Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. at the Movies: Stephen Steps Out (1923)

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Quick Facts
Director: Joseph Henabery
Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Theodore Roberts, Harry Myers, and Noah Beery
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Length: 6 reels (5,152 feet)
Status: Presumed Lost

The story of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr’s career in Hollywood begins, and nearly ends, in 1923 when he was just thirteen years old. He entered the film industry on the heels of his father’s rise to movie fame and movie studios were already looking for new ways to cash in on the Fairbanks name. Coincidentally, a young Fairbanks and his mother (the former wife of Fairbanks, Sr.) were also seeking ways to earn money.  He and his mother had been scraping by in Paris, France and his mother did not want their dire need for money to be brought to the attention of Fairbanks, Sr. For this reason, when Jesse L. Lasky offered a movie contract to Fairbanks, Jr., it was an easy decision for him to make. He always held firmly to the fact that he entered the business strictly for financial reasons. 

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Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. on the set of Stephen Steps Out

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Motion Picture Magazine, October 1923

Jesse L. Lasky of Famous Players-Lasky was particularly interested in Fairbanks, Jr., either because of a personal vendetta against the teenager’s father, or because he saw dollar signs in the Fairbanks name. Motion Picture Magazine went as far as to write, “[Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.] represents merely a trade trick; and not a very fair or ethical trade trick at that.”1 Lasky recalled it somewhat differently thirty years later. He told  Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. biographer Brian Connell, “‘My motives? Douglas Fairbanks was the greatest name in picture business. This was a commercial proposition to capitalize on his name.'”2

Regardless of what Lasky’s true motives were, he certainly had been disturbed by the loss of Fairbanks, Sr. as one of his star players in 1922. In 1919, Fairbanks, Sr., created United Artists alongside Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith to give artists control over their own production. Ultimately, this is what led to Fairbanks parting ways with Famous Players-Lasky. Therefore, it seems entirely plausible that Lasky was hoping to bruise Fairbanks, Sr.’s ego while simultaneously profiting off the Fairbanks name when he offered the younger Fairbanks a movie contract. And Lasky certainly succeeded in ruffling Fairbanks, Sr.’s feathers. For a man whose entire image was built on his masculinity, athleticism, and youthful good looks, it was not ideal for it to be made well-known that he had a son old enough to be in the movies. It also didn’t help that they shared a name. Fairbanks, Sr., was never fond of “Sr.” being tacked onto his name.

But it wasn’t simply about ego for Fairbanks, Sr. It was also his desire for his son to have a so-called “normal” career outside of motion pictures. Fairbanks, Sr. went on record saying, “‘He’s too young and doesn’t really know what he’s doing. I wanted him to have the best education possible, but I don’t think that’s possible now. You can’t work in pictures and attend a university at the same time. He should have been permitted to wait until his education was completed before he took up a career.'”3  Fairbanks, Jr.’s, decision to enter the film industry added tension to their already distant relationship and gave way to the first, and only, fight. This did not discourage Fairbanks, Jr. from moving forward with his new career in the movies. You can read further details of the story of their fight in a previous post here.

Fairbanks and his mother arrived in Hollywood by train on June 18, 1923 and were immediately met by the press and “an honor guard of Boy Scouts in full regalia.”4 The son of the great Douglas Fairbanks had officially entered the world of motion pictures and he was enjoying all of the attention. He was immediately thrust into a whirlwind of publicity that included press interviews and photoshoots that had him posing in athletic ways similar to his father. Meanwhile, Fairbanks, Sr. buried himself in the making of the Thief of Bagdad (1924).

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Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. poses behind the wheel 

Much to Fairbanks, Jr.’s surprise, he received an invite from his father to visit his studio not long after his arrival in Hollywood. It turned out this was just another publicity move for both of them but it did help ease the tension between the two. They played a game of DOUG, a form of badminton invented by Fairbanks, Sr. and posed for some pictures. Fairbanks, Jr. continued to visit his father but was unaware at the time of just how much his father did not really want him there in Hollywood.

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Fairbanks, Jr. visits Fairbanks, Sr. for a game of DOUG

Famous Players-Lasky chose Stephen Steps Out as the vehicle to introduce Fairbanks, Jr., to the public. It was directed by John Henabery, who had directed Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. in the past. Stephen Steps Out is based on a story by Richard Harding Davis called “The Grand Cross of the Crescent.” Fairbanks, despite being thirteen years old at the time of filming, plays Stephen Harlow, Jr., a recent college graduate who disappoints his father by not doing well in his history class. His father sends him to Turkey with a tutor to study the history of the country. Meanwhile, Stephen’s history teacher, Professor Gilman, is accused of intentionally failing Stephen and is discharged from his position. Stephen conspires with a publicist to award Professor Gilman with the Grand Cross of the Crescent for a book he wrote on Turkish history. In turn, Professor Gilman gets his job back at the college and Stephen wins back the respect of his father.5 Most of the story follows Stephen’s wild adventures in Turkey, allowing for lots of action and stunt work.
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The film contained several action-packed scenes that forced Fairbanks to perform some dangerous stunts. No doubt this was done to persuade audiences that the young Fairbanks was just like his father. In one scene, Noah Beery was supposed to knock Fairbanks backwards with a fake blow, “When the scene was shot, either he or I misstepped, threw off the timing, and his blow landed solidly. I went down for a count of certainly five or six.”6 Of course, Beery felt terrible and the cast and crew rushed to his aide but Fairbanks brushed it off as no big deal. Fairbanks recalled the cast as being welcoming and protective of him. Of the other stars chosen for the film was Theodore Roberts, known for being a scene-stealer, in the role of Stephen’s father, Stephen Harlow, Sr. Roberts later went on to play Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s silent epic The Ten Commandments. The movie also starred Harry Myers and as the villain, Noah Beery, brother of Wallace Beery.
The cast was also helpful to the young Fairbanks and offered him useful advice that he took to heart. One such example is when Harry Myers taught Fairbanks how to steal a scene from Roberts who always managed to grab attention with his unique style of cigar smoking. Myers advised Fairbanks, “to counter such tricks by taking out my handkerchief and refolding it and looking straight out at the camera.”7 By the time director John Henabery noticed this trick in the daily rushes, it was too late to re-shoot and it remained in the final product.
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Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. on the set with Joseph Henabery directing (Screenland, January 1924)

Despite a large ad campaign and the Fairbanks name, Stephen Steps Out was not a box office success. It got mixed reviews, at best, with many critics focusing solely on the fact that it starred the son of Douglas Fairbanks. Many of the reviewers were kind to the young Fairbanks, commenting on his charm and likeability. Other reviewers were quick to call the film out for having no appeal and claimed it was severely lacking for not having a female character or love interest for Fairbanks. Famous Players-Lasky ended Fairbanks, Jr.’s, contract which initially had a five year option on it and Fairbanks left the movie industry unsure if he would ever get another chance. 

Unfortunately, Stephen Steps Out is currently a lost film so I am unable to give a personal review of the film. If it ever shows up in my lifetime, I will be first in line to do so!

Coming up on the next Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. at the Movies blog series, I will be covering Fairbanks, Jr.’s return to Hollywood for his second film The Air Mail (1925).

Notes:

  1. Motion Picture Magazine, October 1923, page 37
  2. Knight Errant: A Biography of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Brian Connell, 1955, page 33
  3. Ibid, page 34
  4. Ibid, page 32
  5. Screen Opinions, Volume 23, Number 8, December 15, 1923, page 111
  6. The Salad Days: An Autobiography, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., 1988, page 93
  7. Ibid

5 thoughts on “Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. at the Movies: Stephen Steps Out (1923)

  1. Hi. Just discovered your blog yesterday. I’ve been a fan of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. since I first saw Him in Gunga Din when I was a child. He was so captivating! I’m so happy to have found your blog. Thanks for reigniting my small obsession.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am so glad to have sparked your obsession! Also, thank you for checking out my blog. I have lots of new things planned and hope you will check in every now and then. I am always happy to talk Doug!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Douglas Fairbanks, Jr is a topic I come back to regularly and with great relish. I’m happy to have found a place with like-minded individuals, especially in these modern times when no one seems to watch old movies anymore.

        Liked by 1 person

      • He’s such a fascinating person and multi-talented that it is hard to not fall for him. I too love having the classic film community to talk and fangirl with. There are more fans out there than you think but it is still a relatively small community.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. at the Movies: The Air Mail (1925) | Prince of Hollywood

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