Douglas Fairbanks: “Teaching his dog to smile.”
Douglas Fairbanks exploded onto the filmmaking scene in 1915 after a successful career on Broadway as a dashing leading man. His jaunty joie de vivre and flashy acrobatics wowed audiences on stage and soon enthralled filmgoers as well. By 1917, the successful Fairbanks opened his own production company called the Douglas Fairbanks Pictures Corp. The handsome star represented the best qualities of America – drive, confidence and goodness.
Fairbanks shrewdly employed his All-American Boy qualities as a publicity tool in building his career. He penned a simple self-help book in 1917 espousing the power of positive thinking, “Live and Let Live,” which sold over 400,000 copies in the United States. His publisher, Britton Publishing Co., welcomed its follow-up, “Making Life Worth While,” in 1918.
While Fairbanks’ name adorned the book, in actuality, Kenneth Davenport, a former colleague and now assistant, penned the words for both volumes. According to Jeffrey Vance in “Douglas Fairbanks,” Davenport and Fairbanks had shared both a dressing room and a warm woolen overcoat in their early days on Broadway. On one particularly freezing day, Fairbanks wore the coat, with Davenport becoming tubercular shortly thereafter. Fairbanks blamed himself, and hired his friend to help organize his life and ghostwrite.
Moving Picture World called “Making Life Worth While” a “new volume of cheer” upon its release in fall 1918. It stated in its Nov. 2, 1918, edition, “It is another message from the man who knows how to keep himself happy and well and is willing to pass his recipe on to others.”
As the dustjacket of the book proclaimed, “…another book of inspiration for people of all ages and either sex – a new vein of optimistic cheer for we mortals of a war torn world… .” Prices ranged from $1 for library and khaki kit bag editions to $2 for a boxed leather version and $2.50 for a boxed ooze calf one.
Featuring elegant drawn illustrations as well as mostly happy-go-lucky photographs, the book included such chapters as “Little Grains of Sand,” “The New Order of Living,” “Feeling the Intellect,” “Backing Up the Flag” and “Harnessing the Brain.”
“Harnessing the Brain” describes finding the perfect job to match personal proclivities. “To make life truly worth while one would, if possible, follow his natural bent, having trained himself accordingly, otherwise no matter how successful he might become in a material sense, regrets would be inevitable and likely to lead to a surly old age. It is a vast mistake to believe that the possession of great wealth insures happiness – and without happiness whose life is worth while?
The makings of many a good butcher, baker, or candlestick-maker have gone to waste when a youngster walked through the wrong doorway in search of his first job. That is the initial lottery ticket we buy – and sometimes pay for most dearly.”
The chapter called “Genius Plus Initiative” opened with these words, “Genius is twenty per cent idea, thirty per cent talent, and fifty per cent initiative. Ideas are small in themselves when reduced to brass tacks, but when we put the steam behind they often turn into something tremendous.
Even a fool may have an idea, but it takes brains and pep to put one over.”
Once again, Fairbanks’ book was a major hit, and smaller, pamphlet-sized books followed: “Initiation and Self-Reliance” (1918), “Taking Stock of Ourselves” (1918), “Whistle and Hoe—Sing as We Go” (1918), “Assuming Responsibilities” (1918), “Profiting by Experience” (1918), and “Wedlock in Time” (1918).
Decades later, Norman Vincent Peale stressed “The Power of Positive Thinking” in his book of the same name, and slowly a self-help industry was born. The world swims in various self-help books today, teaching life values, dating values and even work values. None of the books around seem as earnest or heartfelt as those displaying the smiling face of the infectious Douglas Fairbanks.