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A Hell of a War

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. takes his memoirs through World War II in this follow-up to his 1988 volume "The Salad Days." His breezy style makes you feel as if you're sharing a drink with the actor as he regales you with stories about the old days.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. takes his memoirs through World War II in this follow-up to his 1988 volume “The Salad Days.” His breezy style makes you feel as if you’re sharing a drink with the actor as he regales you with stories about the old days.

Unfortunately, the volume gives over fully a quarter of its pages to summarizing “the story so far.” A brief summary might be appropriate for people who haven’t read the first book, but this amounts to offering a Reader’s Digest condensed book, with the result that the present volume has less than 200 pages of new material.

The new material is a worthy successor, only occassionally bogging down in the minutiae of battle. Fairbanks enlisted in the Naval Reserve with actor Robert Montgomery before the U.S. joined the war, and through his own talents, some personal contacts and, as he admits, a lot of luck, he managed to play his own small part in the war against the Nazis.

His unit helped create diversions so that the Germans defending Italy from Allied invasion would think the attack was coming at one point while the real forces were amassing elsewhere. He was decorated several times for his efforts. Fairbanks notes that it was largely a sideshow, but it was an authentic contribution to the war effort, and not just a showcase for a Hollywood star.

Indeed, Fairbanks made an effort to downplay his movie connections while in the navy, but he wasn’t always lucky. He was caught behind enemy lines in Italy during an air raid and found himself in a shelter with someone who recognized him from the movies. To make matters worse, the Italian had a beef against United Artists (co-founded by Fairbanks’ father) and had lost a movie theater in Brooklyn as a result. Being a recognized celebrity had its drawbacks.

Fairbanks maintains his wry outlook toward the Hollywood of the past, nowhere more than at the end when he returns from the war and finds that nothing has really changed. When he sees ex-wife Joan Crawford for the first time since he left for the service, her excitement is not at his heroism or even his survival, it’s at the fact that she’s shifted from MGM to Warners.

Another volume is planned. It should be worth the wait.

A Hell of a War

  • Production: By Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; St. Martin's Press; 278 pages; $ 22.95.
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