Douglas Fairbanks and “When the Clouds Roll By”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:


This Douglas Fairbanks project, the first directing effort of Victor Fleming, stands at the nexus of a number of popular art traditions. It dates from 1919, a year prior to Fairbanks’ swashbuckling debut in “The Mark of Zorro,” when Doug was less a superhero and more of an urban go-getter — a more athletic variant of the upbeat everyman Harold Lloyd was beginning to embody around the same time. The plot involves a little bit of everything, from romance to disaster epic to wild slapstick fantasy. It’s such a bizarre mash-up, in fact, that it almost feels like the antecedent of today’s “Crank” films; it works very hard to induce a state of heart-thumping whathefuckitude. [1]

The weirdness starts with the set-up: Fairbanks’ giant-schnozzed neighbor is trying to kill him. He holds no animus toward Doug, he simply longs to experiment on an imperiled human. His technique is a strange one: it might be the cinema’s lone instance of attempted murder by indigestion. He feeds Doug onions and then mince pie and then — the real kicker — a generous portion of delicious Welsh rarebit. Once the stuff goes down the hatch, Fleming cuts to images of actors dressed up as the foods, scurrying around and clobbering each other on a set made up to look like the inside of a stomach.


This bit, with the foods doddering about like the Fruit of the Loom advertising characters, has a naive charm worthy of Melies, but what occurs next feels more like the work of another fantasy specialist, legendary cartoonist and pioneering filmmaker Winsor McCay. Born in 1869, McCay specialized in the depiction of dream states. In his most renowned comic strip, “Little Nemo,” the artist used hyper detailing and exaggerated perspective to pierce the flatness of the printed page and pull the reader into the illustrated realm. But some of his other strips employed a different technique: they used minimalist line drawings, everyday settings, and hard scene transitions to induce a state of mild discombobulation —  a sort of surrealism born of semi-logical juxtaposition. For a demonstration of this, take a look at the comic strip shown below. The space in each pane is technically related to the scene depicted in the previous one, but McCay cleverly omits details and varies the viewing angle so that it’s hard for the reader to maintain his bearings. Is the man falling up or down? Is the train located below or above the street car? Where does the water come from? A reader may have to go through the strip several times before its narrative begins to cohere.


This is similar to what Fleming does in the fantasy sequence which follows the aforementioned stomach scene. After collapsing into a dream, Fairbanks walks through his bedroom door — and finds himself in a crowded ballroom. Suitably spooked, he then bounds into a painting that’s hanging on the wall — and lands in an outdoor pool. Later, he slides down a chimney — and finds himself stuck inside a giant metal drum. Throughout the sequence Fleming exploits the cut-and-splice nature of film to conjure a McCay-like world of spatial and narrative incongruity. And by combining this approach with some simple camera trickery — slow motion, double exposure — he effectively evokes a nightmare. [2]


For movie buffs this bit may have a different association: it’s similar in some respects to the sequence in “Shelock, Jr.” in which Buster Keaton, having dreamed himself into the center of a movie, is bounced from setting to setting by the film’s haphazard editing. In that sequence Keaton explicitly connected the act of dreaming to the act of watching movies, and in doing so he emphasized the submission and loss of control that are central to both. (This may be why we’ve always responded so rhapsodically to movies — they hijack and commandeer our core responses.) Nothing in “When the Clouds Roll By” is that sophisticated. Still, in watching it you get a sense of how the movies during this period were effortlessly absorbing popular art traditions, tweaking them, and spitting them out in new and wondrous forms. Among other things this yielded a golden age of unselfconscious surrealism. Never has the uncanny been presented as so much a part of the everyday. [3]

The movie’s most uncanny element might be Fairbanks himself. He gallops, leaps, transcends. If a building or other obstacle has the temerity to get in his way, he simply climbs or vaults over it. (Where building climbing is concerned, Harold Lloyd had nothing on Fairbanks.) During the dream sequence, when he walks straight through the walls of his home, it scarcely seems unnatural — it seems like something Doug would do. I’ve long felt that Fairbanks was instrumental in actualizing movie sets: that, through the intensity of his interaction with his surroundings — banisters, walls, multi-level structures —  he pushed movies towards a more volumetric and sold-looking mode of realism. With Doug around no filmmaker could afford to let space go unexplored, no art director could risk a flimsy prop. [4] I wouldn’t stress this too strongly — it’s just a rough thesis — but it may be that Fairbanks’ very preposterousness acted as a spur in the flank of movie naturalism.


In “When the Clouds Roll By” Fleming uses that naturalism of space and decor as a foil for the giddy impossibilities that he throws on screen. It’s as though he and Fairbanks are teasing the audience by consciously subverting its assumptions about what is being presented. This is perhaps most evident when, during the dream sequence, Fairbanks strolls up the walls of his living room, then taunts his food-man pursuers by throwing upside-down handstands off his ceiling. The trick, accomplished by rotating the set around a stationary camera set-up, turns every plane into an actable surface, and it definitively establishes Fairbanks as the living embodiment of the physically impossible — that is, as a pure creature of the movies.  It should come as no surprise that, over thirty years later, the trick would be resurrected by Fred Astaire, who used it to dance up the walls of his hotel suite in “Royal Wedding.” Astaire, too, was a pure creature of the movies. [5] 


Melies, McCay, Lloyd, Keaton, Astaire — one of the great pleasures of watching “When the Clouds Roll By” lies in connecting it to other performers, other traditions. [6] Released just before the advent of the ’20s, the decade in which the movies reached maturity, it combines the casual exuberance of early cinema with the scale and confidence that would become Hollywood’s trademarks. What’s more, it strikes me as the type of thing that could only have emerged from the America of the interbellum period, that slim sliver of time when modernity had just started to define itself and the country had yet to become a victim of its own weight and momentum. When, during the movie’s finale, Fleming stages a wedding during a large-scale flood sequence, with Fairbanks and the constituents of the deluged town perched atop what appear to be full-size houses, and all of them wearing big smiles as they float together down an engorged river, you realize how fully these people had bought into the idea that anything is possible.

[1] The extent to which substance use had an effect on the nutso character of these films is anyone’s guess. Fairbanks was supposedly a teetotaler, but In 1916 he starred in the notorious “Mystery of the Leaping Fish,” in which he played a cocaine-fueled detective named Coke Ennyday.

[2] It’s likely the similarity to McCay’s work was at least semi-intentional. The comic strip I highlighted is part of a series called “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend.” It focused on characters who experienced bizarre dreams after dining on Welsh rarebit — the very dish that causes Doug’s odd dream in “Clouds.”

[3] It seems to me that the works of the official gods of surrealism — Dali, Magritte, Ernst, et al. — often pale in comparison with their “naive” counterparts in the popular arts.

[4] Watching “Clouds” it’s easy to forget that, just five years prior to its release, movies were commonly shot on cardboard sets, their “walls” prone to trembling at the slightest touch by the jostling of an actor.

[5] Yes, I realize that Fairbanks and Astaire both got their starts in vaudeville. I don’t think that diminishes their essential movieness.

[6] Fairbanks is of course known for his adventure films, but he also deserves to be recognized as one of the key comedic figures of early movies. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Fairbanks was as big an influence as Chaplin on both Keaton and Lloyd.


  • The excellent DVD company Flicker Alley has released “When the Clouds Roll By” as part of a terrific set focusing on Fairbanks’ early career. I think it’s one of the best DVD box sets devoted to early cinema released in recent years. In addition to “Clouds” it includes several films that were instrumental to the development screen comedy and adventure, among them Allan Dwan’s fascinating “A Modern Musketeer,” which includes some western elements, and Fleming’s “The Mollycoddle.” You can read more about it here.
  • The critic Michael Sragow has written a bio of Fleming. I have a copy but I have yet to read it. You can buy it here.
  • Here’s a recent bio on Fairbanks. I don’t have this one. Has anyone read it?
  • An excellent piece by David Bordwell on the early Fairbanks titles. Bordwell calls “Clouds” “one of the strangest pictures of the still-emerging American cinema.”
  • A nice collection of McCay’s “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend” strips.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
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4 Responses to Douglas Fairbanks and “When the Clouds Roll By”

  1. Pingback: Overlooked Oeuvres: Winsor McCay (1867-1934) | Uncouth Reflections

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  3. Pingback: Listing Movies: The He-Man Woman Haters Movie Club | Uncouth Reflections

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