In 1937, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., made a bold career choice. After years of avoiding swashbuckler roles, he accepted the role of the sword wielding villain in the Prisoner of Zenda. He had finally followed in his father’s footsteps after proving that he was a talented actor in his own right. Nearly a decade after Zenda, following Fairbanks’ return home from the war as a highly decorated soldier, it was reported that he was to return to the screen as a swashbuckler in The Exile.
Fairbanks had recently created The Fairbanks Company with his father’s former associate, Clarence E. Erickson, serving as vice-president. In the 1930s, Fairbanks attempted to become his own boss by creating his own company but was unable to in Hollywood. He moved overseas and created Criterion (not the same Criterion that preserves films today) which ultimately failed. The Fairbanks Company created in the 1940s allowed him to be his own boss in Hollywood rather than overseas. It was reported in 1947 that Fairbanks purchased five stories to produce for Universal-International over a two year period.1 Fairbanks was planning quite the comeback for those that had missed his screen presence during the war years. The first of the five pictures was the swashbuckling adventure The Exile.
The Exile told the history of the exile of King Charles II (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) to Holland in the 1600s. During his exile, the King was being hunted down by Oliver Cromwell’s Round Heads who wished to have him murdered. Much of the movie takes place at Katie’s Inn, where Charles is hiding out. Several interesting characters arrive at the inn during Charles’ stay including a man impersonating him and a former lover of his, Countess Anbella de Courteuil (Maria Montez). But Charles is most interested in the innkeeper, Katie (Paule Corset), whom he falls in love with while he is there. Trouble soon arrives as one of the men sent to murder Charles eventually finds him at the inn. An exciting sword fight takes place with Charles triumphing in the end. His followers come to his aid and the British government offers him the throne back. Unfortunately, this means Charles must end his romance with Katie.
The Exile marked the first time that Fairbanks produced, wrote, and starred in a film. It was a daunting task but one that he was well-equipped to pull off. Fairbanks undeniably knew his way around the movie business and he had waited a long time to be his own boss. The Exile finally gave him the chance to prove that he was capable of doing so. Despite all of his experience, he was not immune to problems during production.
Fairbanks’ co-star Maria Montez raised quite a ruckus over the issue of who was to receive top billing. Of course, Fairbanks felt that he should receive top billing for the picture as he was the main character and the bigger star. Montez, on the other hand, was only on the screen for a total of about twenty minutes and did not carry the same star power as Fairbanks. Nonetheless, she demanded top billing on account of the fact that her contract with Universal-International stated that no name should be above hers on the marquee. The disagreement took them to the L.A. Federal Court where the judge ruled in favor of Montez. Fairbanks decided to not push the issue any further and Montez’s name appears above his in the opening credits. However, Fairbanks worked out the billing in such a way that he would still appear as the main star by placing his name with the title and separate from the others.
Upon release, The Exile faced harsh critics and Tyrone Power’s Captain from Castile overshadowed it at the box office. The primary complaint made by movie reviewers was that there was too much talking and not enough action (some things never change!). Variety wrote, “Too much time is consumed however, in reaching its exciting stages, with a script which sometimes leans toward antiquated proportions.”2 However, Variety also praised Fairbanks for his acting and producing and rightfully so. The review stated, “It assays high in production values and, with Frank Planer handling the cameras, it’s a beautifully executed piece of work.” The review went on to say, “The star’s producer efforts far overshadow his scripting.”3
Not all reviewers were as harsh as Variety, however. The Motion Picture Herald magazine praised Fairbanks for his swashbuckling role. “By now the intention of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., to preserve for his generation the filmic tradition established so securely by his late father is so well known that his name on a marquee is a signal to the fans for swashbuckling and derring-do that their preferred type of entertainment is on display.”4 And preserve it he did. Fairbanks is as natural as ever as he swashes with grace and charm, just as his father had before him.
A special moment brought on by The Exile pulled father and son closer together in a unique fashion. In a sort of passing of the torch tradition, Erickson gifted Fairbanks with his father’s sword used in The Iron Mask in 1929. Fairbanks used the sword in the exhilarating sword fighting scenes in The Exile.5 The two worlds that the young Fairbanks managed to keep separated for several years finally came together through this action. There’s something special about watching the young Fairbanks wield the sword of his swashbuckling hero of a father.
Whether he was aware of it or not, Fairbanks was honoring his own family legacy in The Exile. Like his father, he had proved that he was his own man and capable of being his own boss. But he also proved that he could swash in a fashion that was reminiscent of his father but still uniquely his own. It’s hard as a fan of the Fairbanks’ to not see the movie as a kind of tribute from son to father. And in that way, The Exile is a very special film that I believe lives up to the Fairbanks legacy.
***This piece was written for The Royalty on Film Blogathon hosted by The Flapper Dame (click below to go to the blogathon!)
- “Fairbanks Buys Story, ‘The O’Flynn,’ from Small,” Showmen’s Trade Review, June 14 1947, 49. <http://archive.org/stream/showmenstraderev46lewi#page/n698/mode/1up>
- “The Exile,” Variety, October 15 1947, 10. <http://archive.org/stream/variety168-1947-10#page/n121/mode/1up>
- “The Exile,” Motion Picture Herald, October 25 1947, 3893. <http://archive.org/stream/motionpictureher1681unse#page/3893/mode/1up>
- “Father’s Sword Now Son’s,” Showmen’s Trade Review, May 10 1947, 39. <http://archive.org/stream/showmenstraderev46lewi#page/n365/mode/1up>