When your father’s got a famous name and you, or the studio, want to capitalize on it, why not? Douglas Elton Fairbanks Jr. was only 14 when he was signed by Paramount. But his father was world famous as the swashbuckling hero of dozens of silent films.
In early roles he was the young swain. In later ones, he played the sophisticate he really was offscreen.
Another “accidental” actor — he said with a straight face that he never intended to take up acting — whose career stretched over eight decades, covered some 100 acting titles, and in the process making Fairbanks Jr. a noteworthy figure of 20th century.
The grandson of a wealthy cotton mogul, the son at the time of birth of a yet to be famous Hollywood actor, a sportsman, academically endowed (he attended Lycee in Paris), he was a painter, sculptor, businessman, London socialite, a special envoy to South America (appointed by Franklin Roosevelt), a dedicated Anglophile (who hobnobbed with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip) and a Naval officer who saw combat in World War II.
Topping all this for classic movie fans was his marriage to Lucille Le Sueur (aka Joan Crawford), Fairbanks Jr.’s first of three, which stretched nearly four years beginning in 1929. It’s hard to imagine a more glamorous couple. They had met and presumably mated just before the shooting of 1929’s Our Modern Maidens.
The Thirties were dreadful for most Americans but kind to Fairbanks. There was Howard Hawk’s 1930 adventure The Dawn Patrol. He played the unlucky partner of Edward G. Robinson in 1931’s Little Caesar. He was the sleek villain of 1937’s The Prisoner of Zenda and his memorable role in 1939’s Gunga Din confirmed his stardom.
In the mid-Thirties Fairbanks shifted to England where he costarred with Elizabeth Bergner in 1934’s Catherine the Great, and then stayed for a handful of leading roles over three more years before returning to Hollywood.
One thing he insisted on — that he would never imitate his swashbuckling father onscreen, a wise and beneficent move. For one thing Doug Jr. was lured by mogul Jesse Lasky into movies to cash in on Doug Sr.’s name. As a result Dad was for quite some time openly hostile to his son’s movie career.
In the Forties, Fairbanks appeared as royalty on the lamb in Max Ophuls’ The Exile, and commanded the title role in 1947’s Sinbad the Sailor. The RKO Pictures release costarred Mauren O’Hara, Walter Slezak and a somewhat subdued Anthony Quinn. Fairbanks was singled out for his “graceful, even gracious, presence.”
Our Frank once encountered at a Fairbanks press conference in the 1970’s marking his new role as a spokesman for the then fledgling Turner Classic Movies. Doug Jr. proved in person to be both graceful and gracious. He died in New York City in 2000 at age 90, and remains more famous than his formerly famous father.