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Sunday, February 20, 2011



Red-Hot Flynn In Hell-Hot Havana!



Friend at school had lived in Cuba right up to the Revolution. His family's escape was by same skin of teeth others managed. Till then, he collected (at age six) revolution trading cards distributed through neighborhoods by Castro rebels. John also told me his mother appeared as an extra in opening scenes of The Big Boodle and met Errol Flynn. Some years later, we checked a print I'd gotten and there she was. Now Netflix has it streaming. I'd not call The Big Boodle noir for reluctance to besmirch the genre. It's more like screen translation of trashy men's novels and mags that proliferated in the fifties, minus down-and-dirtier violence/sex these trafficked in. Just the fact BB was shot entirely on Cuban soil amidst backdrop of underworld takeover prior to Castro's ultimate takeover makes this crime meller must viewing. Soldiers of fortune were pouring into 50's Havana sure as Coop and company took Mexico in Vera Cruz, only these were of real-life sort and most Mob originated. Gambling was the Mecca that drew them. Forget heat-parched Vegas --- this was sun-and-fun south of Miami with rule books tossed by kindred spirit Fulgencio Batista, his Cuban presidency an off-on again status recently cauterized by rigged elections and alliance with notorious Meyer Lansky, latter the inspiration for Lee Strasberg's character in The Godfather --- Part Two. By 1956 and Flynn's touching down to make The Big Boodle, Havana was one wide-open town.


"The Monte Carlo of the Caribbean" saw hotels retro-fitted to casino modernity, with Lansky's ironically a straightest deal around. He wanted pro gamblers who'd appreciate on-the-level cards and spend accordingly. Meyer expanded the old Nacional Hotel and began construction on dream site The Havana Riviera, cradle of crime serving appetite of honest (if misguided) tourism. Into this perfumed sinkhole came moviemakers lured by hands-off government and off-duty pleasures Caligula himself might have blanched over. Havana Blossoms Into Top Show Biz Spot South of U.S., cheered Variety in February, 1956, which just showed how readily said Biz could be corrupted. Those with eyes and less conscience knew this was a Mafia stronghold, yet the trade applauded Cuba's political stability (¬°Ay, Caramba!), tighter control of labor, and new, encouraging laws. Among these was tax exemption for new industries, bent on this occasion to include indie gold-seeker Lewis F. Blumberg, son of Universal top dog Nate and producing on his own for a first time. The Big Boodle would be adapted from a quarter paperback by Robert Sylvester, the yarn based on real-life smuggling of Cuban currency out of a previous regime's coffers. Everyday occurrence was this, it seemed, except now it was Batista looting government safes.



Enter Errol Flynn, a Hollywood star "at liberty" you might say, though busy withal doing British-lensed TV anthologies he had to vacate on receipt of Blumberg's Havana invite. The deal was solid enough. United Artists had agreed to distribute The Big Boodle, and maybe front seed money besides, as Blumberg's was a name (albeit one flying on borrowed wings) good for opening doors if not wallets. Hollywood's second generation was already staking Cuba for cheap locations, Sam Goldwyn Jr. just repaired south with Vic Mature to do The Sharkfighters. I'm trying to imagine shock a crew felt upon first sighting of Errol. He'd sunk fathoms since quitting stateside work. A would-be comeback at Universal, Istanbul, was completed, but so far unseen, when The Big Boodle began shooting. Flynn's Blackjack dealer is on the trail of funny money and plates from which same derives, a set-up without juice to pass 84 minute litmus other than tiringly, but who among its innervated company would have recognized the gem of a time capsule they were filling? Havana settings would be emphasized, Flynn crossing streets and plazas at leisure, engaging co-players at luxury poolside, and so on. Background included an alleged bordello, for which only the "reception area" was utilized for shooting, according to Variety, plus a wind-up showdown at historic Morro Castle. Flynn learned BJ dealing at the Nacional ... they offered him a job should movies crap out, and based on recent evidence, might only have been half-kidding.


Critics would laud Errol's debauched authority as a down-and-outer scraping for bucks, the press abuzz over creditors vying with ex-wives for whatever poundage of Flynn flesh was left. He scored a pyrrhic victory in Rome against the cartel fleecing a William Tell venture that wouldn't see completion ... but where was good in a $340,000 judgment by all accounts uncollectable? EF got busy dictating memoirs on a portable recorder, non-inflammable tape, we assume, chuckled Army Archerd. Errol was always news even if his movies weren't, being game enough to boost The Big Boodle, this having most to do with twenty-five percent ownership of the negative. Such were vagaries of Cuban commerce that saw this guest paid in rum, cigars, and sugar for appearances on Havana TV. Island nightlife was Flynn's ideal of bacchanalian revelry, morn-after effect captured mercilessly by Lee Garmes' camera. Director of The Big Boodle was former Orson Welles compatriot Richard Wilson, who knew well enough what good pictures looked like, even if this wouldn't be one of them. Lukey (as he was called) Blumberg took pride in having finished Boodle for just over $600K, he and Errol already conjuring their next partnered venture, to be shot in New York (didn't happen).





The Big Boodle was readied for early 1957 dates. Ads and art (as above) gave in to pulpy and girl-focused as befitted indifferent outcome of the project. Dame-Baited Double-Crosses were promised and Errol Flynn of fifteen years before might have delivered. You'd think so based on cruelly-timed avalanching of Warner oldies via television. Was this what Flynn had come to in so short a time? Everything is right for filming again in the US, said trade described "expatriate" EF to Variety scribes: Contractual involvements, inferior technical facilities and abnormal financial problems overweigh the advantages of colorful locales and the actual story sites in overseas production, he'd add, no doubt reflecting on now completed The Big Boodle. Flynn would return to Cuba, inadvisably, less to make movies than to dive head (and what was left of reputation) first into that country's revolution-fueled downfall. The Big Boodle struggled toward 5,368 domestic bookings, most of these as second-billed of combos. US rentals were a fallow $214,057, with foreign $350K more. Together they failed to meet Boodle's negative cost. Lewis F. Blumberg would not produce another feature. Flynn's last few might have taken him in direction of character starring, but fate and bad habits caught up too soon for promise to be realized.

8 Comments:

Blogger Linwood said...

You've inspired me to finally watch this film that I've had in my Netflix Instant Watch Queue for 2 months now.
Thanks to you, I can now view it as a unique travelogue of a bygone time and place, instead of being disappointed in the general lack of action or adventure.

4:56 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I can find NO playdates for THE BIG BOODLE in and around Salisbury, N.C. during 1957 - 1959, not even the drive-ins.

Unusual, with it being released by UA, a very strong distributor in this area at the time.

I'd sure like to know why.

9:31 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Too few playdates seem to have been Boodle's downfall, among other things. Of UA releases around that time, "Pharaoh's Curse" and "Bop Girl" got less bookings ... virtually everyhting else had far more ("Legend Of The Lost" with 18,929 to Boodle's 5,368).

9:42 AM  
Blogger Joe Thompson said...

I had not heard of this one, or did not remember it years after reading a book like "The Films of Errol Flynn". Don't you hate it when fall into a "dame-baited double cross"? Thanks for an interesting post.

6:17 PM  
Anonymous Bob said...

I've always loved Flynn, and, corny as this sounds, these photos of him break my heart.

2:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

BOODLE villian Jacques Aubachon's family were friends of my family(they lived around Fitchburg, MA).

4:45 PM  
Anonymous mido505 said...

Given the involvement of Milestone, who directed THE FRONT PAGE, and screenwriter Charles Lederer, who contributed dialogue to Milestone's film and who wrote the screenplay for HIS GIRL FRIDAY, you'd think that OCEAN'S 11would be a bit more snappy. Was that the original intention, sabotaged by Sinatra's notorious dislike of rehearsal? I can see Lawford, with his diamond-sharp, elegant diction just chomping at the bit, as it were, to play the Cary Grant role; how sad that Sinatra could not pull off Rosalind Russell.

John, do you object to Akim Tamiroff on principle, or just in this show? He's great in everything he did for Orson Welles, although mostly inconsequential elsewhere, and better in B&W than in color, for some reason. Speaking of Welles, he has an unusual number of connections to OCEAN - when Welles first arrived in Hollywood, Milestone gave him what Welles called the best bit of advice about directing: "keep the camera close and keep it moving," which pretty much defines Welles's subsequent style; Lederer was married to Welles's first wife, Virginia, and tight with Marion Davies; Tamiroff had already played Block in MR. ARKADIN; and Welles and Sinatra were close at this time. When Welles stormed off the Universal lot as conflicts over the editing of TOUCH OF EVIL heated up, he went down to Mexico to work on DON QUIXOTE (with Tamiroff as Sancho Panza) with $10,000 Sinatra had contributed to bolster the budget. Sinatra also gave Welles the odd nickname "Jake", which Welles never explained, but which became the name of the Hemingwayesque director played by John Huston in Welles's unfinished THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. Too bad Sinatra couldn't have shoehorned Welles in as director of OCEAN; now THAT would have been a film for the ages!

5:48 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

Did any other male star of the Hollywood golden era have as spectacular a career decline as Errol Flynn? I don't think so.
Cooper, Gable, Bogart, Grant, Stewart, Power, Wayne, even Taylor were all still appearing in major "A" productions at the end of their careers. Garfield's career was in trouble but that was the blacklist. Ladd was in an evident decline but he still didn't appear in an embarassment like Cuban Rebel Girls.
Around 1940 Flynn was as big a name as there was in the film industry, but by the time of Big Boodle (after the William Tell disaster) he was scrambling for any money he could find. His Sun Also Rises performance would create talk of a comeback but it was shirt lived indeed. Two years later it would be any TV work he could find (very little), Cuban Rebel Girls and death in a Vancouver apartment.
When Flynn played Robin Hood, General Custer or any of a number of other celluloid heroes he represented, for my money, the most potent combination of romanticism, athletic daring and animal sex appeal that the screen has ever seen. It saddens me greatly to see how this mercurial, self destructive personality allowed it all to slowly slip away.

6:26 PM  

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