Douglas Fairbanks came from a family of modest means. This is often forgotten by his (modern) fans and admirers, who remember the opulent style of living he and wife Mary Pickford created at Pickfair, when Douglas was the First King of Hollywood.
So when Douglas started into film – then a daring and new medium for actors – it was natural that in addition to bringing his own exuberant self to the screen, Doug also brought his strong democratic principals, too. In the world that Doug created, it didn’t matter if you were a king or a pauper; the amount of money wasn’t important. It was the quality of your character, the strength of your heart and mind, those were the determinants of how Douglas Fairbanks treated you.
Douglas’ sixth film, Reggie Mixes In, continues in this theme of allowing Fairbanks to mingle freely with all different types, i.e., with people from different economic classes, while showing how the adept man navigates through society, no matter the level of wealth (or lack there of) he’s dealing with. And, as is typical in a Fairbanks 1910s movie plot, at the start the main character is shown simply enjoying the vim & vigor that life has so fortunately handed him, a character “who, as you will observe during the progress of out story, is just fresh from college.” Thus it is shown that since at least 1916, college students have earned a reputation for being spoiled scions who rise late in the morning and have not much other than raw enthusiasm to offer.
“It’s lunch-time sir. Will you have your breakfast, sir?” asks the faithful servant, who Reggie has nicknamed “Pickleface” who comes to rouse the young hero from his bed at the start of the film.
Reggie is eventually brought to the land of the living, and this being a Doug Fairbanks film, Reggie doesn’t just go sit in a chair. No, that would never do! Instead, Reggie uses the prop of a chair to show off graceful athleticism. And with a final good-morning leap the photoplay’s plot continues.
Similar to his earlier film, The Habit of Happiness, where Douglas employed out-of-work men to be the unhappy souls he attempts to enliven through laughter, in Reggie Mixes In Douglas plays the young hero who mingles with the working classes, moving into a “furnished room” in order to be close to the woman he desires (who is of “unfortunate economic circumstances”) while spurning the wealthy social butterfly who has set her sights on him.
The story turns our hero from spoiled scion to resourceful man-about-town as our young hero chances upon a little lost girl, and helps her to find her home, in the world of “beer and beef stew,” in other words, with the lower classes.
Enter Douglas’ real love interest, Agnes, a “good girl” in spite of her job as “the new dancing girl at Gallagher’s.” Here our young hero Reggie is able to finally show his constancy and support of a lovely young woman who’s family has “fallen onto hard times.” It’s a classic recipe for a film script: callow youth makes good after falling for a deserving woman, who gives him the courage to find his strengths and act from his convictions. It’s a variation that Fairbanks used time & again, especially in his pre-United Artist (pre-1920) films. And it played into the memes of the day, which had Americans believing themselves to be a society without classes, since there was no aristocracy, populated with self-made millionaires who appeared in society on what seemed to be a regular basis, from families of most modest means. The idea that Americans could be, do, or have anything they wanted, irrespective of birth position – and had already succeeded at for over 100 years – was still a fresh and perhaps startling realization, especially when viewed from Europe, now mired deep in war and conflict.
Agnes is played by Bessie Love, a Midland, Texas-born actress discovered by DW Griffith in Los Angeles in 1915, where her father had moved in search of work. Griffith cast the young girl of 17 opposite Fairbanks in three films at the very beginning of what was to be a lengthy show business career that spanned continents, and lasted until 1983 (Love died in 1986). The three films in which DW paired Fairbanks with Love are all from 1916 and are The Good Bad Man, Reggie Mixes In, and Mystery of the Leaping Fish.
While Habit of Happiness uses what we now call Law of Attraction to direct the hero’s evolution from diffidence to accomplishment, Reggie Mixes In traverses a similar spiritual path, but this time it uses pugilism, or boxing, as the medium for the hero’s growth. In fact the review of Reggie Mixes In from the New York Times broadcasts the movie’s medium in it review title, “Fights in ‘Reggie Mixes In’: Douglas Fairbanks Slugs His Way to the Altar in Movie Thriller.” The reviewer describes,
Reels 2 and 3 consist mainly of encounters between the athletic Mr. Fairbanks and his assailants. There is never any question about who will win these combats, borth the fact that he is the hero of the tale and his well-known prowess in the manly art of self-defense combine to make it a foregone conclusion that the other fellow will be shown lying lim in the right background while Mr. Fairbanks walks off the lower left-hand corner of the screen smiling that priceless (for cinematic purposes) smile.
The anonymous New York Times reviewer of Reggie expends four of the six paragraphs describing to his readers what stupendous “lifelike” fights await the audience.
It is quite probable that if there were many more like Mr. Fairbanks in the movies the Boxing Commission would be made film censors and the sporting department sent to write about them. Never was such a fight seen on the screen. The audience fairly gasped at some of the falls, which were not confined to the star’s opponent, for Fairbanks himself took his share of the drubbing, although his share was naturally not as large. When it was all over Fairbanks was just able to stagger out of the room, which may have been acting, but more probably was not.
And here is a truth about silent movies, that is tacitly understood, but rarely acknowledged as the feat it surely was: Before CGI, before (very much) trick photography was developed, and before Robert Fairbanks helped his brother create the elaborate sets that housed stunt apparatus (like trampolines and slides), all the actors did their own stunts. There were no doubles, and with Fairbanks – always – there were no stunt men. Douglas would never have asked another to do for him, what Douglas always felt was at the core of what he brought to the screen – himself and his highly-trained and finely-wrought athleticism.
Douglas never had a double. He never asked anyone to do anything that he himself was afraid to do. No fall was too hard, no fight was too furious, no ride too dangerous, and there wasn’t a single one of his pictures in which he didn’t take a chance of breaking his neck or a few bones.
But as George Creel, who knew him in those days, once pointed out, “… few actors have brought such superphysical equipment to the strenuous work of the movies. Fairbanks, in addition to being blessed with a strong, lithe body, has developed it by expert devotion to every form of athletic sport. He swims well, is a crack boxer, a good polo player, a splendid wrestler, a skillful acrobat, a fast runner, and an absolutely fearless rider.”
~ Ralph Hancock & Letitia Fairbanks, Douglas Fairbanks: the Fourth Musketeer, 1953, US Edition, page 135.