The Beginning of a Star

Around 1922, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was offered his first film contract by the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, also known as Paramount Pictures. The contract called for one trial film with four year options. At the time, Fairbanks Jr. and his mother were in need of money and the film industry seemed to be the next natural move for a family familiar with show business.

Coincidentally, Jesse L. Lasky of Famous Players-Lasky was waiting for an opportune moment to seek revenge on Fairbanks’ father, the King of Hollywood himself, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Senior had recently parted ways with Famous Players-Lasky to create the massively successful United Artists alongside Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith in 1919. In his autobiography, The Salad Days, Fairbanks Jr. writes of Lasky’s revenge plan, “As he saw it, Fairbanks senior was a world hero of unequaled popularity who represented young, clean-cut, virtuous American vitality and good humor. He would be embarrassed to have his overgrown thirteen-year-old son around as an All-American boy with similar athletic agility.”1

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Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Sr., 1923 (Photo Credit: http://dougandmary-kingandqueen.tumblr.com)

Of course, the thirteen-year-old Fairbanks knew nothing of Lasky’s desire for revenge against his father and agreed to the film contract Lasky offered him. Lasky’s plan to embarrass Fairbanks Sr. turned out to be successful. Junior’s film contract led to the biggest fight he ever had with his father. Despite his father’s disapproval, Junior went on to act in the one trial film his contract called for. His first film was titled “Stephen Steps Out” and received a great amount of publicity. The studio capitalized on the Fairbanks name which certainly helped to create hype for the new film.

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Advertisement for “Stephen Steps Out” in the Exhibitor’s Herald, September 18, 1923. (Photo Credit: http://archive.org/stream/exhibitorsherald17exhi_1#page/n113/mode/1up)

The American Film Institute summarizes the plot of the film, “When Stephen Harlow, Jr., fails his course in Turkish history, his father, a founder of the school, sends him to Turkey to learn his lessons and fires Gilman, the history teacher, whom he could not bully into passing his underachieving son. Stephen, Jr., to make amends, has Gilman reinstated, and, after a thrilling adventure in Turkey in which he rescues the sultan’s son and is given a coveted medal, returns to school and presents the medal to Gilman.”2

For the most part, the film received positive reviews and many reviewers commended Junior’s performance. Unfortunately, however, the film ultimately did not live up to its hype and Lasky ended Junior’s contract after only the one film. Despite his rough start, this was only the beginning for Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. The Prince of Hollywood would go on to a successful Hollywood career that even his father grew to appreciate.

 

1. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. The Salad Days (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 86.

2. American Film Institute, “Stephen Steps Out,” http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/DetailView.aspx?s=&Movie=12410.

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