Douglas Fairbanks was the consummate Hollywood silent movie star, and the Oscar-winning flick The Artist is loosely based on his life.
But when he came to Angkor to revive a flagging career, he flopped. Michael Scholten reports.
In 1931 silent movie star Douglas Fairbanks embarked on a hectic travel junket with his friend and mentor, director Victor Fleming, to film the travelogue Around the World in 80 Minutes.
The year was a changing point in both men’s lives. While Fleming’s golden years as director were yet to come, Fairbanks, the ultimate star of the silent movie era, was facing the rapid decline of his career with the advent of the talking pictures.
The all-boy tour to Cambodia and other Asian countries that the duo embarked was a desperate escape from Hollywood and a disloyal cinema audience.
Fairbanks, ‘The King of Hollywood,’ was best known for his funny characters in silent films, and his remarkable athletic abilities gained worldwide attention.
There was no bigger star in Hollywood than Douglas Fairbanks. In 1927, during the first ceremony of its type, he and Mary Pickford, who he married in 1920, placed their hand and foot prints in wet cement at the newly opened Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.
In the same year Fairbanks was a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, serving as its first president and hosting the first award ceremony at the Roosevelt Hotel.
But his amazing success story ground to a halt with the introduction of the ‘talkies.’
Fairbanks did not share the fate of many other actors, who had to retire immediately because of a bad voice or a foreign accent. Fairbanks had a trained voice from his early years on theatre stages, but the technical restrictions of early sound films dulled his enthusiasm.
While in contrast to the tragic hero George Valentin in this year’s Oscar winner The Artist, that is loosely based on Douglas Fairbanks’ life, he did not refuse to give talkies a try. But his first attempts in the medium were poorly received.
‘These ruins are in a perfect state of preservation. Like the Republican Party.’
To escape from failure, Fairbanks absented himself from his wife, his audience and his country. Since he was no longer able to entertain himself by entertaining others, playing golf and travelling around the world became his new diversion.
In 1931 he embarked on a trip to Hawaii, Japan, Hong Kong, China, the Philippines, Cambodia, Siam, and India with Fleming, his coach Chuck Lewis, and cameraman Henry Sharp, who had an innovative sound-recording device enabling him to make audio recordings in remote parts of Asia.
To find financial support for this trip, Fairbanks camouflaged the private fun as a feature-length comic travelogue entitled Around the World in 80 Minutes, inspired by Jules Verne’s epic novel, Around the World in 80 Days.
The movie crew boarded a vessel to Hawaii, and the film’s first footage showed the 48-year-old Fairbanks demonstrating gymnastics. From Hollywood the ensemble travelled to Japan, China and the Philippines, where Fairbanks grabbed a golf club and on a giant map of Asia, chipped the golf ball from Manila to Angkor Wat, his next stop.
Fairbanks described Angkor as, “One of the most interesting and most impressive spots in the world.” Talking about the stone carvings, he added, “You will notice that every square foot of the enormous walls forms part of an elaborate sculptural design. These ruins are in a perfect state of preservation. Like the Republican Party.”
Rumor has it that Fairbanks and his director Victor Fleming planned to return to Angkor to use it as a magnificent location for a future adventure movie, but their idea was never realized.
The Grand Hotel d’Angkor was still under construction in 1931 and – with the advent of the depression – could not be opened before 1932. It is likely, but not proved, that Fairbanks and his team stayed at the Auberge Royal de Temples that was built opposite Angkor Wat in 1909, and destroyed during the Khmer Rouge years.
Unlike friend and United Artists partner Charlie Chaplin who visited Siem Reap and Phnom Penh in 1936 on a honeymoon trip with new wife Paulette Goddard, Fairbanks didn’t visit the capital. He limited his stay in Cambodia to the Siem Reap area.
Socializing with barely clothed children who “speak French better than I could,” Fairbanks demonstrated his athletic skills by climbing the towers of Angkor Wat for exercise and fun, and entertained the local crowds in front of the temples with simple magic tricks using cigarettes and a matchbox.
In an on-screen dialogue with Victor Fleming, Fairbanks praised the grace and beauty of the Cambodian Apsara dancers, who wore “a little more clothes” in 1931 than on the “carvings made 1000 years ago.” Although daring the wrath of the neighbor country, Fairbanks added, “I heard they are even better than the ones in Siam.”
The Asia tour ended in June 1931 and cost – including postproduction – less than $120,000.
Although some of the dialogues were recorded on location, the greater part of Fairbanks’ monologues were written later by Broadway playwright and screen writer Robert E. Sherwood. Although an admirer of Fairbanks, he did not spare his idol from some narrow-minded and patronising comments about the cultures he had encountered on his tour.
Joseph Schenck, executive producer and president of United Artists, was disappointed about the film results and considered them “a substandard and unacceptable product.”
But Fairbanks liked the movie and made plans for a sequel
Despite Joseph Schenck’s objection, Around the World in 80 Minutes was released by United Artists with the world premiere held on November 19, 1931, at the Rivoli Theater in New York City.
Around the World in 80 Minutes received mainly bad reviews and was far away from being a blockbuster, although it eventually grossed a paltry $200,000.
While in Rome, Fairbanks received the report about his box office failure.
He returned to the US, and cancelled all plans for his next escapist travelogue.
Around the World in 80 Minutes remains one of the least known and least shown movies of the Hollywood veteran. Even in Cambodian bootleg stalls it is impossible to get a copy of it. The travelogue is seldom presented outside of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and even that institution shows little enthusiasm for it.
“Except perhaps from a sociological point of view, it is a film of no importance,” the former MoMa film curator Eileen Bowser observed. “Its only value may be as documentation of how painful Fairbanks found the aging process.”
The Internet Movie Data Base contains only two reviews of the film, underlining its value “for historians and anthropologists, as well as anyone studying international relations during the period of uneasy peace maintained between the two world wars.”
Fairbanks retired from acting in 1934, divorced Mary Pickford in 1936, and married his new love, British lingerie model Sylvia Ashley. Their honeymoon trip took a couple of years and was only brought to an end by Fairbank’s heart attack and death in December 1939.