Did DW Griffith cast Douglas Fairbanks in blackface in "Martyrs of the Alamo"? Slave Joe (l) loads rifles for his dying master, Jim Bowie (r).

Martyrs of the Alamo (AKA The Birth of Texas 1915)

According to IMDB, Martyrs of the Alamo, released November 21, 1915, was Douglas Fairbanks' 2nd film, where he played, “Joe / Texan Soldier (uncredited) (unconfirmed).” So I found a copy of the film on Amazon Prime and watched it, peering into the faces of the many supporting roles (this was a DW Griffith production, after all) to see if I could spot anyone who might resemble Douglas.

Try as I might, I couldn't find Douglas in Martyrs of the Alamo anywhere, although a few extras in the fight scenes looked possible. And that blackface actor.... he caught my eye, but it couldn't be Douglas.... DW wouldn't put Douglas in blackface, would he?

When I started to write this blog post, I wanted to re-watch the film, extracting desired footage, capturing still images, etc, so I did a search to remind myself where I saw the film. This time, I spied the film on archive.org. Curiously, I clicked on the link and underneath the streaming video of Martyrs of the Alamo were the very helpful comments of “Cat Lady”:

Subject: A historic film and a painful treat for Fairbanks fans

It's a painful treat because Doug is in blackface here, as well as in a small and uncredited role. He spends most of his brief screen time crouched on the floor behind various objects to hide his physique and athletic movements. Sigh.

Once I knew what to look for (crouching black face character) it was easy to spot Doug, indeed cast by DW Griffith completely against type – one might almost say, in contempt of Fairbanks' dynamic heroism type -- as a mute, sulking, slave, portrayed in blackface by Douglas. Evidently this was the “Joe” referenced in IMDB's Fairbanks Sr. listing for Martyrs of the Alamo.

DW's casting could not have been very well received by Douglas. To be relegated to such a role could hardly have been what Doug had in mind when he gave up the “legitimate” [acting on a stage in front of a live audience] and moving his young family across the country to the unknown Hollywood and threw his lot in with the unproven motion picture business.

But in what would become his signature trademark of not-getting-mad-but-getting-even, Douglas manages, in spite of his character's seemingly invisible role, to upstage the starring actors, arising between General Travis and Jim Bowie, standing and looking at them, then disappearing behind the other (white) Texas soldiers, as shown in this 1 min, 3 second clip:

The Martyrs of the Alamo was also known as The Birth of Texas and in both its alternative name, and its very spirit is meant to evoke DW Griffith's sensational The Birth of a Nation, released to great fanfare earlier in 1915.

The first New York showing of Griffith's The Birth of a Nation occurred in April [1915], and Douglas, as one of the new celebrities in the Triangle stable, was invited to attend. The novelty of a full-length, multiple-reel picture, its tremendous impact on audiences that had paid the unheard-of admission fee of two dollars, and the dramatic innovations in this silent stage were not lost on this keenly aware young man. Nothing in the field of entertainment had ever stirred his emotions quite so much. Profoundly moved by the great story itself, he was even more impressed by the apparently unlimited possibilities of motion picture photography. Here at last was an art medium fit for the hand of a master. He returned again and again to view the picture and left the theatre more enthusiastic than the time before. A few days after the final curtain came down on The Show Shop [May 1915], Douglas Fairbanks and his family arrived in Hollywood.

~ Ralph Hancock & Letitia Fairbanks, Douglas Fairbanks: the Fourth Musketeer, 1953, US Edition, page 111

Ralph and Letitia make no mention whatsoever of The Martyrs of the Alamo, and I'm not surprised. Letitia's favored tactic when dealing with an unpleasant situation she was not fond of was to “damn with faint praise.” If there was a person she did not like, she simply never mentioned them. Thus DW's putting Douglas in blackface would simply be whitewashed from the family history; such an unpleasant and sordid episode, flushed from the memory.

The mutual lack of respect between DW and Douglas was evident from the start:

One could hardly expect Griffith to appreciate the jovial bantering of Douglas Fairbanks, just as we know that Douglas could never take people as seriously as they took themselves. Actually, no one respected knowledge and ability more than Fairbanks did, but he never let respect and awe become an apology for his sense of humor. While he recognized Griffith as a great artist, he always preferred greatness tempered with humor. He found it difficult to adjust himself to this pioneer movie visionary in whose august presence everyone spoke in hushed and awed tones, and it was impossible for him to work without an outlet for laughs and practical jokes. He got off on the wrong foot with DW on their first encounter.

~ Ralph Hancock & Letitia Fairbanks, Douglas Fairbanks: the Fourth Musketeer, 1953, US Edition, pages 119-120

Whatever Douglas' role, or lack of one, Martrys of the Alamo shows DW at his best and worst, as is frequently exclaimed about his other historical drama of 1915, The Birth of a Nation. At the “Best” end of the scale, DW is the Master at crafting, choreographing, then capturing on film large-scale, historical battle re-enactments. His ability to mix the small personal stories with the larger, human panorama, and allow the viewer to experience the sweep and thrill of a country's great war epics, was unparalleled, and what we today take for granted as visual shorthand, were to large degree created by DW Griffith.

But at its worst, Martyrs does for Anglo-Hispanic relations what The Birth of a Nation did for White-Black interracial harmony: nothing helpful in the least. Noted in The New York Times review of the film version of Thomas Dixon's The Clansman, re-christened The Birth of a Nation, using the elliptical style of commenting that was employed in those days:

A great deal might be said concerning the spirit revealed in Mr Dixon's review of the unhappy chapter of the Reconstruction and concerning the sorry service rendered by its plucking at old wounds. But of the film as a film, it may be reported simply that it is an impressive new illustration of the scope of the motion picture camera.

~ The New York Times, The New York times Film Reviews: 1913-1931, 1970, Vol 1, Page 5

The phrase, “ the sorry service rendered by its plucking at old wounds,” points out just how low the subject matter was regarded, and what little-good could come of such actions. And while The New York Times review was of a different movie, much the same could be said of Martyrs of the Alamo: jingoistic, patronizingly patriotic, and historically inaccurate leading to a worsening film portrayal of racial stereotypes that we still struggle with 100 years later.

But the same could also be said, “But of the film as a film, it may be reported simply that it is an impressive new illustration of the scope of the motion picture camera.”

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