He was the hero for the Silent Era and a model for heroes to come: Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood.

When I first put up my various literary lists, I also put up this one.  The point of it was that, yes, in spite of all the things I write about, I do actually enjoy reading books.  And I read some books just for the sheer enjoyment of them.

Now, I write a lot about great films.  And in the course of all that writing, I write a lot about great acting.  But there is more to film than just great acting, great directing and great writing.  Some films can simply be pure enjoyment.  True, the very best of those films – the ones that manage to perfectly weld together sheer enjoyment with phenomenal talent are the best of the bunch – films like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  But there are a lot of films that are just fun to watch.  Hell, over the last few weeks I have been watching my way through all the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan films.  Not the greatest bunch of films ever, but enjoyable to watch (never mind the strange family story that my uncle once broke his hand punching Weismuller’s son in the back).

So, this is a shout out to four stars – four of the greatest stars in film history.  They weren’t great actors, with the exception of a couple of performances.  But they were great stars, they were fun to watch and their films would bring a smile to your face.  Hell, while those pathetic decrepit bad action stars are starring in The Expendables 2, I want to make sure to point out the kind of stars who deserve to be seen.

There are four stars here and they cover four different eras of film.  We have the Silent Era, the Studio Era, the late 50’s-early 70’s and the 70’s-90’s.  We don’t have anyone who’s really a current action star because I couldn’t find a good one.  Will Smith seemed like it for a while, then did more serious films, then kind of just vanished for a while.  Orlando Bloom had it through Lord of the Rings and the Pirates films but then also quickly faded.  Johnny Depp is far too good an actor to qualify for this kind of list.  And I deliberately excluded any of the Bond actors because I will do a separate Bond post in the future.   In some ways, the closest to these guys was Brendan Fraser and he just doesn’t quite cut it.  So, that final spot is still open if anyone with charisma wants to step forth.

And if you have any ideas of who belonged here that I didn’t include, that’s what the comments section is for.  But here is my list:

Douglas Fairbanks as the original film Zorro.

Douglas Fairbanks: The Original Adventure Star

There is no question that I prefer Lon Chaney for his remarkable acting and Charlie Chaplin for his all-around talent.  But the importance of Douglas Fairbanks in the Silent Era should not be under-stated.  If you want to read a variety of posts written by the great Mythical Monkey on Fairbanks, the place to begin is here.  You will also find the silent great in the message boards all over the Monkey’s site – and even see some feuds he and I have had over the quality of his acting versus Chaney’s.  But his placement here isn’t about how great an actor he was.  It’s about what a presence he was on screen.

As I was saying before I started digressing, you should not under-state the importance of Douglas Fairbanks during the Silent Era.  Why so important you say?  Well – how about this:

  1. He was one of the biggest box-office stars in the Silent Era, from the minute films started becoming feature-length until the Talkies began.
  2. He married Mary Pickford when she was America’s Sweetheart.  That made them the original high-profile Hollywood couple.
  3. With Pickford, Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, he was one of the four founders of United Artists.  This was four artists who wanted more control and didn’t want to be shackled by a studio.  There really wouldn’t be a comparable situation in Hollywood again until the founding of Dreamworks.
  4. He was one of the original founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – one of only six actors at the time.
  5. His movies have lasted.  Whose body do you think that was that Jean Dujardin’s face was on in The Artist?  Did you not recognize Fairbanks as Zorro?  If so, you have some films to be watching right now.

Quintessential Movies:

  • The Mark of Zorro (1920)
    • For my money, the best Fairbanks film.  This is a perfect way to introduce yourself to the great swashbuckler.  There is adventure enough to go around, Fairbanks makes a great hero and champion and you can watch the film in its entirety instead of just the small clips in The Artist.
  • Robin Hood (1922)
    • The film goes on for a bit too long.  But Fairbanks again is perfectly cast and the sets and costumes are just fantastic.
  • The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
    • The second best Fairbanks film and possibly the one he is best remembered for.  It lacks the kind of special effects that the Michael Powell version would have, so this is much more about the charisma in Fairbanks’ performance.

Other Movies to See:

  • The Three Musketeers  (1921)
  • The Black Pirate  (1926)
  • The Iron Mask  (1929)

Still the quintessential Robin Hood: Errol Flynn.

Errol Flynn: Pirate and Honorable Thief

If you Google “swashbuckler actor” most of the images that pop up are those of Errol Flynn.  In a series of roles in the late 30’s, he attached his name to that notion and it never left.  In spite of Sean Connery, Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe, it is still Errol Flynn that people think of when you mention Robin Hood.  It’s really quite fitting that Errol Flynn would take on Fairbanks’ signature role and make it so much his own that it is his version that is now the best-remembered.  He also took on his position as the foremost adventure star.  He was charming, romantic, funny, smart and damn fun to watch on screen.  It helped that Errol was always getting to romance Olivia de Havilland, who I would romance in a second.

Flynn became a star almost over-night.  He came to the U.S. from his native Australia (via Britain) in 1934.  His first mention in the book Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951) is on page 19 in a memo from January of 1935 about making certain he got into a bit part.  Two pages and five months later, he was the star of Captain Blood and neither he nor Warners ever looked back.  MGM may have had all the stars in the heaven, but Warners is where I would have wanted to be – with Flynn, Bogart, Cagney, Bette Davis, de Havilland – this was the great serious studio that could be a hell of a lot of fun (Cagney and Bogart could have been in this post were they not such great actors).  And Flynn was perhaps the biggest of all those stars in the late 30’s, so often opposite de Havilland, saving the poor, righting the wrongs, on a horse or on a boat.

When I was first becoming a serious student of film in the late 80’s, there were two films that I saw that made me realize that Star Wars and Raiders weren’t necessarily anomalies – that you really could blend first-rate production with sheer adventure – that entertainment and quality could be successfully merged.  One of them was The Adventures of Robin Hood, still one of the greatest adventure films ever made and an absolute must for anyone who loves film.  And it owes so much of its success to Flynn and his charming, dashing performance as Robin.

Quintessential Movies:

  • Captain Blood  (1935)  –  Flynn’s original starring role, this set the stage.  He was a dashing pirate, a swashbuckler who only reluctantly became an outlaw who also reluctantly falls in love with the beautiful de Havilland.
  • Charge of the Light Brigade  (1936)  –  A bit of a downer when it comes to Flynn, but it has great action and a great scope to it.
  • The Adventures of Robin Hood  (1938)  –  The ultimate swashbuckler role, Flynn as Robin Hood pretty much defines the genre.

Other Movies to See:

  • The Sea Hawk  (1940)
  • They Died With Their Boots On  (1941)
  • The Sun Also Rises  (1957)  –  for Flynn’s performance only

It doesn’t get any cooler than Steve McQueen in The Great Escape.

Steve McQueen: On Horse, Bike and the Streets of San Francisco

As I mentioned above, there were two films that showed me how you could combine sheer entertainment with film greatness.  The Adventures of Robin Hood was one.  The Great Escape was the other one.  Watching this film, how well-made it was, how well the scenes unfolded and the characters actually were developed, I realized how great a film could be and still be so damn fun to watch.  There were a lot of people who were responsible for how good it was.  But it was Steve McQueen who made it so damn cool.

McQueen instantly joined Bogart and Harrison Ford among my favorite actors.  He was absolutely what it meant to be cool.  And as I started watching more films, it became obvious that it wasn’t just the one role.  There was The Magnificent Seven, there was The Cincinnati Kid, there was Bullitt.  It didn’t matter if he was a war hero, a cop, or just a lonely cowboy.  He even made it cool to be a romantic thief in The Thomas Crown Affair.  And let’s face it, as I said once, forget the Dos Equis guy.  Steve McQueen has always been the most interesting man in the world.

Quintessential Movies:

  • The Magnificent Seven  (1960)  –  McQueen is the coolest of what might be the coolest gathering of action heroes.
  • The Great Escape  (1963)  –  As I said, a perfect example of great film-making with pure entertainment.  An amazing collection of stars (3 of whom were among the 7) escapes from a P.O.W. camp and spread themselves across Nazi Germany.  Especially poignant because of the true story aspect and the tragic end.  The single best film of 1963.
  • Bullitt  (1968)  –  I love Mustangs because I used to drive one (1969 – originally my grandfather’s, bought new off the lot).  But for many people, it’s all about the car chase through the streets of San Francisco, with McQueen behind the wheel of his 1968 Mustang GT.

Other Movies to See:

  • Love with the Proper Stranger  (1963)  –  his best performance
  • The Thomas Crown Affair  (1968)
  • Papillon  (1973)

Hey, I’m a charming rogue. Hell, I’m Han Solo. I’m the charming rogue.

Harrison Ford:  Han Solo and Indiana Jones

I don’t think it’s possible to have not seen any Fairbanks films and claim you have an interest in film.  I don’t think it’s possible to have not seen any Flynn or McQueen films and love movies.  I don’t think it’s possible to have not seen any Harrison Ford films.  We’re talking about the guy who was Han Solo and Indiana Jones.

This is how big a star Harrison Ford is.  Of the list on BoxOfficeMojo of the top grossing actors of all-time, he is #3 all-time, in spite of the fact that the bulk of his career involves films from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.  He is the only person in the top 9 whose top-grossing film didn’t come in the last 10 years and the only one in the top 20 whose top-grossing film didn’t come in the last 20 years.  He has been in $100 million grossing films in five different decades.

His films also have quality.  He has been in 8 different films that have been nominated for Best Picture (though never a winner).  He has been Oscar-nominated.  He is easily the best actor of the group here, but his identity lies in his charm.  He is the guy who fires first.  He is the guy who pulls the gun on the sword-wielding mercenary.  He is the man who leaps off dams.

It is interesting to note that Ford is now 70 years old (I always remember because he’s just three days younger than my mom).  Of the other three, only Fairbanks lived past 50 and he died at 56.  And Ford, if not still going strong, is at least still going.  Cowboys and Aliens might have been a crap film, but he was still out there, plugging away, doing what he has always done – being fun to watch on film.

Quintessential Films:

  • Star Wars  (1977)  –  do I really have to say anything here?  Just read this and this.
  • The Empire Strikes Back  (1980)  –  He’s even more charming here than he was in Star Wars.  And instead of just bristling with the Princess, he is romancing her, with one of the great seduction scenes of all-time.
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark  (1981)  –  again, just read this and this.

Other Films to See:

  • Blade Runner  (1982)
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade  (1989)
  • The Fugitive  (1993)

Ford, as I said, is the best actor of the bunch.  Aside from his iconic original performance as Indiana Jones, these are the best performances he has given:

  • Witness  (1985)
  • The Mosquito Coast  (1986)
  • Presumed Innocent  (1990)
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