Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (1909–2000), scion of swashbuckling silent-era megastar Douglas Fairbanks Sr., was destined to become a movie star, but he had to get there on his own terms. Fairbanks Jr. was born in New York City and made his first credited film appearance in 1923 in Joseph Henaberry’s Stephen Steps Out, now considered a lost film. An attempt to exploit his famous last name and connect the unsophisticated teenager with his father’s valiant screen image, it wasn’t a success. His early projects at Paramount were underwhelming as well, and the studio soon dropped him. Realizing he needed to forge his own path in Hollywood, Fairbanks got to work and accepted whatever roles came his way.
His dedication, not to mention elegant good looks and aristocratic comportment, Fairbanks eventually opened doors at at First National and Warner Bros., in films such as The Dawn Patrol (1930) and Little Caesar (1931). As the Great Depression caught hold in the United States, even the film studios were inclined to institute austerity policies; in 1934 Warner Bros. asked their stars to take a 50% pay cut. Fairbanks refused and, a lifelong Anglophile, decamped to Great Britain, where he found work. Returning to Hollywood in 1937, he costarred in hits like The Prisoner of Zenda, The Young in Heart (1938), and the iconic Gunga Din (1939).
During WWII, Fairbanks enlisted as a reserve officer in the United States Navy, and soon became interested in the then-unfamiliar wartime practice of “military deception”—deceiving the enemy by dissembling critical maneuvers. These tactics, undertaken by a force called the Beach Jumpers, were especially useful in amphibious battles in the South of France. Fairbanks was eventually awarded the Navy’s Legion of Merit award and became a Lieutenant Commander.
After returning from duty, Fairbanks remained active in film and television through 1989; his final feature film appearance was in Ghost Story (1981).
This sweeping view of his career is drawn mainly from MoMA’s collection. All 16mm film prints in this series were donated to MoMA from the personal collection of Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Organized by Anne Morra, Associate Curator, Department of Film.