by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (1883-1939) was one of the most famous film stars of the 1920s, with his popularity centered around swashbuckling roles in such films as The Three Musketeers, The Black Pirate, and The Thief of Baghdad. His marriage to “America’s Sweetheart,” actress Mary Pickford, represented one of the first “power couple” unions in Hollywood and the pair were among the founders of United Artists, a studio designed to put control of the produce in the hands of actors and directors.
A native of Denver, born Douglas Ullman, he began acting in his early teen years in local productions and took the surname “Fairbanks” after his parents divorced. From about 1902, he worked in the theater to some success, but he tried working in business after an early marriage (which produced his namesake son, also a well-known actor). The detour was short, however, and Fairbanks returned to the theater. He earned renown on the stage before he migrated to Hollywood and appeared in famed director D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Lamb.
He quickly became popular and in high demand as a leading man who conveyed charm, physical prowess, and, of course, sex appeal. Fairbanks also demonstrated his business acumen when he signed a deal to produce his own movies, starting in 1917. He also wrote many of his scripts using the name “Elton Thomas”, which were his two middle names.
Then, in 1919, he joined forces with Griffith, Pickford, and Charles Chaplin to launch United Artists. The company’s first release was a Fairbanks vehicle, His Majesty, the American. Shortly after the studio was created, Fairbanks left his wife for Pickford, who ended her marriage, as well. Their home, called “Pickfair,” was legendary for its parties and events attended by other film figures and celebrities.
Fairbanks’ fame grew dramatically from 1920, when he made The Mark of Zorro and followed this with 1921’s The Three Musketeers. Three years after that came perhaps his best-known swashbuckler, The Thief of Baghdad. In 1926, another smash was The Black Pirate.
A close examination of the paper held in Fairbanks’ left hand in one of the photos (in which he is seated) or in the hand of another man sitting in the same chair in the other image reveals that the group was working with sheet music and the scoring of music for the film. On the back of one of the photos is the name “Gertrude Barrett” in pencil.
Operating under the assumption that the lone woman in the group was Barrett, a little searching was done and some material was found on her.
Gertrude Barrett was born in Indianapolis in March 1887 to carriage painter Charles and housewife Margaret and she was their only child. By 1910, the family relocated to Los Angeles, where Charles continued to follow his trade, although it was the “horseless carriage” that was becoming the norm. The Barretts lived on Bunker Hill in 1910, soon after which Gertrude became a professional oboist.
Barnett worked for years in the Los Angeles Woman’s Symphony Orchestra, of which she was a vice-president for a period. She also performed in the Hollywood Community Orchestra in the early 1920s. During that decade she also started to be associated with the film industry, as shown in the 1930 federal census. Residing with her partner Irene Oyler, who was a nurse, within a few blocks of Echo Park, the 43-year old gave her occupation as “Motion Picture Studio Musician.” A decade later, the couple lived in Silver Lake and, again, Barnett was listed as a musician in the industry.
Oyler died just a few years later, in 1946, but Barnett lived on for almost three more decades, dying in Los Angeles at the end of December 1975 at the age of 88. Barnett is buried with Oyler in a columbarium at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. It was, presumably, out of her estate that these photographs came, given to her by United Artists for her role in creating music for a Fairbanks picture.
I was delighted to find more information about oboist Gertrude Barrett, let to mention to see pictures of her. My knowledge of her stemmed from research I have been doing for many years on the early history of the music department at Universal Studios. I was told by one of the staff composers, Clifford Vaughan, that she worked as a music copyist in the music library in the mid-1930s and served also for a time as music librarian as well. Vaughan described her as being “quite a lady.” To my knowledge she died in a rest home in Altadena. When I went there to inquire not long after finding that she had died through LACO records I was told that the place was now under new management and they knew nothing of her. So what might have become of her effects I cannot imagine. The name of the informant on her death certificate was someone named Sadie Flom whom I was never able to trace, but whose address was listed as being in LA as I recall.