Decades before Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power and Johnny Depp became swashbuckling cinematic heroes, Douglas Fairbanks dashed across the screen with the greatest of athletic ease in such extravaganzas as "The Mark of Zorro," "The Iron Mask" and "The Black Pirate."
Fairbanks was much more than a motion picture superstar, though; he and his second wife, Mary Pickford, were Hollywood royalty who reigned from their Pickfair mansion during the 1920s. He was also a pioneering independent film producer who created United Artists with Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith and was the first president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; through the institution he helped develop the film curriculum at USC.
Now he's the star of screen, book and DVD as Hollywood rediscovers Fairbanks' eternal appeal.
* Tonight in Beverly Hills the academy will screen a new print from New York's Museum of Modern Art of his 1927 silent film "The Gaucho."
* A new book, "Douglas Fairbanks," by Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta, which looks at the life and times of one of cinema's first action heroes, is just out from the University of California press.
* On Dec. 2, Flicker Alley will release a new DVD set featuring 11 Fairbanks films, including the restored 1917 "A Modern Musketeer," which had long been considered lost.
The photos in the book came from the Fairbanks collection at the academy's Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Study. "The biggest component of the collections are the photographs," says Linda Mehr, director of the academy's Margaret Herrick Library. "There are close to 4,000 prints and 600 negatives. They go all the way back to his stage career through all of his films."
Fairbanks taught some courses there at USC," says Mehr. "He was the first actor to be immortalized in cement at Grauman's Chinese Theatre and even donated his film library to the Museum of Modern Art when it was still a fledgling institution."
Vance and Maietta deem "The Gaucho" a neglected masterpiece.
Though a hit, critics weren't very kind to this dark, more complex swashbuckler, in which Fairbanks plays an Argentine outlaw who can leap and bound, tango like nobody's business and romance the ladies with steamy ardor. And did we mention that Pickford has a cameo as the Virgin Mary?
"It has this wonderful sense of self-parody," says Vance. "The darker, more visceral rendering of the hero and strong female characters all make 'The Gaucho' the most interesting of the Fairbanks films to 21st century eyes."
Vance, Maietta and Robert Cushman, the academy's photographic editor, will be autographing copies of the book after the screening.
"Douglas Fairbanks as the Gaucho" screens at 7:30 tonight at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Admission is $5. For more information, call (310) 247-3600 or go to www.oscars.org.