Triangle-Fine Arts Company
Release Date: November 7, 1915
Directed by W. Christy Cabanne
CAST: Douglas Fairbanks (Gerald), Seena Owen (Mary), William E. Lowery (Yaqui Indian Chief), Lillian Langdon (Mary's Mother), Monroe Salisbury (Mary's Cousin), Kate Toncray (Gerald's Mother), Alfred Paget (Blll Cactus)
What a special treat that Grapevine Video has provided Douglas Fairbanks' first starring feature, "The Lamb," on DVD. Sadly, this title was missing from Flicker Alley's superb 2008 5-DVD set, "Douglas Fairbanks, A Modern Musketeer," but this Grapevine DVD now provides silent film fans a very enjoyable entry into the Fairbanks canon, as well as a very significant film historically.
It's pure Doug from start to finish -- maybe not as polished as some of his films that were yet to come in this early period from 1915-1920, but certainly a commendable jump start to one of moviedom's biggest stars. Fairbanks is Gerald, "The Lamb" of the title, aptly nicknamed because of the pampered, foppish life his wealthy family has afforded him. His lady love, Mary (get it, Mary had a little lamb . . .??), has her admiration of Gerald shaken somewhat when the tall, handsome and muscular Bill Cactus from Arizona comes to town -- whom, by the way, Gerald refers to as "The Cactus-Fed Goat." In the film's credits, he is only identified as "Her model type of man." And this "model type of man" causes problems for Gerald. For example, Mary's admiration for Gerald turns to disdain one day when Bill Cactus rushes out into the surf to save a drowning lady while Gerald stands idly by. However, as one would expect, Gerald redeems himself when they all go out west. This he does by saving Mary from a band of Mexican renegades and proving his "manhood."
Fairbanks was a very successful stage comedian in 1915 when Harry Aitken, who organized Triangle Pictures with his brother, saw a film of Fairbanks mugging for a news cameraman in Central Park. He apparently didn't do much more than jump over a park bench, but Aitken saw possibilities in Fairbanks' screen presence. Biographer Richard Schickel explained, "Aitken, like Zukor before him, was sweeping the New York stage for names, and, in this period, signed some sixty well-known legitimate stars, among them Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, DeWolf Hopper, Billie Burke, Texas Guinan, and Weber and Fields. Fairbanks did not, of course, rank with them in national fame, but he was one of the most highly paid younger stage stars; to obtain his services Aitken had to offer him a thousand a week. Even at that, Fairbanks hesitated. . ." (1) As a side note, the more common figure quoted in Fairbanks biographies and other movie histories is $2,000 a week. (2)
Arriving in California, Fairbanks wasn't put to work immediately, but, after some down time, work finally commenced on his first film venture. However, he wasn't popular with the crew at the beginning. Sources differ, but his "gymnastics" between takes may have been a source of irritation for them or the fact that movie people resented the large salaries that were being paid to stage stars to entice them into the new medium. Whatever reason, the crew "retaliated" by putting heavy white make up on him that Schickel described as making him look like "a victim of anemia." (3) According to biographer Jeffrey Vance, "When Fairbanks discovered the malicious prank, his good humor disarmed his co-workers; he loved practical jokes, and his own future film sets would be notorious for them. However, in the future, Fairbanks would be the primary perpetrator." (4)
Aitken handed him over to D.W. Griffith who (and most silent movie fans have heard versions of this story) was not impressed with the physicality that was embedded in Fairbanks' acting. Schickel claims, "Fairbanks was hurt by Griffith's criticism and by his suggestion that the actor might find a more congenial home in Mack Sennett's unit where they were . . . well, more physical." (5)
Griffith passed off the directing duties to longtime assistance director Christy Cabanne but supposedly "supervised" the production of the film, although he was much more preoccupied with the challenges of making his super spectacle "Intolerance" at the time. Based loosely on one of Fairbanks' stage hits, "The New Henrietta," the main character,Bertie, was renamed Gerald for the movie. The opening credits note the story is by Granville Warwick, which is a pseudonym that Griffith used. Contrary to what one might assume, the film smacks more of an Anita Loos-John Emerson collaboration (the duo who wrote so many of Fairbanks' upcoming successes) than something Griffith would have penned. Schickel also noted, "Despite claims to the contrary put forward on behalf of Anita Loos and her director husband, John Emerson, a great deal of Fairbanks' essential screen personality was set forth in this first film" - an opinion that is supported by a viewing of the film. (6)
Early on in the film we see bits of business that became trademarks of the early Fairbanks films. For example, in the park with Mary, he is so nervous, he leans against a small tree in a planter, and the tree falls over, almost taking him with it. When he gets ready to leave, Mary is holding his hat, but he feels his head and looks around quizzically for the hat not realizing it's right there in front of him. When he arrived at the park, he steps over a small row of bushes awkwardly and almost falls - of course, maintaining that shy, nervous smile he was known for every time he makes a goof. However, after Mary agrees to marry him, his excitement enables him to jump agilely over the bushes as he exits. Also, the persona of a meek, pampered youth who doesn't exhibit either strength or courage but later turns into a strong, courageous, save-the-day hero is a common theme for Fairbanks - set forth in this first film which, as noted, had no Loos-Emerson involvement. Author Jeanine Basinger noted, "'The Lamb' set the pattern for Douglas Fairbanks's early years as a star - he's a resolutely cheerful go-getter, a kind of all-American guy who always comes out on top no matter what the odds." (7)
The aspect of the film that most obviously could have used the Loos-Emerson touch is in the title-writing. The humorous attempts are sometimes ingenious, sometimes corny - certainly not of a Loos-Emerson caliber. For example, speaking of the impending marriage, the intertitle reads, "Her mother was willing because the Lamb was well garnished with mint sauce - fresh from the mint!" or "Then a Swell Affair arranged to announce that the Lamb was to be Led to the Halter." It is unclear, too, why the intertitles have random capital letters strewn throughout, something that is mildly distracting when reading them --- for example, "Down by the Sea one day it seemed for a Moment the Lamb might Develope (sic) a Back-Bone, but -" or "The Lamb Horrified that in the Crisis he had proved himself the Weakling."
The story is well-constructed, though, with appropriate character development that sets the stage well for the transformation of Gerald and a rousing climax. The arrival of a more stalwart rival for Mary and the scene at the beach when he fails to assist in rescuing the girl go far in establishing the character of the Lamb, but they also add another dimension in that his weakling character is endangering his relationship with Mary. So, after the beach incident, Gerald comes to his senses and decides to do something about it. He hires a boxing instructor, played ably by Tom Kennedy, and a jiu jitsu instructor. This training in the gym provides some great comedy relief (without falling into Keystone antics), and it's obvious Fairbanks is enjoying this part of his first outing as a movie star.
It's when Bill, "The Goat," invites all of them out to his place in Arizona that the action begins. The renegades have succeeded in warding off the Mexican soldiers and even stealing one of their big machine guns mounted on wheels like a cannon. However, as the intertitle tells us, they foolishly considered this weapon to be "mere junk." On his way to Arizona at one of the train stopovers along the way, Gerald is duped and then waylaid by a couple of crooks and left in the desert to fend for himself. This leads to his capture by the renegades. When Mary, Bill, and Mary's mother and father stop out in the desert in their car, Mary walks away and is also captured. However, rather than go after her, when Bill sees the renegades, he puts everyone in the car and speeds off, leaving Mary behind.
Neither Mary nor Gerald realizes the other is in the renegade camp, but Gerald finally breaks loose and accidentally discovers Mary is there, as well. Gerald gallantly defeats several of the Indians who remained behind in true Fairbanksian style, but just when it seems they will escape, the renegades who were fighting the soldiers return. Spying the machine gun in what's left of a stone foundation, they scurry over, and Gerald begins mowing down the renegades from behind the stone wall - that is until he runs out of ammunition. Thankfully, Bill and Mary's parents went to the closest army barracks, and we have a Calvary charge rescue for the finish.
It must be noted that the climax of the movie is well-staged and does not give the appearance of cheapness. Although we know the renegades are essentially white men made up with dark make-up, the dress and acting are commendable - and even in this first film, we see the ever-present and dependable Charles Stevens who was so good at playing either Mexicans or Indians in so many of Fairbanks' films (and was, by the way, a grandson of Geronimo). The sheer number of renegade Indians and dozens upon dozens of Calvary men charging in on their horses is impressive. The final capture scene is shot from a high vantage point, and we see a very large number of renegades running through the desert as the Calvary catches up to them and surrounds them for the surrender - very spectacular. Altough Cabanne may not have been as adept at cross-cutting as Griffith, the climax is tension-filled and exciting.
Since Fairbanks was given to Griffith for his first feature, it's not surprising to see Griffith stock players such as Seena Owen and Alfred Paget in the cast. Owen makes a very good Mary -- attractive, low-key, and charming. Unfortunately, for those who have only seen her as the heavily made-up Princess Beloved in "Intolerance" (1916), she is certainly more attractive than that part allowed her to be. And, although Owen would not be considered one of the great beauties of the screen, she is an appealing screen presence. For silent movie fans today, she can probably be seen at her loveliest opposite Jack Holt in "Victory" (1919) which also starred Lon Chaney. This film was released on a double-feature DVD in 2005 along with "The Wicked Darling" (1919). Unfortunately, it appears this DVD is out of print at the time of this writing.
Paget's part is small, only allowing to strut around and look handsome (he's much taller than Fairbanks) in a tuxedo at a social gathering and then playing the hero when he saves the girl at the beach. Other than that, there is really no interaction between his character and Mary in the story, but his stature does make him suitable for the part.
The Aitkens leased the Knickerbocker Theatre in New York for its opening night and decided to try something unprecedented for the movies - a program that would charge prices comparable to a stage production. To do this, they asked for one picture from each of the three producers that now formed the Triangle conglomerate - D.W. Griffith, Thomas Ince and Mack Sennett. Along with "The Lamb," which was Griffith's contribution to the program, the other two partners provided "The Iron Strain" (from Ince) with Dustin Farnum and the Sennett two-reeler "My Valet."
There were many luminaries at the September 23, 1915, opening night, and they were not all movie people. Such names as Paderewski, painter Howard Chandler Christy and James Montgomer Flagg, writers Rupert Hughes and Irvin Cobb, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and many others were in attendance. They, along with the critics, proclaimed "The Lamb" a smash hit.
Variety extolled, "After viewing 'The Lamb,' it is no wonder the Triangle people signed up Fairbanks for a period of three years . . . It is the classiest kind of melodramatic comedy, wonderfully staged, brilliantly acted and humorously captioned." (8)
"The question naturally arises," said Basinger in her book's entry on Douglas Fairbanks, "when 'The Lamb' is shown today, does it look as if a star is being born? Definitely! . . . The first sight of the soon-to-be star finds him looking, perhaps a bit stocky but very fit and well-dressed, giving a fully developed performance as a silly and somewhat fuddled young man." (10)
So true -- and the viewer will not be disappointed. It has all the elements that make the early Fairbanks films so enjoyable, and no doubt outranks most of the movie output for 1915 for pure fun and enjoyment.
The Grapevine Video DVD provides a good quality print with good contrast. Sharpness is better than average, and, although there are some scratches in places, most are so minor as to go unnoticed by the viewer. With a very appropriate organ score by David Knudtson, for any Fairbanks fan (and who isn't?) this film certainly must be a part of your collection.
1. Schickel, Richard. His Picture in the Papers. A Speculation on Celebrity in America Based on the Life of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Charterhouse. 1974.
2. Case, Frank. Tales of a Wayward Inn. Frederick A. Stokes. 1938., Hancock, Ralph and Letitia Fairbanks. Douglas Fairbanks, The Fourth Musketeer. Henry Holt and Company. 1953., Pickford, Mary. Sunshine and Shadow. Doubleday. 1955., et. al.
4. Vance, Jeffrey. Douglas Fairbanks. University of California Press. 2008.
7. Basinger, Jeanine. Silent Stars. Alfred A. Knopf. 1999.
8. "The Lamb" review. Variety. October 1, 1915.
9. "The Lamb" review. The New York Times. September 24, 1915.
Copyright 2016 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved
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