Down to Earth (1917)
In this movie, also known as “The Optimist,” Douglas Fairbanks demonstrates his belief in an active, outdoorsy lifestyle as the cure to society’s woes. He co-wrote the story, along with Anita Loos, who had worked with Fairbanks on “His Picture in the Papers” and “Wild and Woolly.”
The movie begins with Doug, who plays a character named Bill Gaynor (but might as well be called Doug Fairbanks), in college. He’s captain of the football team and in love with Ethyl Forsythe (Eileen Percy). He proposes to her, but she feels they lack common interests – he’s into sports, she’s into society affairs. Besides, she’s found another fellow, Charlie Riddle (Charles K. Gerrard). So, Doug goes off on a world tour to “forget” her. We see him mountain climbing, leading an African safari and riding the range. This healthy lifestyle is contrasted with the decadent parties that Ethyl and Charlie attend. One of them involves a fountain of champagne with dancing girls rising from the middle of the table that reminded me of “Metropolis.” Anyway, the pace of constant partying wears Ethyl down and one day, she collapses with a hangover. She is whisked off to a sanitarium and her engagement to Charlie is postponed, and someone thinks to send Doug a letter out at the ranch.
Doug comes racing back to see her, of course, and isn’t impressed by what he finds at the sanitarium. A bunch of wealthy hypochondriacs are coddled and enabled in their fantasies of illness. The windows are kept shut and there is no fresh air or exercise for anyone. After a brief visit with Ethyl, he goes to give the chief doctor (Gustav von Seyffertitz) a piece of his mind. The doctor explains that efforts to really cure the wealthy are in vain, but a man gets rich allowing them to believe they are sick. Since he’s only in it for the money, he is amenable when Doug offers to “buy” his patients from him. He takes the honest doctor who works their into his confidence, and they devise a plan to kidnap them and bring them to a more healthful environment.
The plan is simple (sort of). They inform everyone that there is a smallpox scare and the sanitarium will be quarantined. But, Doug offers to sneak them out of the quarantine aboard his yacht, bound for New York. Instead of New York, he takes them to a small deserted island and forces them to “rough it” for two months. Actually, it isn’t really a deserted island, it’s an area near a place called “Palm Grove,” evidently in California (the film was really shot at Yosemite), but Doug dresses up one of the sailors from the yacht as a “Wild Man from Waukeegan” and stations him to guard the pass that would allow the socialites to discover the ruse. Anyway, Doug enforces a strict regime of exercise, which the castaways have to endure to eat, since he’s the only one with the wherewithal to catch fish and collect edible mushrooms and berries. The exercise regime is designed to reverse bad behaviors – an alcoholic has to drink two quarts of water before breakfast, a gloomy gus has to laugh like a hyena, and Charlie has to act as janitor. Charlie retains his selfish ways even after arriving – he tries to steal Doug’s and the doctor’s food on the first day, and ultimately he finds out that Palm Grove is nearby and makes an escape.
Charlie hooks up with a friend at Palm Grove who has a good idea. The reason he’s losing Ethyl to Doug is because Doug has used “Cave Man” tactics, so he should be a “Cave Man” too. The two of them will kidnap Ethyl and that will make her come around. The plan fails, of course, when Doug isn’t napping when the rest of the camp is, and he beats Charlie and his friend with one hand tied behind his back (literally). He swims out to the rowboat where Ethyl was drifting away and confesses to the ruse. She admits that she figured it out a while ago, and the two are happily united.
Overall, this is a pretty standard Fairbanks film, and it definitely speaks to his personal feelings about modern America – the health of the country is threatened by a kind of selfish decadence that ignores what made it strong in the first place. I would imagine that this message resonated well with audiences across the country at the time. It’s worth noting that the beginning of the twentieth century in Europe also saw a rise of various health movements that emphasized more “natural” living as well, so this was in the air. I think the story could have been improved by adding an element of real danger, as Loos and Fairbanks did in “Wild and Woolly.” Some kind of real threat – an actual wild man, a local tribe, a gang of smugglers that used this location – could have increased the tension in the third act, which otherwise seems a bit lame. Seeing Doug beat his foe one-handed is impressive, but it also emphasizes the inequity of the situation – he’s never really challenged or put at risk, everything comes to him much too easily. This might be what Americans, getting ready to see real fighting in the First World War, wanted for entertainment at the time, but it doesn’t result in as satisfying a movie as this might have been. I did get some laughs, though, especially from the hypochondriacs and their reactions to the situation, and Fairbanks is as charming as ever.
Director: John Emerson
Camera: Victor Fleming
Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Eileen Percy, Charles K. Gerrard, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Herbert Standing
Run Time: 1 hr, 10 Min
You can watch it for free: here.