From the Archives: Screen Idol Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Dies at 90
Douglas Fairbanks Jr., known forever to Hollywood as “Young Doug,” who never reached the zenith of worldwide fame enjoyed by his silent-era icon father, yet made his imprint on some 100 motion pictures, became a real-life war hero and found success as an actor, producer, author, artist and businessman, has died. He was 90.
Fairbanks, debonair denizen of drawing rooms who was born to Hollywood royalty and became a favorite of Britain’s royal family, died Sunday in a New York City hospital. After shuttling between Hollywood and London for much of his life, Fairbanks had spent his recent years at homes in Manhattan and Palm Beach, Fla.
When Fairbanks published the second of his three autobiographies, “The Salad Days” in 1988, Times film critic Kenneth Turan chided the actor for “dropping a name, and another, and another, and another, and another. . . .” But Turan added that Fairbanks came by the trait honestly and dropped the names with an “appealing” style.
Aside from his own famous relatives, father Douglas Sr. and step-mother Mary Pickford, Fairbanks Jr. really did know Charlie Chaplin, Tallulah Bankhead, Greta Garbo, Maurice Chevalier and Bing Crosby and helped boost the film careers of an Aussie named Errol Flynn and a USC football player named Marion Morrison (John Wayne).
And he did play tennis with King Gustav V of Sweden, study Spanish with John F. Kennedy, meet Queen Elizabeth II when she was a toddler and entertain the grown-up queen, Prince Philip and the rest of her family at his London home.
Her father, King George VI, gave him an honorary knighthood in 1949 for “furthering Anglo-American amity,” partly for his work as a U.S. Navy officer for the commando corps of British Adm. Lord Louis Mountbatten, uncle to Prince Philip, and partly for his postwar work raising money for the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe (CARE) which sent more than $150 million worth of food and other goods to war-torn European countries.
Fairbanks’ war exploits earned him a chestful of medals, including the American Silver Star, the British Distinguished Service Cross and the French Legion of Honor.
A spokesman at Buckingham Palace on Sunday said the queen and the Duke of Edinburgh “will both be sorry to learn of his death.”
But on this side of the Atlantic, few intimates of Fairbanks’ Hollywood royal family were still alive to mourn. “Young Doug” was among the last of the cinema heroes who were known for their good manners, exquisite grooming, implicit fairness and gentlemanly derring-do.
“I never tried to emulate my father,” Douglas Elton Fairbanks Jr. once said. “Anyone trying to do that would be a second-rate carbon copy.”
Yet the comparison would always be made. “Young Doug” was the first to note that the famous name opened untold doors for him, and though he never became close to the bigger-than-life parent until Doug Sr.’s last years, the son became an unabashed fan of the father.
Both were movie-star handsome and were, well, movie stars. Adept on stage with commanding voices, both crossed easily from silent films to talkies, albeit near the end of Doug Sr.’s career and the beginning of Doug Jr.’s.
Both buckled swash on screen, the father indelibly in 1920s versions of “The Mark of Zorro,” “The Three Musketeers,” “Robin Hood,” “The Thief of Bagdad,” “The Black Pirate” and “The Iron Mask”; the son in 1930s and 1940s releases such as “The Prisoner of Zenda,” “Gunga Din,” “Sinbad, the Sailor” and “The Corsican Brothers.”
Both father and son loved and married widely, including stars as big or bigger than they; Doug Sr. married the legendary Mary “America’s Sweetheart” Pickford, and Doug Jr. at age 19 wed Joan Crawford.
Ironically, younger filmgoers often fused father and son into one very long-lived hero. The truly knowledgeable never did.
One filmographer remembered Douglas Sr., who died of a heart attack in his sleep in 1939 at 56, as “the silent screen’s most beloved hero [whose] cheerful exuberance, moral courage, devil-may-care attitude and physical agility made him a prototype of the idealized image of the American male.”
The same historian dismissed Douglas Jr. with, “despite his dashing good looks and agreeable screen personality, he never became a superstar of the magnitude of his father.”
“Young Doug,” born Dec. 9, 1909, in New York City, was the only son of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and his first wife, cotton heiress Anna Beth Sully Fairbanks. The couple divorced when the son was 9 and he lived with his mother, whose family soon lost its fortune. Schooled at military academies and with private tutors in New York, Pasadena, London and Paris, Fairbanks permitted Hollywood to exploit his famous name and put him in his first movie when he was 13. He said his mother and he urgently needed the money.
When the boy and his mother arrived here by train on June 18, 1923, a horde of reporters, press agents, relatives, photographers and fans greeted what a Times reporter called “a pepful, small edition of his father.” Jesse L. Lasky chose to exploit the Fairbanks name with the 1923 silent film “Stephen Steps Out,” about a boy’s adventures in the Orient.
“The echo of that flop still resounds,” Fairbanks said in 1938. “It was impossible for a boy to live up to all the ballyhoo.”
Hard-Won Success in the Movies
He studied art for a time in Paris, and late in life would exhibit many paintings and sculptures, but doggedly returned to Hollywood.
The senior Fairbanks took little interest in his son’s career, confessing that he had “no more paternal feelings than a tiger in the jungle for his cub.”
So Douglas Jr. carved his own way in the Hollywood jungle, taking bit parts, acting as camera assistant and even writing titles for silent films, including some of his father’s pictures. He also acted in small Los Angeles theaters, beginning more than six decades on stages from Hollywood to London’s West End.
At 6 feet, taller than his father, Young Doug gave up being a boy and posed as a man. Earning his first major attention in the 1925 version of “Stella Dallas,” he was only 15 but had no trouble obeying instructions to grow a mustache. He kept it as part of his dapper persona throughout his life.
Reels of films followed, a few memorable—as a gigolo billed second to Edward G. Robinson in the 1931 “Little Caesar,” which would become a classic gangster picture; as demented Russian Czar Peter III in the 1934 British film “Catherine the Great;” and as one of three soldier comrades in 19th century India, alongside Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen, in the 1939 “Gunga Din.”
Fairbanks, unlike his father, was often cast second or third or even lower to such contemporary stars as Ronald Colman and Grant, but he held his own with them on screen.
In the 1937 version of “The Prisoner of Zenda,” the third of five films by that title, he worked with Colman and the heavyweights Raymond Massey and David Niven. But film historian Leonard Maltin in his “2000 Movie and Video Guide” notes: “Fairbanks nearly steals the show as villainous Rupert Hentzou.”
Playing twins in “The Corsican Brothers” in 1941, Fairbanks waged the longest sword fight ever screened for many decades—3 1/2 minutes shot in a single take, even though he had the flu and a temperature of 103.
After the war, Fairbanks burst from the screen anew in the 1947 “Sinbad the Sailor” opposite Maureen O’Hara. His final film was the 1981 “Ghost Story” with Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas and John Houseman.
Segueing into television in the early 1950s, the elegant Fairbanks produced and occasionally starred in two well-received theater anthologies, “The Rheingold Theatre” and his own “Douglas Fairbanks Presents.” In their current directory to prime time television shows, co-authors Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh describe the latter as “one of television’s classiest and most successful anthology series.”
Fairbanks also lent his grace and charm to guest roles in such television series as “Route 66,” “Dr. Kildare,” “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” “The Love Boat” and “B.L. Stryker.”
He remained a popular host of television and film retrospectives as well as charity benefits, and starred in such durable stage productions as “My Fair Lady” through the late 1980s.
Fairbanks, who had production companies as a young man in Hollywood and in England, also engaged in various business ventures ranging from land development to manufacturing ballpoint pens. A prolific writer of magazine articles and poetry throughout his life, he co-wrote “The Fairbanks Album” in 1975 and wrote “A Hell of a War” in 1993 as well as “The Salad Days.”
Married to Joan Crawford in 1929 and divorced in 1933, he then wed socialite Mary Lee Epling Hartford, the former wife of A&P supermarket heir Huntington Hartford, in 1939, and they had three daughters: Daphne, Victoria and Melissa. After Epling’s death in 1988, he married merchandiser Vera Shelton, who survives.
A New York Herald reviewer of a 1955 biography of Fairbanks by Brian Connell, “Knight Errant,” suggested: “If he had not been the son of the well-known actor, he undoubtedly would have made a name for himself in the diplomatic service.”
Named prior to World War II by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as an envoy to South America, and adept at bridging gaps between Hollywood and European royalty, Fairbanks indicated he might have preferred to be a diplomat.
“I’m not sure I ever liked acting that much,” he told The Times in 1980. Yet, born a prince of Hollywood, with his name and his genes, he had no choice but to earn his star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
Actor, producer, artist, author, and businessman, he once said: “I have enjoyed, and still do enjoy, life so much. I like doing a little of everything. I do it the best I know how.”
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