Swashbuckling Facts About Douglas Fairbanks Jr., The Prince Of Hollywood

September 18, 2023 | Mehroo S.

Swashbuckling Facts About Douglas Fairbanks Jr., The Prince Of Hollywood

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. always knew he had big shoes to fill: His father was Hollywood royalty; practically the first king of Hollywood. And being his namesake only doubled the pressure. But did he even want to follow dad’s footsteps? Would he live up to his legacy and earn his crown, or would he tarnish his name and watch his empire crash and burn? Let’s dive into the past and find out for ourselves.

1. He Was Born Rich

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was born in 1909, in New York City. He came from wealth, as his mother Mary Pickford’s family was rich with a capital R. His dad, Douglas Fairbanks, was still new in the acting world and was taking a break from it to try his hand at the business when Fairbanks Jr. was born. He gave up on this plan pretty quickly—which meant a huge change in his son’s life, too.

Douglas Fairbanks facts

2. He Made A Move

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was still little when his dad went back to Broadway. He was still too young to really know what was happening—it was only when Daddy Fairbanks accepted a movie offer in California that he realized change was afoot. It didn’t upset him to leave New York though, because he couldn’t wait to see “real cowboys” and “real Indians".

However, there was another, rather heartbreaking, reason he was so happy to follow dad to a new place.

Douglas Fairbanks factsPicryl

3. He Had An Odd Nickname

Naturally, one would assume everyone would call him Junior, but instead, everyone knew Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as “Bye”—and there was a tragic meaning behind this nickname. This was because his dad—who admitted that he had “no more paternal feelings than a tiger in the jungle with his cub”—addressed him as “Boy” all the time, instead of his real name. Over time, this morphed into “Bye".

Fairbanks secretly loved having his dad around, which is why he was happy to move to L.A. Later, he discovered there may have been a simple reason why his dad wasn’t too keen on spending a lot of time with him.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsGetty Images

4. He Got Overlooked

In his autobiography, Fairbanks is very matter-of-fact about the fact that his “chubbiness” may have contributed to driving his dad away from him. In another example of being Father of the Year, his dad took away the same pony he’d given to Fairbanks as a gift and presented it to Prince Hirohito of Japan. Perhaps all this indifference encouraged Fairbanks to adopt a similar attitude when his parents made yet another decision to turn his world upside down.

Douglas Fairbanks factsGetty Images

5. His Life Changed

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was only nine when his entire life was ripped out from under him. After years of tension and strife, his parents decided to call it quits on their marriage. He moved back to New York with his mom, who eventually remarried some years later. He started going to a private school and was soon doing well in both academics and sports.

But still, the memories of seeing his parents on Hollywood sets haunted him.

Douglas Fairbanks factsFlickr, kate gabrielle

6. He Was Talented

Not only was Fairbanks doing a great job at school, but he also discovered a passion for the arts. He put his paintings and sculptures on exhibition when he was only 13 years old. But there was another, a much bigger milestone he hit at the same age too. Not sure about you, but I’m certain I was pretty much just getting through the day at 13.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsGetty Images

7. He Got An Opportunity

By the time he was 13, Fairbanks Jr. was well aware his last name was like royalty in Hollywood. His dad was the reigning king of silent films at the time, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when Paramount Pictures reached out to the young boy, offering him the titular role in Stephen Steps Out. He accepted—but there was something he didn’t know. 

There was a long-standing feud between his dad and Paramount. This, naturally, led to some not-so-desirable consequences.

Jerry Seinfeld FactsFlickr

8. It Didn’t Work Out As He’d Thought

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. soon discovered his dad was furious he’d accepted the film. They had a huge fight about it, but Jr. didn’t back down. He later admitted he’d done it for the money as the divorce had been anything but amicable and, as he said, “Mother and I needed to eat". If nothing else, he did get some breathing space from the money the studio gave him.

At this point, he realized he needed some more time and a better plan before jumped into the industry.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsGetty Images

9. He Postponed His Plans

Remember how Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s dad hadn’t been on his board with his decision to join Hollywood? Well, he wasn’t kidding—and he gave Fairbanks Jr. a chilling ultimatum. He told his son he’d cut him from his will if he didn’t change his mind. Well, the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree, and Fairbanks Jr. was just as stubborn as his dad.

He took a step back and joined his mother in Paris to continue his studies for a bit. However, he’d be back in L.A. in a couple of years, determined to make it without his father’s help.

Douglas Fairbanks FactsGetty Images

10. He Came To Hollywood

Well, Fairbanks Jr. wasn’t going to get a small thing like parental disapproval stand in the way of his dreams. returned to Hollywood two years later, planning to put in the hours to succeed. He put his plan in action by starting off as a camera assistant. He also grabbed any opportunity to play any small roles he could get. Eventually, his hard work paid off and he got a bigger part, as a juvenile lead in Stella Dallas.

The film did well and it looked like Fairbanks was already on the right path at only 16—but there was still some struggle ahead, as we’ll see.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsStella Dallas (1925), United Artists

11. His Luck Changed

Of course, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. had a point to prove. He wanted to show his dad that he could make it big without his help. So he turned to another medium, hoping his success there would translate into better luck with films. Fortunately, he was right. His play, Young Woodley, did really well, and it changed his life in more ways than one.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsGetty Images

12. Cupid Struck Him

There may have been more than one lady in the audience whom Fairbanks impressed with his good looks and talent, but there was only one who actually did something about it. Joan Crawford was an up-and-coming star herself, who never missed an opportunity for self-promotion. She went to the play hoping to meet Hollywood royalty Fairbanks Sr., but ended up losing her heart to the son.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Joan Crawford factsWikimedia Commons

13. He Found Love

Could any 18-year-old boy resist the charms of a young, beautiful girl? Crawford was four years older than Fairbanks, but neither of them considered the age difference a problem. They began talking to each other and promptly fell head over heels in love. They made no secret of their relationship either—but not everyone shared their joy when they found out about it.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsGetty Images

14. He Faced Disapproval

A young and good-looking couple, so obviously in love, is bound to win people’s hearts. But Fairbanks Jr. was in for a brutal disappointment. His famous parents did not share his feelings for Joan. His father called her a “cradle-snatcher” and “opportunist". He was certain her feelings for his son were a ploy to help her make a strong entry in Hollywood.

Sadly for Fairbanks Jr., even his doting mother disapproved of his lady love, and referred to her as her son’s “current chorus-girl fling". Ouch. Not everyone was so harsh though, and their relationship soon led them towards a great professional opportunity.

Power Couples factsFlickr, kate gabrielle

15. He Worked With Her

Of course, Hollywood was eager to cash in on the Fairbanks-Crawford relationship. They were soon cast in Our Modern Maidens (1929) opposite each other. This was Crawford’s first lead role, so I’m thinking Daddy Fairbanks might have had a point? Fairbanks Jr. said in retrospect it felt like an “exploitation stunt,” though he did enjoy working with his lady love.

Luckily for them both, the film was a huge hit. For a while, it seemed like they’d have a happy ending in real life too.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsOur Modern Maidens (1929), MGM

16. He Vowed To Stay

Soon after their successful first film together, the happy couple tied the knot. Fairbanks was just 19 at the time. They were so obviously in love that they even got in trouble with Daddy Fairbanks when he invited him to his house and caught them “canoodling” in a dark corner. For the next couple of years, it seemed like things were working out just fine for the young Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and his beautiful wife.

But how long would the honeymoon last?

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsGetty Images

17. His Star Was Rising

Hollywood was finally taking Fairbanks Jr. seriously. He appeared in several films during the late 20s and early 30s. These included silent films with him as the lead, such as Modern Mothers, Dead Man’s Curve, and Power of the Press. But the high point was that he got cast opposite Greta Garbo in his first “talkie,” A Woman of Affairs, and got billing over Loretta Young in Fast Life. And he didn’t stop there…

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsGetty Images

18. He Was Almost Ignored

Little Caeser was one of Fairbanks Jr.’s great successes of 1930, but he almost didn’t get that role initially. He ended up playing the second lead in the film but was almost passed over because at first, the producers considered Clark Gable for the part. They chose to go with Fairbanks for a very unusual reason. They felt Gable’s ears were too big.

This wouldn’t be the last time Gable and Fairbanks would cross paths though.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsWikimedia Commons

19. He Went Through Some Rocky Times

Not too long after they made it official, Fairbanks & Crawford’s honeymoon period came to a crashing stop. Crawford became super busy with her work; she spent long hours on set and wasn’t as keen to whisper sweet nothings to her husband as she’d been before. The reason, as Fairbanks would discover much later on, was Clark Gable.

However, Crawford put up a loving-but-busy front initially, and even agreed to go on a belated honeymoon once her filming ended.

Clark Gable FactsGetty Images

20. He Was Fascinated By Europe

Two years after their wedding, Crawford agreed to go on a European honeymoon. Fairbanks was over the moon. The MGM studios funded their trip, for publicity purposes and also in the hope that the couple would work past their differences so the Gable-Crawford saga didn’t become public knowledge. While our boy Doug loved his time on the ship, his wife did not share his sentiments.

She put up an act that she enjoyed herself, but couldn’t wait to go back to California and to her own comfort zone. But did that comfort zone still include her husband?

Douglas Fairbanks factsFlickr, BJ Alias

21. He Discovered Some Unpleasant Truths

Fairbanks returned home with his wife to discover that she’d decided they would live separately under the same roof—but that’s not the worst part. She accused him of having affairs behind her back but claimed she wanted them to work on their relationship. It was a huge shock for him when his agent arrived one afternoon to ask him to move out.

It was only after he moved out that Fairbanks discovered the truth about his wife’s affair.

Joan Crawford factsGetty Images

22. He Moved On

While Fairbanks was unhappy with the way things turned out with Crawford, he seemed to bounce back pretty quick. He reconnected with his father, who seemed to rely on him more and more. They went to England together, where he also reconnected with an old crush, Gertrude Lawrence, who seemed to enjoy his attentions and flirtation.

And to top it all off, he got a big part in The Rise of Catherine the Great, which went on to do well at the box office. Perhaps that was one reason he decided to stay back in England for a while…but there was one other major reason too.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsGetty Images

23. Hollywood Was Unhappy With Him

While Fairbanks Jr. was a big fan of Europe, there was another reason why he was so delighted to make a trip there with his dad. Warner had fired him, and he didn’t have a current contract in Hollywood. This happened after he refused to take a 50% pay cut because of the Great Depression. The company got upset with his stance and asked him to leave.

It was a dire time—and disaster was on the horizon.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsGetty Images

24. He Fell Ill

Before Fairbanks went back to England to start filming for Catherine, he fell seriously ill. He caught the flu and the 104-degree fever knocked him out and lasted quite a few days—and the consequences were devastating. Paramount replaced him in Design for Living, which he’d been very excited to shoot before work seriously began on Catherine.

In fact, he was so sick that the doctor suggested giving up on Catherine too. But Fairbanks somehow willed himself to get well enough to get back to England…and back to his old flame, Gertrude Lawrence.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsGetty Images

25. He Kept Distinguished Company

In his time in England, Fairbanks Jr. made many friends and hung out with many distinguished people. Apart from theater and film royalty, he also got to know some true royals. He met Prince George for the first time when he traveled to England for his disastrous honeymoon and they would often run into each other afterward as the young royal got around quite a bit.

However, he soon discovered that knowing the Prince didn’t mean he was above the law.

Douglas Fairbanks facts

26. He Didn’t Get Away With Much

Young Doug was driving Prince George somewhere once, and stepping on the gas pretty heavily, thinking he could get away with it because of his royal passenger, but boy was he wrong. A cop soon stopped their speeding car, and the prince sunk low in his seat, so the officer didn’t even notice him. With a new ticket to his name, our boy Doug drove much more carefully to drop his royal passenger at his destination.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsGetty Images

27. He Set Up His Company

Still involved with Lawrence, and living well beyond his means, Fairbanks Jr. nevertheless scraped enough money together to start his own production company in England. Named Criterion Films, the company produced three ventures. The first, The Amateur Gentleman, was a hit. Even his father came to watch him shoot for it on set with Lord and Lady Mountbatten.

The huge set suitably impressed him—but soon enough, reality cut Fairbanks Jr. down. Criterion’s next two productions flopped, so Fairbanks decided to cut his losses and quit after the third film. All too well, as something exciting came up soon after.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsGetty Images

28. He Got An Offer

Fairbanks Jr. had generally steered clear of films that reminded him of his father’s on-screen work. He felt there was no way he could do adventure better than his dad, so he never tried. However, when an offer to play villain Rupert of Hentzau in Prisoner of Zenda came his way, he didn’t decline immediately. And he may have had a push in the right direction from important quarters.

Gloria Grahame FactsFlickr, Marco Verch

29. He Took The Leap

Estranged since Fairbanks Sr.’s third marriage, young Doug nevertheless went to him for advice. His dad convinced him that missing out on the main role and getting the villain’s role was a blessing in disguise as “Rupert of Hentzau is probably one of the best villains ever written". This convinced young Fairbanks. He was finally ready to go back to Hollywood.

And things were looking up on the personal front too.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsThe Prisoner of Zenda (1937), Selznick International Pictures

30. His Love Life Evolved

After his divorce from Crawford, Fairbanks had been seriously involved with a few other women, most notably Gertrude Lawrence and Marlene Dietrich. The latter affair he tried to keep under wraps—sometimes with a daring feat or two. To keep it secret, Fairbanks Jr. would occasionally have to sneak out of her hotel room via the fire escape.

He admitted that commitment scared him as he’d never been faithful to anyone—but that was before he met the love of his life.

Douglas Fairbanks facts

31. He Had A Happily-Ever-After

Fairbanks met Mary Lee at a house party and was instantly captivated by her “large, shining dark eyes” and “full, beautifully-carved red mouth". Her bubbly and chatty demeanor only heightened his feelings for her. However, he was cautious in courting her because even though she was separated, her husband had been an ex-schoolmate.

Luckily for Doug, the husband himself pressed for a divorce and so he could marry his lady-love without feeling guilty about it. There were some other details to iron out before the wedding though.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsGetty Images

32. His Marriage Was Unconventional

Initially, both Mary Lee and Doug avoided talking about marriage because she was still going through her divorce. Eventually, when they settled on a date there were some tiny hiccups. For starters, the groom-to-be did not want anyone to think he was a fortune hunter, so he strictly forbade his bride-to-be to spend her money on anything except herself and their children, if they had any.

Their married life started happily enough, though there would soon be other challenges.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsGetty Images

33. His Status Changed

When Mary Lee got pregnant, Fairbanks Jr. was over the moon to become a father. He shared the news slightly hesitantly with his dad, unsure whether he’d appreciate becoming a grandfather. Happily, he found him to be just as delighted. He was very attentive towards his daughter-in-law. Eventually, Fairbanks Jr. became a father—and that wasn’t the only change in his life.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsGetty Images

34. He Changed Paths

From making a conscious effort to not make films like his father, young Doug made an about-turn and started making more and more action and adventure films. Films like Gungadin (1939) and The Corsican Brothers (1941) were hugely successful. The latter was a tribute to his dad and the first film in which he deliberately tried to emulate his swashbuckler style.

Though he didn’t have any faith in it during its filming, it surprised him by doing so well at the box office. This was good news, considering the devastating event that took place not long before its release.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsGetty Images

35. He Faced Loss

The Fairbanks men may not have enjoyed a close relationship during young Doug’s formative years, but that changed as he grew older. It wasn’t a conventional relationship, more like one between siblings, and towards the end, the roles reversed with Fairbanks Jr. feeling more like a father figure towards his dad. He was present at his father’s side after Fairbanks Sr. suffered a heart attack at age 56, and passed on the same night.

In spite of their sometimes-cold relationship, it felt like a monumental loss because “I had lost the one I had always most wished to please".

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsGetty Images

36. He Stood Firmly For His Beliefs

The younger Fairbanks had a very strong anti-isolationist stand during WWII. He made impassioned speeches about the role he felt America should play and gained quite a few haters because of this. He was very close to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who saw his potential—and sent him on an important mission for the country.

The Great Depression factsWikipedia

37. He Was A Born Diplomat

Perceiving his people skills, President Roosevelt sent Fairbanks Jr. as a special envoy to South America. While outwardly they advertised his trip as a goodwill excursion, to find out the Latin American public’s opinion about American films, Fairbanks Jr. was actually hiding an incredible secret. His real objective was to identify influential groups who might be turning towards the German ideology.

Fairbanks himself admitted later that if he hadn’t followed his father’s footsteps by default, thus ending up in Hollywood, he would have liked to be a diplomat.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsGetty Images

38. He Was Active In Service

Eager to play his part in the War, Fairbanks Jr. enlisted himself in the Navy. He was part of Lord Mountbatten’s commando staff, and his biggest achievement was creating the US Navy Beach Jumpers—now known as Navy SEALs—to “simulate amphibious landings with very limited force". His exploits won him many awards and recognition in the Navy.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsWikimedia Commons

39. He Was Recognized

Fairbanks Jr. may not have won awards in Hollywood, but his bravery and clever strategizing won him many medals and awards during the war. He won the US Navy’s Legion of Merit, the British Distinguished Service Cross, as well as the Italian War Cross for Military Valor among others.  So while being on active duty probably wasn’t the most pleasant experience of his life, Fairbanks certainly put his heart and soul into the service of his country.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsGetty Images

40. He Came Back To Hollywood

After he came back, Fairbanks needed a vehicle to announce him back to the public too—but he was in for a brutal blow. He chose Sinbad the Sailor, which came out in 1947, to a lukewarm response. He tried a few more swashbucklers such as The Exile and The Fighting O’Flynn. Unfortunately, none of them did too well at the box office.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsFlickr, Kristine

41. He Made  A Move

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. had always loved Europe. From the time he spent in Paris as a young child, to when he went on his disastrous honeymoon, to later on as well. One of the medals he received was from King George in 1949. He made our boy Doug an Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Oof, what mouthful!

Doug’s happiness knew no bounds. A confirmed Anglophile, he moved to England in the early 1950s and ended up staying there for over 20 years. He would eventually move to Florida in 1973.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsGetty Images

42. He Favored A New Medium

While young Doug had worked mostly in films so far, he found that changing after WWII. He performed much more regularly on stage, and on television. He created a series titled Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Presents. Every episode lasted about half an hour, and Fairbanks would appear in most of them himself. The series starred many other famous actors, including Buster Keaton.

But then, people began to talk about him for other reasons…some not so savory.

Buster Keaton factsGetty Images

43. He Was Part Of A Scandal

In 1963, Fairbanks Jr. found himself at the center of a shocking scandal. This time, it was because of the Duke of Argyll, who wanted to divorce his wife on grounds of infidelity. He had some incriminating pictures, with a headless man who he claimed was Fairbanks Jr. The latter denied this unequivocally and nothing was ever proven—but it still raised quite a few eyebrows.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsGetty Images

44. He Was Also A Businessman

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. inherited his business acumen from his dad, Fairbanks Sr. He started many ventures alongside his acting career. These included a wide range of projects, from land development to ballpoint pen manufacturing. As if that wasn’t enough, Fairbanks Jr. was also a writer. He penned two autobiographies—giving away a fair handful of scandalous secrets from his time as a movie star.

Mary PickfordWikipedia

45. He Was A Devoted Husband

Fairbanks Jr. remained true to his wife, Mary Lee, for the fifty years of their marriage. He was devoted to her and their three daughters—until a devastating turn of events. Mary Lee passed in 1988, leaving Doug, who was almost 80 himself by now, alone to mourn her loss. However, he wasn’t alone for too long.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsGetty Images

46. He Remarried

Three years after he laid his wife of 50 years to rest, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. married a third time. His wife was Vera Shelton, and he remained with her until he passed, almost nine years later. His new wife had worked as a QVC merchandiser before she married him.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsGetty Images

47. His Legacy Survives

Like his father, Fairbanks Jr. was devoted to the media industry. He earned three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for films, television, and radio. He may not have been actively working in showbiz towards the latter part of his life, but there is no mistaking his sincerity towards his craft and career when he did. And though he may never have been as popular or beloved as his dad, his filmography and achievements are testaments to the fact that he did not tarnish his name or legacy either.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsShutterstock

48. He Had A Peaceful End

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. died in 2000, at the ripe old age of 90. He had a heart attack and passed quickly and quietly. His interment took place at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in California, in the same tomb as his father’s. He left behind his wife of nine years, three daughters, and eight grandkids.

Douglas Fairbanks factsWikipedia

49. He Was No Saint Himself

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. certainly found Crawford’s sudden decision to file for a divorce shocking, but he hadn’t been a paragon of virtue himself either. In fact, he’d been hiding a dark secret. He admitted that he’d thought it was okay to have affairs as long as he was discrete, and didn’t embarrass his wife. And he wasn’t exactly languishing after Crawford left him either.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. FactsGetty Images

Sources:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29

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