DRUGLESS DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS
A 1917 Review of the Health Film "Down to Earth"
by Carl Easton Williams
From Physical Culture Magazine, 1917, Vol. 38, No. 4
Hurray! Hurray! I saw a new Douglas Fairbanks "movie" the other day and I felt so good about it that I just wanted to get up in the audience and shout. Sanford Bennett went along and felt the same way. The next day I went back to see it again and dragged my family around for forty miles through trolleys and trains and crowded streets to share it with me. I have told every one I've met about it ever since. And now I am going to tell you.
It's a regular Douglas Fairbanks comedy. That's enough for anybody. But it's also a perfect lesson in physical culture--a lesson with an unforgettable punch. When you see it you will feel like throwing up your hat and shouting, too.
"Actions speak louder than words," so our great, greater and greatest grandparents used to say. That's one reason why the movies sometimes strike home. For this very reason, too, the new Fairbanks film, "Down to Earth," is likely to make one of the biggest noises that ever happened in the history of physical culture. This new and wonderful health picture is going to bring to millions of people the lesson that we have been teaching for years through the pages of this magazine.
There is only one weak feature about this feature picture, and that is its name. If you think of "back to Nature" when you read the title, "Down to Earth," you will get the idea. Douglas Fairbanks wrote the story of the play himself. It represents his idea of health and of life. Practically all of his work on the screen has been an inspiration in the direction of health and strength and happiness, but in this picture more than ever he is teaching the world how to be healthy, how to be happy and how to live.
In the opening scene of "Down to Earth" we are introduced to a young couple who have apparently known each other from childhood. The boy, stouthearted, strong and clean; the girl, sweet but willful. There is a flash of a big football game suggesting the rugged, athletic character of the hero, Billy Gaynor, played by Fairbanks. The girl is Ethel Somebody. The hero has a rival, Charlie Riddle, a foppish, sporty young idler--"one of the things that Ethel likes." Billy Gaynor is serious in his devotion. To make sure that no one else will get ahead of him he pops the question. She replies that their ideas of life differ too widely. She prefers the fashionable Charlie.
They separate and go their respective ways, he searching for adventure from the tropics to the poles, hunting, mountain climbing and cruising, striving to forget. Meanwhile Ethel travels the fast and destructive pace of a dissipated society life. She wastes the nights in unwholesome pleasures and wastes the days in sleep. She habitually tests her resistance to alcohol and becomes a connoisseur in cigarettes. And so goes the story until finally, before she has been able to consummate her marriage to Charlie, she breaks down and is sent to a sanitarium.
And such a sanitarium! It is conducted by Dr. Jollyem, a sardonic, crafty money-maker who is shrewd enough to give his patients just the treatment that they themselves think they want, and consequently does a large and flourishing business. Among his patients he has about as fine a bunch of dyspeptics, hypochondriacs and chronic invalids as one might wish to see, even in a film comedy. They are dosed with pills and potions, carefully sheltered from the fresh air through tightly closed windows, and otherwise supplied with the very best medical treatment.
At this juncture Billy Fairbanks Gaynor, out on his ranch in Wyoming, receives a letter from a friend telling him of Ethel's long course of dissipation and final breakdown. With characteristic energy, Billy makes a transcontinental dash and walks into the sanitarium. He finds Ethel and a highball punishing each other and on her table a stack of cigarette stumps that almost takes his breath. He finds the windows tightly shut.
"And they call this a sanitarium."
Ethel is as willful and snippy as ever, but he tells her firmly that he is going to take her away and make her get well. Straightaway searching out Dr. Jollyem, the young man tells the old faker that the young lady is a life-long friend and that he considers the treatment she is receiving is a disgrace. The doctor replies by assuring him that these society women simply will not follow any treatment that would really do them any good. They expect him to supply health in bottles. He shows young Gaynor his laboratory assistant, a doctor who had been the brightest man in his class, but who had made the professionally fatal mistake of trying to make his patients do what they ought to do to get well, and was now working for thirty dollars a week, while he, the successful one, had made enough money to retire.
Before leaving, Gaynor becomes interested in the other patients. They amuse him tremendously, and yet he pities them. There is one, Mrs. Helfer-Eaton (say it fast mentally and note the result!) who is heavy and hungry and hard on the cook. There is a Mr. Carter who takes pills for a very bad liver. There is a Mrs. Lydia Fuller-Jermes who smokes a clinical thermometer half the time and imagines that she has every disease in the calendar. There is a Mr. Hackenkoff, suffering from bronchitis and very sensitive to draughts. Then there is Mr. A.D. Speptic, on a diet of Educator crackers. And there is Mr. Gordon Jinny, who suffers from a chronic thirst and is continuously pursued by brightly colored crocodiles, or something of that kind, while in his pocket he carries a well-filled flask with which to help him keep up his courage in the presence of his pursuers.
After sizing up this bunch, young Gaynor decides not only to take Ethel away, but to do a little missionary work in general. He buys the business from Dr. Jollyem, calls in the assistant physician and tells him his plans. He arranges with the owner of a yacht for a little expedition and then trumps up a smallpox scare, finally whispering to the people that they can all escape on his yacht. Ethel's fiancé, wandering in, is caught in the imaginary quarantine. He escapes with them.
Then for three days the vessel is curiously "lost at sea," finally coming in sight of what looks like a desert island. A little further back is a mountain pass beyond which is disclosed a beautiful city, Palm Grove, but it would never do to have the intended shipwrecked people learn that the desert island was only a part of the mainland coast. So one of the ship's stokers, a big husky, is dressed up as a wild man and planted in the pass to guard against geographical investigations. This preparation is carried out at night.
The next morning a fire alarm, accompanied by much smoke, drives the passengers from the yacht to take refuge on the island. They land with only a little hardtack, some raw beans and a supply of blankets. When this has been accomplished, the fire on the ship is mysteriously put out and the vessel steams away, the sick folks realizing finally that a trick has been played upon them. There is no doubt about their feelings in the matter. "Doctor" Gaynor now tells them that he has purchased the business of Dr. Jollyem, along with the good will of his patients. He finds that he has been stung on the good will but is prepared to take that philosophically. He assures them that they are going to get what is coming to them, that the island provides everything that any one may possibly need and that they can live for two days on the hardtack and beans without even working for them. Each one learns as he receives his blanket that he is going to sleep outdoors.
It is all splendid, back-to-Nature stuff. The patients will have nothing to do with Billy and the assistant doctor, but, helpless victims of civilization that they are, they cannot even cook their beans. Billy, well-versed in camp life, readily constructs a large water jug from a good piece of bark and finds natural salt among the rocks. He cooks his beans in this container by heating rocks until they are piping hot, cleaning and then dropping them into the water in the vessel. He makes a fish hook of the doctor's stickpin and finds that the fishing is good. Berries and fruits are abundant and seashells make excellent dishes.
In the morning every one is hungry. Fat Mrs. Helfer-Eaton, most starved of all, is the first of the rebellious group to surrender, making an appeal to Doc. Gaynor for help and especially for breakfast. Here is the moment he has been waiting for.
"Did you ever see a snake that was stout?" he asks her. "Well, snakes are thin because they wriggle on their stomachs. You practice that exercise for fifteen minutes and I'll give you your breakfast." Gradually the others weaken. Mr. Carter, erstwhile consumer of liver pills, is received with the question as to whether he had ever seen a monkey with a bad liver? "Well, monkeys climb trees. Now you climb trees for fifteen minutes every morning before breakfast!"
Mr. A.D. Speptic is coolly informed that he has grouchy dyspepsia and is asked if he ever saw a hyena with the same trouble. "Now you laugh like a hyena and exercise your stomach muscles." He is shown how to throw his arms up, then bend over and laugh with a vigorous, energetic "Ha, ha!"
Friend Hackenkoff with the bronchial trouble has his attention called to the singing birds, with the instructions to dance, flap his arms and sing like a bird.
Mrs. Fuller-Jermes is reminded of the ways of the industrious beaver. Did she ever know a beaver with all her ailments? No. Beavers work like the devil securing wood. Now, firewood, and lots of it, is needed in the camp. "You go to it!"
And finally comes Mr. Gordon Jinny, already suffering from his forced abstention from alcohol.
"Did you ever see a fish with the D.T.'s? Well, fishes drink water. Now that will cure you. You drink two quarts of water each morning before breakfast."
Shakespeare is quoted on the screen to the effect that "Digestion waits on appetite, and health on both." It is a perfect scream to see the patients engaged in their new treatment, but at the end of fifteen minutes they have an appetite such as they had not known for years. Meanwhile Ethel and Charlie are holding out. She asks him for food and he goes searching for berries. Aside from being chased by a cannibal up in the pass, making a running record through the mountainous country and falling down and rolling over a few times--nothing happens to him. He brings her three or four berries tightly crushed in his hand. But ultimately these two likewise surrender. They need a janitor and a barber. Charlie is it! Ethel is made queen of the dishwashing department, cleaning and scouring seashells.
From the scene at breakfast the camera jumps over a period of two months, whereupon we see the sick folks all well, all happy and strong and vigorous. Our bronchial friend is a pretty fair acrobat, Mrs. Helfer-Eaton has shrunk to a semblance of shapeliness and health and the dipsomaniac now glories in his water as much as he formerly did in his whiskey. They all exercise to beat the band. And there is no lingering when breakfast is called. Mr. A.D. Speptic, who formerly could not eat a raw raspberry, has almost duplicated the former capabilities of Mrs. Helfer-Eaton in his recent demands upon the commissary department. Everybody is feeling fine.
Everybody but Charlie. He doesn't like it a bit. It happens about this time that Charlie discovers the wild man asleep, also he looks through the pass upon the city of Palm Grove lying just beyond. He makes his way into the civilized world and comes back that afternoon in a boat with a friend to kidnap Ethel while the others sleep. It happens that Billy is not asleep and the abduction is interrupted. Billy finds that he has to fight and whip his nuisance of a rival, chiefly for the benefit of "movie" fans, and so he does it with one arm, the other tied behind him.
And so it has come about that the villain gets his just deserts, the hero the girl, and the public the laughter and the lesson.