TMP Reads: The First King of Hollywood by Tracey Goessel

Disclaimer: I was sent a free copy of The First King of Hollywood by Chicago Review Press. I only accept books that are relevant to classic film or television, and only in exchange for an honest review; rest assured that the $0.00 price tag has not had an impact on my opinion of the book. 

I’m always a little hesitant to accept review copies of books, for fear of reading and hating them. No such fear was felt when I was contacted about Tracy Goessel’s The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks, for it came highly recommended by both respected film historian Kevin Brownlow (author of The Parade’s Gone By…) and film critic Leonard Maltin, as well as receiving a positive review in Library Journal. Add me to the list of bloggers and reviewers who have heaped praise on Goessel’s book, for despite my very high expectations based on the opinions of Brownlow, Maltin, and LJ, it did not disappoint!

Image courtesy of the publisher, Chicago Review Press
Image courtesy of the publisher, Chicago Review Press
The First King of Hollywood is an incredibly detailed book, very thoroughly researched. Douglas Fairbanks was one of Hollywood’s major silent players, and one-half founder of the legendary “Pickfair” — a mammoth subject to conquer, but Goessel does so with scholarly dedication, debunking long-held myths about the man (some of which were originated by Fairbanks himself) and discussing every aspect of his life and career.

Goessel discusses Fairbanks’ early life and stage career in addition to his film career, weaving cinema history in as Fairbanks makes his ascent to Hollywood stardom. The juxtaposition of the growth of the American film industry alongside the growth of Fairbanks’ own career paints a very clear picture of his role in the development of Hollywood, and just why he is considered the “first king” of it. The history of film color, for example, is concisely-but-thoroughly discussed in a section regarding one of Fairbanks’ best-remembered films, The Black Pirate.

Professionally, Fairbanks comes across in this book as creative, charming, dedicated to his work, and pretty fearless. The personal portrait of the man offered by Goessel is a bit more complicated. Like many brilliant creatives, he had his troubles (including a serious tendency toward jealousy), and Goessel doesn’t shy away from them.

Another thing I loved about this book was the fact that, while it is a book about Fairbanks, it also devotes much of its page length to people who were very influential in his life. Much to my surprise, I came away from this book with a new knowledge of the cinematic contributions of Anita Loos, the pioneering screenwriter/playwright/author behind such titles as The Women and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. 

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Image via The Girl with the Curls (
Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Image via The Girl with the Curls (
Mary Pickford, of course, is another major presence. She plays nearly as important a role in the book as Fairbanks himself, and to the reader’s delight, both personalities are fascinating to read about, individually and as a couple.

The First King of Hollywood is not a book to be missed. This complex portrait of Douglas Fairbanks, the man and Douglas Fairbanks, the game-changing screen star is one of the most thorough biographies I’ve ever read. It offers an engrossing tale of the rollercoaster life and brilliant-but-not-always-easy career of one of the most important figures in early Hollywood.

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