Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s Cinematic Legacy
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. played many different types of characters in his diverse films but all of them shared some similarities. These being an intriguing combination of the courtly gentleman of the 19th century with the emerging unsettled 20th century man, unsure of his place in a world faced with the Great Depression, totalitarian despots and two World Wars.
In the movie A Woman of Affairs (1928)(MGM), starring Garbo and Gilbert, a young and stunningly handsome Douglas practically steals the picture from the two stars with his portrayal of Garbo’s neurotic brother – a character straight out of a Fitzgerald novel – whose almost homoerotic attachment to Garbo’s suicidal admirer leads him to delve into liquor for solace. It’s an amazing portrayal, so ahead of its time that Fairbanks Jr. seems to be acting in a different film from the other actors and yet he is the perfect picture of decadence in the roaring Twenties. What is interesting about Fairbanks Jr.’s performance is the heart-wrenching sensitivity with which he plays this character. It is not the usual comic portrayal of a drunk that was predominant in movies from this time but instead is a characterization filled with pain and loneliness.
Douglas plays another man torn between two lovers in Our Modern Maidens (1928)(Columbia). As the film begins he is the beau of a sparkling flapper played by Joan Crawford, a woman who has high ambitions for her fiancee. As the film progresses he becomes involved with one of Joan’s plain girlfriends, a sweet girl who is head over heels in love with him. Although the story is the stuff from dime store novels Douglas gives a fine performance showing subtly the change of heart that his character develops. Of course the most interesting part of the movie is watching the beautiful, young Douglas and the beautiful, young Joan onscreen together.
Outward Bound (1930)(Warner Bros.) I think is Doug’s first talkie and for an early talkie it’s actually quite an atmospheric little movie. Leslie Howard costars in this tale of several dead souls who board a ship and don’t realize that they’re dead. Dawn Patrol from 1930 is a military film, it was remade with Erroll Flynn in the late 30’s, Richard Barthelmess is the star of this picture and it’s a gut-wrenching performance. Douglas is great in a supporting role.
I Like Your Nerve (Warner Bros.) is a cute but not very memorable 1931 movie that Fairbanks did with Loretta Young. Douglas and Lee Tracey are a great screen paring in Love is a Racket (Warner Bros.) which is a tough Depression era film costarring Ann Dvorak as Fairbanks’ love interest. Lee and Douglas have all the chemistry though. Definintely a fun one to watch if you get a chance.
Another great WWI picture from Douglas’ early years was Chances, it’s got quite good atmosphere (London and fog) and is another of Douglas’ romantic roles with some interesting twists.
The period of 1931-1934 was the height of Fairbanks acting career, his movies during this period were either unflinching looks at society during the Great Depression or hard-hitting historical dramas about war and politics. I think these films were best for Fairbanks and his realistic acting style. Warner Brothers was the perfect fit for these interesting character studies that Fairbanks excelled at portraying. Maybe also this was Hollywood’s shining moment, it was pre-Code and it was the beginning of talkie pictures, and most of my favorite films fall into this era. Interestingly Joan Crawford made her finest pre-war films during these same years. My other favorite era of Crawford films is the post-War period and I often times think that if Fairbanks had gone in a film noir direction after WWII that his career could have had just as big of a resurgence as the former Mrs. Fairbanks had with hers. .
Union Depot (Warner Bros.) is on the other hand a very interesting, gritty urban drama about the fortunes of various down and out people who meet in a train station and of the six films that Fairbanks did in 1931 it’s one of his finest.
It’s Tough to be Famous (1931)(Warner Bros.) is a movie about fame with Fairbanks as a decorated war hero who’s life is messed up by the never-ending prying of the press. A good dramatic role for Fairbanks.
One of the most famous films that Fairbanks Jr. appeared in was 1931’s Little Caesar (Warner Bros.). This film contains one of his best performances, as a gigolo who becomes caught up in the criminal underworld, much to his own abhorrence. The film was one of the classic gangster pictures from the 1930’s.
Scarlet Dawn (1932)(Warner Bros.) is one of my favorite Fairbanks Jr. films. It is the story of a Russian aristocrat who ends up on the run after the Bolshevik Revolution with his former house servant. It’s a great love story with gorgeous costumes, and great acting. It gives Douglas the chance to be both haughty (at the beginning of the movie) and finally humbled by love.
Parachute Jumper (1933)(Warner Bros.) costars a young Bette Davis. It’s a typical pre-Code Depression film with snappy dialogue, gangster violence and naughty sexy innuendo. In other words, the reason I love pre-Code movies so much! Douglas has some really good scenes in this movie and Bette makes a good costar.
The Narrow Corner (1933)(Warner Bros.) is based on an Somerset Maugham book. It’s a story of a young man, played by Doug, who is hiding from his past by hiding out in the Far East. Doug’s character is shy, dark, and mysterious – the kind of role he’s best in. His character learns to face his demons and understand the courage he has within himself. It’s an excellent character study and Doug looks gloriously handsome in it – he has a mustache (which is my favorite look of his) and clothes that show off his physique (and he gets to appear without any shirt at all for a large part of the movie!) A definite must-see for any fan. Pretty good special effects too for some of the storm on the sea sequences.
Captured (1933)(Warner Bros.) is one of Fairbanks’ finest films of the early 1930’s. The film costars the elegant Leslie Howard and takes place in a World War I prison camp. Howard has been captured and when Fairbanks arrives in the same prison camp these formerly good friends are at odd with one another. Fairbanks has had an affair with Howard’s wife while Howard was in prison camp. Fairbanks feels horrible for what he’s done and since he cannot stand having to face Howard every day he escapes, is captured, and when he is returned to the same camp, Howard falsely accuses him of a rape that occurred outside of the prison camp so that he will be executed. Eventually Howard plans a massive breakout of the camp and in the process allows himself to be killed leaving his widow for Fairbanks. Good atmosphere and outstanding performances by both actors.
The Life of Jimmy Dolan(1933)(Warner Bros.) is another typically 30’s film with Fairbanks starring as a boxer who accidentally kills someone in fight out of the ring. Fairbanks runs from the law and ends up out at a rural orphanage with Loretta Young. All turns out well in the end. This film was later remade by Warner Brothers as a star vehicle for an up and coming John Garfield in the late 1930’s.
Morning Glory (1933)(RKO) starring a young Katherine Hepburn, is primarily a showcase for Hepburn’s talents. But, Fairbanks still gives a memorable job of developing a rather small role as a cynical reporter whose outlook on life is transformed after he falls in love with Hepburn’s kooky actress. For the most part he gets to be humorous, flirtatious, handsome and dashing (all attributes which seem to come naturally to this charmer!).
Hollywood during the Depression mostly cranked out lighthearted musicals and comedies, cotton candy for the masses during hard times. One interesting exception is Success At Any Price(1934)(RKO), a film a decade ahead of its time in showing the personal corruption that comes from capitalist overdrive in the corporate world. This film is unceasingly depressing in its negative survey of human nature. Needless to say the dark screenplay brings out the best in Fairbanks Jr.’s acting talents and he makes the most of playing this wounded man who ends up with nothing but unhappiness. I’m sure that it was not a box office smash but it’s one of Douglas’ finest performances.
His finest screen achievement though, by far, is with the historical drama Catherine the Great (1934)(London Films/UA). He is absolutely riveting in this film. For me his performance is almost difficult to describe, it transcends a verbal description. Josef von Sternberg’s film, The Scarlet Empress about the same subject matter, which, incidentally, came out in the same year, portrays the character of Peter as a cliché – ugly, stupid, and crazy in the most primitive way. Douglas’ performance is absolutely the opposite. He is a beautiful fop, straight out of a Dostoyevsky novel, simultaneously cruel and kind, filled with self-loathing and vanity, mad in an operatic fashion, in a way that evokes sympathy, not derision. Thus, Catherine the Great becomes something of a tragic love story. It is one of those mysterious screen creations which even after dozens of viewings is still something of an enigma.
Mimi (1935)(B.I.P. British), based on the opera La Boheme, followed and having just recently seen it I have to say that it’s one of my favorites not only because of the flattering mid-19th century wardrobe on Doug but his performance carries over the energy and nuances that gave such life to his performance in Catherine. He can be charming and humorous but also brooding and sensitive at the same time. The story is interesting, the other actors are all quite excellent and the filmwork has the same hazy, glittering quality as other early 30’s period pieces. Plus Douglas looks absolutely fantastic!
Man of the Moment (British/Warner Bros.) is a British production from the mid-30’s and one of my favorite sparkling screwball comedies that Douglas made during this time. His co-star Laura la Plante is a great actress, and she brings somewhat androgynous vibe to her portrayal (especially in the scene where she’s dressed in drag).
Fairbanks made three Criterion Films in 1936 and 1937, The Amateur Gentlemen, Accused and When Thief Meets Thief. I have not yet seen any of them but I’ve finally acquired The Accused and hope to watch it very soon.
The character of Rupert in The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)(Selznick Intl/UA) is the only villain that I have ever seen Douglas portray and what a villain he is! He is a black clad, gorgeous, smiling, sexy villain in the best Hollywood tradition. What more need be said?
The late 1930’s and early 1940’s was the era when Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s screen persona reached its quintessence. He alternately played adventurers, primarily British imperialists in Anglophile productions (this was a result of the start of WWII and Doug’s support of the British cause against Germany) and dashing, tuxedo wearing, champagne swilling heartbreakers in effervescent romantic comedies.
He made four comedies in 1938, all of them charming. The Rage of Paris (1938)(Universal) costarring the charming Danielle Darrieux is the best although Joy of Living (1938)(RKO) with Irene Dunne is a close second. I also enjoy watching Having Wonderful Time (1938)(RKO) with Ginger Rogers although it is not the greatest screwball comedy, but Doug is so adorable, funny and handsome in it that the plot hardly matters. In yet another connection, John Garfield starred in the stage production and would probably have been better in the film (Fairbanks doesn’t exactly reek of working class!) but nonetheless it shows that Fairbanks really tried to branch out into different areas. The Young In Heart [DVD](1938)
was the fourth comedy that he did that year, a charming one with the adorable Janet Gaynor as his sister and Paulette Goddard as his love interest.
If 1938 was the year of the comedy for Fairbanks then 1939 and 1940 were the years of the British imperialist! Five of the six films he made those two years were tropical or seafaring adventure stories. The Sun Never Sets (1939)(Universal) is very humorous, in particular is the scene where Doug’s character is trying to avoid a pile of bureaucratic paperwork in his jungle office. Basil Rathbone costars with Fairbanks. Rulers of the Sea (1939)(Paramount) is a fairly basic adventure set on the high seas and costarring British sensation (she of the highwayman movies with James Mason) Margaret Lockwood. Alan Ladd has a small role as a sailor.
Gunga Din [DVD](1939) DVD is the most famous of these tropical adventure films Fairbanks did and is today his most popular and well remembered picture. The film is an adventure story set in India during the 1800’s. The film costars Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine and the hilarious Victor McLaglen. For those fans of the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom film, you’ll notice that the notorious Thuggee Cult is the focus of this film as well as that one.
Safari (1940)(Paramount) is one of Fairbanks films that I finally had the chance to enjoy watching in 2005 after many years of searching (eBay is a wonderful place!). It turned out to be worth the wait, it’s one of my favorite of Fairbanks’ “jungle” movies that he seemed to be in almost exclusively in the late 30’s and early 40’s. Madeleine Carroll is a great onscreen match for Douglas, their chemistry is wonderful. Madeleine plays a woman engaged to someone she isn’t really in love with but who happens to be rich, they go on a safari before they get married. Of course, their guide is the dashing Fairbanks, and Madeleine, to make her fiancee jealous, spends a night away from the camp with Doug unable to return because of the weather. Of course, she soon finds out that she’s in love with him and in the end she gives up her rich fiancee for the adventurous, handsome, charming and brave Mr. Fairbanks.
Green Hell (1940)(Universal) is probably my favorite of his tropical films. Directed by James Whale it’s not that it is a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just a perfect Sunday afternoon flick like White Cargo.
Fairbanks made two more pictures before WWII began. Angels Over Broadway (1940)(Columbia) (see my gallery!) is the type of film I would have enjoyed seeing him do more of after the war. It is an over social commentary about life in New York City in modern America during one long night. A radiant Rita Hayworth costars with Fairbanks in this movie that almost has a film noir sensibility. I would have liked to have seen Fairbanks career go in this direction after WWII as I think it is the type of story and acting that is best suited to his talents. I would have been really interested to see Fairbanks make films along the lines of John Garfield. If he had made a permanent move into a genre that was entirely different from what his father was famous for I think it would have meant a longer career in film for Fairbanks, and he would have been hailed as one of his generation’s finest actors (which of course I think he is!).
But, his father’s shadow was hard to come out from under and the only movie he made in 1941, The Corsican Brothers (Edward Small Productions) was a swashbuckler that harked back to his father’s career. And after WWII Douglas Fairbanks Jr. returned to the silver screen in roles that were entirely reminiscent of his father’s screen specialties.
Of these films I have not seen the swashbuckler he did with Maria Montez, The Exile (1947) but I am sure they made a beautiful onscreen couple. I recently found this on ioffer.com and hope to watch it soon. Montez was of course famous for the “sand and sandal” movies costarring Sabu that were the Technicolor escapism during the War.
Sinbad the Sailor (1947) with Maureen O’Hara is probably the best of Fairbanks Jr.’s postwar films because it has that ideal combination of adventure, romance, beautiful costumes, great performances, humor — all that great stuff that we love about the classic days of Hollywood!!! The Fighting O’Flynn(1948) is a delightful, high spirited romp with Fairbanks looking more handsome than ever and letting his sense of humor really shine through. That Lady in Ermine(1948) costarring Betty Grable is rather tacky (or should I say Technicolor) but Douglas is typically debonair, witty and handsome.
Fairbanks stopped making movies after he did the film Mr. Drake’s Duck in the early 1950’s (now a highly popular cult film). I recently acquired it as part of my film collection and it really is a delight. I can see why it’s a cult film, it’s just delightfully odd! Once again Douglas shows his flair for comedy. Fairbanks hosted his own television show in the early 1950’s and I think again in the 1960’s. I’ve seen a short television film he did from the 1950’s called The Thoroughbred just recently and it’s a very good drama, requiring an Irish accent from our Douglas which he pulls off as well as the dramatic acting required for the part. His last feature film was the old-fashioned horror movie Ghost Story (1981) also starring Fred Astaire.
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. never reached superstar status in films, some critics have said that it’s because he wasn’t quite American (like Gary Cooper) and he wasn’t quite British (like Cary Grant) and audiences couldn’t quite place him in one particular category. However, I think that Douglas Fairbanks Jr. had a very diverse and interesting film career, I find his performances to be completely contemporary and I find each film of his a true treasure.