Aging in Angkor

„Around the World in 80 Minutes“ that led him to Cambodia in 1931

By Michael Scholten

In 1939, when World War II broke out, Victor Fleming directed two of the most popular movies in cinema history: The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. Just a few movie buffs know that Fleming spent a professional visit to Angkor Wat eight years before his final breakthrough. In those days he was travelling with Douglas Fairbanks, who contracted his friend and mentor Victor Fleming to direct the travelogue Around the World in 80 Minutes.

1931 was a changing point in Flemings’ and Fairbanks’ lives. While the golden years of the director were yet to come, the ultimate star of the silent movie era was facing the rapid decline of his career with the advent of the talking pictures. Therefore the all boy tour to Cambodia and other Asian countries was not just a business trip, it was a desperate escape from Hollywood and a disloyal cinema audience.

Victor Fleming, a mechanic and race-car driver, entered the film business as stuntman in 1910. In World War I he served in the photographic section of the US Army and became the personal cameraman for President Woodrow Wilson at the post-war Versailles Peace Conference. Back to Hollywood, he rose to the rank of a cinematographer, working with director D.W. Griffith on Intolerance (1916) and later directing the greatest action and comedy stars of the silent cinema era, among them Douglas Fairbanks.

“The King of Hollywood” was best known for his funny characters in silent films. His remarkable athletic abilities would gain wide attention among a worldwide audience. To avoid being controlled by the Hollywood studio system and to protect their independence, Douglas Fairbanks, his future wife Mary Pickford, their best friend Charlie Chaplin and director D.W. Griffith formed their own company United Artists in 1919, which gave them complete artistic control over their films and the profits generated. United Artists was kept solvent immediately after its formation largely from the success of Fairbanks‘ films, many of them directed by Victor Fleming. When “Everybody’s Hero” Fairbanks married “America’s Sweetheart” Pickford in 1920, the crowds went wild about the movie industry’s first celebrity couple, who made their European honeymoon and their life at a luxurious Beverly Hills estate called Pickfair public.

Fairbanks staged a new type of adventure-costume picture and became famous for his swashbuckling roles in box office hits such as The Mark of Zorro (1920), The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), the first full-length Technicolor film The Black Pirate (1926) and The Gaucho (1927).

There was no bigger star in Hollywood than Douglas Fairbanks. During the first ceremony of its type, he and Mary Pickford placed their hand and foot prints in wet cement at the newly opened Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in 1927. In the same year Fairbanks was a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, serving as its first president and hosting the first award ceremony at the Roosevelt Hotel.

Could anything stop this amazing success story? Yes, the introduction of talking pictures did within less than two years. Fairbanks’ last silent film was The Iron Mask (1929), which included an introductory prologue spoken by Fairbanks. The hero D’Artagnan gave this speech and – as no other of Fairbanks’ former heroes – died in the end. The “King of Hollywood” was waving good-bye to silent pictures.

Fairbanks did not share the fate of many other actors, who had to retire immediately because of a bad voice or a foreign accent. Fairbanks had a trained voice from his early years on theater stages. However, the technical restrictions of early sound films dulled his enthusiasm.

In contrast to the tragic hero George Valentin in this year’s Oscar darling The Artist, that is loosely based on Douglas Fairbanks’ life story, he did not refuse to give talkies a try. As a joint venture with Mary Pickford the couple played Petruchio and Kate in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew in 1929. This film, and the subsequent talkie Reaching for the Moon (1930) with Fairbanks portraying a carefree Wall Street tycoon, were poorly received by Depression era audiences. In a talking film with a modern, naturalistic setting, his performance style seemed artificial. All exaggerated gestures, so effective in silent cinema, were incongruous in sound film.

To escape from failure, Douglas Fairbanks absented himself from his wife, his audience and his country. Since he was no longer able to entertain himself by entertaining others, playing golf and travelling around the world became Fairbanks’ new diversion.

In 1931 he went on a trip to Hawaii, Japan, Hong Kong, China, the Philippines, Cambodia, Siam and India with his favorite director Victor Fleming, his coach Chuck Lewis and cameraman Henry Sharp, who had an innovative sound-recording device, enabling him to make audio recordings in remote parts of Asia. To find financial support for this trip, Fairbanks camouflaged the private fun as a feature length comic travelogue entitled Around the World in 80 Minutes, inspired by Jules Verne’s epic novel “Around the World in 80 Days”.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I have just made a trip around the world. Not in the interest of science or promotion of international goodwill or anything like that”, Douglas Fairbanks said in the first minute of the movie, standing on a huge map of Asia that was painted on a soundstage floor in Hollywood. He uncovered the background of his strange mix of anthropology, history and wisecracks: “My sole idea was to have a good time. And I had.”
The movie crew boarded a vessel to Hawaii. The film’s first footage showed the 48 year old Fairbanks demonstrating some gymnastics with his muscular and half naked body. In Honolulu he received a warm welcome by crowds of people and ukulele players, before he learned how to surf on a board at Waikiki Beach.

The island hopping continued with a short visit to Japan and some travelogue clichés such as rickshaws, Mount Fuji and autograph hunting Geishas. In Tokyo, Fairbanks had a brief reunion with Hollywood’s Asian-American actor and later The Bridge on the River Kwai-star Sessue Hayakawa, whose voice could not be heard during the very brief appearance. Instead, Fairbanks praised the good golf courses in Japan and their female caddies.

In China he expressed sympathy for the poor rice farmers, enjoyed the splendor of the Forbidden City in Beijing and demanded an end to the civil war between South and North in order to turn their battlefields into golf courses. Fairbanks and his crew lived at a private house in Beijing, arranged by Mei Lanfang, the ultimate star of the Beijing Opera. Fairbanks invited Mei Lanfang and his family to appear in the travelogue, with his son and daughter singing Chinese songs.

The footage from the Philippines included a surprisingly long original speech by Emilio Aguinaldo, former leader of the Filipino forces against Spanish and later U.S. forces during the Philippine’s War of Independence. Without giving any basic information about the Philippines, Fairbanks grabbed his golf club again and made a possibly record-breaking pitch. On a giant map of Asia, he chipped the golf ball from Manila to Angkor Wat, his next stop.

“It is one of the most interesting and most impressive spots in the world”, Fairbanks said about the temple “that was built a 1000 years ago by people known as Khmer” and “is now owned by the French”. Talking about the stone carvings, he added: “You will notice that every square foot of the enormous walls forms part of an elaborate sculptural design. These ruins are in a perfect state of preservation. Like the Republican Party.”

Rumor has it, that Fairbanks and his director Victor Fleming planned to return to Angkor to use it as a magnificent location for a future adventure movie, but their idea was never realized. Since the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor was still under construction in 1931 and – with the advent of recession – could not be opened before 1932, it is likely but not proved that Douglas Fairbanks and his team stayed at the Auberge Royal de Temples, that was built opposite of Angkor Wat in 1909 and destroyed during the Khmer Rouge years.

Douglas Fairbanks using a golf club as a pointer, flanked by director Victor Fleming (left), his coach Chuck Lewis (right) and cinematographer Henry Sharp (second from right)

Douglas Fairbanks using a golf club as a pointer, flanked by director Victor Fleming (left), his coach Chuck Lewis (right) and cinematographer Henry Sharp (second from right)

In contrast to Douglas Fairbanks, his friend and United Artists partner Charlie Chaplin enjoyed the hospitality of the Raffles Hotels in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh in 1936, when he and his Modern Times co-star Paulette Goddard visited Cambodia on their honeymoon trip. During their stay in Phnom Penh, Chaplin visited the Silver Pagoda and the Royal Palace, where he met His Majesty, King Sisowath Monivong, in the setting of his palace.

Douglas Fairbanks did not experience that honor in 1931. He limited his stay in Cambodia to the Siem Reap area and demonstrated his athletic skills when he was climbing the towers of Angkor Wat for exercise and fun.

Socializing with barely clothed children who “speak French better than I could” Fairbanks managed to entertain the local crowds in front of the temples by simple magic tricks with cigarettes and a matchbox. In an on-screen dialogue with Victor Fleming Fairbanks praised the grace and beauty of the Cambodian Apsara dancers, who wore “a little more clothes” in 1931 than on the “carvings made 1000 years ago”. Although daring the wreath of the neighbor country, Fairbanks added: “I heard they are even better than the ones in Siam.”

If you believe the images of the travelogue, Cambodian elephants took the Hollywood crew to their next destination: “Bangkok, the capital of Siam”, where King Prajadhipok, a self declared admirer of Fairbanks, invited the famous visitor for a royal banquet in their garden, before playing golf on His Majesty’s course.

The Siam chapter of Around the World in 80 Minutes included an unexpected cameo by Mickey Mouse, that is intercut with footage of Siamese dancers. Fairbanks and Pickford were both outspoken in their admiration for Walt Disney, and it seems the Disney studio returned the favor by contributing a brief animated bit: A dancing Mickey in front of a simply drawn Siamese backdrop, combining Asian moves with American-style jive.

No mice, but wild cats were waiting for Fairbanks in India. For the last chapter of their travelogue, Fairbanks, Fleming, Lewis and Sharp visited the Taj Mahal, before accepting an invitation by the Maharanee of Cooch-Behar and going on a big game hunt. From the back of an elephant, Fairbanks brought down three leopards, a tiger and a panther. “I always wanted to put a leopard on the spot”, Fairbanks said after killing the last cat, while celebrating himself as the savior of some terrorized Indian villages. “Inside one of the leopards we found the ring and bracelet of a long missed girl.”

Remembering his superhero-past, nostalgic Fairbanks reprised his glory days of stardom by trotting out his old Indian robe trick from The Thief of Bagdad. He even employed that film’s flying carpet as a narrative deus ex machina to transport him back to Hollywood, when it becomes apparent that the 80 minutes goal for his around the world adventure is a rifle too ambitious even for Douglas Fairbanks. The film crew boarded the carpet in India and moved westwards to California within a minute. Over Hollywood, however, the artificiality of the flying carpet was exposed, when the camera pulled back to reveal a motion picture set and a simple special effect.

The Asia tour ended in June 1931 and cost – including postproduction – less than $120.000. Although some of the dialogues were recorded on location, the greater part of Fairbanks’ monologues was written later by Broadway playwright and screen writer Robert E. Sherwood. He was an admirer of Fairbanks, but did not save his idol from some narrow-minded and patronizing comments about the cultures he had encountered on his tour.

Joseph Schenck, executive producer and president of United Artists, was disappointed about the results and considered them “a substandard and unacceptable product” for a release. Fairbanks, however, liked the movie and made plans for a sequel. According to “The Lewiston Daily Sun” from October 17, 1931, Fairbanks was preparing a six month trip to South America for 1932. “The new adventure will cover more than 15.000 miles, two giant Amphibian airplanes have been contracted for to carry the party from Los Angeles, following the routes of the Pan American Airways down the west coast to Mexico and South America”, the newspaper explained.

Despite Joseph Schenck’s objection, Around the World in 80 Minutes was released by United Artists with the world premiere held November 19, 1931, at the Rivoli Theater in New York City. It was one of the grandest theatres on the east coast, offering seats to 2.270 visitors and opened in 1917 with A Modern Musketeer, starring a younger and more popular Douglas Fairbanks.

Around the World in 80 Minutes received mainly bad reviews and was far away from being a blockbuster, although it eventually grossed a paltry $200.000. Receiving the report about his box office failure, Douglas Fairbanks, who was in Rome, returned to the United States and cancelled all plans for his next escapist travelogue.

Around the World in 80 Minutes remains one of the least known and least shown movies of the Hollywood veteran. Even in Cambodian bootleg stalls it is impossible to get a copy of that historic “Angkor movie”. Until today the travelogue is seldom presented outside of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and even that institution shows little enthusiasm for it. “Except perhaps from a sociological point of view, it is a film of no importance”, the former MoMa film curator Eileen Bowser observed. “Its only value may be as documentation of how painful Fairbanks found the aging process.”

The Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) contains only two reviews of the film, underlining its value “for historians and anthropologists, as well as anyone studying international relations during the period of uneasy peace maintained between the two world wars.” The reviewer had some “pained feelings”, when he watched Fairbanks’ carefree attitude towards the colorful and exotic places in Asia: “We know, as Fairbanks and Fleming did not, what would happen in Japan, Cambodia, and Vietnam in later years”, referring to A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia and the US war against Ho Chi Minh’s troops from North Vietnam.

More than a decade before these historic crimes against humanity started, Douglas Fairbanks continued to enjoy the funny side of life. He shot the semi-documentary adventure flick Mr. Robinson Crusoe on Tahiti, Fiji and Samoa, retired from acting in 1934 with The Private Life of Don Juan, divorced from Mary Pickford in 1936 and married his new love, British lingerie model Sylvia Ashley. Their honeymoon trip took a couple of years and was only brought to an end by Fairbank’s heart attack and death in December 1939.

At the same time director Victor Fleming, who had watched the decline of his mentor Douglas Fairbanks and helped Gary Cooper and Clark Gable to become the new “Kings of Hollywood”, reached the climax of his own career. The Wizard of Oz premiered on August 25, 1939, and Gone with the Wind was waiting for its premiere on January 17, 1940. Most of Fleming’s following movies were box office successes, too, particularly A Guy Named Joe (1944) with Spencer Tracy. Just a few days after completing the Ingrid-Bergman-vehicle Joan of Arc, that became one of the director’s very few box office failures, Fleming died from a severe heart attack in January 1949.

Michael Scholten