The Gaucho: A Lesser-Known Douglas Fairbanks Adventure

Legendary Hollywood star Douglas Fairbanks (born Douglas Elton Thomas Ullman in Denver, Colorado on May 23, 1883) is best known for his dazzling performances in many famous swashbuckling films of the twenties. Fairbanks’ star began to shine in other genres during the 1910s, such as a series of light-hearted comedies, but it was the enormous box office success of his successful costume swashbucklers of the 1920s that made him a household name.

Douglas Fairbanks was also a powerful figure in the industry. His legacy is felt today by the production company United Artists, which he created in 1919 along with his sweetheart actress Mary Pickford, comic actor/filmmaker Charles Chaplin, and influential filmmaker D.W. Griffith.

The genre-defining adventure classic The Mark of Zorro was hugely successful on release in 1920 and was swiftly followed by other critically acclaimed adventures such as Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), and The Black Pirate (1926). His box office clout and power in the industry established Douglas Fairbanks as the original “King of Hollywood” before Clark Gable had taken the crown.

The Gaucho was one of the last lavish adventure extravaganzas of Douglas Fairbanks’ career. Premiered at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on 21 November 1927, The Gaucho is often regarded as one of Fairbanks’s lesser-known movies.

Set high in the Argentinian Andes, The Gaucho begins with a local girl being blessed with healing powers after miraculously surviving a fall from a high cliff. A shrine at the place of the miracle and the locals fill the site with gold.

The evil general Ruiz takes over the city. He confiscates the gold and closes the shrine, but he is soon faced with the challenge of the bandit El Gaucho. A kind-hearted rogue, El Gaucho is a champion of the people but is soon forced by the local priest to face his conscience.

El Gaucho falls for the overly passionate but intensely jealous mountain girl. He faces a confrontation with the local padre. El Gaucho has a lot to think about, but he allows himself to embrace a spiritual transformation following a visit to the holy shrine. Will El Gaucho make good on his transformation, as well as stop Ruiz and his troops so that he can return the village to its people?

Directed by F. Richard Jones, produced and written by Douglas Fairbanks (using his middle names Elton Thomas as a pseudonym), The Gaucho is a departure from Fairbanks’ earlier swashbuckling movies, with the youthful heroic exuberance of his previous roles replaced by underlying sexuality and intense spirituality during the latter sequences.

The use of Catholic themes and imagery throughout the picture would probably have come stemmed from influences from Douglas’ Jewish-Catholic background (Fairbanks’s father was Jewish and his mother was Catholic).

The cinematography is by Tony Gaudio is striking. Following the success of The Black Pirate in Technicolor, it was assumed that The Gaucho would also be filmed in color but Fairbanks did not think it suited the tone of the picture. The appearance of the Virgin Mary (played by the uncredited Mary Pickford) at the beginning was filmed in Technicolor and excerpts of the color segment still exist.

The Gaucho is unique among Fairbanks’ swashbuckling films because of how it looked. It has a darker look, is more realistic, and is built upon a white city on top of the Andes, an impressive set created by the supervising art director Carl Oscar Borg.

Fairbanks is perfect in the role of the likable rogue, and he is matched by a stellar cast, including Joan Barclay (as the younger Girl of the Shrine), Eve Southern (the Girl of the Shrine), Gustav von Seyffertitz (as Ruiz), Nigel De Brulier (as the Padr) and especially newcomer Mexican actress Lupe Vélez whose brilliant performance as the free-spirited “mountain girl” provides the picture with much-needed comedy moments to lighten the tone. Her striking beauty, sultry persona, and screen presence are a perfect match for Fairbanks.  

The Gaucho may not be his most famous movie but it is more than a curiosity. It is a well-made, well-acted, and hugely enjoyable picture that ranks as one of the best of all Douglas Fairbanks movies. The Gaucho is an absolute joy!

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