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San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2011: A Yank at Oxford: Douglas Fairbanks is Mr. Fix-It

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San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2011: A Yank at Oxford: Douglas Fairbanks is <em>Mr. Fix-It</em>

[Editor’s Note: Our coverage of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is cross-posted at Parallax View.]

There is a defining contradiction at the center of Mr. Fix-It, the buoyant 1918 Douglas Fairbanks comedy directed and written by Allan Dwan, their sixth or seventh feature together (they made four films together in 1918 alone).

Fairbanks’ Dick Remington is ostensibly a British student at Oxford and roommate to American Reginald Burroughs (Leslie Stuart). Yet Burroughs, with his regal bearing and trim dress and mannered courtship of his college sweetheart, is the very image of a British aristocrat while the bouncing, eternally smiling Remington is the quintessential Fairbanks character: Boisterous, fun-loving and eccentric (he somersaults fully clothed into his bathtub as a lark in the opening scenes), he is unmistakably the can-do American, no matter what the intertitles tell us.

Which is why he is the perfect person to take Reginald’s place when he’s ordered back home for an arranged marriage and “fix-it” for Reginald and everyone else he meets along the way. Before you know it, that list includes Reginald’s sister (similarly trapped in an arranged marriage), fiancée (who is sweet on another man) and status-conscious uncle and aunts, not to mention a pretty young newly orphaned woman, Mary (Wanda Hawley), desperately trying to care for her five brothers and sisters in the slums. Remington (as Reginald) simply whisks them all away to “his” mansion and has the little tykes soften up the stiff aristocrats while he falls for their sister.

While most people know Fairbanks as the swashbuckling hero of grandly-mounted adventures, he made his initial fame with a steady output of light comedies where his acrobatic flair punctuated the humor and defined his character. (You can get a terrific introduction to the early Fairbanks career in the superbly curated DVD box set Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer.) And while he climbs up walls, swings from buildings and even brawls with abandon before the film is over, it’s his interaction with the family he adopts that defines his character: benevolent, jolly, overjoyed to be surrounded and swarmed by children, playing with them like a beloved uncle, caring for them like a guardian.

The brawling comes when he rushes off to rescue Mary and the kids from a skid-row bartender and pimp. And curiously for Dwan, who is if anything one of the cleanest storytellers in the teens, the sequence becomes a visual free for all, descending into a chaos of action and swarming thugs as Remington searches the building (and finds a few ladies of the evening in the “beauty and massage” business upstairs). It stands out from the rest of the picture and seems to be a conscious choice for Dwan, going for the energy and momentum and knockabout comic quality (even at 16fps, this sequence moves faster than a Keystone Kops chase) over the clarity of character movement. Except for Fairbanks, who stands out of every scene.

The sequence is a highly entertaining diversion that Dwan uses to good effect: it’s not simply Remington who rushes off to the rescue, it’s the entire extended family of beaus and brothers-in-arms he has won over during his stay. Mary herself has been embraced by all as a member of this new family and the brotherhood (which includes the once-snooty uncle) goes off to bring her back as if they were an Irish clan of scrappers defending the family honor. Dwan doesn’t even bother with a comedy of errors for the obligatory sorting out of identities when the real Reginald comes home. This family simply embraces them all.

The SFSFF screening was the world premiere of the restoration of this previously thought lost film, and fitting that they get the honor as the intertitles, which were reconstructed from the sole surviving Italian print by Ken Fox, were made possible by the SFSFF. Fox was present at the “Amazing Tales From the Archives” on Friday to discuss the process and the challenges of recreating intertitles that are accurate to the period and the studio without examples from a surviving American print, a script or a continuity record. The talk was interesting and enlightening, and even more impressive after seeing the finished production. Working solely from an Italian translation, he was able to capture not just the meaning of the intertitles but the distinctive American idiom of the era, with its playful humor and jaunty wordplay.

Visit the SFSFF website for more information on the festival which played July 14-17 at the Castro Theatre, San Francisco.

Sean Axmaker is a DVD columnist for MSN Entertainment, a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online and the managing editor of Parallax View. He was a film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for nine years, his work has appeared in The Seattle Weekly, The Stranger, The Seattle Post-Globe, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, Psychotronic Video and “The Scarecrow Video Guide” and he collaborated with Sherman Alexie on the commentary track to the DVD release of The Exiles. You can find links to all of this and more on his shamelessly self-promoting blog.