Two events in August of 1926 influenced the production of Douglas Fairbanks’s 1927 release “The Gaucho”. Fairbanks was in the audience for the premiere of John Barrymore’s “Don Juan”, which featured a sound-on-disc (Vitaphone) synchronized score. This event marked the beginning of the end of silent film. The same month, Rudolph Valentino died. Fairbanks was an honorary pallbearer at Valentino’s New York funeral and witnessed the mass hysteria over the death of the “Latin Lover”.
Fairbanks, both in his early comedies and the costume adventures of the 1920s, played characters that were chaste and honorable regarding relationships with the opposite sex. With Valentino gone, however, Fairbanks decided to unshackle himself from the Boy Scout image he had so carefully cultivated early in his career. As in “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse” (1921), the film that made Valentino a star, Fairbanks decided to play a Latin character with an unabashed sexual appetite. He even dances a tango, allowing a direct comparison between himself and Valentino.
Fairbanks knew his audience might have difficulty in accepting both his libidinous character and the darker tone of “The Gaucho”. Therefore, religion plays a large role in the plot and offers the opportunity for the Gaucho to redeem himself. The majority of the film’s action takes place in the City of the Miracle, where a Shrine (similar to Lourdes) attracts supplicants seeking to be healed. Their offerings have made the City rich, attracting the attention of the Gaucho and Ruiz, the Usurper.
The Gaucho takes control of the City, telling the Shrine’s priest (Nigel de Brulier) “You see, Padre, I get what I want—without the help of God and His Holy Book.” The Gaucho, at a feast later the same evening, conducts a court for his own amusement. When presented with a victim of The Black Doom (presumably leprosy), the Gaucho commands him to “Go find some hidden spot and kill yourself.” The tables are turned when the Gaucho becomes infected himself. The Girl of the Shrine (Eve Southern) takes pity on him and helps him to pray for a miracle. The Gaucho is miraculously healed, defeats the army of Ruiz, and restores order to the City.
Until he is reformed by his contact with The Girl of the Shrine, Fairbanks’s character smokes, drinks, and makes love with abandon. His tango with the Mountain Girl (Lupe Velez) is one of the highlights of the film. My only complaint is that it is much shorter than Valentino’s dance in “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse”. The way Fairbanks uses cigarettes is part of any discussion of “The Gaucho”. At the end of the tango, for example, Fairbanks sucks the cigarette into his mouth before planting a kiss on the Mountain Girl and then spits it back out, still burning.
The smoking is an integral part of the Gaucho’s character, but I think Fairbanks is using it to demonstrate the beauty of silent film and what would be lost with the coming of sound. In addition to the myriad ways he uses matches and cigarettes in “The Gaucho”, Fairbanks also moves with the balletic grace he perfected in “The Thief of Bagdad” (1924). These dance-like motions make no sense in the realistic world of sound films and Fairbanks seems to be remonstrating his audience, “This is what you are losing.”
“The Gaucho” is available on DVD, which is how I watched the film at my own expense.