Doug Jr. As I Know Him (1934)

Doug Jr. As I Know Him

by Leslie Howard

One actor-author writes about another–intimately and honestly

Many years ago Sir James Barrie crystallized the average Englishman’s adoration for the thoughts, the playthings and the pastimes of his childhood in a character, which has since become one of the most celebrated concepts in international literature—-“Peter Pan—-or the Boy Who Wouldn’t grow Up.” This perennial youth of the British seems to be reversed by the average American who, at an early age, displays comparatively, a grown-up, a highly capable, and a serious-minded attitude towards life in general; though in fairness one must remember that there are those who insist that the most adult American is, in certain ways, an adolescent, compared with the most child¬like, cricket playing Englishman. They said this, in effect, of President Wilson in Paris in 1919, while on the radio the other night Alexander Woollcott described the late Theodore Roosevelt as “A Harvard Sophomore to the end.”

Be this paradox as it may, it was my privilege during the summer of 1921 to meet a young man of some 13 or 14 years of age, who was suffering, among other disadvantages, from the unavoidable drawback of being the son of the renowned Douglas Fairbanks. This encounter took place on the good ship Majestic, on which the boy, in the course of an alarmingly erratic and nomadic home life, was being taken to Paris by his divorced mother. He was an attractive lad with incipient signs of his father’s dash and manner, but he was already very grown up and exhibiting all the signs of a pathetically curtailed childhood. He had a native intelligence, but his education had been of a haphazard stop-and-start variety, never sufficiently sustained to give him much real help. There hovered over him at all times the overpowering consciousness of his father as a sort of god that the entire civilized world alternately laughed at and revered, and yet he had no father as other boys had, so far was he removed from his association and guidance. And the idiotic people on the ship, like the idiotic people elsewhere only aggravated this condition by their constant inanities concerning the elder Fairbanks, their reiterated astonishment at the boy’s likeness to him, and their encouragement to emulate him further. So that the conviction, I’m sure, grew within him that the more he simulated the resemblance to that celebrated figure, the better time he would have. A misconception that took the younger Fairbanks many years to eradicate.
I was at that time in the early stages of a precarious career in the theatre and in astonishingly short order I flitted through a series of preliminary failures before hitting any stride, which at this time was a sort of hop, skip and jump. During this interim I learned that the Fairbanks boy had gone into the movies. It seemed cruel, I thought, to be exploiting the famous name at the expense of the child’s future chances. If there were any latent talent, surely this was a certain way of destroying it.

And then a few more years passed, and one day the talkies arrived, and those of us who could act a little and combine it with the miracle of speech were sought. I found myself in Hollywood to participate in the picture “Outward Bound.” And in the company was my young acquaintance of the Majestic. Though still of comparatively tender years he was a man, a distinguished looking attractive male. He was tall, well built, with a genial manner and a disarming worldly-wise smile. He was intelligent and critical far beyond his years. I felt then, as I have ever felt since that for all my enormous seniority, I was in many ways his junior. Already a good actor he had further acquired a definite talent for literature and art. I was amazed that out of such a hodge-podge of early training so excellent a result had been achieved.
Soon, however, his latent immaturity began to manifest itself. I could see that he was sometimes uncertain of himself, uncertain of what he was, afraid to trust himself to his own essential characteristics. Therefore, in order to show a bold front to the world professionally and privately, in order to be thoroughly adult and strongly marked, he modelled himself on others whom he admired or was interested in. He was a composite portrait of Fairbanks, Senior, John Barrymore, and others at whose identity one might easily guess. Even my humble self received, I think, a small share of his emulation—-though I may be flattering myself in this respect.
In no way did this youthfulness manifest itself more than in his marital relationships. His marriage with the celebrated Joan Crawford was then in the first bloom of its idealism. My wife and I visited them often. They were our first friends in Hollywood and we quickly achieved a sincere affection for both. As scarred veterans of fifteen married years we were dumb¬founded in the presence of that idealized romance. But we felt no stability in it. Those pure, melting glances across the dining room table had in them the seeds of disaster. I have always felt that romance alone is the worst possible basis for married life. If it is not quickly replaced by more enduring qualities both it and the union are doomed to perish. Children, a deep affection, a mutual suffering and understanding, a great deal of humor–some or all of these are necessary. I doubt if they could exist in that orchidaceous atmosphere. With all his wit and intelligence young Doug was intimidated by the formidable and determined romanticism of his wife. Through that barrier neither could really see the other. It was both their faults, I’ve no doubt.

I did not see my young friend for some time after this period. I was many months in New York, many more months in London, and when I finally gravitated back to California, I saw that his romantic marriage was on its last legs. It needed but one shove to knock it over. Because it was Hollywood and these names were famous that coup de grace was not long in showing its ugly head. It was a particularly ugly charge and it required a stronger union than this to withstand the shock. The young wife tried to do the right thing by announcing a belief in her husband and a determination to cleave to him. But this position was quickly reversed. I understand the press had been promised a separation and were indignant at the danger of not getting it. You cannot let the press down in this way, so a separation it was. And quick divorce. Disillusioned, worried by publicity, obsessed by the fear that he was surrounded by enemies who wanted to drag him down, young Doug departed for England. And there he is, with a fixed determination to remain. He has been criticised for this action too, accused of “going English,” resented for “turning his back on Hollywood.” But it was the wisest move he could have made in those circumstances.
In the important matters of life the forces of destruction in this motion piction capital far outweigh those of creation. You cannot solace your soul here. And he knew it.
London is so big, so unconcerned. Unshaken by centuries of world calamities, it is little wonder that the individual troubles of men are swallowed up in that vast serenity. The fountain head of a stream that flows to the ends of the earth, still its insulation remains complete and un-impaired. London, which has smiled in amused toleration at the nuisance wrought by men from Philip of Spain down through Napoleon to Hitler, can still easily absorb the troubles of Kings and Movie Stars.
My young friend is in love again I hear. I hope this is IT. I think his boyhood is finally over, he has tried so long to be grown-up, and something tells me he has succeeded at last. If so, he will have searched within himself for those abiding needs which lie deep in men’s hearts and which only become discernible with the years, and he may have found the ability to recognize them when he sees them. I hope so. I believe so.
This complete man has gone a long way from the boy I met not so far back. He must be gratified to reflect that along every inch of that road he has paid his own fare.

Leslie Howard Douglas Fairbanks jr.

(Movie Mirror, April 1934)