We all know the story. In 1975 Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” breaks all box office records. Two years later George Lucas’ “Star Wars” breaks the record that “Jaws” had set. Spielberg follows up “Jaws” with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” which is also a huge box office hit. Hollywood studios look to repeat the success of those movies and begin deliberately producing the “summer blockbuster”, formula movies, usually with many special effects, designed to break or come close to breaking box office records. It gave us some great movies; “Superman”, “E.T.”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “Rambo: First Blood Part II”, “Ghost Busters”, “Batman”, “Titanic”, “Independence Day”, and “Lord of the Rings” are some examples, as well as a fair share of clunkers like “The Wild Wild West”, “Batman & Robin” and “Superman III”. While Hollywood is obsessed with releasing special effect laden movies during the summer and Christmas seasons it did not begin with “Jaws” and “Star Wars”. What those movies did was escalate the money studios were willing to pay for producing sci-fi, fantasy and adventure movies. But as anyone can tell these sort of movies had been around since the beginning of Hollywood itself. Prior to “Jaws” studios had been releasing big budget disaster movies such as “Towering Inferno”.
If you want to find the first real summer blockbuster spectacles then try going back to the 1920s. By 1920 studios were already making big budget spectacles, but they were usually historical dramas. Douglas Fairbanks was a new breed of actor, the motion picture star. Starting with the society comedy “The Lamb” in 1915 he would go on to make 30 more comedies where he would play the same kind of character, the young spoiled energetic rich man who yearns for a life of adventure and usually finds it by either heading West or fighting a criminal gang. In 1920 Fairbanks discovered a variation on this formula in the novel “The Curse of the Capistrano”. Taking place in California when it was still part of Mexico it told the story of a mysterious rebel who fought against the corrupt government officials. Known only as Zorro the rebel wore a black cloak and mask to hide his true identity, his calling card being the letter ‘Z’ which he carved into his opponents skin with his sword during duels. The Mexican police feared Zorro while the generals sought to have him hunted down. He was assumed to be one of the peasants but was actually Don Diego, the son of one of the wealthiest men in California. Fairbanks loved the idea of a thrill seeking socialite moonlighting as a rebel hero and adapted the story for the movie “The Mark of Zorro”.
Fairbanks was already at work on his next movie, another comedy with him as a spoiled rich man, when “The Mark of Zorro” was released to theaters. It went on to become a huge hit and Fairbanks immediately decided that from then on he would star in movies as swashbuckling characters. In 1921 he played D’Artagnan in “The Three Musketeers”. This would be followed by “Robin Hood” in 1922. For “Robin Hood” Fairbanks had a huge castle set built that was reported to have been the largest standing set in the silent era and could be seen from miles away. “Robin Hood” was a spectacle that was neither a historic or Biblical epic. It was an adventure movie on a grand scale. Huge sets, period costumes, and a cast of thousands just to be used as the backdrop for a Fairbanks action film. “Robin Hood” was followed by “The Thief of Bagdad” in 1924. Once again huge sets were built to recreate Baghdad and other ancient cities which rivaled the “Robin Hood” sets in grandeur. This time there would be fantasy which involved special effects to recreate the world of the Arabian Nights. An actual flying carpet was built using thin but strong cables that allowed Fairbanks to sail above the crowded streets of the Baghdad set. Another set was designed to mimic the bottom of the ocean including wire rigging that gave the effect of Fairbanks swimming. Here he fights a giant crab monster which was literally a huge mechanical crab puppet. Fairbanks had also fought a dragon puppet the size of a city bus in a previous scene. Both puppets were very effective.
“The Thief of Bagdad” would be the only time Fairbanks made a pure fantasy movie. It was followed by “Don Q, Son of Zorro” in 1925. Fairbanks then became fascinated with pirates wrote the original story for his next movie, 1926’s “The Black Pirate”. In it he plays the Duke of Arnold who is marooned alone on an island after Pirates have attacked and blown up his ship. Seeking revenge he takes on the identity of a pirate and infiltrates the pirate ship’s crew. While not on the scale of “Robin Hood” the movie did require building entire pirate ships for the sets. “The Black Pirate” would be followed by “The Gaucho” in 1927 where he plays a Mexican bandit who liberates a town from a corrupt general. In 1929 the silent era was coming to an end and Fairbanks was reluctant to make his first sound film. His final silent movie was the sequel to “The Three Musketeers” called “The Iron Mask”. Here the movie ends with the death of D’Artagnan who’s spirit joins the ghosts of the other dead musketeers. It was Fairbank’s farewell to silent movies and one of the final silent spectacles ever made.
The sound era meant no more huge outdoor sets. To prevent noises like airplanes and motor cars on the soundtrack sets would either have to be built well outside of the city limits or inside sound stages which were airplane hangers converted into movie sets. And since sound recording was a huge extra expense there was little money for spectacular sets to be used in a single movie. The first sound film Fairbanks starred in was with his wife Mary Pickford in an adaption of William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”. This would be followed a year later with the movie “Reaching for the Moon” which was a return to the earlier comedies where Fairbanks played the spoiled socialite. In 1932 he made “Mr. Robinson Crusoe” where once again he played the rich man character, this time accepting a bet from his friends that he could not survive on an uninhabited island for a year taking only the clothes on his back with him. Now entering his 50s and no longer able to get expensive swashbuckling epics financed Fairbanks left Hollywood for Europe where he made one final movie before his death, “The Private Life of Don Juan”. Here he plays the title character who after faking his own death to avoid arrest returns to his home town decades later to reclaim his identity and finally settle down.