American actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was the son of film star Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Fairbanks Jr. made his acting debut in 1923's Stephen Steps Out, which was remarkable only in how quickly it went out of circulation. Young Fairbanks was more impressive as Lois Moran's fiancé in 1926's Stella Dallas, though it did give Fairbanks Sr. pause to see his teenaged son sporting a Fairbanksian mustache. Even as a youth, Fairbanks' restlessness would not be satisfied by mere film work; before he was 20 he'd written an amusing article about the Hollywood scene for Vanity Fair magazine. In 1927, Fairbanks appeared in a stage play, Young Woodley, which convinced detractors that he truly had talent and was not merely an appendage to his father's fame. When talking pictures came in, he demonstrated a well-modulated speaking voice and as a result worked steadily in the early 1930s. Married at that time to actress Joan Crawford, Fairbanks was a fixture of the Tinseltown social whirl, but he had a lot more going for him than suspected; in 1935 he offered the earliest evidence of his sharp business savvy by setting up his own production company, Criterion Films--the first of six such companies created under the Fairbanks imprimatur.
Fairbanks had his best role in 1937's The Prisoner of Zenda, in which he was alternately charming and cold-blooded as the villainous Rupert of Hentzau. Upon his father's death in 1939, Fairbanks began to extend his activities into politics and service to his country. He helped to organize the Hollywood branch of the William Allen White Committee, designed to aid the allied cause in the European war. From 1939 through 1944, Fairbanks, ever an Anglophile, headed London's Douglas Voluntary Hospitals, which took special care of war refugees. Fairbanks was appointed by President Roosevelt to act as envoy for the Special Mission to South America in 1940, and one year later was commissioned as a lieutenant j.g. in the Navy. In 1942 he was chief officer of Special Operations, and in 1943 participated in the allied invasion of Sicily and Elba. Fairbanks worked his way up from Navy lieutenant to commander and finally, in 1954 to captain.