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Friday, March 21, 2014

Before She Accused Errol Flynn ...


Peggy Satterlee Was A Universal Starlet

Elyse Knox and Acquanetta Got
Billing in This Theatre Ad
Comes time to scratch the underbelly of Hollywood with account of star aspirant Peggy Satterlee and infamy rather than success that capped her pursuit of film fame. I'd not dredge sordid account but for discovery of images/data to show how, but for cruelty of chance, Peggy might have become a name at Universal rather than a footnote on police blotters. We know Miss Satterlee, if at all, as one of a pair (the other being Betty Hansen) to point underage fingers at Errol Flynn in third-quarter 1942, then testify to effect he'd raped them on/off his yacht earlier in that year. The charge was felony times three, Flynn standing good chance of career ruin and worse, an active sentence should he be convicted. Details of the nasty business can be found in EF bios and trial transcripts far/wide, so I'll not air them further here. What would come of the ordeal beyond Flynn's acquittal was disgrace and isolation for Peggy Satterlee. Poor gal couldn't get arrested once that jury went home.

Peggy Satterlee and Betty Hansen Have Their Day In Court

Peggy During Fateful Visit to Errol Flynn's Yacht
Like other seekers after fame, Peggy had begun with hope. She'd come from Texas, waited tables, wished for a break. Future director Richard Bare met her before either became known. In fact, his mother had tried to match them up on conviction that Peggy was such a "nice little girl." Bare ended up taking photos PS could submit to agents. In the meantime, she'd dance for nightclubs and make acquaintance of Errol Flynn. The big break Peggy caught was selection by producer Walter Wanger to play a "palace virgin" in Arabian Nights, his Technicolor'ed exotica for Universal 1942 release. She'd join ingénues picked "from thousands" to adorn the sultan's harem and be background to stars Maria Montez and Jon Hall. Make no mistake, this was close to a sun from which Peggy, indeed all the girls picked, could feel heat. Others of the group caught fire, if briefly and by then-standard, modestly, but a lot of us, including ones who grew up on Universal horrors, know well the names of Elyse Knox and Acquanetta, two who shared harem digs with Peggy Satterlee. But for trick of fate, we might have seen Peggy carried off eventually by Chaney's Mummy, or doing him dirt in an Inner Sanctum. Then it would have been "Scream Queen" Satterlee chased through the 80/90's by monster kids in quest of autograph/interviews.

Part of Parade Of Lovelies Seeking a Universal Contract

Arabian Nights was very much a Universal special. They'd spend nearly a million on it. That was top money for an outfit that generally dealt in half or less of such amount. Producing Walter Wanger had come aboard as an on-lot independent and the concept of Arabian Nights was his. The idea was to borrow notions from The Thief Of Bagdad, a recent success out of England, and sex them up. Maria Montez was a relative newcomer getting strong push, and Jon Hall had a name at least recognizable, thanks to The Hurricane from 1937. Further from Thief's trunk came Sabu, optioned for Arabian Nights and future variation on turbaned themes. Universal had developed a reliable formula they'd apply to all genres: construct a wall of character comedians around whatever story you told. The approach stood good to westerns, actioners, even horror pics, 1939's Destry Rides Again having paved ways for Seven Sinners, The Black Cat (1941), The Mad Doctor Of Market Street, and reams of Richard Arlen/Andy Devine two-fisters where comedy in the person of Devine lifted off support rolls to co-starring position. Arabian Nights would also be Universal's first three-color Technicolor production, poised for Christmas 1942 opening on 40% terms, a figure seldom asked, let alone gotten, for Uni product.

Sweating Out a Verdict, Flynn Sits at Defense Table with Attorneys


Advance Trade Ad Promises Much
Production had begun in June. Wanger got press for announcing his "sextette of virgins" for the sultan's harem. Of these, Elyse Knox was alone for having film experience, Peggy Satterlee identified as a "professional dancer" from Dallas. There'd been talk of going to Utah to shoot desert scenes, but economy obliged Universal to lease thirty-five adjoining acres over which "hundreds of tons of sand" would be poured. By September and Night's completion, a sure thing was known and follow-ups were planned. White Savage with Montez/Hall began rolling in October and Cobra Woman went on planning boards. Arabian Nights release was delayed till holidays because Technicolor prints couldn't be delivered sooner. Previews in the meantime confirmed that it would be a hit whatever the wait. Universal ran trade ads months in advance touting "torrid romance and slashing adventure." Walter Wanger had handed Universal more than a success; he'd given them a cycle that could be re-cycled for seasons to come (five more with Montez/Hall among these).

Off-The-Hook Errol Shakes Hands With Jurors

"Virgin" Peggy's Big Moment in Arabian Nights
Meanwhile, for Peggy Satterlee, the bubble was about to burst. Errol Flynn's arrest based on her charge took place in November and he'd be tried in January 1943, the very period during which Arabian Nights opened and had its initial success. This was something Peggy might have shared had she not been confined to a witness box, as Universal arranged for junkets nationwide to display Arabian Nights players and others on studio payroll. What follows is personal appearing list for Boston during the week that Peggy was giving testimony: Maria Montez, Sabu, Elyse Knox, Donald O' Connor, Peggy Ryan, Gloria Jean, and Nigel Bruce, all greeted by Massachusetts's governor. Did they discuss among themselves the scandal into which Peggy Satterlee had been plunged? Certainly the Flynn trial was Topic A on newspaper headlines nationwide. A couple of theatres playing Arabian Nights saw opportunity to trade on the mess and billed Peggy first in ads despite the fact her part was miniscule. Aftermath of all this would be grim for damaged Hollywood merchandise that was Peggy Satterlee. She made rounds of San Francisco vaudeville bookers but got nowhere, then with her sister tried and failed to get jobs at Douglas Aircraft in April of 1943. The press was done with Peggy other than squibs like one from columnist Dorothy Kilgallen in January 1945 that reported plans for a name change and new hair color toward re-entry to films. After that, the (news)paper trail ends. Question then, is this: Does Peggy Satterlee still walk among us? She'd be eighty-eight if that's the case. Her prosecuting co-witness Betty Hansen did re-surface and was interviewed some year's back, but no trace of Peggy. Does anyone know what finally became of her?

3 Comments:

Blogger Muscato said...

You've sent me down a rabbit hole! I've found some things online about her family (including an article in an AP story that notes testimony at the Flynn trial from her 18-year old sister Mickey, already divorced from one of Ann Sheridan's husbands. Her mother died in '92 in California, but is buried in Dallas, for what that's worth. I'll keep digging...

12:05 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Elyse Knox was the daughter of Connecticut exhibitor Fred Kornbrath (her real name was Elsie Kornbrath).

2:59 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers the case of Peggy Satterlee and Errol Flynn:


This is a fascinating article.

The story of Errol Flynn's trial for rape is well known, of course, but only from his perspective. I confess that I'd never really given a thought to Peggy Satterlee and Betty Hansen, the young women involved, or as to what became of them when it was over. They were simply props in a little drama being played out between the wheelers and dealers of Hollywood of the time, in which Flynn himself was scarcely more than that, if a rather more prominent one. They were anonymous before and simply returned to that anonymity.

The photographs from the trial are also familiar. The Speed Graphic and flash gun were not very flattering to the women, depriving them of whatever grace or attractiveness they might have enjoyed. Flynn, on the contrary, seemed more handsome than ever, or at any rate, more appealing. Stripped of his Hollywood glamor, something very real and decent was revealed. Afterwards it seemed that nothing mattered to him, as though he understood that he was no more than his appetites and that they would always bring him to this point of dishonor and disgrace. He would be weighed in the balance and found wanting. The photographs, however, suggest a certain wounded dignity. If he could have but believed it, he was very much a man of his heart, just as his performances revealed that heart more than he cared to acknowledge.

But as you've also revealed, Peggy Satterlee, at least, was more than a name spoken in passing or a rude image most often seen in half tone reproductions. She wasn't a star, of course, but being selected for a showy bit part in a movie meant that her studio was at least aware of her. Possibly it would have led to other roles and even success of a kind. Who can know? Her career was opening up, however, and it was that as much as any malign fate which caused her path to cross with Errol Flynn's.

The photograph of her that afternoon, descending into the dingy beside Flynn's yacht, is astonishing. I had never seen it before. She was a very pretty girl indeed, slender and just emerging into her womanhood, and I can sense from it how thrilled she was to be there. She must have dreamt of coming to Hollywood and having movie stars for her friends, just like her friends back home in Texas, except in a life that was so much more glamorous and exciting. Now it was all coming true. There was probably an undercurrent of sexual tension as well between her and Flynn. Something was going to happen, and that, too, was thrilling.

The camera shutter opened at the very moment when all the contradictions that would attend her hopes and expectations, and the price she would pay for them, seemed to exist together, as if it is possible to have and have not. Such contradictions are always resolved, as surely as morning follows the night, but not just then. All she could have been aware of was how bright the sun was and how wonderful the rest of her life was going to be.

Daniel

11:01 AM  

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