Monday, 26 September 2022

Celebrity Jukebox #37: Douglas Fairbanks

Here’s another one for George…

I have to confess, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film starring either Douglas Fairbanks Sr. or Jr. I’m sure that’s a crime against cinema, and only goes to demonstrate my vast cultural ignorance… but at least I’m honest with you.

Fairbanks Sr. was a big name in the silent era, notably in swashbuckling roles such as Zorro and Robin Hood. He was known as “The King of Hollywood” during this era, but that title quickly passed to Clark Gable once sound arrived. His Queen was Mary Pickford (so he pops up in the Katie Melua song dedicated to her), although they divorced in 1936, three years before Fairbanks Sr. died of a heart attack. Apparently, his last words were, “I’ve never felt better”. But then, he hadn’t heard most of these tunes, so who knows how much better he might have felt?

To begin, folky Canadian Ian Bell gets out his fiddle for this instrumental namecheck…

Moving onto songs with actual words, we kick off with some infamous Bela Lugosi fans…

All our dreams have melted down
We are hiding in the bushes
From dead men
Doing Douglas Fairbanks' stunts

All our stories burnt
Our films lost in the rushes
We can't paint any pictures
As the moon had all our brushes

Extracting wasps from stings in flight
Who killed Mr. Moonlight?

I quite like that line about wasps, although surely it should be “Extracting stings from wasps in flight”? Unless they’re talking about pulling wasps out of Sting. Which I’m not exactly going to object to, as it sounds a rather uncomfortable procedure, and he definitely deserves it.

Going much further back in time, we arrive at US cabaret singer Bobby Short, taking his debut performance on this blog alongside a bunch of other silent movie stars, which should keep George happy...

Handsome Wallace Reid
Stepped out full of speed
And Theda Bara, Was a terror
She "vamped the little lady"
So did Alice Brady;

Douglas Fairbanks shimmied on one hand
Like an acrobat
Mary Pickford did a toe dance grand and
Charlie Chaplin with his feet
Stepped all over poor Blanche Sweet
Dancing at that moving picture ball

Of a similar vintage, we have The Andrews Sisters, with a song title that I honestly thought was internet nonsense… until I did a bit of digging and discovered that Barney Google was a comic strip character created in 1919, whose adventures are still being serialised in some US newspapers, making it the third longest running syndicated comic strip in the world… 103 years and counting. I’ll let you google the two that beat it, although the thing I found most interesting was that Barney Google himself rarely appears in his own strip these days, having been largely usurped by his sidekick Snuffy Smith. I so wish I was making this up.

Who's the greatest lover that this country ever knew?
And who's the man that Valentino takes his hat off to?
No, it isn't Douglas Fairbanks that the ladies rave about.
When he arrives, who makes the wives chase all their husbands out?

Why, it's Barney Google, with the goo-goo-goo-ga-ly eyes.
Barney Google is the guy who never buys.
Women take him out to dine, then he steals the waiter's dime.
Barney Google, with the goo-goo-goo-ga-ly eyes. 

I somehow feel that the discovery of that song, and its incredible history, entirely justifies my entire blogging career to date. See, Louise, I’m not just wasting my time up here!

Slightly more up-to-date, and musically relevant to this blog, we have 80s US power-poppers Game Theory, who, by their own admission , specialised in “young-adult-hurt-feeling-athons”…

Swordfights on tables for way too long
Ended, I guess, in a draw
Now Douglas Fairbanks is one off the list
Singling la Leilani la Leilani la

Clint Eastwood and Donovan also pop up in that song. In case you’re keeping notes.

Most interesting discovery today (beyond Barney Google, obviously) is Gabriel Kahane, who iffypedia compare to both Sufjan Stevens and Rufus Wainwright. Certainly worthy of further investigation is his Craigslistlieder collection in which he gets serious classical musicians to perform the words of classified ads. Today’s track though comes from his 2014 album The Ambassador, wherein “he used ten addresses in L.A. to write songs from the perspectives of characters both real and imaginary”.

I am the night watchman
I stand by the door
Some fifteen thousand nights
I have stood here for

A saturnalia every Saturday
In the salad days long gone
Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford
Would be wrestling on the lawn

I’d be lying if I didn’t confess something at this point. My immediately piqued interest in Mr. Kahane was dulled somewhat by the discovery that he’d collaborated with an old school “mate” of mine (who I didn’t get on with at all), a gentleman who now appears to be an O.B.E. Not that I’m bitter. Arrogance will get you a long way in this world. If only I’d been born with an ounce of it. (Some people might call it confidence or self-belief. My point still stands.) Still, I'll try not to let this colour my judgement of Mr. Kahane any further.

Let’s move onto safer territory, with the always welcome Ms. Kate Bush, and a song dedicated to her mother, from The Red Shoes album. This only got to number 26 in the charts, which is another crime again sanity, but such is life…

On a balcony in New York
It's just started to snow
He meets us at the lift
Like Douglas Fairbanks
Waving his walking stick

But he isn't well at all
The buildings of New York
Look just like mountains through the snow
Just being alive
It can really hurt

And these moments given
Are a gift from time
Just let us try
To give these moments back
To those we love
To those who will survive

That’s quite enough for today, but if you’re interested in the recorded history of the next generation in the Fairbanks clan... come back some other time.

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