DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS SR. WAS NO BERT LeBARON

THE HUMAN RACE                                                                                December 10, 2014

TO MY LATE  SWASHBUCKLING ACTOR-STUNTMAN

DAD I SHALL FOREVER LOVE:   HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

 

This story about my dad is in my book, THE HUMAN RACE.

Since it’s true, I don’t want to offend him or my mother who

shed him twice in divorce courts.  I was so lucky to have had

them as my parents.   And God bless Mr. Fairbanks, too!

 

     More than a dozen years after Douglas Fairbanks Sr. left the Broadway stage in 1908 to begin a skyrocketing career as a silent screen actor, my father Bert LeBaron, a ruggedly handsome hoodlum in his mid-twenties from Southeast Philadelphia, got permission from the mob to go to Hollywood and become a movie star.

     While Fairbanks became one of Hollywood’s first superstars, my old man proved to be one of the worst actors ever to set foot in front of a camera. Since he was an exceptional athlete, he wound up as a Hall-of-Fame stuntman who always believed that he could be another George Raft, a thug from Hell’s Kitchen who despite his lack of talent reached star status.

     Maybe it’s not fair to compare my father with Fairbanks who rose to fame when Celluloid City was still in its infancy. But when I watched Fairbanks on cable TV starring as the masked swordsman in the silent 1920 film, “The Mark of Zorro,” I was convinced that at least in real life my papa was more of a swashbuckler and Casanova than Big Doug ever could be.

     Before time and the fast lane made a mess of him, Bert was a muscular six-foot mass of flesh and bone with chiseled features, wavy black hair and a matching well-groomed mustache.

   Although he played mostly thugs and bad guys during his 36-year actor-stuntman career, when he walked into a restaurant or any room filled with strangers, people took notice. Who is this dude? Is he an athlete? Is he an actor? Is he a hood, a gigolo, an adventurer? Is he a somebody? Is he a nobody?

     He was all of those. And certainly, by Tinsel Town standards, he was a nobody.

     After watching Fairbanks play Zorro, I had to disagree with some journalists who wrote gushy descriptions like: “the camera loved [Fairbank’s] flashing smile, and his joyous physicality electrified the screen.”     

     Baloney.

     I’m well aware that Fairbanks:

     (1) Died in 1939 a wealthy man. (2) Formed United Artists Corp. with Charlie Chaplin, actress Mary Pickford and director D.W. Griffith in 1919. (3) Handed out the first Academy Awards from his office. (4) Was the first (with Pickford who later became the second wife to divorce him) to press his hand and foot prints in the cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. (5) Never appeared in a talkie.  

     What I found sitting through the silent “Zorro” movie was a Fairbanks in his mid-thirties who didn’t move with the grace of an athlete, whose physique was anything but sinewy, who had a proboscis that belonged to Ray Bolger (the scarecrow in “The Wizard of OZ”), whose portraits even in those days were touched up.

     My dad was a street fighter skilled in judo and savate, a high-platform diver, a powerful swimmer who raced the treacherous Mississippi River, a polo player who could handle a horse like a rodeo cowboy, a capable swordsman and an avid Hollywood Y.M.C.A. handball player. At the age of fifty-six, he died on the court in 1956.

     Artistically, he might not have been an actor’s actor. But as a bona fide thug, he certainly qualified as a hoodlum’s hoodlum. As a kid, I always felt very safe in his presence.

     In fight scenes, fencing, swinging from chandeliers, taking tumbles and absorbing punches, the internationally famous silent screen “Zorro,” was no match for Bert LeBaron who was at the beckon call of Mother Hollywood. No matter how dangerous the gig, all she had to do was flutter her glamorous eyelashes and Bert LeBaron would leap into action.        

     Like most stuntmen and women today, he remained silent while high-profile actors took credit for his athletic performances that never even received screen credit. And that pisses me off!

     Bert was the bruiser in a mob scene being tossed through a plate-glass window, having a whiskey bottle broken over his head or fighting under a spooked horse’s hoofs. He was the cowboy being knocked off his horse by a rifle-wielding John Wayne, the desperado being shot off a roof in a Roy Rogers western, a pirate doing a high fall off the mast of a windjammer in a Tyrone Power flick, and a villain being flipped off a wagon by Danny Kaye in The Inspector General.

     He did savor a few moments of glory: In the 1947 Burt Lancaster film, Brute Force, he performed a 30-foot leap from a coal car onto a machine-gun nest manned by prison guards. Not printing his name, Esquire magazine ran a full-page photograph of him in flight. In The Three Musketeers (1948), he dueled with and was done in by Gene Kelly (D’Artagnan) a couple of times.

     Errol Flynn skewered him at least twice in the 1949 classic, The Adventures of Don Juan, and broke his nose once at the Lakeside Country Club bar near Warner Bros. Doubling Raymond Burr in one fencing scene on a balcony, Flynn lunges and Bert goes flying head first in what appears to be a neck-breaking plunge onto a table. In another fencing scene, Don Juan knocks a huge candelabrum on top of him.

     My favorite Bert epic was in the 1940 15-chapter serial, The Mysterious Dr. Satin, in which he sends Copperhead, the hooded crime-fighter, plummeting to his “possible” death. He’s finally done in by a hokey “death-dealing” robot. In the first comic book movie version of Captain America, another popular kid series released while he was serving as an able-bodied seaman in the Merchant Marines during World Was II, he almost cool-conks the star-spangled superhero in a fight scene.

     As a womanizer, my father also left Fairbanks in the dust. Bert had collected so many ex-wives, fiancees and girlfriends that their names were lost in the mist of his mind. It was as if Cupid had stuck him in the ass with a mystical arrow that caused him to fall in love with every woman he ever conned or seduced.

     That included my mother Thelma Anna Gangloff-LeBaron, the daughter of a prominent Pittsburgh, Penn. physician. She was long-legged, shapely with an angelic face framed in brown hair. She spoke intelligently with a sweet tongue that not always communicated her deepest feelings. But heartbreak and even fury poured silently from powder-blue eyes which could conceal nothing.

     Thelma grew up at a time in American history when women were obligated to kowtow to anything that sported a mustache, smoked a cigar and came with a penis. That aptly describes my grandfather. Like many others, he would have brazenly rejected Bert, who never got past the 8th grade, as a “suitor.”

     Although she had other romances, she had an intense love affair with a wealthy young man named Guy Fuller who enlisted in the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. While fighting in France, he was severely crippled when his outfit was exposed to mustard gas.

     When he returned from the war, he refused to see her. At the age of 30, he suffered an aneurism and died on Christmas Day.

     Throughout her life, Guy Fuller would remain her Sir Galahad. And finally, she would settle for Sir Bert, a knight of the streets with a penchant for flim-flam. For good reason, she had married and divorced him twice and raised me as a single parent.     

     I remember her teary eyed, hiking up my short pants and straightening my Peter Pan collar preparing me for a day at the Crenshaw Nursery School in Los Angeles, describing my dad as “that sonuvabitch of a goddamned bastard.” He was precisely that.

     Gallivanting around, chasing other women, disappearing for days, pawning my mother’s jewelry, coming home with lipstick marks tattooed across his drunken face, he had broken her heart a million times.

     Douglas Fairbanks Sr., whom they’re still twittering about in Twitterville, will always be nothing more to me than just another movie star.

     But Bert and Thelma — I’ll love them forever. And today, I know my mom would sincerely wish my dad a Happy Birthday because she never stopped caring for him.

                                                                         — Boots LeBaron —

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