!

From the very start, Fairbanks employed the meme of his day – that the love of a woman can turn a weakling into a brave, athletic man.  Before Doug’s character meets up with his lady-friend, he can barely make it across the hedge:

After the two share a moment and she accepts his proposal, Doug vaults over the previously-daunting hedge:

When viewing silent films, I’m reminded that Fairbanks lived at a time of (up until then) unprecedented technological achievements.  One role that his films The Lamb contains a number of scenes that not only showcase the brand new movie actor, but equally new and startling technologies such as airplanes and machine guns. 

While The Lamb was an entertainment feature, the scenes of the miraculous new inventions that audiences had previously only read about, offered movie-goers even more reasons to pay the steep $2 ticket price.  Yes, motion pictures were entertainment, but they could expose their viewers to so much more than they had ever seen before.  And all animated, as if with life, as if the viewer were there, seeing it for themselves. The novelty of the technology that was delivering news of even more amazing inventions, all wrapped up in a screen persona that men wanted to be like, and women wanted to fall in love with, was the icing on the cake.

Posted in Centenary event and tagged , , .