F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see at smart nightclubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurtful eyes. Young things with a talent for living.”1 We see this Joan Crawford burst onto screen, madly dancing the Charleston, in Our Dancing Daughters in 1928. The following year, we watch as she falls in love with the crown Prince of Hollywood, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., in Our Modern Maidens, a sequel to Our Dancing Daughters. For movie fans, it was a match made in heaven, the perfect Hollywood romance, the true love story of a prince and a flapper.
On an October night in the fall of 1927, Joan Crawford laid eyes on the young and dashingly handsome Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., at the Belasco Theater in Los Angeles. Fairbanks was starring in a play called Young Woodley, hoping it would lead to better job offers in the film industry. It had only been four years since Fairbanks entered the world of film and the offers he received had been far and few between. While the play did lead to more offers, it also led to a new chapter in Fairbanks’ life. As fate would have it, on that opening night in 1927 Fairbanks’ starring role in Young Woodley led to one of Hollywood’s greatest romances.
In 1930s Los Angeles, the Belasco Theater was the place to be and the opening night of Young Woodley was publicized as being the social event of the season. Hollywood’s reigning King and Queen, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Mary Pickford, were to be in attendance. As was the great comedian Charlie Chaplin. Joan Crawford, never one to shy away from publicity and the opportunity to advance her fame, made sure that she was in the audience that night. In 1927, Crawford was still a relatively new star on the scene. She was signed by MGM in 1925 and spent much of her first year playing small roles where she received no billing. Through her own self-promotion and better screen roles, Crawford turned herself into a star. Her role in Our Dancing Daughters in 1928 would solidify her as one of MGM’s greatest stars. But on the opening night of Young Woodley in 1927, she was sitting just on the brink of her super stardom.
On that evening, it is unlikely that Crawford realized just how famous she was to become in the near future as she sat in the dark theatre watching Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. What she certainly did realize was that the young man on the stage had captured her interest. Margaret Reid, a writer for Picture-Play Magazine, explained, “The night I saw him on the stage, Joan Crawford, swathed in white fox, sat alone in an upper box, following his performance spellbound, sending optic messages down to him.”2 After the performance, Crawford hand-delivered a hand-written message to the young Fairbanks. She congratulated him on his performance and asked for a signed photo and a telephone call, if he should be so inclined. Fairbanks later wrote, “Imagine! Me! A note from Joan Crawford!“3
Needless to say, Fairbanks did not hesitate to call upon the budding star. On their first meeting, Fairbanks asked Crawford for an autographed photo in return. Crawford inscribed the photo, “‘To Douglas, May this be the start of a beautiful friendship. Joan.'”4 According to Motion Picture Classic, the two went for a ride the evening after the play and told each other everything there was to know about one another. Fairbanks passionately remarked, “And suddenly I wished that opening night – all the applause, the calls for speech, the cheers of the motion picture celebrities could happen again just so Joan could see it once more. I wanted to appear big, to make good for Joan Crawford.”5 The two love birds quickly found themselves falling head over heels for one another as they began to see each other more and more. Fairbanks described their love by insisting, “It was sort of love at first sight.”6
In 1929, Hollywood capitalized on the love of Doug and Joan by giving him a role in Our Modern Maidens alongside Crawford. It was her first starring role and he was to play her love interest. Knowing it would amount to great publicity, MGM borrowed Fairbanks from First National to play the part of Gil. Fairbanks later described it as a, “good exploitation stunt” and admitted that he and Joan felt like, “commercialized puppets” even though it was fun to work together.7 Either way, the movie was a smash hit and solidified Crawford’s stardom. (Click below to watch a clip)
On the 3rd of June in 1929, Fairbanks and Crawford were married in a small ceremony at the Saint Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church. Fairbanks was only nineteen years old at the time and four years younger than Crawford (or five depending on your source). The ceremony was simple and not at all the glamorous event that one would expect from the two stars. However, none of that mattered to the starry-eyed lovers. Fairbanks wrote, “For two youngsters already over their heads in the choppy waters of life in a huge goldfish bowl, it was a never-to-be-forgotten day. We were relieved and happy. We were truly married. And we lived happily . . . for a while.”8
Despite their deep love for one another, Fairbanks’ family wasn’t too keen on the idea of him marrying Crawford. Especially at so young of an age. Fairbanks, Sr. referred to the romance as an, “‘overexploited affair'”9 and his mother called Crawford, “‘my son’s current chorus-girl fling.'”10 But Fairbanks said to Hell with his family’s protests and married her anyway. He later admitted, “The opposition of my family actually had much less to do with the unsuitability of glamorous movie-star Joan Crawford as my future wife than it had to do with my youth.”11
At the time there was, and still is, a lot of speculation on whether Joan Crawford used Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as an instrument to advance her own career. After all, he was the crown Prince of Hollywood and an invitation to Pickfair (the home of Fairbanks, Sr., and Mary Pickford) could only be beneficial to a rising star. Receiving an invite to Pickfair was important in the early days of Hollywood. Many believed that you had really made it once you attended an event there. In fact, Crawford even gave credit to Pickfair for being influential in transforming herself into a proper, sophisticated woman. She was quoted as saying, “‘I was out to tear up the world in the fastest, brashest, quickest way possible. And then I saw myself through the Pickfair eyes, and every last bit of my self-confidence dropped away from me. Shyness overwhelmed me, and I got a terrific inferiority complex. Immediately, I set out to change myself in every way.'”12
It took awhile for Crawford to receive an invitation to Pickfair after she married Fairbanks. When the young couple finally were invited to Pickfair, Doug and Joan were both understandably nervous. Crawford received a warm welcome from Doug’s stepmother, Mary Pickford. Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., on the other hand, was not feeling quite as warm toward the new star but did his best not to show it. In a famous Pickfair story, Fairbanks, Sr. lashed out on Doug after he and Joan had been canoodling in the dark corner of the movie room. After the incident, the couple was not invited back to Pickfair for some time. Fairbanks confirms, “In any case, it was some time before we were asked to see a movie at Pickfair again – and when at last we were, we took good care to sit well apart from each other.”13
Despite skepticism from Fairbanks’ family, movie fans could not get enough of the love birds. The couple received an extensive amount of publicity. Throughout my research I’ve encountered an overwhelming number of articles on the couple. Fan magazines ran pieces on them regularly and even had them write their own pieces (if we are to trust the often unreliable fan magazines of the day). In a 1931 Screenland article titled “Married the Modern Way,” Crawford describes their marriage:
All our world knows I love Doug. We study together, we work together; pray together, play together, and love together. We admire and respect each other’s ability and are proud of each other’s success. Doug has developed such charm! He is so versatile in his talents. Oh no – we shall never be divorced. We understand each other too well.14
Based on these countless articles, one would believe that the two were soulmates that would last until death do them part. But the Hollywood ending was not in the cards for Fairbanks and Crawford. The couple began to have problems fairly early on in their marriage. At first, their problems weren’t blatantly obvious to Fairbanks or Crawford. They were no longer talking to each other in baby voices or using cute nicknames (Joan was called “Billie” and Doug was called “Dodo”). The extravagant gift giving that took place early in the marriage had also tapered off. Fairbanks wrote, “There were no rows that I recall. If Billie was studying lines or otherwise preoccupied, I tried to write. A sort of doldrums or marital torpor seemed to be setting in.”15
All of this seemed perfectly natural. The honeymoon phase was not meant to last and it seemed normal that husband and wife would settle into the married life routine. However, warning signs were beginning to appear. Fairbanks remembers Joan leaving for the studio an hour early and staying an hour late and even working on her days off. These things did not raise a red flag in Fairbanks’ mind at the time as Crawford was known for being one of the hardest working women in the industry. However, as the two began to drift further apart, it became more apparent that something wasn’t quite right. And indeed it wasn’t. Crawford had begun a love affair with Clark Gable that would become one of Hollywood’s worst kept secrets.
Around this time, Crawford was chosen to play Sadie Thompson in Rain, a role that she was determined to do justice. She immersed herself into the role and told Fairbanks that she needed to be alone to concentrate on her performance. She moved into a bungalow on Catalina Island where the film was being made. When she returned home after the film was made, her mood seemed refreshed and she was finally ready to go on the honeymoon she and Fairbanks had put off since their marriage in 1929. Unbeknownst to Fairbanks, Louis B. Mayer was growing fearful of the Crawford-Gable love affair becoming public and leading to a scandal. During this period studios fought tooth and nail to avoid scandals involving their stars and Mayer refused to let one of his biggest stars fall victim to one. He offered Crawford and Fairbanks the honeymoon as a belated wedding gift to prove to the world that the young couple was still very much in love.16 The two headed for Europe in June of 1932 and had a wonderful time. Or at least that’s what Fairbanks thought. He later explained:
She hated it all! She put on a brave, well-trained smiling face, said the right words of gratitude, but she was really only peripherally interested. She felt, she confessed, like a fish out of water, gasping for breath, longing for something familiar to cling to. She would have been, she said, just as content to read about these things – and, anyway, the pictures she’d seen seemed better than the real things! She was so frightened and felt so alien, that it was like a bad dream. All she wanted to do was get home as quickly as possible – home to the United States, home to California, home not to Cielito Lindo [the name of their home], but to the Culver City and MGM studios, home to the security of what she could recognize, home to her work. So home we went – ahead of schedule. She didn’t return for years.17
Fairbanks and Crawford continued to drift further apart after the honeymoon. She moved to a cottage in Malibu and refused to tell him where she was staying. Fairbanks wrote, “It was hard to find time or reason to be together. We had become familiar strangers, helpless to prevent our relationship’s slide from intense romance into even easy companionship. Whatever emotions or thoughts we once had in common had been fogged over and lost.”18 The two officially separated when Crawford re-appeared at their home and accused Fairbanks of carrying-on with other women. She decided they would live under the same roof but would lead separate lives for the time being. She still claimed to have hopes of saving the marriage. Articles flooded the fan magazines with sad stories of the couple’s separation. Crawford played the part of the lonely bride desperately trying to hold on to her marriage and save it from the impending doom.
After a long day of shooting in 1933, Fairbanks was undressing in his dressing room past midnight. His agent, Mike Levee, knocked on the door and attempted to make small talk. Fairbanks knew it was odd for his agent to be visiting him at such an hour and finally got Levee to splurge on why he was really there. Levee informed Fairbanks that he would be staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel that night because Joan was throwing him out of the house. She had arranged to have all his belongings taken to a room at the hotel and changed her private phone number. The news blindsided Fairbanks. As he headed back onto set to shoot an intense storm scene for The Narrow Corner, he pondered what had just happened. He wrote, “What the hell had happened? Billie had thrown me out of our house – just like that. No warning. No discussion. No row – not recently anyway. If anything, the atmosphere at home had seemed a little more relaxed and even, at times, friendly.”19 Before he could even discuss the issue with her, Fairbanks read about their separation in the Examiner. Louella Parson’s quoted Joan’s announcement of their “amicable separation.” Divorce was now inevitable.
Not long after, Fairbanks learned the truth behind their separation. Crawford had spent the last two years of their marriage in the arms of Clark Gable. Those long days and nights when Joan would arrive at the studio early and stay late and even work on her days off now made sense to Doug. The surprises continued as the details of their affair emerged. Fairbanks explained, “I was additionally surprised to learn that one of Joan’s and Clark’s favorite trysting places at the studio was the charmingly decorated, very comfortable portable dressing room I had given her as a wedding present – and had only recently finished paying for.”20 In his characteristically gallant style, Fairbanks goes on to defend Gable, referring to him as a nice guy and admitting that he couldn’t blame Gable for what happened.
Fairbanks and Crawford had come a long way since that night at the Belasco Theatre. Fairbanks had finally made it in the film industry and had been moderately successful and Crawford had finally reached the superstar status that she worked so hard to achieve. On April 29, 1933, Crawford filed for divorce and a year later it became finalized, ending the great love affair of the early 1930s.
The two met again for the first time in many years after Fairbanks returned home from the war in Europe. Fairbanks had just been formally demobilized and ordered to return to wearing civilian clothes. He attended a large dance with his new wife, Mary Lee, when he locked eyes with the glamorous Joan Crawford. With arms wide open and a beaming smile, she came floating across the room toward Fairbanks. He expected a welcome home and a warm embrace from his former wife but was instead met with the same self-serving Joan Crawford that he knew years ago. Fairbanks remembered, “She embraced me warmly and then as she pulled back she repeated gleefully, ‘Darling! I suppose you haven’t heard – you don’t know – I’m no longer with MGM. I’m with Warner Brothers now!'” He reflected, “It was good to be home. Little had changed.”21
In those few years, as the 1920s roared into the 30s, Fairbanks and Crawford stood as symbols of Hollywood romance. Theirs was a story that not even a screenwriter could have written better. A young starlet, born into a poor family in Texas had launched onto the flickering screen of the Jazz Age and fallen madly in love with the son of Hollywood royalty. Their love story was the perfect fairy tale romance of a flapper and a prince.
This piece was written for The Star-Studded Couple Blogathon hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies (click below to go to the blogathon!)
- “F. Scott Fitzgerald: Biography,” IMDb. <IMDb http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0280234/bio>
- Margaret Reid, “Don’t let his smile fool you,” Picture-Play Magazine, June 1928, 107.
- Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., The Salad Days: An Autobiography (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 122.
- Ibid, 122.
- Ruth Biery, “For the Love of Joan,” Motion Picture Classic, February 1929, 37.
- Ibid, 37.
- Fairbanks, The Salad Days, 146.
- Ibid, 144.
- Ibid, 132.
- Ibid, 133.
- Ibid, 141.
- Donald Spoto, Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford (New York: itbooks, 2010), 71.
- Fairbanks, The Salad Days, 134.
- Sydney Valentine, “Married the Modern Way: Joan Crawford on the Love and Marriage Problems of the Modern Girl,” Screenland, October 1931, 21.
- Fairbanks, The Salad Days, 173.
- Spoto, Possessed, 99.
- Fairbanks, The Salad Days, 190.
- Ibid, 199.
- Ibid, 203.
- Ibid, 208.
- Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., A Hell of a War (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 267.