“Yesterday was yesterday. Today is today. There is no tomorrow until it’s today.” ~The Gaucho (Douglas Fairbanks)
I saw The Gaucho for the first time a few years ago when the Silent Film Society of Chicago presented it. It came as a revelation because it was something more than just a great adventure film. There was a real depth to it. I was so impressed with the film that I wanted to present it here in Park Ridge. This is actually the second time Douglas Fairbanks has been a part of our “home opener.” Two years ago we opened the Crossed Swords film series at the Park Ridge Public Library with a screening of The Iron Mask.
Film historian Jeffrey Vance wrote a wonderful book on Douglas Fairbanks in which he writes, “Fairbanks’s penultimate silent film, Douglas Fairbanks as The Gaucho, is an anomaly among his works. A daring departure, the film is an effort of unanticipated darkness in tone, setting, and character. The spirit of adolescent boyish adventure, the omnipresent characteristic of his prior films, is noticeably absent. It has been replaced by a spiritual fervor and an element of seething sexuality the likes of which had never been seen before in one of his productions. No boy scout here, Fairbanks drinks, smokes, and acts upon his carnal desires with a lascivious glee that would make the Black Pirate blush in Technicolor. The hero of the film—a Byronic hero in the true sense of the term—ultimately finds redemption through religious conversion. Douglas Fairbanks as The Gaucho is a frequently misunderstood film, but its dark tone and divinity-versus-carnality story resonate effectively in the twenty-first century. It is, in fact, a near masterwork, and as such, it demands reappraisal.”
So why isn’t the film better remembered today? Perhaps one reason is the critical perception of it at the time. Though it was a box office success, The Gaucho received mixed reviews when it was released in 1927. More than a few critics commented on the religious overtones which to them seemed out of place in a Fairbanks picture. The Gaucho is also derivative of other Fairbanks films. There is a sense of déjà vu with several aspects of the storyline, including Fairbanks single-handedly taking over the city in a manner not unlike his capture of the ship in The Black Pirate.
In spite of this, The Gaucho is an original work in which Fairbanks created a daring new screen image of an anti-hero. Fairbanks was always the pioneer, and here, he branched out in characterization. As a result, he reveals himself to be a better actor than some people give him credit for. He is a far cry from the all-American hero he had developed years before. This is a character who is on the far side of virtue with selfish interests.
The story is centered around the City of the Miracle in the Andes Mountains. A Holy Shrine attracts the interest of a military tyrant, Ruiz the Usurper, who is only interested in taking the donations of gold that the shrine brings in. The Gaucho, a flamboyant outlaw with no need for God, has also heard of the city and plans to recapture it from Ruiz and his army. Unlike Fairbanks’ Robin Hood, who stole from the rich to give to the poor, The Gaucho simply steals. With him is the adoring Mountain Girl, who’ll do anything to keep him for herself. But the Gaucho’s outlook on life changes not by being preached at, but by witnessing the living example set forth by the Padre and the Girl of the Shrine.
The Gaucho was made at a difficult time in Fairbanks’ life when he had to cope with the death of a brother and a mother-in-law—Mary Pickford’s mother—who was battling cancer. The film Fairbanks made as a result dealt with darker themes. A sense of mortality runs throughout, as embodied by a mysterious character known as the Victim of the Black Doom. The Gaucho is unlike any other film Fairbanks made. A film about sin and salvation was not a typical Fairbanks storyline, but it was in keeping with the themes of the day. This was the year that Cecil B. DeMille released The King of Kings, and popular evangelists like Aimee Semple McPherson were in the news. It’s been noted that Fairbanks was inspired to make this film by a visit to Lourdes in France– famous for its holy site with healing powers.
To counterbalance the darker aspects of the story, Fairbanks chose a comedy director, F. Richard Jones, who had previously directed screen comedienne Mabel Normand. The Gaucho offers a comedic aspect along with the heavy drama. There is also an interesting balance between the two leading ladies that Fairbanks chose to represent the female duality. Though Dolores Del Rio was originally considered for the fiery Mountain Girl, Fairbanks instead chose an unknown, the Mexican dancer Lupe Velez, who was borrowed from the Hal Roach studio. This was Lupe’s first feature film, and she is perhaps the only actress in a Fairbanks movie who could match his energy. In the 1930s she would become as famous for her offscreen romances as for her onscreen image as “The Mexican Spitfire.” Her mirror opposite in The Gaucho is the exotically beautiful Eve Southern, who plays the saintly Girl of the Shrine. Southern’s career began with D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance in 1916 and would end twenty years later in 1936. The film features one other very important leading lady. Though uncredited, Mary Pickford appears as the Virgin Mary. Her appearance was originally photographed in two-strip Technicolor to add to the scene’s mysticism, however, the color and tinting have not yet been restored.
Also, playing the shepherdess in the opening sequence– the younger version of the Girl of the Shrine– is 13-year-old Joan Barclay. Joan would later be featured in many B movies and serials during the 1930s and 1940s.
The Gaucho features a great supporting cast, but it’s Doug’s film all the way; he is always the most interesting character to watch. Few actors made better use of props than Douglas Fairbanks, whether it was a sword or bullwhip. In The Gaucho, it’s the South American bolas he whirls around. Note how he uses this prop to connect with those around him, most memorably with Lupe Velez during their sensual tango. The other key prop is the ever-present cigarette—which is always being manipulated like a sleight of hand trick; even the smoke seems like magic.
As with his best films, The Gaucho displays Fairbanks athleticism and charm. His onscreen exuberance was always a tonic for moviegoers, but here, the exuberance bursts forth with his spiritual transformation. A boundless energy and earnestness emerge from the Gaucho’s new-found faith. Even pain seems like a joy in the wake of his conversion.
Beyond its cast, The Gaucho has a wonderful visual design by the Swedish-American art director Carl Oscar Borg. The film was photographed by Tony Gaudio, who later shot many films for Warner Bros. including The Adventures of Robin Hood. Fairbanks was more interested in capturing the romance of Argentina than its realism. For Fairbanks, “things as they are are never as appealing as things as we would like to see them.” From the Holy Shrine to the village prison, the set-pieces are wonderfully evocative of a time and place in Argentina that perhaps never really existed. The atmosphere is aided by effects such as glass paintings and miniatures.
The Gaucho may seem an offbeat way to begin a series about faith, but Cinema of Transcendence explores the subject through films of all genres irrespective of their popularity. We have not opened with a Bible story or with a film people are familiar with, but it’s a film that shows the power of faith to heal and to guide. Faith in film is not merely contained within the walls of the church or recalled from a distant land from Biblical times. The spirit that permeates these films—and the message they contain– will reveal itself in the most unlikely of settings– from a mountainside shrine to Devil’s Island, and yes, even within the walls of the White House.