In 1922, at the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, on the very balcony that Charles Lindbergh would later stand to a cheering crowd of thousands after his great flight, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Jr. had what Douglas, Jr., referred to as, “the worst row in my life!”1 The issue at hand: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.’s, entry into a film career. The last thing Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., wanted for his son was for him to become a movie star. After all, he was the King of Hollywood and represented to many Americans the ideal model of youth and masculinity. Having a teenage son in the movies had the potential to make him seem old to audiences and there was certainly a fear of possibly being embarrassed by his own son. On top of it all, he feared his son was being taken advantage of because of the name he carried. Whatever the true reasoning for his disapproval, the rift between father and son significantly impacted and shaped the film career of Douglas, Jr.
Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., began his acting career at a fairly young age. By the 1890s, a teenage Fairbanks was already appearing on the stage as an amateur actor. It was not long before he moved to New York City to further pursue his acting career. He landed his first role on Broadway in 1902. Fairbanks carried on this way until he met Anna Beth Sully and his stage career was temporarily put on hold. Apparently, her family was not too keen on the idea of their daughter marrying an actor. But in 1907, the two married and a couple of years later, in 1909, had their first and only son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. By that time, Fairbanks had returned to his acting career despite the disapproval of his in-laws. The young family made their way across the United States to California, the land of opportunity. In 1915, Fairbanks starred in his first film The Lamb and so began his illustrious film career. Fairbanks rose quickly in popularity as he cranked out movie after movie.
By 1922, Fairbanks, Sr., was one of the top movie stars in the world. He was often referred to as the King of Hollywood and, like a fairy tale, had just married the Queen of Hollywood, Mary Pickford. By 1922, Fairbanks and Pickford had made important strides in Hollywood. In 1919, alongside D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin, they created United Artists which was the first independent film studio and was intended to protect artists from being controlled by corporate heads of major studios. In 1920, they’d built the elaborate Pickford-Fairbanks studios where Fairbanks built some of Hollywood’s largest sets. Fairbanks was just beginning to make his famous swashbuckling films with The Three Musketeers and Robin Hood already under his belt. His tanned body, muscular physique, and athleticism gave him a youthful appearance that later influenced the creation of Superman and Batman. He was nearly 40 years old but one would never have guessed it based on his screen persona. Having a teenage son become a movie star was not ideal for his booming career. Not to mention, a teenage son that shared the same name as him. As Fairbanks, Jr., later wrote, “How often Dad regretted his decision to pass his name on to his son can only be guessed.”2 But it wasn’t just that Fairbanks, Sr., wanted to protect his own image. He was also concerned about his son being taken advantage of due to his own popularity and success.
Ideal or not, Fairbanks, Jr.’s, movie career was a reality that his father had to learn to accept as he signed his first movie contract in 1922. The reasoning for Fairbanks, Jr.’s, entry into film was purely financial according to him. But this was something he absolutely refused to let his father know. Coincidentally, Jesse L. Lasky of Famous Players-Lasky was waiting for an opportune moment to seek revenge on Fairbanks’ father. In 1919, Fairbanks, Sr., parted ways with Famous Players-Lasky to create the massively successful United Artists. In his autobiography, The Salad Days, Fairbanks Jr. wrote 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.”3 According to Fairbanks, Sr., researcher, Tracey Goessel, this was not the case. Goessel insists that Fairbanks, Sr., felt his son was being taken advantage of because of his name. She wrote, “…the majority of Fairbanks’s anger was with the executives whom he felt were endangering the future of a thirteen-year-old boy for the purposes of payback.”4 And it certainly was true that the publicity for Fairbanks, Jr.’s, first film boasted the fact that he was a Fairbanks.
Fairbanks, Sr., urged his son to focus on his education and to attend Harvard and Cambridge (Fairbanks, Sr., kept up the facade for a long time that he’d attended Harvard). The argument got heated and Fairbanks, Jr., remembered that his father became “…quite angry and I replied, I’m ashamed to say, more stubbornly – even perhaps rudely – than I ever had before.”5 After the confrontation, and a long period of not talking to one another, Fairbanks, Jr., made his debut film Stephen Steps Out. Unfortunately, the film did not live up to its hype and Fairbanks, Jr.’s, contract was ended. Perhaps this is exactly what Fairbanks, Sr., had worried about. The film studio spent a lot of money on advertising and building excitement over the film debut of the young Fairbanks. Despite all of that, the movie was just so-so and it was clear to Fairbanks, Jr., that he had been taken advantage of. His contract was ended prematurely due to the failure of the film and a discouraged Fairbanks, Jr., moved back to Europe to continue his studies. But it wouldn’t be long before he was back in the states trying to get back into the movies. Only this time, he was doing everything he could to separate himself from this father’s career. Arguably, to his own detriment at times.
Fairbanks, Jr., never specifically listed what roles he turned down but stated that he turned down several roles that would have made it seem as though he were riding on his father’s coattails. He wrote, “For many years I declined big offers to act in any swashbuckler film, regardless of its excellence, subject matter, opportunity for advancement, or monetary temptation.” He continued, “I was determined to be a serious straight actor in either comedies, tragedies, or melodramas – as different in every way from my father as possible.”6 It’s hard to imagine what kind of career Fairbanks, Jr., would have had if he had taken those roles. It certainly raises questions about just how big of a star he could have been, or if taking the roles he did was actually a smarter career move rather than emulating his father. Nonetheless, his career continued to progress despite some initial setbacks.
As Fairbanks, Jr.’s, star continued to rise throughout the 1930s, Fairbanks, Sr.’s, began to slowly fade. He was still a massively popular and influential movie star but was making less movies. He and Pickford were also facing problems and split in 1936, much to the dismay of film fans around the world. Even though he had lost his greatest love in the 1930s, he had gained the friendship of his only son. By the time Junior reached adulthood, his father was much more accepting of his career. Fairbanks, Jr., earned his father’s respect by establishing himself as an actor in his own right and by not having to rely on the Fairbanks name. Goessel gives two heartwarming examples of how Fairbanks, Sr., supported his son’s career. In one footnote she describes an encounter that a young fan had with Fairbanks, Sr. at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. The young fan wrote to Fairbanks, Jr.,:
“‘Everyone was looking at him….Mother hated me to stand and gape at the stars, so she said to me, “Come Betty. Don’t stand and stare.” And I replied, “No. I want to see Douglas’ father.” Everybody within hearing distance laughed. Mr. Fairbanks looked at me and grinned from ear to here – that divine smile that he so nicely and generously lavished on everyone – and he said to me, “That’s one of the nicest things I’ve ever heard. Hello, there. How are you?”‘”7
Another example that Goessel gives is a telegram that Fairbanks, Sr., sent to Junior that stated, “‘JUST HEARD FROM SILVERSTONE SUCCESS OF YOUR PICTURE STOP. YOU GIVE ME ONE OF THE BIG THRILLS OF MY LIFE STOP. I WON’T BE PATERNAL AND SAY I AM PROUD OF YOU BUT AS MY FRIEND AND ASSOCIATE I HAVE NEVER BEEN SO HAPPY HURRAH FOR US.”8 While Junior remained slightly skeptical of his father’s acceptance of his career, it appears that Fairbanks, Sr., was genuine in his support of his son.
In any case, father and son had become much closer as friends. Goessel writes, “…the two men discovered each other. Further, they found, to their mutual surprise, that they enjoyed each other. They golfed and traveled together, and the father found himself taking his son into his confidence.”9 Their relationship continued to grow and strengthen until Fairbanks, Sr.’s, untimely death in 1939. The death of the great Fairbanks left the young Fairbanks with a lot to contemplate and reflect upon. Fairbanks wrote beautifully of he and his father’s last days together and just how important those moments were after all that had transpired:
I found my normally detached self disconcertingly moved. I stared and stared at my father, and now and then I glanced between the partly drawn curtains at the restless sea outside. I remember thinking that I was beholden to this very ill man for my existence. I contemplated his life (insofar as I then knew it). This led me to thoughts of my mother as well, her fascinating and complex, spoiled but outwardly charming personality, and of her origins. Whatever they both were, whatever had caused them to be, contributed to my being whatever I was. Or am. Or will be.
All these conjectures, and more, rambled through my head and when I drifted back full circle to look at my half-sleeping father I did something I had never done before in my life. I leaned over and very gently kissed him on the forehead. Then, with a thin fog of tears threatening to betray my self-control, I slipped as quietly as I could out of the room and down the stairs. I never saw him alive again. At the time I didn’t know exactly why I had been so moved by my father’s two-day illness and his subsequent quiet (too quiet for his liking, I’m sure) death. When my father died, I became – possibly subconsciously – more “my own man.” Certainly for the time being I was less challenging and less challenged, freer and more self-assured but I had lost the one I had always wished most to please.10
The Fairbanks legacy on Hollywood, and film history in general, is unrivaled. Douglas Fairbanks, the King of Hollywood, made a lasting impact on the movies. He created the swashbuckler role that has continued to be imitated by the likes of Errol Flynn all the way to Johnny Depp. He helped establish and served as the first President of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts. He helped to establish the Motion Picture Fund. He helped created United Artists to fight executive control over artist’s careers. All of which continue to function today. But most importantly, he left us with an unparalleled filmography of timeless films that allow us to escape to another time and place.
And his son too had a significant impact that stretched beyond the world of film. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., crown Prince of Hollywood, starred in a number of great films alongside some of the great actors of the day. He became his own man by creating his own film company in Europe when Hollywood refused to give him what he wanted. He fought hard to preserve the Fairbanks family history by participating in interviews, publishing books, and always being generous to researchers. Most importantly, in a move that would have made his father proud, he donned the United States uniform in World War II when he joined the U.S. Navy. He proved to be an important instrument to the U.S. government and was highly decorated for his efforts during the war. One of his greatest contributions being the creation of the Beach Jumpers which later became the Navy SEALs. His contribution led him to being knighted by King George VI of England.
The Fairbanks’ acting line begins and ends with father and son. But their contribution to Hollywood is unequivocal and deserves much more recognition than it currently receives. The Fairbanks family crest, as used by father and son on their bookplates, reads “Fides Conatus et Fidelitas,” meaning Faith, Effort, and Fidelity. It is my belief that these characteristics are strongly represented in both father and son. Through their faith in themselves, in one another, in the future of film – through their efforts in their careers – and by staying true to what they believed in, the Fairbanks have achieved what few Hollywood families have ever been able to. I only hope that I too can live by these principles in my efforts to preserve the history and the legacy of the Fairbanks on Hollywood and the film industry.
- Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., The Salad Days: An Autobiography (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 90.
- Ibid, 155.
- Ibid, 86.
- Tracey Goessel, The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2015), 317.
- Fairbanks, The Salad Days, 90.
- Ibid, 155.
- Goessel, The First King of Hollywood, 474.
- Ibid, 474.
- Ibid, 461.
- Fairbanks, The Salad Days, 2-3.