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Monday, August 30, 2010

War-Torn Flynn Teams With Walsh

I'm developing this crazy notion that Errol Flynn was the Classic Era's James Bond. Who else had such an action franchise going through the thirties and forties? You could argue Flynn himself was a continuing character in formula narratives custom built to fan expectations. I'd posit EF as having gone Bond several better by supplying texture from a personal life to deepen wells his screen characters plumbed. How else could directing Raoul Walsh mine diamonds so deeply flawed out of post-(statutory rape) trial Northern Pursuit and Uncertain Glory, roles unthinkable for pristine 30's Flynn? Errol supplied complexities later 007 entries had to manufacture. What is rogue agent Bond of current fashion (seems the character's run that direction incessantly since Tim Dalton days) but variation on Flynn's disgraced Canadian Mountie in Northern Pursuit? There was fan reliance on Errol Flynn to goose each year's threshold for action-packing, same as with Bond in the 60's. EF crashed existing walls to pull off last word on sea battles, saloon brawls, and heroic last stands. I've never seen it done that big was surely exit remarked (and often) among Flynn consumers same as we'd assess latest Bond-busters growing up. You'd have spotted EF another twenty years' stardom but for loss of health and looks (does Flynn's kind of stuff really date? --- not if DVD sales are any indication!). Warners is recently out with five he did for the war (including one by Lewis Milestone, Edge Of Darkness), and what a sweet reboot for this hero they dispatched against Axis devils. The fact Flynn suited up with pack master Raoul (rode with Villa) Walsh made (makes!) for joy unconfined. Here's where autuerists and plain comfort seekers smoke consensus pipes over a quartet of derring-do plus nuance the Bond series has tried, but so far failed, to duplicate.

Flynn's rogue aspect showed from initial donning of Allied uniform, the star's once uncomplicated persona coarsened thanks to rape trial trauma. Walsh was just aboard in time for probing what scandal would do to Errol's hero mantle. Theirs was a creative match heaven-sent. "Uncle" Raoul was more a one-of-the-boys sort despite age and accomplishment that commanded respect. Not a martinet like Curtiz, he drank with Flynn while tactfully reigning him in. Walsh viewed the younger man like a son, was heartbroken by Flynn's dissolute ways neither could harness, but spun gold out of seven pairings between 1941-48. Whatever (considerable) merits of Curtiz work gone before, Walsh's are the richest Flynns, and first to consider irresponsibility beneath bravado that characterized EF arrow-splittings and Sea-Hawking of yore. For all of Desperate Journey's joie de vivre, it's still reckless Errol that gets his plane shot down with half a crew lost. Now with war really on, we're put to wondering if Sherwood Forest strategies are best for seeing it's won. Flynn led off sound stages by investigating officers was blight on produce previously graded A. Warners would henceforth blacken him up or laugh off the mess, depending on justice's outcome. A jury's acquittal enabled the latter, which led to ham-fisted frolic of San Antonio and parts of Don Juan. For a meantime of uncertainty, however, there was Walsh and shadings he'd apply to Flynn's ever-coarsening alter-egos.

Northern Pursuit found EF in apparent service to German interests, so believable in that capacity as to almost disappoint us when it's revealed he's under-covering. Then there's Uncertain Glory and Flynn guillotine-bound for murder plus assorted what-all. Could admirers imagine such screen conduct even three years before? Here was what headlines and statutory charges would do for you while cleaner boys were off defending their flag. Of all actors engaging this war at home, Flynn was by far more ambiguous and doubtfully committed, which makes him, of course, most fascinating to observe from a modern perspective. Uncertain Glory was his first go at an unapologetic rotter. Viewers now wondered if this was the real Errol Flynn peeking out at them. Problem again was he essayed it so convincingly as to render a tacked-on sacrifice (for war hostages) unconvincing. Flynn was hitherto accused of playing himself. Maybe now, and under newly trying circumstances, he'd gotten a little too good at it. The best role I've ever had, Errol called it, but Uncertain Glory was heavy going even for those seeking darker corners in this actor's gallery. Walsh referred to this and Northern Pursuit as quickies, but only thirty years after he and Flynn sweated both out. There was a piece of Uncertain Glory's action for EF thanks to a producing scheme he'd contrive with Warner bookkeepers. The idea was to shade taxes otherwise due. Walsh got skittish with the deal and preferred salary directing. Customarily goldbricking Flynn surprised everyone by showing up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for shooting, for now it was in part his money efficiency would be saving.

There was better behavior too on the jewel of this wartime lot, Objective, Burma, through which Errol spent breaks penning his second novel, Showdown, published in 1946. With a few year's buffer since the verdict, he was back to straight heroism, but that's not to say Flynn's dulled down. This may have been the last time he'd look presentable in matinee idol terms that sealed an adoring public's deal. In fact, Walsh so understated Burma as to make it seem near documentary in approach. Was this outcome of Signal Corps footage and actualities running in war-numbed theatres? (Burma arrived late in the conflict). The two and a (nearly) half-hour jungle trek stands tall with They Were Expendable as soberest and maybe best of war studies done during the fact, and was one of the few post-trial jobs Flynn took pride in. For such a brand labeled Action Only, he now bent with every joint too long abused. There'd been a heart attack during Gentleman Jim, plus cigarettes and alcohol stopping his breath when goings proved too strenuous. Walsh got the midnight call to Chez Flynn where the imperfect specimen confided a doctor's estimate of six months left, maybe a year. Well, that was a decade ahead of eventual drop date (1959). By now, the two amigos were well past tippling sessions that fortified completion of increasingly troubled collabs. There was a last, Silver River, after which an out-of-patience Walsh finally threw in the directing towel, leaving Flynn to mercies of product not half so good (Don Juan an exception), and mores the pity, for here's where a star in decline really needed aid and comfort of sympathetic/capable directors. Unfortunately by this time, Errol had used all of them up.


Anonymous Bob said...

I was looking at They Died With Their Boots On last night, mostly due to your previous post on Errol and Olivia.

What a terrific actor! Flynn effortlessly owns They Died from start to finish. I'm not sure I would argue that he was a great actor -- but it would be impossible to find someone with more charm and panache. Always better than Bond!

10:27 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

Errol Flynn was unique in his time and remains so to this day. Is there any other actor in cinema who was equally convincing as action hero in costume dramas, westerns and war dramas? I don't think so. His delightful musical-comedy stint in Thank Your Lucky Stars also makes me wonder if he could have triumphed in that genre, as well.
Nor does Flynn's acting date. He looks great in costume (of course) but his sincere delivery, often mixed with humour, helps to sell the heroics of even some of his most outragious antics (i.e. Desperate Journey) or, at least, have the audience willingly accompany him on that cinematic ride.
The pity is that throughout Flynn's life he was hailed as a personality but no actor. I think Flynn grew to believe that as well. Ironic that the actor himself underrated his own abilities, along with most of the critics of his time. A fourth boxed set of DVD Flynn films just released, however, says all that has to be said about how well his films are received today.

8:09 PM  
Blogger J.A. Morris said...

Better than Bond. Flynn's characters didn't need a Q to give them gadgets to beat the villains.

3:00 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...


That masthead of yours today (Mayer, Roach and Rogers) is really a K-O! (Who'd have guessed that Roach would long out live them all?)

When I was born (Thansgiving day, by the way, one good turkey all deserves another, I guess), Dad was then under contract to Uncle Errol. He sent a telegram of congratulations signed "The Baron". All the nurses I'm told doted on me as word got around the ward that I was "The Errol Flynn Baby". (It's all been downhill since.)

By the way, I did actually get to be in Flynn's actual presence once -- I'm told at the old Garden of Allah, where Flynn was staying, between marriages. I was an infant so have, of course, no memory of it.


5:22 PM  

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