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Sunday, June 21, 2009

One Hundred Errol Flynn Years

Errol’s tally so far is a century minus half that he’s been gone. A lot got done and undone in those fifty years. Flynn’s acting wears well. He underplayed maybe out of embarrassment for performing in make-up before a camera (like lots of male stars) but would be rewarded by placement (though not in his lifetime) among players audiences won’t laugh at for hamming at heroics (which the Fairbanks’ both Senior and Junior sometimes indulged). I meant this as Part Two of the Flynn splurge over Matzen and Mazzone’s book, but am glad now to have been delayed as here we are at the centennial and I’d hate to have let it go by unheralded. Besides, I’m of an opinion that Errol’s quietly become one of the most popular vintage names still running (often on TCM and in multiple DVD sets). Will demand ever abate for swords and fast horses and charges into valleys of likely death? Action Flynn was a beautifully choreographed instrument. Never mind his own graceful athleticism. Technicians then just knew (so much better) how to stage fast moves. I recently watched the massacre finish of They Died With Their Boots On and there’s three succeeding pairs of cavalrymen and indians fighting to respective deaths minus a single cut. I’m so tired of being faked out by present-day "action" that’s nothing but an inky blur. They’ll argue youth’s preference for faster cutting, but as with cheater musicals side-stepping steps, methinks we're being played for chumps and getting mere suggestions of movement rather than the thing itself. The Bournes and Batmen and even Bond are giving us short change. If I can’t tell what’s going on, then how’s to know it’s anything at all? With the likes of Flynn, you had a sense of participation gone now with keyboards same as one I’m using merely simulating what his generation did for real and often at personal peril.

Flynn was of a restless breed that might have better stayed in Tasmanian wilds. His was jungle instinct brought to bear on an industry ruthless in its way, but no match for an authentic soldier of fortune who’d run slaves and was said to have killed a man back when. Errol sported a cracked moral compass and nary a governor on behavior recognizing no authority. Sans dependents he’d acknowledge as such, there was always possibility of Flynn packing his kit and blowing movies altogether. Chains other actors wrapped themselves in would not contain him. If power in negotiation is willingness to walk away, Flynn had that in abundance. He was like Garbo for unilateral moves indifferent to consequence. Once he split town during a shoot to horn in on Spain’s Civil War. None of his business, of course. Errol probably likened it to diamond smuggling, pearl diving or such enterprise that occupied the larger part of his experience up to then. It’s for sure he wasn’t stupid or even that reckless on approaching a real abyss, for he liked big Hollywood money and would always come back for more of that. To Flynn, living large was the entire goal, and no company man achieves that whatever the riches and fame one’s master bestows. Other players said that if Flynn tried harder, he might be a fine actor. I’d say the opposite was true, for sustained effort was anathema to a free spirit that performed best when studying least. I’d guess Errol judged for himself beginner steps of initial effort as Captain Blood, for he’s remarkably improved in the next, Charge Of The Light Brigade, from which location I’ve read no account of anyone giving him thesping lessons. It was just a matter of sharpening instincts already in play.

For one who could seemingly reach up and touch the masthead, Flynn was surprisingly fragile. He was a walking (sometimes-falling) glossary of tropical diseases. TB and recurrent malaria accompanied overnight stardom. There was also a heart attack, presumably mild enough to allow his remaining in the saddle. That last part was what snickering was about after Errol barely squeaked out of his rape charge. In Like Flynn expressed slangster’s belief that every woman rolled over for Warner’s swordsman extraordinaire, but Errol was too indiscreet to score so mightily as actors who knew better how to keep mouths shut. Reputations might be ruined just talking with him. Women in Flynn’s company were likelier to attempt shakedowns or drag him into court. Companies seeking family business found him awkward selling, these including studios, theatres, magazines --- just about every entrail of then mass media and all dependent upon appeal to conservative values. Warners would like to have traded higher on Bad Boy Errol, but had to be cautious of Code limits and those who’d accuse them of endorsing his dissolute ways, thus even as Don Juan he was chaste and misunderstood. Theater ads (like this one for Never Say Goodbye) might refer to Flynn Aflame Again --- In Trouble Again!, but his image as seducer was quicksand and anyway was never essential to the knight’s image. The loss of that was what cut deepest, for after his acquittal, we’d never think again of Flynn as champion of any noble cause. Dodge City and Santa Fe Trail had been mission westerns with appointed leader EF quelling threats to order. San Antonio twisted that to parody and Silver River was plain grim. Partly it was changing times and natural fatigue over Flynn as continuing uncomplicated hero, but he was damaged goods just the same, a status revealed in ravaged appearance if not in roles he’d now play.

It’s modern viewers who benefit most from Errol’s collapse of nobility. Personal crack-ups and ongoing disintegration broke his career into multiple chapters with much to enjoy in each. Beginner fans like Adventures Of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, and others representing the peak, but seasoned followers caught up in the actor’s bobsled ride are as beguiled with ones he did later. I confess a liking to Silver River, Mara Maru, The Master Of Ballantrae, and others that mirrored Flynn’s growing ambivalence toward straightforward derring-do that had got him by during pre-war (that is, the one waged in court). He’s older, tired, sometimes belligerent. Flynn on and off screen merged by the late forties. He drank more and barely finished assignments. Silver River overflowed its banks to a negative cost of $3.2 million, though it and Escape Me Never were among very few WB Flynns to lose money. They would probably have kept him right through the fifties for profits even declining vehicles brought. The Master Of Ballantrae (last on the star’s contract) showed a million dollar gain. Lost years that followed are represented mostly by films no one’s seen in forever. Some are passed into legend and you begin to wonder if they were actually made. One such is Hello God, which negative was snatched and hidden and said to have turned up at Euro festivals barely attended. The aborted William Tell rests in a vault at Boston University, its donor restriction (Roddy McDowall!) prohibiting exhibition. Whatever rights remain in that and Crossed Swords reside with last wife Patrice Wymore, and who could blame her not wanting to be bothered? Flynn did television his diehard fans have spent years tracing. Sometimes bizarre fragments wash up. One friend sent a hush-hush DVD of Without Incident, a Playhouse 90 from 1957 that was the actor’s final western role. It talked and dragged for a nowhere ninety minutes and put to rest what I’d heard about that Golden Age of Television. Game and talk shows used Flynn for his ability to form sentences (not like stars today) and knowledge on arcane subjects where he played guest "expert." One of his interests was Cuba and its coming revolution. A nation close to his heart for its cockfights and contraband, Errol donned a Cuban flag for a sitdown with Jack Parr (does this footage still exist?). The fade came just after clowning on The Red Skelton Show, of which only a few seconds’ clip has surfaced. Many of us would love seeing the entire episode. A couple of fans approached Red late in that comedian’s life, but what were chances he’d move rakes and lawn mowers to find it? All that’s available for so much of Flynn’s latter output is stills like ones shown here. What's to motivate anyone to locate the rest of it?
Man of a Thousand Portraits --- Here's one in color.
Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland do publicity for Captain Blood
Shooting Another Dawn with Kay Francis
With director and on-set nemesis Michael Curtiz
Theatre Ad for Never Say Goodbye
With Julie London and Ann Sheridan in Without Incident
Partying with Clint Walker and others --- Errol was arrested later that night as a "plain drunk"
Errol explains the Cuban situation to Jack Parr
With Patricia Barry in 1959's The Golden Shanty for TV
Making the Bongo scene on the Skelton show with teen girlfriend Beverly Aadland


Anonymous G.D. Wilson said...

Sometimes it's nice to be older than dirt. One of my earliest childhood TV memories (but only because my mom made such a fuss about it at the time)was seeing Flynn on the Jack Parr show. He was regarded as the adventerous hero, applauded for his plans to assist a freedom fighter named Fidel.
Little did any of us imagine in our wildest dreams what was soon ahead.
If a fortune teller at the time had announced that Flynn would soon be dead, and that Castro would still be alive during year 2009, there would have been laughs aplenty.
Any younger readers who want to know what it was like during the Cuban Missile Crisis should view "Matinee" with John Goodman. To me, that film captures the hysteria of the era flawlessly.
My favorite post-Robin Hood Flynn film is "Mara Maru." Give it a look--you won't be disappointed.

9:17 PM  
Anonymous Richard said...

Your assessment of Errol Flynn's current appeal is spot-on.

Ironically two of my favorite films of his are not even on DVD yet; both feature some of his best "quiet" performances from the very middle of his career.

EDGE OF DARKNESS, which was being filmed when the rape charges hit, is a very intelligent and different World War II film. Flynn was part of an ensemble cast (which included Ruth Gordon, Judith Anderson, Walter Huston and the still under-rated Ann Sheridan) and his performance really enhanced the film.

UNCERTAIN GLORY is the second film, and it was one of his first post-trial releases. Now it is almost totally-forgotten. I believe it even flopped at the time it was released, but when I first saw it in 2008 I found it to be a well-crafted and over-looked gem.

Interestingly, if DVD box sets are a measure of success, then it seems to me Flynn's films appear in more DVD box sets than Clark Gable or Gary Cooper. I know Warners has their new Archive program where FOUR'S A CROWD made its DVD debut, but there are enough A-list Warner Bros. Flynn films to make another fully-released box set. I hope they do one more and the above 2 films are included.

12:00 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I've got an episode of the quiz show "The Big Surprise: (hosted by Mike Wallace) with Flynn as one of the contestants. His category is "Ships and the Sea." He successfully (and dramatically) answers every arcane question... as does everyone else on the show. Which makes me wonder if this was rigged. Nice to see him, though.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

And one more thing -- is Flynn's hair going gray in that photo with Curtiz? Or is that for a role?

10:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for this tribute to Errol!!! It's great that at least some of us fans do care about him and his 100th birthday!!!!

11:28 AM  
Blogger Chris Edwards said...

I enjoyed this a lot, John; Errol Flynn’s an actor I’m not too familiar with (yet). And I second (fifth?) your complaint about modern action sequences. It really is a new problem; even 80s blasters like Predator and Rambo III (two of my favourites) are willing to wait.

Thanks also for the kind vibes over at Silent Volume. I’ll be adding Greenbriar to my blog roll.

9:32 PM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

That was a mighty fine post on my favorite actor. Errol Flynn may be the stereotype of the dashing hero, but he invests each of his characters with different shadings. Take his three most famous swashbuckling roles, Captain Blood, Robin Hood and Geoffrey Thorpe in “The Sea Hawk.”

In the first, there is a strong current of resentment and anger in the Peter Blood character. He has a pretty large chip on his shoulder (can’t blame him) that he carries throughout the movie, softening only towards the end.

In Robin Hood, of course, there’s a twinkle in his eye and a laugh in his voice throughout the whole movie, even during his dueling scenes with Sir Guy. Causing all kinds of trouble in Nottingham, Flynn’s Robin Hood is having a ball causing all this mischief and his enthusiasm is contagious.

Geoffrey Thorpe in “The Sea Hawk” is courtly and reverential to his queen, but shy and bumbling around women. His character here is probably among the most chivalrous he’s ever played, far different from the brooding Peter Blood or the impetuous Robin Hood.

Yet, Flynn is eminently successful in all three. One of the most original movie stars ever, and a greatly underrated actor. I don’t think he will ever date.

And was there ever a more natural and appealing leader of men than Flynn?

5:33 PM  
Blogger Booksteve said...

A wonderful piece! I have a video from, I believe, 1959 of Flynn in THE GOLDEN SHANTY,a short TV film. He is still quite good!

While I am od course, familiar with the WILLIAM TELL situation, I don't believe I've heard of HELLO GOD.

8:38 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Reader Craig Reardon weighs in on Errol Flynn via e-mail ...

Loved your post about Errol Flynn. I'm with you. His work has aged very well, as an actor, and his charisma, probably even better. He now easily beats out even the powerful Clark Gable, I think, and ties with Bogie and John Wayne, or Cooper, or Cagney, any of the nuclear reactors of star power. My dad worked for the phone company ("Ma Bell", as he called it) as an installer out of their Hollywood station on Gower (which is STILL THERE across from former Columbia Pictures), and told me how excited he was when he was sent to install an extension phone in Flynn's home, sometime in the later '40s. (Dad started with the phone company----one entity, then-----in 1946.) Naturally, he hoped to see Flynn, but failing in that, he hoped to see, he said, the mirror on the ceiling of his bedroom (!!) or the double-sided mirrors in the room he'd heard about. I just took this for granted when dad told me this, when I was still in my 'teens, but now, I'm thinking, "What? How in heck did my dad, who had nothing to do with the movie biz, hear about that kind of thing?" You have to wonder! In 1976, when I worked on my first, low-budget movie, I liked to hang out with the sound guys, who were both older than my own father, and they'd known Flynn, and told some scandalous stories about him, but added that he was a "great" guy! I clearly remember being told that Flynn threw one of his parties that when you entered his house, a butler took not your coat, alone, but ALL your clothes! Hey, I'm not making this up, that's what this guy told me! I'm not telling you this because I necessarily believe it's true, but rather my amusement that an old (at that time) movie veteran would tell it to me, with so much conviction that he either thought it was true himself, knew it was true, or just thought it "fit" Flynn. Quite a guy, however you look at him, including as an irresponsible, self-centered train wreck, if you want to. But I love his movies, and all I ever have to do to feel that "the movies" were once wonderful is to put on my glorious Blu-ray edition of "The Adventures of Robin Hood".

Keep 'em coming, John.

Craig Reardon

11:26 AM  
Blogger Kurt Burgess said...

Really have been enjoying your blog. Flynn remains a favorite of mine and your comments about him are accurate. My friend and I used to think Disney’s ZORRO character was played by Errol. Never heard of Flynn. Then. We still speculate how history might have changed Flynn’s Hollywood image had he died suddenly at his peak after completing SEA HAWK. We would not have endured his failing looks and movies. There are a few post 1940 movies of note, of course, and Flynn always came through (well…there was CROSSED SWORDS!) but after DON JUAN it’s all downhill for me. DON JUAN, by the way, being the perfectly timed role for Flynn. A world weary adventurer in real life, seeking his next adventure in film. Hard to believe Flynn was 40, then, just 2 years older than Matt Damon!

Your comments about the relentless fast editing in today’s “action” films hit a chord as well. It’s visual gibberish. “Bullet cams,” “arrow cams” and every other “cams” a computer can muster. Scenes that, if you were in such a life threatening situation, would never register, nor remember, in your mind. It’s beyond real, making it unreal.

5:59 PM  
Anonymous arkybee said...

The 1982 comedy "My Favorite Year" is virtually the story of Flynn's final days. Fading quickly from the public eye, "Alan Swan" agrees to a triumphant return, but this time to the small screen. Though the Peter O'Toole character is only loosely based on Flynn, it is certainly worth a view.

2:49 PM  

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