The Douglas Fairbanks Museum recently provided research materials to the History Channel for an upcoming documentary about the use of language in film.
Vintage news articles from the museum’s newspaper and magazine archives were requested by the network specifically pertaining to the 1916 Douglas Fairbanks comedy, The Habit of Happiness – reportedly the first Hollywood film to contain a curse word. And this was in the silent days before spoken dialogue!
Although there are no swear words in the printed title cards, Fairbanks reportedly swore up a blue streak in one particular scene, sparking a nationwide lip-reading movie controversy.
Fairbanks fans may already be familiar with the story of Sunny Wiggins, the film’s central character. He’s convinced that laughter can cure any ailment and to prove his point, he conducts an experiment: find the saddest, sickest characters on earth and heal them with happiness. He decides to test his theory on a group of street-hardened “bums” at the local homeless shelter.
Douglas Fairbanks (always a stickler for authenticity) decided to make the scene as realistic as possible, hiring actual direlects from skid row instead of professional actors.
Things didn’t quite work out as planned, however; despite Doug’s many attempts to crack them up with his best gags, the men weren’t at all amused. At wits’ end, Fairbanks thus began to tell some extremely ribald and off-color stories – only this got the sad sacks to elicit a genuine chuckle before finally erupting into all-out belly laughs.
When the film was initially released by Triangle Pictures in 1916, complaints from deaf lip-readers who could grasp the flurry of Fairbanks’ profanities caused the offending scenes to be re-shot and distributed anew to theatres.
“It’s a hilarious story,” museum curator Keri Leigh says, “and I always enjoy telling it to our visitors. Although I still maintain that no one could tell the story better than Doug himself.”
Fairbanks did write his own version of the now-infamous event in an article called “Combining Play With Work,” which originally appeared in the American Magazine for July 1917.
A complete reprint of the 1917 article appears in the book Douglas Fairbanks: In His Own Words, a literary collection of Fairbanks’ writings published by the museum in 2006.
Leigh says that consulting with the producers on this documentary film was “a wonderful opportunity for the museum to further our mission of educating a younger generation about who Douglas Fairbanks was. We want kids especially to learn of his importance to the history and development of the cinematic arts.”
The educational documentary, which is geared towards school-age children, will be broadcast in early 2011. Stay tuned to the museum’s blog for further announcements as the air date nears.