Flirting with Fate (1916)
Douglas Fairbanks is in love again, but this time it’s not going so well, so he decides to off himself. Suddenly, his luck begins to change, but can he avoid the clutches of the assassin he hired to cash himself in?
Our movie begins by introducing Doug in his role as August (“Augy”) Holliday, a starving artist who can “draw anything but a paycheck.” Augy has a couple of “guard dogs” who seem to be trained to chase away landlords and not much else, and a rich friend, played by W.E. Laurence. Laurence stops by and Augy lets him see a picture he’s painted of “the most beautiful girl in the world” – a girl he saw in the park one day, played by Jewel Carmen. Turns out that Laurence knows her family, and he gets Augy invited to a party at their house (and, presumably, provides his down-and-out friend with a tux for the occasion). Augy makes an uneven impression at first on Gladys, but since her aunt is trying to force her into marrying a dull guy with money, she’s a little more interested than she might be. He’s hopelessly smitten, but broke, so he hasn’t a chance with the aunt. Some private collectors offer him $3000 for the painting he did of her, but he can’t part with it, so he goes back to try again. This time, he meets up with one of Gladys’s girlfriends, who agrees to act as a stand-in for Gladys while he rehearses a proposal. Of course, Gladys walks in and sees this and thinks he’s untrue to her, so she runs to the dull guy’s arms, and when Augy sees this, he becomes despondent.
When he gets home, his sorrow is reinforced when he finds that a burglar has broken in and stolen the painting right out of its frame. Without money, love, or prospects, he decides he has nothing left to live for, and turns up the gas in his lamp – after letting the dogs out, of course. This doesn’t work because he has to feed a quarter into the meter, so he goes downstairs to the local bar to make change. While there, he meets a man called “Automatic Joe” (George Beranger), who boasts that he’ll “croak a whole family for a dollar.” Augy, who’s a bit unsure of his ability at suicide at this point, decides to hire Joe to kill him, giving him his last $50. Then he goes home to wait for it. Now, things start to turn around. The police find the burglar and return the painting. He gets a note from his pal saying he can loan him $1000 and just after that, another note saying that his stepmother left him a cool million. And, finally, a note arrives from Gladys; her friend has told her what was going on, and she forgives him. Through this sequence, each time he opens the door to the messenger, he cringes in fear that it might be the assassin.
Meanwhile, however, Automatic Joe is visiting his sick mother and has a change of heart. He accompanies one of his mother’s friends (or maybe it’s his sister, I’m not sure) to a Salvation Army rally and converts, confessing all his sins to a rather shocked preacher and frightening the flock when he pulls out his pistol. Augy doesn’t know it, but he’s in the clear. But, since he doesn’t know it, he tries to enlist the support of the police. They don’t take him very seriously, so they “assign” a correspondence-school detective who hangs around the station to the case. The detective puts on a ridiculously obvious false beard and starts trailing Augy to protect him, but Augy thinks it’s the assassin and runs away, finally pulling out the acrobatic stunts we expect in a Fairbanks film. He leaps over a fence and runs up an alleyway before scaling a fire escape and ducking into an apartment, where an out-of-work actor sells him a false beard. Soon, he’s running around the streets seeing false-bearded men all over the place, sure each one is the killer.
The correspondence-school detective has given up at this point, but now Augy collides with a policeman, who pursues him, making Augy think he must be Joe in disguise. This chase involves Doug leaping onto a moving car, jumping onto another car while this one’s still in motion, and scaling several buildings in a lumber yard, with the cop effectively on his tail at each turn. Once he finally shakes off pursuit, he manages to get to Gladys’s house to ask her to marry him, although even here he feels the need to wear his false beard for protection, almost giving the butler a heart attack. We now see the wedding (the intertitles instruct the orchestra to play the Wedding March), and Augy is still jumping at every shadow. He thinks the preacher is Joe in disguise and that he’ll pull a gun out of his cassock. Talk about a nervous groom! But, he goes through with it and he and Gladys are driving away in the honeymoon car when a Salvation Army band marches up the street. He look, and recognizes Joe among them! What’s more, Joe recognizes him and starts running over! That’s all it takes and Augy is in full flight, the Gladys and the Salvation Army preacher also join the chase. Augy leaps up a tree to escape. Of course, Joe just wants to give him his $50 back, and Augy is happy to donate it to the Salvation Army, and Gladys gets to keep Augy in the end.
The original ads for this feature rightly emphasized the “pep” of its star. Even when Fairbanks isn’t scaling drainpipes, trees, and fire escapes, he brings a definite joyful energy to his roles that makes the audience enjoy him. The plot of this one made me think of Harold Lloyd, who later would also try unsuccessfully to kill himself when he was spurned by “another of the only girls he’ll ever love.” Lloyd’s comedies often had sharply witty intertitles like that one, as this movie does as well. I was a bit disappointed by how long it took us to get to the comedy-action sequences in this movie, although I have to admit I found myself laughing out loud more than once. I loved the use of the ridiculous false beards, and the fact that it actually seemed to confuse the characters, even though it’s always obvious to the audience who’s who. The sequence of “good news” is made all the funnier by the alternating excitement and dread Doug expresses as he gets the news and then remembers he’s arranged for his own death. On the whole, this movie is edited with speed and energy, but at times it didn’t quite work for me. The whole bit where we cut between the burglar at Doug’s house and his practice proposal got me confused so that it seemed like he was gone from the house for several days before finding the missing portrait. I don’t think that’s what was intended. One interesting visual aspect is the various fantasy sequences when Augy thinks about being killed: these are shot against a black backdrop with a sparse visual style that made me think of Edison’s Black Maria.
Finally, the theme of hiring an assassin as a form of suicide has been revisited several times in different media (I recall a “Judge Dredd” comic using this idea, for example). It never goes well, because somehow the would-be victim’s luck changes as soon as the contract is signed. In that sense, it’s sort of like the whole “don’t test your spouse’s loyalty by hiring someone to seduce them” theme in Shakespeare: it’s a kind of public-service message to remind people not to do something they never would do in the first place.
Director: Christy Cabanne
Camera: William Fildew
Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, W.E. Lawrence (as “WE Laurence”), Jewel Carmen, George Beranger
Run Time: 57 Min