A century ago on February 5, United Artists, a studio devoted to empowering filmmakers to make artistic films, was founded. Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, and Mary Pickford agreed to finance their own films and distribute them. It served to prevent the merger of the top studio conglomerates in their attempt to control booking and exhibition. Newspapers reported that, "The inmates have taken over the asylum." In truth, it was the culmination of power that these big celebrities had been building for years through their favorable reputations with the public. This translated into big box office and rising salaries which they shrewdly negotiated, proving their business acumen. HIS MAJESTY, THE AMERICAN was the first film released by UA. Only Fairbanks was available to make a film for the new company, because the others still owed films to their former studios under their contracts.
HIS MAJESTY, THE AMERICAN opens with Fairbanks greeting the audience directly, saying "Gee whiz, I hope you'll like it!" It is very similar in plot to a stage play he appeared in in 1912 called HAWTHORNE OF THE USA. Bill Brooks is a kidnapped prince, unaware of his royal status, who was raised in luxury in America. He does whatever his heart desires, which has him popping around to various locations. Art director Max Parker was kept busy with the many sets. Fairbanks saves a family from a burning tenement building, tangles with spies in a scene with a cut-away set exposing six rooms and the criminal activities within, and lights a cigarette on the hot ground in Mexico where he has a run-in with Pancho Villa.
HIS MAJESTY, THE AMERICAN is 8 reels, longer than most films released at that time, and lengthier than any other Fairbanks film to date. It was originally even longer before an elaborate nightmare sequence was cut, later to be used in the next Fairbanks movie WHEN THE CLOUDS ROLL BY. (It utilized a revolving room trick that allowed Fred Astaire to dance on the ceiling in ROYAL WEDDING decades later.)
Fairbanks encouraged his co-writer and director Joseph Henabery to write a story that would depict President Wilson's League of Nations idea in a favorable light. The government wanted each of the Fourteen Points included. "The danger was that propaganda could easily overburden the story, unless great care was taken to weave it in subtly," Henabery wrote in his memoirs. It took eight weeks to write and receive approval from Uncle Sam. Unfortunately for the government, much of the political propaganda ended up on the cutting room floor because the Senate voted down America's involvement in the League of Nations before the film was released.
Henabery and cameraman Victor Fleming had only recently returned from WWI when it went into production. Henabery had directed Fairbanks in two features previously, SAY! YOUNG FELLOW and THE MAN FROM PAINTED POST, and had worked as an actor under Griffith before he became a director. Three separate crews worked simultaneously at the Douglas Fairbanks Studios on the W. H. Clune lot, with Henabery directing the first, Arthur Rosen the second and Fleming the third. Shooting completed in August and editing pushed the release date to September 1st.
Albert von Tilzer wrote a song with the same title as the film and advertised it in conjunction with the release, but the song was not written for the film.
This movie was heavily booked even with theaters in close proximity of each other. In New York City, all the Fox and Loews theaters booked HIS MAJESTY, THE AMERICAN. Producer Messmore Kendall chose this film to open the Capitol Theater in New York. The event attracted a packed house filling 4,700 seats on October 24, 1919.
Staff at the Odeon Theater in Hardin, Missouri reported to "Exhibitor's Herald," "Played this picture to capacity house, and everyone more than pleased. Ministers who witnessed it gave their hearty endorsement. It is in class 'A'."
Henabery said, "My feeling about that thing was always that it was a bunch of hash."
Harry Dunn Cabot, movie reviewer for "Picture-Play Magazine" wrote, "The plot is frequently lost, strayed, or stolen, but nobody cares, because its hero has such a good time doing his favorite stunts. It will not make new recruits to the Fairbanks' forces, but it will gain anew the admiration of the old ones."
S.A. Hayman of the Lyda Theater in Grand Island, Nebraska wrote, "If all United Artists productions are as good as this one, my hat is in the ring."
"The polish and confidence of the Fairbanks comedies reached its peak with the release of HIS MAJESTY, THE AMERICAN," Jeanine Basinger wrote in Silent Stars. "It's a perfect title for the Fairbanks franchise: the elevation of an ordinary American go-get-em guy to royal status."
This film was screened at Cinevent in 2019.
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