Vintage Hunk: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

By: Mike McCrann

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. never became a huge movie star. For many movie fans, he was either the son of silent screen legend Douglas Fairbanks, or Joan Crawford's first husband. But he made a lot of films and some of them are true classics, including The Prisoner of Zenda, Gunga Din and Sinbad the Sailer. Young Doug, as he was labeled for most of his early life, was a totally sexy leading man who resembled Errol Flynn and Laurence Olivier; in fact, he could have been their love child had gay marriage and science evolved that much back in the golden days of Hollywood.

Born in New York City in 1909, Young Doug was the only child of silent swashbuckling star Douglas Fairbanks and his first wife, Anna Beth Sully. His parents divorced when he was 9 and "Elder" Doug married silent screen legend Mary Pickford, while Young Doug lived with his mother and had a cosmopolitan upbringing in Paris and London. Nepotism ruled Hollywood even in the silent era, so Young Doug was given a contract at age 14. By the end of the silent era, he was co-starring with such names as Loretta Young, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford.

Fairbanks Jr. and Crawford fell in love during the making of Our Modern Maidens. They were married in June 1929—he was 19 and she was 23. Many cynics thought that Crawford, who had a poverty-stricken childhood, married Young Doug to further her social ambitions, but according to their auto biographies both stars were genuinely in love with each other during the early part of their 5-year marriage; indeed, years later when the scandalous Mommie Dearest was published and Crawford was no longer alive to defend herself, Young Doug stated, "The Joan Crawford that I've heard about in Mommie Dearest is not the Joan Crawford I knew back then."

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr made his best films during the 1930s. He was sexy and athletic and grew a mustache that further enhanced his charm. He was at his best in costume pictures like the great Prisoner of Zenda starring Ronald Colman. Playing the dashing Rupert of Hentzau, Doug easily followed in his father swashbuckling footsteps. But in Zenda he was playing one of the bad guys, an immoral rogue who was sexier than the film's star. This was followed by the great movie year of 1939, which gave us Gunga Din, the wonderful Kipling tale with Cary Grant and probably the zenith of Young Doug's film career.

World War II would bring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. his most fame, as he would later be called the "Father of the U.S. Navy Beach Jumpers." The mission of this task force was to simulate amphibious landings, luring the enemy into believing that this was the principal landing. For his great service to both the United States and Great Britain, Doug was made an Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. He was also awarded a long list of medals, including the Silver Star and the French Croix de Guerre.

When Young Doug returned to Hollywood after the war he was a confirmed Anglophile—that is, a lover of all things British— and spent most of his time traveling in the highest social circles. (I imagine that chumming with the Oliviers, Noel Coward and John Gielgud beat hanging out with Danny Kaye at Nibblers!) There were not many movies left in Young Doug's career but one of them was the best: Sinbad the Sailor was a gorgeous technicolor triumph co-starring the beautiful Maureen O'Hara. Doug and Maureen are delicious together in this delightful tongue-and-cheek pirate romp. After this film, Doug made one last good move, the British cold-war thriller State Secret in 1950.

Young Doug lived the rest of his life to the fullest, and on both sides of the Atlantic. His second marriage in 1939 to Mary Lee Eppling was a smashing success, lasting until her death in 1988. They had three daughters, and according to his wonderful autobiography Salad Days, these were literally the best years of his life.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. died in 2000 at age 90. Had he really wanted to pursue a film career, he could have become one of the really great romantic leading men. But Young Doug always had more military and social interests that precluded him from devoting himself to movies. Undoubtedly wonderful for him, but movie fans were denied a longer, richer career. What we do have is a few great movies with an impossibly sexy star whose beauty and charm far outlive his Hollywood connections to a famous father and a famous ex-wife.

In the end, Young Doug's Hollywood connection won out as he is buried with his famous father in an elaborate crypt in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.