1923: Douglas Fairbanks & Mary Pickford Move To…Adelaide?

Douglas Fairbanks & Mary Pickford Move To…Adelaide?

It may sound like a joke now, nearly 100 years later, but, in 1923, there was a strong possibility that Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford were about to relocate their cinematic empire and set up shop in Adelaide, South Australia.  Such a move, if successful, would have seen Adelaide become the New Hollywood.

When word broke at the end of July, 1923, that the dashing Fairbanks, easily the most popular and best known male film star in the world behind Charlie Chaplin, and his wife Mary Pickford, would be coming to Adelaide to film Fairbanks’s next movie, The Black Pirate, in and around the Adelaide Hills the city went crazy.  Fairbanks, and by association, Hollywood, was coming to Adelaide.  How could this happen?

When it came to planning movies, Fairbanks was meticulous, often spending more time in pre-production than actual filming.  Every stunt was rehearsed to perfection, every set and location was perfect and The Black Pirate was going to be no different, with Fairbanks beginning to plan the movie as early as 1922.  In order to find the right location to film The Black Pirate, Fairbanks had sent a location scout, Sam Blair, on a worldwide trip in 1923 to find terrain that was suitable for filming a pirate movie.  The criteria was simple, a place that was close to both water and wild bush.  Adelaide, in the early 1920s, as now, certainly fit the bill with oceans and foothills both very close to the city center with even wilder bush only a few hours’ drive out of town.  Blair had already scoped out New Zealand as a possible location, but, once he saw what Adelaide had to offer, he duly wired Fairbanks and announced the news.

The Advertiser (SA) July 30, 1923
Fairbanks had been planning The Black Pirate for a number of years and the plan would see him ready to roll cameras in early 1924.  As Blair explained it, the production would see Fairbanks, along with his cast and crew, to come and live in Adelaide while they filmed.  As a bonus for film fans, although not in the film America’s Sweetheart herself, Mary Pickford, would also be making the trip and presumably travelling around the country taking in the sights.  Social sets began to buzz at the thought of having Hollywood royalty in their midst for an extended period of time.

After a week in Adelaide, Blair had witnessed enough to announce that not only would The Black Pirate be made in Adelaide, but Fairbanks and Pickford would also be establishing a studio there with the view of making future films, thus making Adelaide as important to the film world as Hollywood.  Pickfair was going to be an Adelaide concern.  This was earth shattering news and both the Federal and State Governments of the time pledged full support and funding to make it happen. 

West's Olympia, circa 1925
On the 11th of August, Blair oversaw auditions for extras.  Thousands of star struck women, with ages ranging from 10 to 40, all hoping for their big chance to star in a Hollywood movie alongside the glamorous Fairbanks, turned out at West’s Olympia on Hindley Street.  The resulting cattle call stopped traffic and the news itself pushed the then visiting Sir Harry Lauder to the barest of mentions in newspapers.  Blair commented that the Adelaide women were equally as pretty as in any city in the world, and added an incentive of wanting to film a test reel to show Fairbanks.  Once the casting call was finished and names taken down, Blair moved on to Melbourne.  Adelaide, flushed over its good fortune, sat back and waited for the impending arrival of Doug and Mary and, in order to get ready, made sure that Doug’s latest film, Robin Hood, was sold out at every screening.

The wait was in vain.  January 1924 came and went with no sign of the famous couple.  February, March, the same result, not even a whisper. Everyone’s hopes were finally dashed, in April, as the former head of John Martins, Mr H Tingey, wrote to the Sunday Journal about his encounters in Hollywood.

Spotting Fairbanks and Pickford fare-welling a mutual friend, Tingey saw his opportunity.  He rushed the couple, handed Pickford a stuffed koala and asked Fairbanks, point blank, when he was intending to visit Adelaide and begin filming The Black Pirate.  Taken aback by the question, Fairbanks more than likely had no idea what Tingey was talking about.   But Fairbanks was nothing if not polite, cheerful and amiable.  He wasn’t the kind to merely ignore Tingey’s question.   He thought for a minute, took a breath and spoke.

“Nothing definite has been decided,” he diplomatically told Tingey.  “Plus we’re too busy to visit Australia right now.”  Blair had told the couple all about Australia, and New Zealand, Fairbanks continued, and both he and Pickford were very keen to visit, but, until such a time as they could afford the time to take the trip, which would see them at sea for over twelve weeks in total, it would have to wait.  And with that answer Fairbanks neatly closed the door on any filming in Australia.

How The News (SA) reported the Fairbanks auditions. 11th August, 1923

The question as to why Fairbanks didn’t film in South Australia, if indeed it was such a perfect location for him, or anywhere else in Australia for that matter, isn’t that difficult to answer.  Fairbanks had decided to go all in on The Black Pirate.  It was to be filmed in full colour and no expense was spared.  Australia, for all of its perfect locations and keen extras, just didn’t have the infrastructure required to support such an elaborate and complex film.  Special cameras and film stock were to be sourced and used, the logistics of shipping all that would be required halfway around the world, and the contingency plans for any failure or disaster, would have been far too cost prohibitive.  The sad fact was that once the numbers were crunched, shooting anywhere outside of America was just not even considered.

After six months of pre-production, location scouting, color film tests and casting, the movie was made off the coast at Catalina Island, in California, using a restored clipper ship dating back to 1877.  Shooting was finished by Christmas Eve, 1925.  None of it was filmed in Adelaide, or anywhere in Australia, or New Zealand for that matter.  The Black Pirate was released in 1926.  Fairbank’s first color film, it is now universally hailed as one of the best movies that Fairbanks ever made. 

Fairbanks never visited Australia, and he passed away in 1939.  The original West’s Olympia was knocked down the same year and a new cinema built on the same location.  Today it is the home of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.  Mary Pickford outlasted Douglas Fairbanks by forty years, passing away in 1979.  She never visited Australia, let alone Adelaide, either.

In 1977 Douglas Fairbanks Jr. visited Adelaide, touring as the lead in his play, The Pleasure of His Company. It was as close as anyone in Adelaide got to seeing Doug Sr.  Despite being interviewed by several media outlets, nobody thought to ask Doug Jr. about how close, or indeed, how far, his father was from making a movie in Adelaide over fifty years earlier.


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