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Modern Matinees: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

November 01, 2018 – December 28, 2018

The Museum of Modern Art

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (1909–2000), scion of swashbuckling silent-era megastar Douglas Fairbanks, was destined to become a movie star, but he had to get there on his own terms. Fairbanks, Jr. was born in New York City and made his first credited film appearance in 1923 in Joseph Henaberry’s Stephen Steps Out, now considered a lost film. An attempt to exploit his famous last name and connect the unsophisticated teenager with his father’s valiant screen image, it wasn’t a success. His early projects at Paramount were underwhelming as well, and the studio soon dropped him. Realizing he needed to forge his own path in Hollywood, Fairbanks got to work and accepted whatever roles came his way.

His dedication, not to mention elegant good looks and aristocratic comportment, Fairbanks eventually opened doors at at First National and Warner Bros., in films such as The Dawn Patrol (1930) and Little Caesar (1931). As the Great Depression caught hold in the United States, even the film studios were inclined to institute austerity policies; in 1934 Warner Bros. asked their stars to take a 50% pay cut. Fairbanks refused and, a lifelong Anglophile, decamped to Great Britain, where he found work. Returning to Hollywood in 1937, he costarred in hits like The Prisoner of ZendaThe Young in Heart (1938), and the iconic Gunga Din(1939).

During WWII, Fairbanks enlisted as a reserve officer in the United States Navy, and soon became interested in the then-unfamiliar wartime practice of “military deception”—deceiving the enemy by dissembling critical maneuvers. These tactics, undertaken by a force called the Beach Jumpers, were especially useful in amphibious battles in the South of France. Fairbanks was eventually awarded the Navy’s Legion of Merit award and became a Lieutenant Commander.

After returning from duty, Fairbanks remained active in film and television through 1989; his final feature film appearance was in Ghost Story (1981). This sweeping view of his career is drawn mainly from MoMA’s collection.

A full screening schedule can be found here.

Organized by Anne Morra, Associate Curator, Department of Film.

Support for the exhibition is provided by the Annual Film Fund. Leadership support for the Annual Film Fund is provided by the Kate W. Cassidy Foundation and Steven Tisch, with major contributions from Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder, Association of Independent Commercial Producers (AICP), Yuval Brisker Charitable Foundation, The Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, Marlene Hess and James D. Zirin, Karen and Gary Winnick, and The Junior Associates of The Museum of Modern Art.


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The Corsican Brothers. 1941. USA. Directed by Gregory Ratoff. Courtesy  United Artists/Photofest.

The Dawn Patrol. 1930. USA. Directed by Howard Hawks. Courtesy Warner Bros./Photofest.

Ghost Story. 1981. USA. Directed by John Irvin. Courtesy Universal Pictures/Photofest.

Gunga Din. 1939. USA. Directed by George Stevens. Courtesy RKO Radio Pictures/Photofest.

Joy of Living. 1938. USA. Directed by Tay Garnett. Courtesy RKO Radio Pictures/Photofest.

Joy of Living. 1938. USA. Directed by Tay Garnett. Courtesy RKO Radio Pictures/Photofest.

The Lady in Ermine. 1948. USA. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Courtesy 20th Century Fox/Photofest.

Little Caesar. 1931. USA. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Courtesy Warner Bros./Photofest.

Our Modern Maidens. 1929. USA. Directed by Jack Conway. Courtesy MGM/Photofest.

Our Modern Maidens. 1929. USA. Directed by Jack Conway. Courtesy MGM/Photofest.

Prisoner of Zenda. 1937. USA. Directed by John Cromwell. Courtesy MGM/Photofest

Sinbad, the Sailor. 1947. USA. Directed by Richard Wallace. Courtesy RKO Radio Pictures/Photofest.

Stella Dallas. 1925. USA. Directed by Henry King. Courtesy United Artists/Photofest.

The Exile. 1947. USA. Directed by Max Opüls. Courtesy Universal Pictures/Photofest.

A Woman of Affairs. 1928. USA. Directed by Clarence Brown. Courtesy MGM/Photofest.

The Young in Heart. 1938. USA. Directed by Richard Wallace. Courtesy United Artists/Photofest.