Douglas Fairbanks Jr: Hero Onscreen and Off

I am old enough to have seen my first Douglas Fairbanks Jr (1909-2000) movie in a cinema on its first release; it was Ghost Story (1981), which also had Melvyn Douglas, Fred Astaire, and John Houseman. When I think of him, it’s always as an old man — as one of the last Hollywood stars from the classic era, he was a talking head in many documentaries about the old days.

As a Junior, DFJ was somewhat doomed to live in the shadow of his famous father, and to be mixed up with him. His first two films were with his dad, American Aristocracy (1916) and The Three Musketeeteers (1921). His best known films, The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), Gunga Din (1939) and The Corsican Brothers (1941), are in the Fairbanks vein, as well as are several others that are less well remembered, such as Sinbad the Sailor (1947) and The Genie (1953). He had supporting roles in The Dawn Patrol (1930) and Little Caesar (1931).

One tends to think of Douglas Fairbanks Jr as a star of the talkie era, picking up the baton from where his father, a silent star, left off. But Doug Senior’s last few films were talkies, and I find myself more interested in Doug Junior’s silent and semi-silent period. These include the original screen version of Stella Dallas (1925); The American Venus (1926) with Esther Ralston, Fay Lanphier, Ford Sterling, and Louise Brooks; the 1927 adaptation of James Gleason’s Is Zat So? with George O’Brien and Edmund Lowe; the circus drama The Barker (1928); The Jazz Age (1929) with Marceline Day and Joel McCrea; and Our Modern Maidens (1929) with Anita Page, Rod La Rocque, and Fairbanks’ first wife Joan Crawford.

More significant than Fairbanks’ over 100 screen credits to my mind is his naval service during World War II. Fairbanks is fondly remembered as the Father of the U.S. Navy Beach Jumpers. This was an idea he brought back from England, having served as a liaison to the British navy early in the war. It was a program whereby a limited numbers of navy paratroopers would deceive the enemy by making landings a few miles from the actual planned attack. He attained the rank of Lt. Commander and left the service heavily decorated.

In light of that, it seems a bit crazy that Fairbanks returned to his relatively undistinguished movie career after the war, for these were real accomplishments of his own that no one could take away, and utterly unlike anything his father had ever done. These were not pretend adventures; they were real ones. But, then we are forgetting how much stars get paid in Hollywood….

For more on silent film and its veterans please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.