December 9th marked what would have been the 100th birthday of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who died at age 90 in 2000. As the son of the great swashbuckling star of the silent era, Douglas Jr. was truly Hollywood royalty and one of the first major second-generation movie stars. He may not be the icon that his father will always be, but he was certainly a more accomplished actor than his daddy ever was. My hands-down favorite of all his performances is his dashing and devious Rupert of Hentzau in The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), a scene-stealing villain of enormous wit and charm.
In 1933, already divorced from Joan Crawford, Fairbanks appeared opposite Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory and Bette Davis in Parachute Jumper. Not bad, eh? In Morning Glory, Fairbanks has a thankless role as a playwright in what is clearly a vehicle for Hepburn, one that would win her the first of her four Oscars. It’s a wildly uneven movie, but Hepburn is often extraordinary, notably in the opening casting-office scene in which she manages to be quite funny, heartbreaking, deliciously affected, and all-around radiant. She speaks impossibly fast and has an eccentric comic sparkle. But it is all downhill from there, becoming soapy cliches about the “thea-tuh.” As handsome Fairbanks pines for her, she foolishly prefers producer Adolphe Menjou!
Parachute Jumper placed Fairbanks in the main role, with a blond Bette Davis in the thankless position as a Southern gal named Alabama. The film is fast-paced Depression-era nonsense, a melodrama with flying action, sex, drugs, and guns, in which Fairbanks is a marine, a chauffeur, a bodyguard, a smuggler, and, of course, the title role. His actorly assurance carries the movie, and Bette’s spirited brightness helps, but it’s a negligible movie.
Two early Fairbanks movies to watch out for on TCM are Scarlet Dawn (1932) and The Life of Jimmy Dolan (1933). The former is a surprisingly lavish Russian Revolution melodrama with an intriguing plot: Fairbanks is a an aristocrat who escapes with his servant (Nancy Carroll). Flavorful and romantic, and with genuine suspense and adventure, Scarlet Dawn, at a mere 58 minutes, simply goes by too quickly. Fairbanks is at his most charismatic, and the underrated Ms. Carroll is lovely and delicate. In this sexy pre-Coder, Fairbanks says, “Morals never bothered me so much, but taste is so important.”
The Life of Jimmy Dolan is a real movie-movie, a satisfying and enjoyable drama in which Fairbanks stars as a cynical boxing champ who redeems himself with a new identity (once he’s on the run from a possible murder rap). He stumbles upon Loretta Young’s farm and eventually risks his new safety, boxing again to earn money for Loretta, her aunt, four orphans, and the farm. Though his role feels more suited to Cagney, Fairbanks is certainly superior to Cagney in the romance department. He and Loretta Young make an astoundingly beautiful couple. This film, which features Mickey Rooney and John Wayne in small roles, was remade as They Made Me a Criminal (1939) and starred John Garfield.
Any time you see Fairbanks’ name in a cast list, I recommend checking out the movie, especially his early 30s quickies in which he is at the peak of his beauty and leading-man stature. Or just keep watching The Prisoner of Zenda over and over and watch him walk away with a Ronald Colman vehicle. Even though Colman has a dual role, he’s no match for one Doug, Jr.