DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS JR.
By Susan M. Kelly
Born into Hollywood royalty, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. pretty much had it all – dashing good looks, a proven acting pedigree, and a refined air. With that kind of resume, it was no surprise that he found his way onto the silver screen and left his mark as one of Hollywood’s true icons.
Douglas Elton Ulman was born in New York City on December 9, 1909. The son of screen legend
Douglas Fairbanks and his first wife, Anna Beth Sully, the boy literally grew up among the Hollywood elite. By the time he was fourteen, he had already garnered the attention of Paramount Studios, who signed him based largely on his famous name. He also attracted the attention of some of his father’s friends, including his new stepmother,
Mary Pickford, and the silent screen legend
He made his film debut as Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in “Stephen Steps Out” (1923) but unfortunately, the film flopped. He did manage a critically acclaimed role in “Stella Dallas” (1925) but otherwise his early career faltered. His luck would turn in 1929 when he was cast in “Our Modern Maidens” opposite a then unknown by the name of
Joan Crawford. The two fell in love during the making of the film and were married in June of that year. The marriage would only last for four years but the couple remained on friendly terms right up to Crawford’s death.
With the dawning of the sound era, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. finally began to come into his own. He starred in a string of movies during the early 30’s, including “Outward Bound” (1930), “The Dawn Patrol” (1930) and
“Little Caesar” (1931), opposite the great Edward G. Robinson. Though his famous name had gotten him in the studio door, Fairbanks carved his own niche in the Hollywood pantheon with his considerable talent. His resume included everything from screen villains to comic turns in films like “Man of the Moment” (1935).
In 1939 he turned in one of his more memorable performances as a dashing British soldier fighting in India in “Gunga Din”, opposite a young
Cary Grant. Though his star was on the rise as the 40’s dawned, Fairbanks would soon turn away from acting as World War II came into full swing. Like many of Hollywood’s biggest names, Fairbanks didn’t hesitate to serve his country although he did manage to keep his considerable war time achievements a secret for much of his life.
At the outset of the war, Fairbanks was commissioned a reserve officer in the U.S. Navy and was assigned to Lord Mountbatten’s Commando staff in England. He would go on to head London’s Douglas Voluntary Hospital for war refugees and was named a special envoy to South America by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He eventually rose to the rank of Captain and participated in the allies’ landing in Sicily and Elba in 1943. His efforts during the war earned him several top honors including the Silver Star and British Distinguished Service Cross.
After the war, Fairbanks returned to Hollywood but film roles were harder to find. He appeared in just two films in the late 40’s, “Sinbad the Sailor” and “The Exile”, both in 1947. He then turned to the new medium of television and hosted the Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Theater. By this time he was spending
a great deal of time in England, where he was a fixture in high society and enjoyed the company of good friends like Sir Lawrence Olivier. In 1949 he was made Knight Commander of the British Empire and he often entertained Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip at his London home.
He began to work less and less, though he did make a series of short films for television during the mid to late 1950’s. He was lured to Hollywood one last time when he appeared in “Ghost Story” (1981), where he gave a memorable performance alongside such contemporaries as
Fred Astaire, John Houseman and Melvyn Douglas.
Never one to trade on the reputation of his famous father, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was a man of many interests and accomplishments. Along with acting, he was an avid painter and sculptor and he also tried his hand in the business world, managing everything from a mining company to a chain of bowling alleys. Though his resume was full and his achievements astonishing, he remained a modest man, preferring the company of good friends to the accolades of the movie world. After his divorce from Crawford, he married again – to Mary Lee Eppling, with whom he had three daughters. They would spend almost 50 years together, until her death in 1988. He married again late in life, to Vera Shelton.
He died of a heart attack at the age of 90 on May 7, 2000 and was interred in the same crypt as his father. He had lived a long and productive life and he left behind a legion of adoring fans. He never shied away from his famous name, though he preferred to make his own way. In so doing, he managed to add a unique and lasting chapter to one of Hollywood’s great acting dynasties.
Susan M. Kelly is a freelance writer who lives and works in Dunellen, New Jersey. Susan is a regular contributor to The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.
Other Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Pages:
The Fairbanks Legacy -- An interview with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. by Dan Lybarger, February 26, 1996.
The Sheila Variations -- Review of The Salad Days by Fairbanks, Jr. himself, includes several images and an excerpt from the book.
Welcome to Silent Movies Obituary -- Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, 1909-2000.