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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Monday Glamour Starter --- Lili Damita

Lili Damita was some kinda hot French pastry --- hers was a brazen and unapologetic appeal to our baser instincts. If Lili’s kind of "It" had been a little tamer, she might have clicked on our shores. As it is, she had wildness coupled with a sometimes-impenetrable accent that made her largely unfit for domestic consumption. It was only when up-and-coming Errol Flynn took a dollop of her charms (and how he paid for it!) that Damita found immortality. Most of what passes for research on Lili is fraught with error (early first marriage to Michael Curtiz? --- no) and what little data to be found generally revolves around Errol, and even that begins with a myth and ends in mystery. Clearing up at least some of it up has come by way of kind assist from longtime friend and Flynn scholar Michael A. Mazzone. For a woman who almost made it to ninety, Lili Damita left very little behind in the way of personal info, but a few scribes got to her toward the end, always on the pretext of having fresh info on the fate of her son Sean Flynn, a journalist who’d been lost in Viet Nam and for whose return she never gave up hope (more on this anon).

She was French born (1904 --- we think) and came of money. There were Catholic schools and ballet classes. Maybe that formal upbringing gave her the itch, cause it wasn’t long before Lili doffed her schoolgirl uniform, shimmied her way onstage at the Folies Bergere and caught the eye of Euro film directors (including a pre-Hollywood Curtiz). US stardom looked to be in the offing when she was brought over by Samuel Goldwyn to replace Vilma Banky as Ronald Colman’s love interest in The Rescue, a 1929 silent (Goldwyn’s last) that barely made the cut before talkies assumed dominance. The partnership didn’t take --- her appeal perhaps too, shall we say, overt, for a Colman consort. More South Seas siren-ing came opposite Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe in their second Flagg/Quirt shout-fest, The Cock-Eyed World, which stood ‘em in the aisles in late ’29, but proves a hard sit today. For that matter, The Rescue is its own kind of ordeal --- Lili’s by far the best thing about both of these. Getting by on good looks wouldn’t cut it in the early thirties though, and she ended up with undistinguished parts, usually fiery ones, opposite fast rising leading men. Gary Cooper rode covered wagons with her in Fighting Caravans --- major careers were not likely to be forged from material like this --- neither would she win laurels as yet another victim of Warren William’s amorality, there’d been so many of those after all (here they are in The Match King). She bore the scars from Erich Von Stroheim’s whip most becomingly in Friends and Lovers (a TCM staple) , but would later take a supporting role in Frisco Kid with James Cagney. One really great pre-code was This Is The Night, long out of circulation, except for an isolated AMC run years ago and the usual archive shows I’d have to fly 3000 miles to see. Cary Grant was with her in this, his first feature, so please, please Universal, why not let us have the DVD?

With the Hollywood career having sputtered on lift-off, Lili returned to the continent, and that’s where she met Errol Flynn. Reflecting upon this fifty years later, she’d acknowledge it was love at first blink, and the pair got torrid all around Par-ee (he joined her on treks to those whispered about lesbian bars she frequented). By the time Errol scored his Warners (short-term) contract deal, he and Lili had sealed theirs and crossed the Atlantic pretty much as a couple, though maintaining separate staterooms for propriety’s sake. The whole fiction of the two having met on shipboard was cooked up later by WB publicity. Indeed, Damita had by now committed herself to the promotion of Flynn’s nascent screen career, and she sure had the Hollywood connections to back it up. We may safely thank this woman for our many hours of pleasure with Robin Hood
, Gentleman Jim, and all the rest. Their feet had barely touched Yankee soil before she’d wangled invitations to filmland’s richest households, and it was these contacts, plus her long established association with Curtiz, that got Errol tested, and tested again, for Captain Blood. The fact he was able to win out over hopefuls George Brent and Cary Grant (imagine him playing pirate!) was further tribute to Lili’s abiding tenacity. How could they not have solemnized such an effective parlay with wedding vows? Of course, she’d never reckoned with Flynn’s serial, if not compulsive, womanizing, and the opening of Captain Blood in late 1935, sensation that it (and he) was, only put more female flesh on Errol’s banquet table. The following six or so years would be fraught with violent confrontation, passionate reconciliations, rinse and repeat (Errol would forever maintain that Lili was the best he’d ever had, bar none). Finally, after Flynn had made the big money score thrice and overflowing, she emptied his goblet in an L.A. courtroom and effectively put him on the run for the rest of his life --- hell hath no fury and all that --- well, Lili could write a book on this subject. Son Sean came at the end of the marriage line (born 1941) and she was determined he not be raised amidst Tinseltown squalor. She’d be otherwise done with Errol (but for his money, and eventually his home, which she seized) and the movie business.

The fate of Sean was the great drama of Lilli Damita’s third act. He’d grown up in boarding schools and military academies, spending weekends on campus while friends went home (Lili was generally off globetrotting). Sometimes he spent summers with Errol, but those visits were unpredictable at best, what with Flynn staving off creditors and leaping from one foreign shore to the next. Sean got his feet wet acting, but didn’t like it and wasn’t particularly good at it, in a couple of his father’s TV anthology dramas. His mother wanted a college education and a profession for the boy (there was a short stay at Duke University), but adventure beckoned and so did offers from international producers anxious to further exploit the still potent Flynn name by casting The Son Of Captain Blood with untrained Sean. That lure of easy Euro money and the high life that came with it proved irresistible --- there were more costumers, espionage thrillers, spaghetti westerns --- the usual sixties pudding from over there. A few would make the leap stateside, but Hollywood wasn’t clamoring for another Flynn --- perhaps their memories of the old one were still too fresh (Errol had died in 1959). Sean was freebooting about Europe, even Africa, when he wasn’t filming. For a while, he guided safaris in Kenya. Further excitement seemed imminent when he took up a camera and headed for Viet Nam as a war photographer. Some of his stuff got published and he was fearless enough, but his father’s prowess for getting out of scrapes was not there for Sean when enemy combatants on the Cambodian border picked him up along with another photographer during a shoot. Although it wasn’t (more or less) confirmed until years later, the two captives were evidently marched around that benighted region for nearly a year before being taken out one morning and unceremoniously executed. For all his mother knew, however, Sean was still alive, and Lili’s search would go on for as long as she’d live.

There was a million dollar life insurance policy on Sean underwritten by CBS that Lili Damita collected. She’d married again after Errol’s death (rich dairy farmer), so she had the ways and means to pursue her goal in finding Sean. Her residency in Palm Beach, Florida kept her in regular contact with neighbors George Murphy and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. They used their influence and contacts to aid in the quest, even though few believed Sean was still alive. Walter Cronkite was another who tried to help. He implored Lilli to give up, but she would not. Sean’s bachelor apartment in Paris remained sealed for over twenty years as his mother searched, waited, and continued to pay the rent. That finally stopped in 1991 when Lili’s own health became compromised. Observers said that the place was like some exquisitely preserved time capsule of the late sixties --- all of Sean’s furnishings, personal effects, and bric-a-brac left undisturbed and frozen in time. Even fan letters sat unopened on his bureau table. Lili would never know of this, as the Alzheimer’s disease had by now taken hold and she would only have a few years left. She died in 1994.


Blogger Director Robert said...

Damita always struck me as a hard-looking, mean-spirited woman, even in what passed for her "heyday." Maybe it's fitting that she ended up nuts and alone--Flynn reports that she said to him while she was pregnant, "Now I've got you." Nice way to bring a kid into the world. It all turned out badly for the three of them, and a lot of the blame has to be laid right at her little French feet.

11:19 AM  
Blogger Wyndham said...

Well, thank you, John, I can return the compliment - and it's nice to finally see photos of the lovely, fearsome, Lili. She must have been some kind of woman, that Lili, for Errol to escape to the Spanish Civil War.

5:36 PM  

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