More voguishly handsome than his father, the Prince of Pickfair Douglas Fairbanks Jr lacked Senior's ability to completely dominate a film and make lackadaisical scripting and monotonous directing almost bearable, but he was certainly an extremely likable and talented actor in his own right. Coaxed into movies by Jesse Lasky, anxious to have the pull of the Fairbanks name, he alienated his father by debuting as a juvenile lead at the age of 13 in "Stephen Steps Out" (1923), causing Senior to remain hostile to his career for many years. On his way to full-fledged stardom, Fairbanks took his turn on the boards in a 1927 production of John Van Druten's "Young Woodley" before practically upstaging the great Greta Garbo with his off-beat riveting performance as her alcoholic brother in "A Woman of Affairs" (1928). He also gave filmgoers a special treat, doing impressions of John Barrymore, John Gilbert and his own father in "Our Modern Maidens" (1929), the picture which brought him and first wife Joan Crawford together.
Fairbanks saw his star gradually rise during the early 30s beginning with pictures like Howard Hawks' "Dawn Patrol", Robert Milton's "Outward Bound" and Mervyn Le Roy's "Little Caesar" (all 1930). He gave a fine handling of the male lead in "Morning Glory" (1933) managing to avoid being blown off the screen by Katharine Hepburn in her first Oscar-winning performance. Soon thereafter, he went to Britain to play the Tsar in "Catherine the Great" (1934, opposite Elisabeth Bergner), and remained there for close to three years, making his next five movies as well as his first foray into producing with Raoul Walsh's "Jump for Glory" (1937). Fairbanks could swashbuckle with the best of them as he displayed in pictures like "The Prisoner of Zenda" (also 1937), "Gunga Din" (1939) and "The Corsican Brothers" (1941), but it may have been Max Ophuls' "The Exile" (1947), which he also scripted, that displayed his physical prowess at its best. Critic David Thomson, however, takes issue, claiming it was a mistake to compete with Douglas Fairbanks Sr. as a swashbuckler and that screen evidence suggests Junior would have been more successful as a gigolo, weakling or black sheep of the family. Fairbanks' cultured presence and voice also made him a natural for comedies like "The Rage of Paris" and "Joy of Living" (both 1938).
After his World War II heroics, Fairbanks acted in a handful of pictures before temporarily retiring as an actor after "Mr. Drake's Duck" in 1951. Though he produced a few features during the 50s, he turned primarily to television, hosting, producing and sometimes acting in the British anthology series "Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Presents" (1953-57), and of his remaining rare screen performances, almost all were for TV, notably "The Crooked Hearts" (ABC, 1972, with Rosalind Russell), "Arthur Hailey's 'Strong Medicine'" (Syndicated, 1986) and the ABC Mystery Movie "Auntie Sue" (1989). He made his feature swan song in "Ghost Story" (1981), acting with fellow old timers Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas and John Houseman. Fairbanks favored the stage in his later career, playing Professor Henry Higgins in a 1968-69 national tour of "My Fair Lady", as well as touring in "Present Laughter and "Sleuth", among other shows. As one of the last links to a glorious Hollywood past, he has frequently turned up in numerous feature and TV documentaries "American Cinema" (PBS, 1995), the Oscar-nominated "The Battle Over Citizen Kane" (1995) and segments of A&E's "Biography" devoted to Loretta Young and John Wayne.