Posted by Moira Finnie on December 9, 2009
Chances are slim that the word could be aptly applied to anyone in the twenty-first century, but I hope I’m wrong about that. I think that the first time I saw a person that term might describe was as a kid. I saw a dazzling old guy on stage in a summer stock production of a frothy comedy with considerable style, The Pleasure of His Company. The actor portraying “Pogo”, an engaged young woman’s long lost father, had a spark, verve and style that was compelling and completely unlike anything I’d then seen in reality or my brief movie-going life, (and even shorter theater-going one). That role, which the actor alternated for years in touring companies with another part that fit him like a glove, Prof. Higgins in My Fair Lady, was played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
By the time I saw him, he’d long since relinquished any claim to motion picture stardom, preferring to pursue his interests in business, the arts and a kind of diplomacy, jetting between New York, London and Palm Beach. While he’d received several offers to take productions to Broadway, where his father had enchanted pre-World War One audiences, Doug Jr. preferred keeping his hand in the family business on the fringes of the spotlight. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of this under-appreciated actor’s birth, I thought it appropriate to give a nod to this man who gracefully swept through movies and life, until he left the scene ten years ago at the age of ninety. Understanding that less is so often more, he left us one last present that only the best performers seem to understand–a wish to see his like again.
If you are in the New York City area this month, on Monday, December 14, 2009, at 6:00 PM, the New York Public Library will be sponsoring a program called New York Knight: A Centennial Tribute to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (1909-2009). It will be hosted by film historian Foster Hirsch and featured guests are expected to be the actor’s widow, Vera Fairbanks, Jane Alexander, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, Jamie Niven, and others.
Born Douglas Elton Ulman to the then Broadway actor, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and the socially prominent Anna Beth Sully in New York City in 1909, the boy grew up knowing that his father was someone he loved, though he was never quite sure that he was important to his career-driven parent. ”I was a shy, awkward sort of a boy” he explained, “and my father’s frequent absences from home, along with my hero worship for him, made me even shyer.” After his parents’ divorce in 1918, financial losses incurred during his mother’s rebound marriage left her generous settlement severely diminished, a fact that was kept from his pre-occupied father.
When he was asked to take a job as an actor the mere age of 14, his eagerness to accept, despite the fact that producer Jesse Lasky simply hired him for his name value, was irrelevant. An indifferent student, and a chubby kid who had only recently bloomed into a tall, thin youth with a burnished, handsome face, JR, as his age conscious father called him, seemed older than his years. Objecting to his child’s ending his education and to the prospect of competition from his own offspring, Doug Sr. (who asked his son to call him “Pete”), the youngster experienced even more keenly his failure “to receive any real affection” from his father. Later he would claim that he believed that his busy namesake never intentionally hurt him, and that he wasn’t bothered when he was given rooms in the guest house rather than the main house when visiting Pickfair after his father’s marriage to Mary Pickford. Doug Jr. recognized that “the Fairbanks name did make it easier to get into an office to see someone”, but he believed he lacked the ability to be a “personality” as his father became during his extraordinary career. By the time he was fifteen he was garnering good notices as a young suitor to the daughter of Stella Dallas (1925-Henry King).
Yet, despite entering show business for less than aesthetic reasons, and faltering somewhat in a few early films, he proved to be a versatile, appealing actor, even when he was confined to “rich boy goes bad” parts, as he was in A Woman of Affairs (1928-Clarence Brown) playing Greta Garbo‘s weakling brother. An appearance in the jazz age flapper tale, Our Modern Maidens (1929-Jack Conway) brought the 19 year old together with a vaguely 21 year old Joan Crawford who became his first wife, making the pair one of the more golden couples of that time. Their union, which the actor later reflected may have been fated in part due to parental opposition, only lasted four years, but Douglas Fairbanks Jr. apparently remained on friendly terms with the actress.
When her reputation was tattered by posthumous revelations about her as a person and a mother, the actor said that ”The Joan Crawford that I’ve heard about in ‘Mommie Dearest’ is not the Joan Crawford I knew back when.” At the most, he revealed in later writing that she may have lacked a degree of humor, did have a tendency to drive others mad with her cleaning fixation (including the Barrymore brothers on the set of Grand Hotel), and intensely disliked the competition from Norma Shearer and Jean Harlow. Most “damning” of all, her ex-husband said that the rising actress might be found night and day sublimating all that intensity through an obsessive need to knit. These relatively mild revelations were typical of Fairbanks‘ reticent style. Married two more times after Crawford (to non-actresses), linked romantically with Gertrude Lawrence and Marlene Dietrich, and to others, his public discretion was indicative of a man who knew all too well the perils of fame from an early age and could cast a forgiving eye on the foibles of himself and others.
While his good looks and polished manners might have enabled him to coast through many such parts, the arrival of sound uncovered the actor’s mellifluous speaking voice, and a gift for comedic as well as grittier dramatic work, which is said to be part of the appeal of Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (1930), a film that was later remade with Errol Flynn, but which is, alas, seldom seen today. The arrival of the Depression and a contract at Warner Brothers handed him opportunities to play several parts in the pre-code period that increased his range. Surprisingly, some of his finest work in the future would come when he played gigolos, hard-bitten grifters and decadent characters, perhaps most famously as the thief-gigolo trying to go straight in Little Caesar (1931-Mervyn LeRoy), a film that is dominated by the star making turn of the extraordinary Edward G. Robinson. Among my favorites in this period are Union Depot (1932-Alfred E. Green), in which Fairbanks played a small time hustler looking for some easy money around a train station, along with his pal, Guy Kibbee. Doug Jr.’s tawdry character steals, lies and slaps women he believes are prostitutes, but via his underplaying, his impulsive tendency to occasionally share his booty with less adept low lifes and his own quirky values, he is an appealing figure despite all his venality. You know when Joan Blondell drifts into the film as a desperate woman, trying to avoid penury by descending into prostitution and the company of a sexual deviant, you know you are deep into pre-code territory. Blondell, as that actress often did, brought out the best in her male co-star, whose pragmatic approach to getting by is clearly an economic choice as much as an ethical one. This film, which has appeared on TCM in the recent past, is not available on DVD, but can be viewed on youtube, beginning here.
Fairbanks‘ sharpie may be a bit dissolute, but the actor’s ability to make such a raffish but realistic character intriguing, much less likable, would resurface in a later role as a Broadway conman (complete with a Runyonesque New York accent), who sidles up to Rita Hayworth, John Qualen and Thomas Mitchell in Ben Hecht‘s beautifully photographed and far too little known film, Angels Over Broadway (1939-Ben Hecht & Lee Garmes). As you can see from this early scene in the film, the movie seems to presage film noir elements beautifully. While not a perfect movie (the budget was quite small and the movie was reportedly re-edited by Columbia head, Harry Cohn), the 78 minute film, alternately poetic and tawdry, which is available on DVD, deserves a better fate than the obscurity it has languished in for many decades. You can see a sample of this film’s appeal here.
While carving out a career in such roles allowed Fairbanks to develop a career separate from his famous father, his work in comedies, from his role in one of those “how the miserable rich learn to have fun” movies, Joy of Living (1938-Tay Garnett), a movie lightened considerably by Fairbanks’ ebullient character opposite Irene Dunne, as well as the highly enjoyable The Young in Heart (1938-Richard Wallace). The latter, a Selznick movie concerned with the misadventures of a family of con artists blends beautiful, high style production values with a stellar ensemble cast that included Roland Young and Billie Burke as the slightly seedy and a bit dotty parents of Janet Gaynor and Fairbanks, who are all reformed (well, sort of) by the attentions of the exceptionally likable Minnie Dupree, (a seasoned stage actress who did very few films), among others.
This delightful movie is available on DVD as well as on the Internet Archive, found here. These movies led inevitably to comparisons with his stellar father, but, except for some derring-do in movies like Captured! (1933-Roy Del Ruth), a melodrama starring Leslie Howard set in a WWI POW camp (and debuting on TCM on Jan. 21st, 2010 at 1pm EST) and an appearance as an unstable Grand Duke Peter of Russia in Catherine the Great (1934-Paul Czinner), adventure stories and period costume dramas were not part of Fairbanks résumé up to this stage of his career, but the next evolution of the son of the great swashbuckler was about to change, and one of them is receiving a special screening in honor of this actor’s birthday.
On the west coast his centennial will be marked by a screening of The Prisoner of Zenda (1937-John Cromwell) at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Wednesday, December 9, at 8 p.m. at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. In that film, Fairbanks gave one of his very best performances as the deliciously villainous Rupert of Hentzau, a part that he plays with a joyous panache. As Doug Jr. described in the first volume of his memoirs, “Salad Days”, for the first years of his acting career, the actor consciously avoided any parts that smacked of exploiting Doug Sr.’s renown as a swashbuckler. The Prisoner of Zenda came along after the actor returned from a period of time working in Britain, and he needed work badly, though he’d achieved an amount of “star power”. Reluctant to take a step backward or to play the part of Rupert out of a desire to avoid comparisons with his father, he finally confided to his aging parent that he was considering the part. Marking the beginning of a period in which father and son became much closer, Doug, Sr. strongly urged him to play the role to the hilt, remarking that if he were on the shady side of fifty, he’d have been eager to take the part himself. “Don’t be a damn fool”, his father reportedly told him, “The part of Rupert of hentzau is the best part ever written. It’s so good that a dog could play the part and walk away with the story!”
No matter how many times I’ve seen this classic version of the Anthony Hope novel, I am always sorry to see Rupert (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) disappear out the turret window into the drink below near the end of that entertaining movie (which starred yet another under-appreciated actor, Ronald Colman, who played the hero(es) with equal dash and playful warmth). Apparently, David O. Selznick also felt the same way. Intrigued by a desire to utilize this side (or was it underside?) of Fairbanks‘ previously undetected flair for making an evil character such fun, Selznick tried to figure out a way to fashion a sequel from Anthony Hope’s other novel, “Rupert of Hentzau”. However, after many distractions, including pre-production of Gone With the Wind, and a misguided attempt to transform Rupert into a hero, the mercurial producer passed on the follow-up to the book of The Prisoner of Zenda.
Despite that disappointment, the younger Fairbanks went on to take advantage of his career momentum by appearing in a slew of highly enjoyable films immediately after this, among which are the raucous classic Gunga Din (1939-George Stevens), a film that is often on TCM. That exceptional filmmaking experience is described by Fairbanks in the upcoming documentary on TCM, George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey (1985), which can be seen at 6pm EST on December 18th. The actor went on to pursue further roles in swashbuckling movies, including the highly enjoyable if sometimes ludicrous The Corsican Brothers (1940-Gregory Ratoff), which allowed him to play a dual role in a stylishly done romantic adventure story. Fairbanks took a turn in a role that came closest to his father’s style as the colorful rascal Sinbad the Sailor (1947-Richard Wallace), as well as The Fighting O’Flynn (1949-Arthur Pierson).
The coming of the Second World War in 1939, however, changed the Anglophile actor’s life, leading him to a choose, as he put it, to offer his services to the British, “if they would have me.” An articulate opponent to the isolationist forces within the United States prior to American involvement, by 1941, he was acting as a liaison between the Roosevelt administration and the British and served as an ambassador without portfolio on a good will tour gathering intelligence on the side in Latin America.
A member of the naval reserve, Fairbanks naval career included service under Adm. Lord Louis Montbatten, and service on a series of ships in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, involvement in commando operations, much of which he wrote about eloquently in his second volume of memoirs, A Hell of a War. This wartime experience, which involved a desire to blend in as much as possible to the ranks of other junior grade lieutenants, led to decorations that included the Silver Star, the British Distinguished Service Cross and the French Legion of Honor. For the first time in his life, it also allowed him to accomplish goals with a degree of anonymity outside of the shadow of his father. This realization of his intrinsic worth may also have contributed to the gradual diminution of his acting career. Returning to civilian life, Doug Jr. appeared in and produced films such as The Exile (1947-Max Ophüls) about the adventures of Charles II while Cromwell ruled Britain, a favorite of the actor’s, though he later expressed some disappointment that “we had Maria Montez forced on us” in that film. That Lady in Ermine (1948 Ernst Lubitsch & Otto Preminger), a Betty Grable musical set in Hungary (!), allowing both stars to romp across the screen, and the little known gem, ‘State Secret‘ (1950-Sydney Gilliat) about a surgeon involved in some mitteleuropean intrigue which is made credible thanks to Fairbanks‘ suave performance and that of Glynnis Johns and Jack Hawkins.
I’ve only seen State Secret of these three in the last five years, though I’ve recently discovered That Lady in Ermine can be seen here in its entirety for free. While Fairbanks continued to produce, appear in occasional stage productions and television after 1951, he chose to become better known for his work away from the spotlight, explaining to a biographer, ”I began to be embarrassed that the interpretation was really someone else’s creation. Realizing my own limitations, I became aware that I could never be a creative actor. I would only be an interpretative one or an imitator.” Continuing an involvement in outside businesses, the affairs of the United Nations, and using his contacts within British and American establishments to promote good relations among nations enabled him to help war refugees and to enjoy a unique position “being a fly on the wall in the corridors of power.” Though his diplomatic efforts and frank appreciation for Britain earned him some enmity among those who opposed his views, he was eventually was named a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.Raising three daughters with his second wife, Mary Lee also kept the nearly former actor quite busy, though he did manage to make a last appearance in a movie with the very distinguished gathering of acting taltent–John Houseman, Fred Astaire and Melvyn Douglas in Ghost Story (1981-Peter Irvin).The actors brought great presence and style to what might have been a well told story, but they were given far too little to do. It’s hardly surprising that Fairbanks chose to call it a day on the motion picture work after this (except for some well done turns as a contributor or narrator of documentaries).
In his later years, he warned those who would idealize them that “the good old days” seemed quite different when one was living through them. I was reminded recently while researching this piece that he was also a reminder of a time when under-rated elements of that over-used word, “class”, including grace, manners and kindness, were alive and well.
Fairbanks, Douglas, The Salad Days, Doubleday, 1988.
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