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August 16, 2008

Cinematic Denver: Douglas Fairbanks

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Reaching for the Moon
Edmond Goulding - 1931
Passport Video Region 1 DVD

Denver seems to have always had a problem with its own history. Whether this involves preserving older buildings or paying tribute to famed residents, it usually seems to involve efforts from non-Denverites to point out the value in the past. My first knowledge that Douglas Fairbanks had anything to do with Denver was by chance while I was at high school, a little over forty years ago. Someone had mentioned that Fairbanks had attended an earlier incarnation of Denver East High School. It was also mentioned that he grew up at a house nearby, near the intersection of Colfax and Josephine Street.

I think I had seen some stills of Fairbanks, and had I seen any of his films, it may have been an abridged version shown on the short lived television series, "Silents, Please". I could never find out which house was the one Fairbanks grew up in. I tried to find more information from Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. when he came to visit Denver, but he didn't know either. (Not that the evening was a bust, as I still had the pleasure of seeing The Exile again on a theater screen.) I would have thought a little bit more might have been done on the 100th birthday of Fairbanks' birthday in Denver, but there seemed to have been little interest in cinema's first action hero. As for East High School, in addition to Fairbanks, it should be proud of having Hattie McDaniel as a student. I would think that being the first African American to win an Oscar should make up for the fact that she dropped out of school. East High School currently can also brag about past graduates Pam Grier and Don Cheadle. And if you find Going Ape! on a late night broadcast, that's my sister playing a corpse, doing her best to keep from cracking a smile.

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Reaching for the Moon almost describes Fairbanks' career at the beginning of the sound era. The title is the same as a film directed by John Emerson, also starring Fairbanks, from 1917. In the newer film, Fairbanks' character, Larry Day, is described as a young man. Fairbanks, was forty-seven in 1930, and looked his age, albeit a very fit forty-seven. What had not diminished was his on-screen enthusiasm and likability. Larry Day is a wealthy stockbroker pursued by aviatrix Vivien Benton. Benton captures the heart of the long time bachelor, and Day ignores business to pursue Benton on an ocean liner bound for England. The film isn't completely Depression era escapism, as Day loses everything he has financially, only to learn that Benton loves his him for himself. Day's financial free fall is cushioned by Benton being independently wealthy herself.

Fairbanks show off his athletic ability mostly in leaping into bed, and running around the ocean liner without a shirt. More rewarding to watch are the fantastic art deco sets by William Cameron Menzies. The historically minded may want to see Bing Crosby's first film appearance, prior to the more intimate kind of singing he was known for. There is also some amusement to be found in the pre-Code gay humor when valet Edward Everett Horton demonstrates to Fairbanks how to put the moves on Bebe Daniels. The DVD version is apparently the surviving version of a film that had a running time of about ninety minutes. The film was made two years before director Edmund Goulding hit his stride with Grand Hotel. As an early talkie, there are some indications that Goulding was experimenting with sound and moving the camera as the film progresses, most clearly in several traveling shots on the ocean liner set. I don't know if Douglas Fairbanks could have re-invented himself for the sound era, or if he really wanted to, but Reaching for the Moon describes a film career that took off like a rocket, and almost as quickly fell back to earth.

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Posted by peter at August 16, 2008 12:17 AM


Peter - I saw this film some time ago and really enjoyed EEH. I always like Fairbanks - he has such a good sense of humor, especially about himself.

But Crosby, oh, my. Talk about green.

Posted by: Marilyn at August 18, 2008 05:05 PM