Scholars’ Spotlight: Douglas Fairbanks Jr. – The Last Prince of Hollywood’s Golden Age


Many people have struggled with living up to the legacies of their famous parents. However, the success that Douglas Fairbanks Jr. enjoyed in his long fruitful life, probably had to do with his early admission that trying to do so would be futile. The actor, producer, and decorated naval officer would later state:

“I never tried to emulate my father. Anyone trying to do that would be a second-rate carbon copy…I was determined to be my own man”

Wise words indeed, since his famous father was none other than Douglas Fairbanks Sr, the swashbuckling silent film star, who formed half of the very first celebrity power couple, with screen legend Mary Pickford. Like his legendary father, he too became a successful movie star working with legends as diverse as Katharine Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, and Edward G. Robinson.
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. also served with distinction in the United States Navy during World War II, and eventually rose to the rank of captain after the war. His accolades included receiving the British Distinguished Service Cross and the French Legion of Honor. The Douglas Fairbanks Jr. story is one that is full of privilege, stardom, and famous romances, and includes the company of international royalty.
Douglas Fairbanks

Grand Beginnings

The younger Fairbanks was born on December 9, 1909, the only child of Douglas Fairbanks and the former Anna Beth Sully. After his parents divorced when he was nine years old, he lived with his mother. The lifelong emotional disconnect that the younger Fairbanks had with his father began during this time. Fairbanks recalled in a 1989 interview with The New York Times:

“He was very undemonstrative. There was never an embrace or a hug. And he was never around- he’d disappear for months on end. He’d never remember birthdays or Christmas” 

Despite all of this, Fairbanks was able to attend prestigious schools in New York, London, and Paris. As he himself later admitted, again, to The New York Times in a 1988 interview:

“I had no desire to be a personality like my father, nor was I equipped to be one…although having the Fairbanks name did make it easier to get into an office to see someone”

The family name eventually made it possible for young Fairbanks to make his first foray into the motion picture industry, like his legendary father. At the age of thirteen, he appeared in the silent film Stephen Steps Out (1923). While the film flopped at the box office, it did not deter Fairbanks from giving film acting another try. From 1925-1930, Fairbanks appeared in twenty-nine films and the inevitable comparisons to his father were favorable. Photoplay Magazine declared:

“He is considered a real bet, with much of his father’s charm and artistry”

In these early years, his film roles included working with luminaries such as Greta Garbo in A Woman of Affairs (1928), and with future wife Joan Crawford in Our Modern Maidens. (1929). In the early talkie era, the charming good looks of Fairbanks featured well in debonair roles. He also demonstrated a flair for comedy as well. Other impressive roles included playing a heroic pilot in The Dawn Patrol (1930) and as a suicidal romantic in Outward Bound (1930). 
Douglas Fairbanks
Yet, Fairbanks remained in the spotlight primarily for his romance and marriage to Joan Crawford, who at the time was a major star beginning in the silent film era. Despite her enormous popularity, Fairbanks scored an impressive breakthrough in the classic gangster film Little Caesar (1931). While the film became a classic due to the talents of Edward G. Robinson, Fairbanks received impressive reviews as well. This increased his clout in Hollywood. Speaking of later roles, he said:

“Curiously enough, I was one of the first to have some say in Hollywood. By sheer accident, I had four successes in a row in the early 30’s and, although I was still in my 20’s, I demanded and received approval of cast, story and director. I don’t know how I got away with it, but I did!”

Despite being one of Hollywood’s power couples, the Fairbanks-Crawford union only lasted four years, ending in 1933. He admitted that while he had many varied interests, “work to her was the only reality.” Despite this, the two remained lifelong friends, and Fairbanks defended her reputation after Crawford’s daughter Christina produced the devastating book Mommie Dearest, revealing sordid details about her upbringing under Crawford.
His success continued, playing an actor alongside Katharine Hepburn in her first Oscar-winning role in Morning Glory (1933). In spite of his rising status, Fairbanks still refused to accept the swashbuckling roles that made his father a legend. He continued to chart his own path, and his string of successes continued throughout the decade.
Douglas Fairbanks
The comedic talents of Fairbanks continued to impress while working alongside Irene Dunne in Joy of Living (1938) and Ginger Rogers in Having Wonderful Time (1938). His talents were on full display in Prisoner of Zenda (1937) alongside Ronald Colman, and the classic Gunga Din (1939) with Cary Grant. Grant and Fairbanks remained lifelong friends, and although he started in the film industry earlier than Grant, Fairbanks admitted in his 1988 autobiography The Salad Days, that he tried to emulate Grant’s strategy of being more selective with his roles.

The War Years

Gunga Din had become the second-highest-grossing picture of 1939, and Fairbanks was at the height of his movie career. With the war clouds beginning to hover over Europe, Fairbanks also found love once again in that pivotal year of 1939. He married Mary Lee Eppling, and the two enjoyed a happy marriage that lasted until her death in 1988. In a sign of an emerging closeness with his father, he accepted his son’s request to serve as his best man. This union eventually produced three daughters, Daphne, Victoria, and Melissa Fairbanks.
1939 became a whirlwind year for the newlyweds, as Mary Lee became pregnant with their first child, World War II began in September, and Fairbanks Sr. passed away after being stricken with a heart attack in September. 
With the European war in full swing by the beginning of 1940, President Roosevelt had solicited the help of Hollywood in continuing to galvanize the public to support the Allies in the war. Fairbanks was invited by the William Allen White Committee to Defend America, to lead its California branch. The campaigns for public support in this position began to foster his reputation as an Anglophile which would last throughout his life. Fairbanks even was invited to the White House on a few occasions to meet with President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull.
Douglas Fairbanks
Alluding to the tensions that the war was bringing on everyone, Fairbanks revealed in his second autobiography A Hell of a War, that his wife did not share his interventionist ideas. By 1940, she did not wish to vote for Roosevelt in his reelection. Fairbanks went against his wife’s wishes, secretly voting for FDR, and not revealing it to her until the next day. He continued to make appearances on behalf of Roosevelt and the Allied war effort. FDR reciprocated the support by appointing Fairbanks a special envoy to South America to steer support for the Allied cause.
Fairbanks admitted that his political leanings had stalled his career, and the offers were drying up. As such, he was relieved to be able to do The Corsican Brothers (1941) which featured Fairbanks playing dual roles as twins separated at birth. However, the press that once had adored him was beginning to turn on him. Famed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper vilified Fairbanks for his political stance on supporting the Allied war effort.
In October of that year, Fairbanks decided that he would join the Navy as he had long suspected that eventually, the United States would have to join the war. That defining moment finally arrived on December 7, 1941. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States would now directly join the Allies in stopping the Axis Powers. Fairbanks served with merit and distinction in the Navy until 1946. He also had the honor of being the first American officer to lead a British flotilla during a commando operation in Europe.
Fairbanks’s involvement in international affairs continued after the war had ended as the actor served as a volunteer for the United Nations, as well as numerous other organizations. Maintaining a home in London with his wife, Fairbanks grew increasingly closer to the British Royal family. This culminated with Fairbanks receiving the honor of being a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1949.
Douglas Fairbanks

Return to Hollywood     

After five long years, Fairbanks made his return to Hollywood and received rave reviews for his portrayal as the titular character in Sinbad the Sailor (1946) which was one of the highest-grossing films of the year. However, his services were no longer in demand as they once were before the war. By this time, Hollywood was transitioning to grittier movies involving social themes which made stars such as Humphrey Bogart and John Garfield even more popular.
Not one to be deterred by challenges, Fairbanks like other actors expanded his talents into television. In the 1950s, he produced 160 episodes of an anthology series called Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Presents which proved very successful. He continued to do a variety of television specials and guest appearances through the decades, culminating in his final movie, Ghost Story (1981).
While his movie career declined, his productivity remained constant. He acted sporadically in play revivals such as My Fair Lady and The Pleasure of His Company. He sat on the boards of many companies and did much work in London and New York. Also, he was a prolific writer during this time writing essays for Vanity Fair and Esquire. His wealth and influence continued to grow as he also became a favorite of Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth and regularly entertained them at his home in London. He became a fashion icon to many, and in a 1966 Vogue interview gave his advice on men’s fashion which still resonates today. 

Final Years and Legacy

In 1988, Fairbanks’s beloved wife Mary passed away from Cancer. In 1991, he remarried, this time to merchandiser Vera Shelton. These final eight years of his life were spent in tranquility in his home on Park Avenue in New York City. He still remained active in giving interviews and making appearances for documentaries about Hollywood’s Golden Age. Finally, on May 7, 2000, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. passed away. A spokesman at Buckingham Palace said the queen and the Duke of Edinburgh “will both be sorry to learn of his death.” 
For someone who began his life under the very large shadow of his famous father, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. made a lasting impact on both sides of the Atlantic. His movie career was solid and could have ascended even further had it not been for the war. Yet, he stood up for a political cause that was not very popular in the United States until the attack on Pearl Harbor drove America directly into World War II.
He was an integral part of a group of Americans who personally helped solidify the American and British alliance. His work in the navy during the war helped evolve the concept of naval special forces and tactics. His creativity and desire to become his own man enabled him to excel in entertainment, business, politics, and military affairs. Fairbanks also exemplified integrity when it came to defending his ex-wife Joan Crawford’s reputation after her death. Additionally, he was a part of a generation that didn’t shy away from historic challenges and modestly did their part to achieve victory. In the final decade of Fairbank’s life, he could rightfully say:

“I’ve led an enormously lucky life, I’ve done what I wanted to do. I worked hard and played hard, and it was all tremendously rewarding. I just wish it could go on and on and on” 

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