Friday, May 31, 2024

Errol Flynn Goes to War

This essay has nothing to do with Errol Flynn going to war. (He tried to enlist in every branch of the service during WWII, but was declined for health reasons.) It’s not even about the five wartime films he starred in between 1942 and 1945. It started that way — thus the title — but once I saw those five, I wanted to see more of Flynn, and ending up viewing all the films he did for Warner Bros. between 1935 to 1950: from his first starring role in Captain Blood to the termination of his contract after Rocky Mountain. (In a way, the title of the essay isn’t entirely misleading, because in 90% of those films, Flynn is engaged in battle: in historical epics, in swashbucklers, in westerns and in World War II flicks.) I watched 33 films in all; it was a lot of ground to cover, but much of it was highly enjoyable, and a lot of what wasn’t enjoyable was at least informative. We’ll do this in two parts: the first 18 here, and the remaining 15 to follow. And as I did with Margaret Sullavan, I’ll rate — on a scale of 1 to 10 — both the quality of the films and of Flynn’s performances.

So many unflattering facts about Flynn have come to light in the last half-century that it’s become, in many circles, heretical to praise him. There are whole subsections of classic-film fandom who delight in excoriating him. (It’s become a bit obsessive; they refuse to even acknowledge his talents.) They insist that Flynn got by on charm and good looks, and nothing more. But at his best — and he was at his best for quite a few years — it wasn’t his charm and good looks that were so fascinating; it was how fast his mind worked — and how easily he was able to convey that in the subtlest of facial expressions. He engaged your empathy and your interest because he seemed so much more vital than anyone else on the screen. And he imbued his roles with a sense of passion and purpose that were altogether enviable, especially during the leanest years of the Depression. Even when his parts were underwritten — and a lot of them were — he triumphed.

Once he established himself as a Hollywood star, Flynn quickly fell prey to his obsessions and sense of entitlement. He was a hellraiser and a hedonist, a womanizer, a chain smoker, a drunk and on occasion a drug addict. (The studio tried to pry the bottle from his hands, but that just made him find more creative ways of smuggling alcohol onto the set.) Although he had long been undisciplined — showing up late to the set without having studied his lines — by the time the 1940’s rolled around he was turning up drunk, snorting cocaine and suffering from the shakes when he tried to cut back. And then there were the public scandals. Two 17-year-old girls accused him of statutory rape in October of 1942, accusations that went to trial. The studio hired a shark of a defense attorney who made mincemeat of the girls on the stand, and Flynn was ultimately acquitted. It’s popular now to state that that was the beginning of the end — that the rape charges irretrievably dented his popularity. But ironically, they did nothing of the sort; if anything, they made fans rally to his defense and boosted his popularity. (Warner Bros. rushed Gentleman Jim into release in November of 1942, sensing the groundswell of support, and it proved one of Flynn’s most successful films.)

More than the rape trial, it was his health that did him in, and not merely in the ways you might expect. As noted, he tried to enlist during World War II, but was turned down due to recurrent malaria, latent tuberculosis, a prior heart attack and an ongoing murmur, and back issues. The studio — in an incalculably bad move — decided that making his diagnosis public would tarnish his onscreen image, so they withheld all information as to why he wasn’t serving. Instead, they threw him into a series of World War II propaganda flicks, hoping that would limit the damage — but it didn’t. If anything, it only emboldened journalists to label him a draft dodger and a coward. Legend has it his drinking, drug use and carousing caught up with him by the mid-’40s, resulting in performances that were distinctly subpar. But the truth is, he did some of his best work during that period; desperate to be seen as a serious actor, he shaded his customary bravado with improved comic timing and newfound gravitas. His work was rarely as effortless or ebullient as it had once been — he was battling far too many demons — but it was frequently as diverting. But however good his performances, the critics were largely unkind — and occasionally cruel. Having determined he was unpatriotic, they used their reviews to exact their revenge. (No one was more overtly contemptuous than The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther.) Flynn would begin filming a project with renewed vigor — say, 1948’s Silver River — then the reviews would come in for his latest release (Crowther on 1947’s Escape Me Never: “[Flynn] throws himself into his performance with the enthusiasm of a singing-waiter in a Hoboken café”), and they’d send him back to the bottle, drinking so heavily on the set that he was effectively disabled by noon.

Not that I’m in any way trying to characterize Flynn as a victim; he was done in by his narcissism, self-entitlement and self-absorption, and the vast majority of bad decisions that proved his undoing were his to make. I’m usually resistant to watching — much less praising — actors whose behavior I find objectionable. (I haven’t watched a single thing Susan Sarandon has done since 2016. I’m not a forgiving viewer.) But I freely admit to my own hypocrisy where Flynn is concerned. Despite everything I know about his conduct and attitude, I find him fascinating to watch; as the years have slowed me down, the speed and the subtlety with which he achieves his effects mesmerize me now more than ever. And for all he did to tarnish the reputation of the Hollywood actor, he did as much to enhance the mythic nature of Hollywood itself. The quintessential Flynn character — be he a 12th-century archer or a 19th-century Union soldier, a 16th-century pirate or a 20th-century flier — became a symbol: not just of righteousness and of daring, but of joy. Of pure, piercing joy. He became the reason we go to the movies. And to deny him his place in film history seems absurd.

One last bit of misinformation to clear up. The majority of Flynn’s early films were helmed by Warner Bros. contract director Michael Curtiz. Flynn and Curtiz were two strong-willed men who did not get along. It’s charitable to describe Curtiz’s directorial style as callous. To get the effect he wanted in the final sequence in The Charge of the Light Brigade (Flynn’s second starring role), he trip-wired 125 horses; more than two dozen ultimately died. Flynn, a horseman, was so outraged by Curtiz’s heartlessness that he physically assaulted him, and the two had to be pulled apart. Flynn continued to despise Curtiz for being dictatorial and cruel — and indeed, Curtiz would put Flynn’s safety at risk many times. Curtiz, for his part, retaliated by insisting Flynn was no more than a blank slate and labeling him “my beautiful puppet.” He said it so often — and Curtiz’s reputation has so soared over the last few decades, rightfully so — that some authors have come to take it as gospel, and insist that Flynn’s performances suffered notably when he gained enough clout to insist upon other directors. There’s little doubt that Curtiz helped shape Flynn’s earliest performances, but it’s dangerous to overcredit him for his success. It’s worth noting that of Flynn’s greatest performances, only two were directed by Curtiz. Curtiz was a genius — an evil genius; Flynn got along fine without him.

And now onto the films — or as Errol Flynn might’ve put it (and did in his first starring role), “All right, my hearties, follow me.” (He pulled off that line better than I can.)

In 1680s England, Irish doctor Peter Blood is sentenced to slavery in Jamaica for treating a rebel soldier. Relative unknown Errol Flynn was handed the leading role when Robert Donat became unavailable — and it made him a star. Because it was his first leading role — and it’s widely known that director Michael Curtiz had him redo several early scenes late in production, because his nerves were visible on camera — the legend has grown that his performance is formative. That you see glimpses of what he’ll become, but no more. And in some ways, that’s true, but he’s also undeniably splendid. His line readings are far more expressive than you’d expect; he manages to infuse passages of rumination and exposition with energy and emotion, in a way that would make even his most experienced colleagues proud. And he knows how to use his countenance and stature to his advantage. When he stares, he smolders — and standing in a line of slaves about to be sold, his intensity steals focus. His talent and instincts are there; his technique just needs a little work. And Flynn and Olivia de Havilland — as Arabella, the niece of the cruel plantation owner who intends to purchase him — strike sparks from the get-go. She thinks he should be grateful to her for outbidding her uncle; he refuses to thank someone for purchasing him. (She’s right; he’s right — it’s an impasse that won’t be easily resolved.) Arabella has a mind of her own, but that only makes her prey to its passions. She makes it clear that she wants Blood to flatter her, to desire her, to possess her — but when he finally leans in for a kiss, she feigns outrage. (She’s a case study in sexual hypocrisy.) The wardrobe department has no idea how to clothe Flynn — draping him in baggy attire that obscures his lean physique and tall stature — and Curtiz keeps shooting him from beneath his chin; at time he seems to be acting with his upper incisors. And admittedly, Flynn seems to sneer a lot instead of smiling; he’ll soon learn that his smile is one of his best weapons. But his energy is undeniable, and his charisma compelling. And the narrative is really built. It takes Blood from doctor to slave, from pirate king to governor. And Flynn makes every transition not only clear but seamless — portraying a man whom destiny keeps bedeviling, but who remains true to his code and his conscience. Captain Blood has got one of the most shameful deus ex machina turnarounds in screen history, yet screenwriter Casey Robinson — one of Warners’ most reliable scripters — knows exactly how to prepare for it, so you not merely forgive it, but applaud it. There’s one wild coincidence that’s nowhere to be found in Rafael Sabatini’s novel — in which a Spanish ship attacks Port Royal the very night the slaves plan to escape by sea. But it captures — really for the first time — what we’ll come to think of as the quintessential Errol Flynn character: the one so capable of thinking fast on his feet that he leaves his pursuers in his dust. (We’ve already seen a hint of it when Blood brokers a means of escape with two doctors who’ve fallen out of the governor’s favor, then — when he departs and they conspire to thwart his plans — instantly returns to warn them about doing that very thing. He wasn’t listening at the door; his mind just works so fast, it allows him to anticipate their every move. It’s a quality that Flynn is already good at conveying, and future writers will rely upon it heavily.) Marred only by a final scene that’s too coy by half.
Captain Blood: 9
Errol Flynn: 8

You have to sit through a whole lot of drivel to get to the final charge, but it’s a mark of how exciting that final charge is that you pretty much forget the drivel. (Assistant director Jack Sullivan took home an Oscar for it.) In fact, nothing much stays in the mind except the last 12 minutes, although there’s a well-played scene late in the film where Flynn comes to accept that his fiancé Olivia de Havilland wants to be with his brother, Patric Knowles. But that moment is forever in coming. About ten minutes in, de Havilland and Knowles acknowledge that they’ve fallen in love, despite her engagement to Flynn, who’s due in Calcutta any minute. (It’s 1856, and he’s a major with the 27th Lancers in India.) When Knowles announces, “We must tell him the moment he gets here,” you don’t have to have seen a lot of movies to know it’ll be at least an hour — maybe more — before they manage it. They try to bring Flynn up to speed six times in the first 35 minutes, seven in the first 45. Either people interrupt, or Flynn has to run off — or he outright doesn’t believe them. At one point, just as de Havilland is finally ready to come clean, the fort where Flynn is stationed is attacked by Suristani warriors. (The political warfare is so peripheralized in the first half — so subordinated to the romantic twaddle — that after a while you come to feel that the defining feature of British imperialism was its unfortunate tendency to thwart young love.) De Havilland and Knowles are inescapably awful; they’re like characters in a bad operetta: so noble, and so useless. (De Havilland spends so much of the first few reels weeping or sniffling, you almost feel like Flynn is better off without her.) Roughly an hour in, the triangle — which has been dominating the movie — finally gives way to the military maneuvering, which turns out to be a mangling of history that butts the Siege of Cawnpore against elements of the Crimean War — only in reverse chronological order. And sadly, it resorts to the same sort of contrivances that plagued the love story. The narrative is shaped so that Flynn’s commanding officer (Donald Crisp) ignores Flynn‘s intelligence and intuition not once but twice. The first time leads to the fort being ambushed; the second time results in a massacre. And still he keeps insisting to Flynn, “I’m sure you’re quite mistaken in your suspicions.” Screenwriters Rowland Leigh and Michael Jacoby seem to have plotted backwards from the climax — when Flynn takes matters into his own hands and lead the 27th in Tennyson’s epic “Charge” — and determined that the best justification would be a series of military setbacks he couldn’t bear to see repeated. But they didn’t seem to realize that by scripting screw-up after screw-up, they make the commanders of the British Army look like a gathering of village idiots. It’s a mark of how many people in this film are forced to act stupidly in order to keep the plot in motion that when Spring Byington turns up in one of her daffy socialite roles, she seems like the smartest person on the screen. Curtiz’s commitment to the hooey he’s filming hides a lot of the screenplay’s deficiencies, but it’s Flynn who — like his character — is the real hero here. He’s gained enormous assurance since Captain Blood; he’s able to lay back without losing any of his authority. And he carries with him a natural charm, even when there’s nothing to be charmed about; he seems a man captivated by life: a wholly enviable quality. His body language has grown freer, and he’s learned how to use his smile to disarming advantage. You wouldn’t say he’s become a better actor — he was already quite good — but he’s become a more singular one. In a film built on stale stratagems, he’s the one element that feels fresh.
The Charge of the Light Brigade: 7
Errol Flynn: 8

Errol Flynn’s recollections of Green Light were hazy. He once noted — in knocking his own performance — that he wasn’t cut out for nobility, and generations of scribes and viewers have latched onto that, and dismissed the film. But Flynn was misremembering. He doesn’t aim for nobility; he keeps the swagger from his first two adventures and brings it to bear on a Frank Borzage sudser. Flynn imbues his eager young surgeon with a smooth self-satisfaction that isn’t on the page. His doctor doesn’t smile, he grins; he doesn’t walk, he strides. There’s something very glib about him — even when he’s musing on mortality. Life has been good to Dr. Newell Paige; he’s spent his adult years watching all the pieces fall neatly into place: the patients who depend on him, the nurse who worships him, even the cop who counts on him for his daily banter. He makes a sacrifice in order to aid a colleague and mentor, and when the universe doesn’t reward him — or at the very least, step in to set things right — he grows bitter and disillusioned. He’s never had to accept defeat before — let alone accept it well — and he falls to pieces. The film challenges some of the notions inherent in Christianity that were then being espoused and distorted by evangelicals; Flynn‘s character falls prey to the myth of self-sacrifice that was held in high esteem during the dark years of the Depression. And his resulting despondency — and then recklessness — result from his blithe belief that the world will always look out for people like him. The last thing the film needed was someone noble in the role; it would’ve been suffocating. (Leslie Howard was due to star, but had to bow out at the last minute. Howard could do “noble“ for days, and one shudders to think what the film would have become.) As Flynn plays Paige — as the cheekiest of chaps who takes a tumble, then has to redirect his energies to regain his sense of accomplishment and self-satisfaction — he strips the film of the fairytale aura Borzage was so fond of; he thumbs his nose at the promise of otherworldly wisdom that Lloyd Douglas had espoused in his novel. Milton Krims’ screenplay goes on about faith and loyalty and forgiveness — all the ways we can deal with crisis — but Flynn’s approach is almost determinedly pragmatic. He transforms Borzage’s film in much the same way Loretta Young did Man’s Castle and Margaret Sullavan will Three Comrades — he essentially recasts the leading role in his image. Flynn resists the urge to fall prey to the lugubriousness of the material — creating a character you pull for not because he’s self-sacrificing, but because he’s self-assured. (In his quest to steer the film away from the spiritual and toward the practical, Flynn is aided immeasurably by Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who transforms Douglas‘s kindly pastor into a controlling crusader: one who doesn’t so much love God as play God. It’s a reconception of the role that seems fifty years ahead of its time, and one that can no longer function as the story’s moral compass.) In the final reels, Paige makes a big move that’s either brave or reckless — even he doesn’t know which — and as Flynn plays it, you don’t admire him because of willingness to face death, but because of his unwillingness to live without his former sense of self. Flynn knew precisely the message audiences wanted him to deliver; the film — with Anita Louise, Margaret Lindsay and Walter Abel providing sterling support — proved the studio’s second biggest hit of the year.
Green Light: 9
Errol Flynn: 9

Kids, amirite? They discover they look alike, they switch clothes, and still they can’t figure out why no one believes they’re who they say they are. Mark Twain‘s novel is the kind that’s better read than seen; the suspension of disbelief on which the novel hangs is perilously hard to duplicate onscreen. Henry VIII’s son Edward (heir to the throne) and young Tom Canty (a beggar boy with an abusive father) discover they’re practically twins and swap places. And in swoops Claude Rains as the scheming Earl of Hertford, who has long set his sights on becoming the heir apparent’s chief advisor; when he discovers Tom in the Prince’s garments, he threatens him with beheading if he doesn’t pose as the Prince — and carry out the Earl’s commands. (And his power grows all the greater when the King dies.) From the start, Rains is more mincing than malicious; it feels like he’s talking down to his audience, even if that audience is only 10. (The lines don’t help. At one point, he addresses the faux prince as “my little potentate of poverty,” and it’s like watching a warm-up for Dr. Smith on Lost in Space. Can “bubbleheaded booby“ be far behind?) As Tom and Edward, Billy and Bobby Mauch have the rapport you’d expect from real-life twins, and Billy is a good enough actor to show both the stultifying aspects of Tom’s poverty and the thirst for knowledge that keeps him going. (Bobby is a lesser talent, but his limited range isn’t inappropriate for an imperious prince.) But only once does the film live up to its potential. Forced by the Earl to act as King, Tom is given a set of royal decrees to sign: the last of them a tax on windows. And although Tom to this point has been confused and terrified, he defies the Earl and expresses his dismay. He speaks to how when poor people are sick, “their windows are the only outside they have,” and gaining assurance, insists to his advisers, “Besides that, you’re taxing sunshine and light, which don’t belong to us at all, but to God.” He seems like a boy discovering and exercising his sense of outrage, in effect becoming very much a king without realizing it. You get a sense of why Twain’s classic is treasured by both children and adults, and how it resonates differently with each. Adults recognize the novel as a metaphor for the paths children take to adulthood: the lofty ones gain humility, and the meek ones learn assertiveness. It’s a concept that resonates throughout Twain, but the movie — which plays mostly to children — largely misses it. It understands the societal inequities that consume Twain, but it seems largely unaware of the book’s appeal as a twin rite of passage. As the soldier of fortune who comes to Edward’s aid, Flynn doesn’t have enough screentime or specificity of character to do much. (He doesn’t appear until 52 minutes in.) He’s there mostly to rescue Edward and indulge in acts of derring-do; it’s clear that he was given a supporting role — and then top billed — so the studio could cash in on his popularity. He has a nice scene when he engages in combat to save Edward’s life, then beams with delight in seeing that the lad is safe — but when Flynn’s best moments involve swordfighting and smiling, it’s clear that his role is underwritten. That said, the worst thing you can say about the film is that it’s harmless — until the last 30 minutes are given over to the King’s coronation, and then it grows ponderous. Once Flynn rescues Edward, the film desperately needs to cut to the two of them crashing the coronation. But instead, someone got the idea that expanding the ceremony — replete with hymns, processions and sacred rites — would increase the suspense. Just the opposite. You feel like you’re waiting forever for Edward to appear — and then longer still for him to convince the court of his identity; it pretty much destroys any goodwill the film has engendered. You don’t wonder if Edward will reclaim his throne; you wonder if you’ll still be awake when he does.
The Prince and the Pauper: 6
Errol Flynn: 7

Warner Bros. replanted Flynn in the desert landscape that had proven so popular in Charge of the Light Brigade and teamed him with their top female star, Kay Francis. Director William Dieterle spent much of the late ’30s engaged in a series of highly-acclaimed biopics for Warners (including that year’s Oscar-winning Best Picture The Life of Emile Zola), but Another Dawn is closer to the romantic melodramas that would become his stock-in-trade by the mid-’40s: Love Letters, Portrait of Jennie, The Accused — films that tapped into a much more personal style. Another Dawn isn’t nearly as good as those, but its desolate setting casts a spell; Dieterle embraces themes and stylistic conventions that we now think of as noir. Here, Kay Francis settles for marrying an older man she doesn’t love (Ian Hunter), while pining for the younger man (Flynn) who reminds her of her late fiancé. Francis was exhausted at the start of filming, and no sooner had shooting commenced than she requested two months off to recuperate. You can tell which scenes were filmed before her vacation, but she uses her fatigue to her advantage; at her most frail, she makes it clear that the rigors of loving a man who died — and refusing to part with that love — have taken their toll on her. And once she’s fully rested, she’s glorious; decked out in her Orry-Kelly gowns, she’s exactly the kind of glamour goddess that two men would instantly fall for. Hunter is a sturdy enough actor — and a solid enough presence — to transcend the role of cuckold; when he proposes marriage to Francis, he makes it clear how much her companionship will add to his life in the lonely desert region of Dubik, and that he doesn’t require her love to be happy — and you don’t judge him. And Flynn — as Hunter’s adjutant, who falls for Francis, as she does for him — captures all the distress and desire raging within. The dialogue gets awfully flowery at times — but that’s the sort of thing Dieterle was masterful at maneuvering. Near the end, Francis turns up in Flynn’s quarters and announces her plans to leave because she can’t go on “loving you, respecting him, hating myself.” She’s draped in a severe black dress with a soft white ruffle collar (she identifies as both perpetrator and victim), and Dieterle backs her against open shutters that signal her sense of imprisonment. Her eyes well up with tears, and a potentially melodramatic moment grows somehow transcendent. Dieterle creates an atmosphere charged with unexpressed longing — one seemingly at odds with the regimented routine of army life. Erich Korngold‘s ravishing love theme is at one point described by Francis — accurately — as “a melodic will-o’-the-wisp that dares your emotions to follow it.” By day, the steady sway of the palm trees grows almost dizzying; at night, the moon streams through the shutters of the officers’ quarters, casting bars across the characters’ faces: heightening their feelings of futility, pressuring them to act out unwisely. It’s not a setting conducive to sanity. Even the sandstorms — and there’s a doozy near the end — conspire against the characters: as Hunter informs Francis, the natives describe them as “winds of madness — so full of electricity, anyone’s likely to blow a fuse.” Hell, even the military operations provide no relief: as Flynn leads his men on a mission, their horses sinking into the thick desert dunes, Dieterle and cinematographer Tony Gaudio set them upon mountains of sand so high that they practically brush up against the sun — like Icarus on the brink of his own doom. In Dubik, it’s impossible to outrun your obsessions. There are a host of smart lines in scenarist Laird Doyle’s script — loosely based on a play by Somerset Maugham — as well as scattered absurdities. (The officers live in such soundproof quarters that they’re unaware of the sandstorms raging beyond their walls.) Ultimately, you have no idea if the movie will punish Francis and Flynn for their initial indiscretions or reward them for their subsequent self-sacrifice, and that suspense heightens the final scenes. You hope that true love will prevail — but under these circumstances, from such beginnings, does it ever?
Another Dawn: 7
Errol Flynn: 8

A romantic comedy about the moviegoing public’s infatuation with Errol Flynn: how they see him, and how they fantasize about him. It’s basically a piece of studio promotional material, whipped into a bad script and filmed. Errol Flynn‘s wealthy grandmother is intend on turning him into “the perfect specimen”; he’s never allowed to leave the estate, but instead spends all his time being tutored and trained by experts of her choosing. (He’s discovered doing gymnastics while he hangs from a tree limb, all while contemplating Newton’s law of gravity. He’s the perfect blend of brawn and brains — oh, and he’s a virgin, too. Of course he is. He’s pretty much waiting for the right woman — or man — in the audience to have their way with him.) Given that Flynn was nearing 30 at the time, there’s something creepy about the premise. He’s not a nine-year-old being raised to be a model citizen; he’s an adult hostage. As the grandmother, 80-year-old May Robson seems to have forgotten everything she learned from a lifetime of acting; she’s a humorless harridan, bleating all her lines. But then, consider the lines themselves. Upon her first entrance, she barks for her assistant, and Edward Everett Horton appears: “I’m right here.” “Well, of course you are,” she retorts: “I can see you. I’m not blind, am I?” At the breakfast table, when her young ward says she slept like a log, Robson snipes, “Don’t be ridiculous. Logs have bumps. Young ladies do not. You couldn’t possibly sleep like a log.” Admittedly, there’s not a lot you can do to elevate lines of such stinging wit, but perhaps a preoccupied or dithering quality could have added a little dimension or flavor? But let’s presume that’s precisely the performance that director Michael Curtiz demanded of her, because for the first half hour, no one is allowed any colors. When Joan Blondell’s Mona Carter appears — driving her car through the family fence so she can get a peek at Flynn — she can’t just be a reckless driver and a free spirit; she has to be impossibly coy and calculated. Like Robson, her sole reason for speaking seems to be to keep others from doing so. After 30 headache-inducing minutes, Flynn’s Gerald Wicks decides to sneak off to see the world and carve himself a little room to breathe — and the movie starts to breathe as well. His sense of liberation is infectious; Flynn manages to illustrate the joy in simple, newfound pleasures, like singing in an open-air car, or being caught in a rainstorm. Gerald isn’t modest about his being proficient at most applied skills, but he’s also candid about having life lessons to learn — and that’s where Mona comes in. She’s the sweet daughter of an elderly horticulturalist, but there’s an irrepressible rulebreaker inside her that she’s dubbed Tilly. And taking off on an impromptu road trip with this “Tilly” liberates Gerald. Flynn matches Blondell’s gift for light comedy; there’s something almost wistful about Gerald’s awakening. It’s an eye-opening performance in a lot of ways, and you just wish it went on a little longer, because after a lovely half hour, we’re back to business as usual. Former vaudevillian Hugh Herbert appears as an unfunny poet, killing about 15 minutes; Flynn decides to sleep in a freshly-painted room, because getting himself inadvertently poisoned will stretch things for another 10 minutes; then Blondell misconstrues his relationship with his grandmother’s ward — because a pointless misunderstanding might just delay their reconciliation until the final reel. Worst of all, in terms of story-telling cul-de-sacs, when Flynn’s grandmother discovers he’s missing and presumed kidnapped, she can’t even give the police a photograph because “I’ve never taken one.” She can’t even offer a description beyond his gender and height. She’s so defiant, you’re supposed to overlook the absurdity of it — but the transparency of the script is embarrassing. If she could simply describe the grandson she’s been holding hostage for 25 or 30 years, the police might have a chance of finding him. At an absolute low point, after providing the police with no information that would prove helpful to them (except a baby picture of Flynn), Robson and Horton have a contest to see who can punctuate the scene by nodding the most. She nods, he nods, she nods again — it’s a nod off. By that point, you may find you’re doing a little nodding off of your own.
The Perfect Specimen: 5
Errol Flynn: 8

One of those rare movies where everything goes right, and given that it’s the tale of a heroic outlaw first captured in English folklore, that’s all the more remarkable; it’s not the kind of undertaking studios — Warner Bros. in particular — were known for. Yes, everyone concerned had the 1922 silent film to draw on, but sound changed everything: getting the language right — and the acting approach consistent — was crucial. Given Flynn’s heavy screen time, it’s not unreasonable to suppose the rest of the cast took their cue from his performance — because it’s that performance that sets the tone. Ten minutes in, Flynn’s Robin Hood interrupts a giant banquet hosted by Prince John, who has seized the Regency in his brother King Richard’s absence. Earlier, Robin had prevented Prince John’s henchman, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), from slaying a starving Saxon who had killed a deer, an act punishable by death; Flynn frightened him away merely by loading an arrow into his bow. (Sir Robin, we learn, is known throughout the kingdom as “the deadliest archer in England.”) Other heroes might’ve seen that as making their point: I will always be around to defend the less fortunate. But not Flynn’s Robin Hood. He’s given to bold gestures: a man consumed not merely with living up to his reputation, but with exceeding it. And thus that evening, unwelcome and unannounced, he crashes the Prince’s party with a giant stag slung over his shoulders — replacing one deer for another, as it were. And as he steadily advances toward the banquet table, his thighs practically bursting through those green tights from the weight of the stag, you’re witness to a sight at once outrageous and formidable. Pretty much everything you need to know about the character — his impudence and confidence, his wit and daring, his bravura and foolhardiness — is conveyed in that one walk. Flynn is cheeky and sincere, restless and righteous. (It’s the first in a string of five exceptional performances.) He gently sends up the material, but with nothing but affection. He never talks down to the audience; on the contrary, he lifts them up. When his Robin Hood laughs — frequently high on a boulder or a hill — he laughs just a touch longer than you would imagine, and you intuit that it’s driven by unadulterated joy: something most of us are unfamiliar with, but which — when we hear it — sounds instinctively right. What distinguishes The Adventures of Robin Hood most — and Flynn’s performance especially — is that it doesn’t boil down so much to the expected “rebellion against tyranny” story-line; instead, Robin Hood is about the ability to share and rediscover joy. (Small wonder that it registered with Depression-era audiences, and that it’s never gone out of style.) It’s about the prim and contemptuous Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland) learning the pleasures of chewing down on a mutton leg, and it’s about Robin and Little John (Alan Hale, who’d become Flynn’s frequent sidekick) making introductions by enjoying a quarter-staff battle atop a log over a stream. Robin’s merry men don’t join him because of an eagerness to redistribute wealth; they join him because — in the face of poverty and cruelty — he makes them feel alive again. The other actors match Flynn’s slightly heightened style of playing, and the movie moves along blissfully from event to event, culminating in one of the greatest climactic scenes in all of filmdom: the duel between Robin Hood and Sir Guy of Gisbourne. It’s a credit to Flynn and Rathbone and director Michael Curtiz, of course, but also to the film’s unsung, uncredited hero, fencing master Fred Cavins. Cavins knows not only all the moves to dazzle the eye, but how best to spotlight his stars. (Rathbone was the best fencing actor in Hollywood, while Flynn relied on his athleticism to see him through.) But he also understands how to tell a story; he knows how to delineate — through swordplay — how Flynn’s raw fury measures up against Rathbone’s cool superiority. And Curtiz knows, too. At one point, Rathbone pins Flynn against a wall, and Curtiz closes in on Flynn’s eyes darting intensely, searching for a solution — the sort of thing Flynn did better than anyone on the screen. His face is awash in sweat and blood, and we realize he’s restlessly alive in a way that Sir Guy of Gisbourne — for all Rathbone’s delicious malice — will never be. And as the swordfight nears its climax, Curtiz positions his camera behind Rathbone, letting you see Flynn face on, and you feel you’ve never seen anyone command a sword with such force. You recognize that Robin has never had to face a foe like this, but you recognize too that the prospect energizes him. Because what Flynn’s Robin Hood understands so well is that once you crash a party (and that party might be a banquet, an archery match or a coronation), you stay as long as you can — but you always have an escape plan. You always know how to access the nearest exit. Until you don’t, and then you better be everything you say you are.
The Adventures of Robin Hood: 10
Errol Flynn: 10

The fast talk that distinguished a lot of screwballs had its origins in the newspaper comedies of the early ‘30s; it’s unsurprising that screwballs returned to that setting so often as a springboard for their stories. Warner Bros. decided to rip off MGM’s 1936 hit Libeled Lady — which had embroiled four of the studio’s biggest stars in a tale of a newspaper editor and a spoiled heiress — and did so blatantly, right down to the opening credits, with the four leads (here, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Patric Knowles and Rosalind Russell) strolling arm in arm towards the camera. But whereas MGM’s Jack Conway was a competent contract director at best — resulting in a film that’s commendable but rarely intoxicating — Curtiz had a gift for fluid camera movement and composition. Four’s a Crowd is the “exception that proves the rule” screwball, the one that — on the face of it — makes all the usual mistakes: sacrificing clarity for speed, piling on too many improbable plot twists and moving pieces, and keeping the pace so frantic that the romance doesn’t get its due. But Curtiz and writer Casey Robinson (who did Captain Blood, and would go on to pen some of Warner Bros’ shrewdest adaptations, including Dark Victory, Now, Voyager and Saratoga Trunk) get away with it by linking the excesses to the character they create for Flynn: public relations giant Robert Lansford, who feeds on frenzy. (He ensnares impossibly large clients with impossibly large promises — and if the client he’s targeting has no need for good publicity, he’ll rain such bad publicity on their heads, they’ll practically cry out for his services.) The narrative — which barrels along like the model train race that’s the film’s centerpiece —doubles down on the shifting alliances and entanglements emblematic of screwball, but makes them a by-product of Lansford’s strategy of ruling through chaos and misdirection. (And the more chaos rules, the more enlivened Flynn becomes.) There are dizzying tracking shots and whip pans that seem tied to Lansford’s gleeful sense of mayhem and to the havoc he leaves in his wake. De Havilland doesn’t really convince as an adenoidal airhead (she’s given the “runaway heiress” role that had practically become a staple of screwball, and at times she seems to be channeling parts of Carole Lombard — but the wrong parts), but Knowles fully convinces as a lunkhead. And Roz Russell is a revelation; having been confined mostly to dramatic roles, she gets her first crack at the hard-driven, fast-talking reporter she’ll immortalize in His Girl Friday. Her breezy stride sets the pace at the start, and she keeps threatening to walk off with the film. In her standoffs with Flynn, the two prove to be unexpected screwball soulmates; they both share a gift for switching strategies mid-sentence, and you can grow dizzy keeping track of who has the upper hand. Walter Connolly is the immovable object to Flynn’s irresistible force, and Melville Cooper is the butler content to indulge Connolly’s childish predilections. Throughout the film, the four principals switch partners so casually and frequently, you have no idea who’ll end up with whom. But Robinson and Curtiz scatter just enough clues — and Flynn so carefully modulates his behavior with each of the women — that the last-minute pairings seem utterly sensible and satisfying. (They seem that way now. Audiences at the time hated them, and it led to the film being Flynn’s first flop. Curtiz later speculated that if they’d simply flipped the final pairings, it would’ve been a hit. It would’ve, but it also would’ve been a far lesser film.)
Four’s a Crowd: 9
Errol Flynn: 9

Film critic Pauline Kael once noted that Bette Davis had no gift for masochism. She was referencing The Old Maid, but it’s in evidence even more forcefully here. In this period drama set in 1904, Davis falls in love with Flynn, a newspaper man plagued with self doubts, and however bad things get — however impoverished they become — she sticks with him, alerting us at every opportunity — with every forced bit of cheer or pained smile — how much she doesn’t mind suffering for love. (At moments like this, she’s not the one who’s suffering.) It’s never clear whether she’s staying with him out of love or loyalty or shame, but one thing is clear: her nobility grows so suffocating that it practically justifies his wanderlust. (The film that emerges is clearly not the one the creators thought they were telling.) Davis uncharacteristically has moments that verge on the laughable, telegraphing a collapse or a breakdown so unsubtly that she saps all the suspense out of the scene. The Sisters is a friendly yet fairly wretched film that does in even the most polished participants; you’d be hard-pressed to think of another movie in which Beulah Bondi and Henry Travers begin to grate on you so consistently. It’s Flynn who keeps the movie propped up when everyone else is getting on your nerves. He manages to keep it light, even when his character is at his most irritable. He finds a mix of sincerity and swagger that feels fresh — and he tempers it in all the right ways. His terror at meeting Davis’s family, his puppy-dog insistence that no woman so wonderful could possibly love him — he gets you on his side. The Sisters shows Flynn‘s genius for conveying aspects of his character that even he himself is not aware of; he’s able to delineate — with almost obscene clarity — between his dreams and his delusions. When he promises Davis that he’ll finish his first novel, his tone is so buoyant that want to believe him — but you’re also aware that he’s talking a touch too quickly, and you spot his eyes widening as he speaks — and you know he’s lying to himself. He means what he says, but he’ll never be able to follow through on it. And as a result, you don’t mind at all, because you can see his heart is in the right place. He plays a man who can’t live up to his own — let alone others’ — expectations, and Flynn is quite brilliant at letting you see all the shortcomings that keep him from succeeding. He so gets you inside his head, you expect him to fail long even before he actually does — and therefore, you’re already prepared to forgive him. He runs out on his wife — literally takes a slow boat to China — and still you don’t condemn him. The Sisters was supposed to end with Davis marrying her boss, Ian Hunter; that’s how it was previewed. But audiences so objected that the final scenes had to be reshot, so that Davis and Flynn could reconcile. Despite everything he’d done, audiences still saw him as Davis’s happy ending. It’s the Flynn performance no one talks about — because really, who wants to discuss this musty little movie? But he’s the one element that sparkles. Without a doubt, one of his top five performances.
The Sisters: 6
Errol Flynn: 10

A remake of the 1930 film of the same name, using the same script and much of the same aerial footage. The 39th Squadron of the Royal Air Corps is stationed just a few miles from enemy lines in 1915 France. As head of the squadron, Basil Rathbone is beholden to orders from headquarters; it’s his job to dispatch fliers — even new recruits who have barely gotten their bearings — on what frequently amount to suicide missions. It’s doubtful Rathbone’s eyes ever looked so sad; he’s sending young men to their doom, but he’s the one who looks like a dead man walking. As the squadron’s veteran fliers, Flynn and David Niven retain the joie de vivre that Rathbone has lost. Between missions, they distract and entertain themselves with gramophone tunes and pillow fights: whatever will get their mind off what they’ve been through. They’re forced to live in the moment (and celebrate it) because they never know which might be their last. Every time the squadron loses men — which is pretty much on every mission — more callow, inexperienced young men are sent to fill the ranks; they arrived wide-eyed and eager — completely unprepared for what awaits them — and Flynn is there to size them up, give them tips for coming back in one piece, and disguise the horror and fear he feels for him. Flynn’s gift for modulating his machismo with a certain self-awareness — that quality that helped Robin Hood soar — finds its use here too: he smiles a bit too broadly, and laughs a bit too loudly. It’s his responsibility to keep up morale — that’s not only the role he’s assumed within the squadron, it’s his own defense mechanism. Flynn is at a remarkable point in his career where his instincts are impeccable, and his technique commanding. Flynn and Niven took a house together during the filming, and their camaraderie bled onto the screen. (Watching The Dawn Patrol, it’s tempting to declare that Niven was Flynn’s best partner.) There’s a playfulness in his delivery — and an unpredictability in his inflections — that you won’t hear in any other film. The comfort that Flynn feels with Niven lets him soar to new heights of spontaneity. Then their characters take off on an unauthorized revenge mission (a bombing raid just across enemy lines) that goes so unexpectedly well, it gets Rathbone promoted — and Flynn is forced to take his place. The script doesn’t detail Flynn’s descent from hedonistic flier to tortured squadron head; Flynn lets us see instantly how soul-crushing the promotion has been. Sitting at his new desk, he stares out like a victim of shell shock. When the door opens, and a shaft of light hits the room, he squints and turns away, like a man shielding himself from the consequences of his own actions. He doesn’t internalize his fear; he exposes it in surprising ways. In no other film does Flynn show such an aptitude for props — and not just for employing them, but for using them to reveal trauma his character is unaware of: fiddling with a newspaper while recalling a failed mission; or unconsciously tapping a table as he waits to see which fliers return from a mission; or nervously chewing on a pencil. The film, directed by Edmund Goulding, is more polished than the original — but just as powerful. Late in the film, Niven’s younger brother arrives: the latest unseasoned recruit. His fate is pretty much sealed when he announces proudly he’s had nine hours of flight training — not nearly enough to face off against far more experienced fliers. You steel yourself for his death, but still: when a German flier targets him during his first mission — riddling his plane with bullets, then shooting him as he plummets to his death (all while Niven looks on helpless) — it’s worse than you could have imagined. Although you think you know all about the horrors of war, the film keeps you naive enough to the realities of dogfighting until the final reels, when you’re dealt nearly as cruel a blow as the fliers themselves.
The Dawn Patrol: 10
Errol Flynn: 10

For most of the ‘30s, westerns were relegated to B movies. But in 1939, a quintet of major-studio releases — Paramount’s Union Pacific, Universal’s Destry Rides Again, United Artists’ Stagecoach, Twentieth Century-Fox’s Jesse James and Warner Bros’ own Dodge City — proved that the genre could be expanded with A-list talent and reap huge artistic and financial rewards. Dodge City makes use of all of the tropes that became common in westerns — the barroom brawl, the stampede, the runaway stagecoach, the climactic shootout atop a moving train (that’s on fire, no less) — and shows how exhilarating they can be given a little funding and finesse. A complaint commonly lodged at the film is that it’s too unfocused and unhurried until an hour in, when cattle agent Wade Hatton (Flynn) agrees to become the new sheriff of crime-ridden Dodge City. But that’s precisely the point. Director Michael Curtiz understands the pitfalls of the premise — that in films of this sort, the untamed villainy can seem invigorating, and when the lawman moves in, he grinds the film to a halt with his earnestness and righteousness. The way Curtiz shoots it, he justifies the premise: Dodge City becomes a better town — and Dodge City a better film — when Flynn takes over. You believe he creates a town that people would flock to, because the film itself grows infinitely more inviting once he becomes sheriff. The event that prompts his decision — the violent death of a young boy on just another day in Dodge — is stunningly shot; it’s prolonged and painful, and you understand instantly why it would be the last straw for a decent man like Hatton. (He cradles the young boy in his arm tenderly, then realizes it’s too late and lays him down, as his mother begins to weep over his lifeless body.) Hatton murmurs, “It’s got to stop,” and when Curtiz fades from a shot of the boy’s paper cutout badge to the real thing being affixed to Flynn’s belt, then to headlines announcing — in all caps — Hatton Becomes Sheriff, and finally to a montage of him cleaning up the town, you’re touched with a communal sense of pride, even in the privacy of your living room. (You can well imagine the cheering that must’ve accompanied the moment in the theatre.) Olivia de Havilland isn’t well-served by the film — but then, aside from Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood, she wasn’t particularly well-served by any of the films she did with Flynn, and you can tell why she was eager to get out of doing them. Early on, Hatton is accompanying a wagon train of pioneers to Dodge City — including her character Abbie Irving and her brother Lee (William Lundigan). Lee dies en route, and it’s not Wade’s fault — merely the by-product of an act he’s forced to commit in self-defense — but Abbie nonetheless spends the next 45 minutes berating him. She comes across as irrational. Her change of heart occurs during a picnic that’s lovingly captured, but still: when de Havilland’s character only seems to exist during those moments when the scenarists manage to break away from Flynn’s latest adventure, you sympathize with her struggle to create a consistent characterization. (There seem to be about three different Abbies in this film; at one point, with no warning, she’s reinvented as a journalist. Even the villains — Bruce Cabot and Victor Jory — are better cared for.) But even when the film makes the occasional misstep, you can still look forward to Flynn’s costumes. It’s a parade of shirts of different colors and fabrics; when they can’t change the shirt, they add a ribbon tie, and before the ribbon tie can wear out its welcome, it lengthens into a bandana. No cowboy had a better wardrobe. Even when Flynn is waiting in the wings, he exudes a breeziness that’s irresistible — and when he finally gets his turn in the spotlight, he sets the stage on fire. It’s the most starstruck of westerns.
Dodge City: 8
Errol Flynn: 9

The tumultuous relationship between Elizabeth I and Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex, as filtered through the tumultuous relationship between Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. Two of Warner Brothers contract writers Norman Reilly Raine and Æneas MacKenzie were assigned to adapt Maxwell Anderson’s 1930 play Elizabeth the Queen, and they did a creditable job; they kept only 10% of Anderson’s blank verse intact, but they had good ideas how to condense and simplify the rest — and by and large, they opened up the story nicely. (An early scene where lady-in-waiting Olivia de Havilland deliberately insults the Queen in song — an invention of the scenarists — is preposterous, but no doubt they were charged with enlarging de Havilland’s role.) Sol Polito’s cinematography and Anton Grot’s art direction were deservingly Oscar nominated (among the five technical nods the film received), and director Michael Curtiz turns pretty much every entrance and exit into an event. Of the supporting players, de Havilland, Donald Crisp, Nanette Fabray, Henry Stephenson and Henry Daniell are splendid, and Vincent Price and Alan Hale just a touch less so. Which brings us to the two leads, Bette Davis and Errol Flynn — both problematic in different ways. (Davis wanted the studio to hire Laurence Olivier to play Essex, but the powers that be — not unreasonably — wanted their biggest moneymaker; she thought Flynn was a lousy actor and let him know it.) Flynn has good scenes and good moments throughout: when he returns from battle, and Elizabeth showers everyone with favors except him, and jolts of surprise dart across his face; when he mocks Price’s Sir Walter Raleigh for his sartorial affectations; when an unsuccessful campaign in Ireland leaves him howling about injustice — and anytime he’s romancing or damning the Queen. Flynn can’t quite capture the rashness in Essex’s nature that consistently trips him up, but that’s a minor issue. Far more damaging is that he doesn’t seem to understand the arc of his character: wrestling with his lust for power and his longing for the queen, until he comes to realize the two are incompatible — and that he will always be a threat to her. And because Flynn doesn’t seem to grasp this essential conflict, it feels like there are pieces of his performance missing throughout; in places where the subtext is desperately called for, he goes limp. (His epiphany at the end — watered down in the screenplay from Anderson’s original, but still there — doesn’t come off, because Flynn seems like he never gave it much thought till then.) The wonder is, you really can’t say the movie suffers greatly for all his unevenness and inadequacies. He cuts such a dashing figure — and there’s an openness about his face: a vulnerability, almost a boyish hurt that you’re unaccustomed to seeing — that you understand why England loves him more than their queen, and why he’s such a threat to her. As for Davis, she walks a remarkable tightrope; her queen is a nervous and furious set of old-age mannerisms — her fingers are forever fidgeting, her face twitches and her lips quiver, and even standing authoritatively with her hands at her hips, her elbows take on a life of their own — but it never descends into the kind of self-parody that will start to consume her performances just five years later in Mr. Skeffington. She’s so tightly wound, it feels like she’s about to explode: less a force of nature than a wild animal caged in her own body. Where Davis fails is in communicating the love for Essex that threatens to override her common sense and her devotion to her subjects. She nails all the speeches to others where she despairs of her love for him, but when she’s alone with Flynn, her disaffection with her costar bleeds onto the screen. Oh, Davis softens her mannerisms, but you never once sense how glorious Essex makes Elizabeth feel, or the desire and attraction raging inside her: only her suspicions, inner torment and fear of a tragic ending for them both. And because of that, the love affair at the heart of the story never takes flight. There’s a reason that, for all of Davis’s triumph of technique here — and despite the acclaim accorded the film itself — it was Dark Victory that won her the awards that year; she not only creates a character as vivid and memorable, but sells the love story. (When you can convince audiences of your hunger for George Brent, but not for Errol Flynn, you’re letting your personal feelings cloud your performance.) It’s one of Erich Korngold’s most intrusive scores — the music feels nonstop, and his love theme rips off “Blue Moon.” You start to long for someone to speak without a full-throated orchestra telling you how to feel.
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex: 8
Errol Flynn: 7

Errol Flynn was Warners’ top box-office draw in 1940 and 1941; incredibly, of the six screenplays produced for him during those two years, only one is great. This isn’t it. It’s hard to imagine how screenwriter Robert Buckner summarized this script for the studio heads. “A Union intelligence officer falls for a Confederate spy”? Possibly. Or maybe “Southern sympathizers try to cart five million in gold across country to aid the war effort”? Or how about “Americans divided by Civil War unite in their hatred of Mexicans”? It’s hard to say what the pitch for Virginia City was, but it’s equally hard to imagine a more unbalanced, less focused piece of writing. It seems pretty clear that the story was greenlighted when Dodge City became a hit — but it hardly seems written to showcase Flynn at all; at times, Flynn seems to be playing second fiddle to Confederate officer Randolph Scott. (You can easily imagine a version where Flynn and Scott switch roles.) And an inordinate amount of time is spent watching the Confederate wagon train roll across the country. It’s beautifully filmed, but in most westerns involving a long trek, we’re invested in the voyage — and marvel at the bravery and endurance of the travelers, because we’re rooting for them. But here we’re rooting for them to fail. Flynn is our hero. So all the time spent watching the passengers cross streams and desert terrain — and losing a child that they then have to bury — feels like padding, because all we’re waiting for is for Flynn to overtake them. The point of view seems muddied throughout Virginia City. So much footage is devoted to the Confederacy’s ingenious plan for transporting the gold and so little to the Yankees making shrewd decisions to thwart them — at a key point, Flynn’s superior has to make a dunderhead move, just so the movie can fill out its running time — that the whole film feels off kilter. And there’s a shocking lack of suspense. Every plan is laid out ahead of time, in specificity. Scott announces he’s going to abduct Flynn, using Miriam Hopkins as bait; he announces he’s going to use Humphrey Bogart to distract the Union officers from spotting the wagon train leaving town. And that’s what happens; Buckner gives us no opportunity to be surprised. Flynn is fine, but he rarely has a chance to shine. But even if Flynn’s role had been built up, even if the script had been overhauled, would the film have been able to weather Miriam Hopkins? Much is made of the improbability of casting Bogart as a Mexican bandit, and yes, he’s pretty awful, but it’s Hopkins who’s unwatchable. She chews into her lines so greedily, it’s like she’s plotting her comeback. She never remotely convinces as a Southern belle, let alone one spying for the Confederacy by working as a dance hall girl. When she’s asked to enact simple gestures — reacting to an explosion far away, or protesting when Flynn carries her over a stream — she shakes her fist in fear or fury, like she’s hellbent on awakening the gods. When she’s called upon to grow serious, she casts her countenance downwards and closes her eyes, as if reflecting on the solemnity of the moment. And when she secures an audience with Abraham Lincoln in the final scene, she’s so tremulous that she might as well be kneeling before Jehovah himself. Everything about her performance seems self-aware and overbaked; she never once seems to settle in. At one point in the film, she announces to Scott that she feels dead inside — and you can’t help but giggle. Hopkins has been overplaying everything so monstrously that if this is indeed her idea of “dead inside,” then when she finally comes back to life, they’d better be prepared to shoot her on sight.
Virginia City: 5
Errol Flynn: 7

The costumes were reused from The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex; some of the battle footage was lifted from Captain Blood. Olivia de Havilland refused to do the film and was replaced by Brenda Marshall. Seton Miller, an esteemed screenwriter, turned in his script, then producer Hal Wallis brought in the equally gifted Howard Koch to do a rewrite — and Miller and Koch got into a showdown over who did what, and whose name should appear first. And you know: who cares? At the end of the day, for all the borrowing and the bartering, the film feels seamless — and it feels like an original. The Sea Hawk is the studio system at its most magical. In a whole lot of Flynn adventures, you marvel at the heroics and grit your teeth through the rest. The Sea Hawk is the unusual one where the action sequences are as glorious as ever, but you can’t wait to get back to the other goodies — here, the goings-on at court, particularly those that involve Flora Robson’s Queen Elizabeth I. She’s equal parts coquette, minx and biddy: proud — yet eager to be flattered; fierce — but easily amused. She brandishes each carefully chosen word like a weapon. Early on, she admonishes Flynn’s buccaneer Geoffrey Thorpe and his Sea Hawks — in a fiery speech — for plundering a Spanish sailing vessel that was bringing an ambassador to court. (It was being manned by English slaves, whom Flynn managed to set free; he feels he had a moral right, and so do we.) She insists that he discontinue his piracy under the guise of patriotism. But once the Queen retires to her chambers, and Thorpe joins her, the mood changes, and their extended scene amounts to a mutual seduction. When he proposes a means of stuffing the coffers of England by stealing from Spain — in a crafty manner that King Philip won’t be able to frame as a declaration of war — she insists with authority, “If you undertook such a venture, you would do so without the Queen of England” — then softens, with a smile: “But you would take with you the grateful affection of Elizabeth.” Who can resist such a woman? Thorpe can’t. Flynn can’t. We can’t. The script boasts the kind of eloquence you’re unaccustomed to in this sort of film, and director Michael Curtiz — in his ninth film with Flynn — keeps hitting fresh notes. A love scene in a rose garden is shot from behind an arboretum, like a tableau; a double ambush in the Panamanian jungle is so carefully choreographed, it feels a bit like a ballet. When Flynn and his men emerge from the jungle onto the beach, you can practically feel the cool of the ocean on their faces, and their ensuing row back to their ship is both elegiac and ethereal. (The Panama passages are among Erich Korngold’s most exquisite.) Curtiz scales down his panoramic impulses and engages in tighter shots that feel infused with feeling; each time one of Flynn’s men dies, Curtiz captures it in a way that makes you ache a little at the loss. And Flynn, too, modulates his customary style. The Sea Hawk is the rare Flynn adventure where his character seems aware of — and humbled by — life’s uncertainties. He still sports his familiar bravado, but he’s also seen enough to know that his conviction in his own moral right means very little. You sense in him a man fully aware of how quickly everything — his own crew, his own freedom — can slip away. The attraction between Flynn and Marshall isn’t as evident as you expect (you’ve grown used to the instant chemistry between Flynn and de Havilland), but its tentativeness works on its own terms, and by the time they’re separated, Marshall comes into her own, as she collapses upon learning that the man she loves has fallen into a Spanish trap. (She has a funny bit where she professes her love for Flynn during a carriage ride, and he’s too consumed with saving England to respond — so she grabs him and kisses him to prove her point.) Perhaps the loveliest thing about The Sea Hawk is that even when Flynn’s men see their fortunes turn and are put to work as galley slaves on a Spanish vessel (they go from freeing slaves to being slaves), they don’t wait for others to bail them out; they bail themselves out. That’s part of the allegorical context in which the vocally anti-fascist Koch placed the film, and it was especially effective during the early years of World War II; the notion of England having to fend for itself against the rising tide spoke plainly and powerfully to audiences. (Robson’s final speech calls for the need “to prepare our nation for a war that none of us wants, least of all your Queen.”) But it’s no less compelling today; it’s shrewd and well-judged, like pretty much everything about The Sea Hawk.
The Sea Hawk: 10
Errol Flynn: 10

It’s 1854, and we’re introduced to a barrack of West Point cadets — including Flynn, Ronald Reagan, Van Heflin, William Lundigan and others. Heflin, a Northerner and abolitionist, insults the Virginia-born Flynn by referencing the Southerners’ abuse of their slaves. Flynn stares at him sad-eyed, and you’re left wondering whose side you’re supposed to be on: the surly Northerner or the wounded Southerner? You don’t have to wait long to find out. Heflin is expelled by West Point as an “agent of conspirators.” He’s the bad guy. Flynn and his cronies receive a slap on the wrist. They’re the good guys. Santa Fe Trail is about a group of West Point graduates banished to the “suicide station“ of Leavenworth, Kansas, and charged with hunting down a killer named John Brown. In real life, Brown was a tortured abolitionist whose deeply moral nature convinced him that some issues were worth fighting — and dying — for; in Santa Fe Trail, he’s a terrorist. As Robert Buckner scripts him — and as Raymond Massey is forced to play him — Brown is defined by his growing advocacy for violence, his religious fanaticism and his Messianic complex; the script ignores the good and necessary work he did and makes the case that if his blood-soaked self-absorption hadn’t practically forced the nation into civil war, the South would have simply abolished slavery on its own in the years that followed. (Flynn, warmly and with great assurance, posits that theory not once, but twice. He’s our hero — why would he lie to us?) As in Dodge City, de Havilland plays Lundigan’s sister, but here — no doubt in response to her dissatisfaction with the earlier film — Buckner gives her something of a part to play. The triangle with her, Flynn and Reagan isn’t the least big convincing, but her role managing her father‘s shipping company energizes her — she taps into a nice tomboy charm. And she’s got a good head on her shoulders. When Flynn makes his obligatory pitch, and she turns him down, he argues that she hasn’t any heart. “Yes, I have,“ she insists, “and it’s going to stay right where it is. I don’t know a thing about you. My brother thinks you’re wonderful, but he was dropped on his head as a baby.” She and Flynn are both in fine form. He’s playing one of the most charming slave owners to grace the silver screen — but on the bright side, he’s doing it well. But of course, his role as a charming slave owner is evocative of exactly where the film goes wrong. Studios are so terrified of offending moviegoers south of the Mason-Dixon line that — 80 years after the Civil War — they’re stuck both-sidesing its root cause (at a low point, Flynn reminds de Havilland, “It isn’t our job to decide who’s right and who’s wrong about slavery”); the easiest way to create conflict is to reimagine John Brown as the monster in a horror flick. The first half has that propulsive quality that Michael Curtiz brings to pretty much everything he films — it’s probably his best work on any Flynn Western — and despite the political and historical absurdities, it remains highly watchable, in a five-car pileup sort of way; the second half flails every which way for story-lines, and even Curtiz can’t focus or tame it. If you know anything about history, you know where the story is headed, but you can’t believe all the detours it’s taking along the way, including a visit to a fortune-telling Native American mystic, a hunt for Ronald Reagan‘s future bride and a high-society waltz that Alan Hale and Guinn Williams grow intent on crashing. Eventually, Brown is hanged (as he was in real life) — but happily, Flynn and de Havilland are married directly after, so moviegoers can focus on the promise of domestic bliss and not on a sordid slice of domestic history.
Santa Fe Trail: 4
Errol Flynn: 8

When he’s not working a dull, dreary job as an investment banker, Errol Flynn entertains himself by secretly writing mystery novels — spicy roman à clefs that expose and mock the pretensions of his cultured crowd, particularly the members of his wife and mother-in-law’s social circle. His hobby would be so frowned upon at home that he’s taken a house in the suburbs to do his writing, and often sneaks into his Manhattan apartment in the middle of the night by climbing a ladder to his bedroom window, tiptoeing in after his wife has fallen asleep and pretending — if she awakens — that he got in hours earlier. And all would be well if Flynn hadn’t had gotten involved in his own murder mystery, one he’s determined to solve ahead of the police. The first third of Footsteps in the Dark is lukewarm and messy: the storytelling confusing and the playing halfhearted. A lot of the playing stays halfhearted. There are good character actors who seem to have no idea what to do with the lame lines and vague characterizations — William Frawley, as a cop with a chip on his shoulder, is particularly adrift, but even Alan Hale, as a police inspector, seems too cheery to be of much consequence: too amiable, even when the script requires him to be adversarial. Flynn is agreeable throughout, but at times when he’s called upon to be boisterous or outrageous — particularly when he goes undercover as a Texas oil baron to seduce a stripper with a secret (an overbearing Lee Patrick) — his performance seems too careful; you wonder what’s holding him back. (He could have just seized upon the syrupy Southern drawl that Miriam Hopkins massacred in Virginia City and done quite well by himself.) A couple of Flynn’s bits — a nifty moment impersonating a grandfather clock, a running gag where he distracts his mother-in-law with flattery — come off like clockwork, so you can’t imagine why he’s shying away from the most sustained comic routine in the film. Although Flynn improves by the second half, and the movie builds up a head of steam as it rushes towards its conclusion, it’s really only in the last twenty minutes that it catches fire, when — spoiler, but you won’t care — Flynn’s onscreen wife Brenda Marshall is accused of murder, because she had the bad luck to track her husband to an apartment with a corpse. As the police invade Flynn and Marshall’s upscale home, and you watch everyone spring to life — Flynn, Frawley, plus Allen Jenkins — you’re likely to sift through all the scenes from the film in your head and realize the only ones that have consistently worked have been the ones with Marshall. She’s the best thing about the movie; she balances her yearning for propriety, her outrage at anything that upsets it and the fears about her husband that she can’t seem to shake — and she has the solid comic chops that seem to elude just about everybody else (with the exception of Lucile Watson, as her onscreen mother — she’s a delight). She even manages to triumph in what should be a horribly misogynistic moment: when she buys a ticket to a performance by the burlesque queen that she fears her husband is seeing — then, once she returns home, tries emulating her moves in order to grow more attractive and alluring. She manages to be funny and sexy and satiric — hell, she even salvages the requisite moment when a servant walks in in the middle of her striptease. Marshall multitasks effortlessly, in a film that’s often struggling to get just one thing right at a time. In the final scene, Marshall asserts her importance in the film — and in her husband’s life — by insisting that if he’s going to go on solving murders, she’s going with him. You instantly imagine how nicely that partnership might work — but alas, the film was such a dud that Warners scuttled their plans for a sequel.
Footsteps in the Dark: 6
Errol Flynn: 7

Released just three months before Pearl Harbor, it’s a loving salute to our country’s naval forces — in particular, the aircraft of the time. Filmed with the support of the U.S. Navy — with unprecedented access to the Air Station at Coronado — it’s a historical documentation of planes that, ironically, were already becoming obsolete. The extended sequences of aircraft in formation were considered breathtaking in 1941; they’d probably still be breathtaking if you could catch the movie on a wide screen. (It’s the only Flynn film in my roundup that suffers greatly from being resized for TV.) The plot doesn’t suffer at all, though; it was never good. Errol Flynn and Fred MacMurray were top billed, and scripting chores handed to aviator-turned-screenwriter Frank Wead and the uninspired Robert Buckner. Near the start, Flynn — a doctor stationed at a naval base in Honolulu — watches the fliers doing their maneuvers and remarks, “We sort of symbolize the uncertainty of life for those pilots. No wonder they don’t love us.” That’s the closest the writers come to legitimizing the animosity that flier MacMurray soon develops for Flynn. Mostly, Wead and Buckner rely upon contrivances that do nothing to inform or even establish character. In their earliest encounter, squadron commander MacMurray blames Flynn for losing a pilot on the operating table, following a crash that left his spine shattered. MacMurray comes on a little strong, but Flynn’s bedside manner is chilly, so you cut him some slack. But even after Flynn proves himself — pursuing a career as a flight surgeon to help solve the issue of high-altitude sickness — MacMurray can’t let go of his bitterness. Forty minutes in, Flynn presses MacMurray, who’s done everything possible to make his aviation training miserable, “Why do you dislike me so much?”, and MacMurray responds, “Because you’re a grandstand player and a phony on top of it.” Flynn has been neither of those things — on the contrary, he’s been striving to prove and better himself since their first unfortunate encounter — but hey, it’s conflict, and conflict makes for good drama, right? (Who needs continuity when you’ve got conflict?) Later still, MacMurray makes a pass at Alexis Smith, who’s been trying to land Flynn for pretty much the whole film; when Smith blows him off, that merely fuels his dislike for Flynn. You have no idea what the writers are thinking. Do they honestly suppose that giving MacMurray a list of arbitrary grievances against Flynn — none of which have any basis in fact — makes for an entertaining evening, or do they know they’re doing a hack job and are counting on the pretty planes to see them through? The planes are indeed pretty — very — but beyond them, there’s not much of interest on the screen, except some experiments in aeromedical research that would be more compelling if there were well-drawn characters carrying them out. (Ralph Bellamy, as Flynn’s senior flight surgeon trainer, is a stick figure, and there’s a pointless subplot with Allen Jenkins that seems to have been inserted at the last minute as “comic relief.” It’s not comic, and it’s a relief only when it’s over.) And the deaths are so heavily foreshadowed, you pretty much know — every time a team of pilots heads into the air — which one’s not coming back. Flynn does fine, but he’s not given a character to play, so most of what he manages is generic “dedicated doctor” acting. At the end of the day, you’re left thinking that his flight surgeon is meant to be kind, intense, rash and a bit socially awkward — but that’s just a guess. You never really get to know him. And if you look at Flynn’s doctor here, then recall his doctor in Green Light — so carefully delineated in his opening scenes, in ways that showcased everything that was so alert and alive about Flynn — you might just grow as angry as MacMurray.
Dive Bomber: 5
Errol Flynn: 6

The life and death of George Armstrong Custer, reimagined as Hollywood cliché. Screenwriters Wally Kline and Æneas MacKenzie did no obvious research into the life of General Custer, but they apparently viewed all the films of Errol Flynn — does that count? Since they had nothing to go on in building their lead character, they simply crib from Flynn’s previous films. Custer disobeys orders and changes the course of history (The Charge of the Light Brigade); he inspires loyalty among those he leads (The Adventures of Robin Hood) even as he craves glory in battle (The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex). Glib (Green Light) and devil-may-care (The Sisters), reckless (Another Dawn) and a rule breaker (The Sea Hawk), he’s nonetheless there when his country needs him most (Dodge City). Hell, he even has an affection for irreverent popular tunes (The Dawn Patrol). How they avoided giving him a jolly, tubby sidekick is unclear. They Died With Their Boots On is basically two movies: the first half a comedy that charts Custer’s time at West Point through his many successes in battle, and the second half a drama that asks “what becomes of a soldier when there’s no longer a war to win?” The first part is the more successful, because it’s a series of skits, and most of them — moldy as they are — pay off: the meet-cute between the two leads; the plot-driven animosity between the groom and the bride’s father; the coincidence-filled clerical error that lands Custer one of his most important posts. And Flynn and director Raoul Walsh proceed with such breezy assurance that you don’t question what’s missing. It’s not until the second half that the nagging omission at the heart of the film begins to gnaw at you. Custer is characterized as having the worst record of anyone at West Point — there’s even a montage detailing his failings. One of his officers sums up his time there by insisting he has “no regard for discipline, organization or tactics.” And yet another officer argues, “A squadron would follow him to hell.” How do we reconcile those two statements: the fact that he has a complete disregard for organization or tactics, yet inspires intense loyalty among his underlings? The film never tries. “The union army is in the hands of the most irresponsible, incompetent, rattle-brained Second Lieutenant in the Union Army,” a commanding officer laments just before Gettysburg — but then Custer rallies his men into what appears to be a suicide mission and wins. How? What makes him so effective in battle — his only strategy appears to be recklessness — and why are men so willing to entrust him with their lives? The constancy of his men is a plot point that the screenplay hammers home, but we’re never given a chance to understand what it stems from. Eventually, Custer ends up manning the 7th Cavalry in the Dakota Territories; he insists his men take a temperance pledge, and they dutifully obey. But when an old nemesis arrives to provoke a war for personal gain, all he has to do is reopen the local bar and seemingly all of Custer’s men ignore his insistence on sobriety and get soused — and Custer is promptly sent home in disgrace. So what exactly was this loyalty we kept hearing about: fleeting, delusional, conditional? Or the kind that exists only on the battlefield? And at that point, the screenwriters lose track of the plot entirely. It’s not based on fact — the ending seems cribbed more from Charge of the Light Brigade than anything else — but no one seems to have told the actors what fiction to play either. Custer urges President Grant to give him back his old regiment: “You know how a man feels when he’s broken” — except he doesn’t look broken. Custer asks his wife if she’s been happy with their life together, and she asks rhetorically, “Don’t I look happy?” — except she doesn’t. Everyone starts acting in broad strokes and blank stares because the scenarists are providing no specificity — the backstories are so muddy and the timeline so muddled that there’s nothing for them to draw from. (It’s particularly strange to see on Flynn, whose face is usually alert with nuance.) You can’t help but feel the screenwriters’ take was, “We all know he’s going to die, so why bother to explain it?” Two hours into the film, with Little Bighorn on the horizon, you still don’t have enough of a read on Custer to fully understand the forces driving him; the strategy that prompts him to lead his men into battle is so brushed aside in a few sentences, he comes off mostly like a soldier with a death wish. You have no idea if he might have saved himself, or if his demise was inevitable. And for a film charting one of the most famous massacres in U.S. history, that’s a pretty fatal misfire.
They Died With Their Boots On: 7
Errol Flynn: 9

Coming up, the following 15 Flynn films, from Desperate Journey (1942) to Rocky Mountain (1950). Some thrilling highs and some interminable lows — often within the same film.

Want more? If so, I delve into Margaret Sullavan and her 16 films here. I serve up The 10 Best Screwball Comedies here, and The 25 Best Film Noirs here, and some of the titles are sure to surprise you. My other essays are all about TV, past and present, but if you take to TV as much as film, there's an index of the more than 100 TV essays I've written; you might see something you like, be it a drama series or a sitcom or one of my “best of” lists.


  1. I feel like what I always appreciate about your writing is that you are so detailed and passionate about the topic at hand which makes it easier to get into if one isn't exactly as versed in the topic.

    When it comes to Errol Flynn, he is someone I have not really sought out or thought much of in the past...but that could also be the styles of films he often did combined with the fact that he came from an era of Hollywood filmmaking that I have always been harder on and less enamored by.

    Although I do love the story of how Warner Bros considered loaning out Bette Davis and Errol Flynn to do GONE WITH THE WIND to which Davis later said the thought of Flynn playing Rhett Butler appalled her. ;-)

    And yes, you do point out right away that Flynn was an incredibly problematic person which can be tough to deal with when the concept of "separating the art from the artist" comes along.

    In that regard, my biggest gray areas are Woody Allen and Charlie Chaplin.

    1. Thanks, as always, for the kind words. As always, I won't write about a subject unless I'm passionate about it. I don't think I'd be very good at it — and truly, I just don't have the time! LOL

      You bring up such a good point, about problematic celebrities; I can’t say I was in any way reticent about writing up Flynn, but I was very much aware of my own hypocrisy, which I noted. Ever since seeing the brilliant Allen v. Farrow documentary back in 2020, and understanding how cruel and sick Woody Allen is, I have never allowed myself to watch another of his films. I couldn’t do it. I don’t think I’ll ever revisit an old film of his either.

      And yet I have no problem watching and writing up and enjoying Flynn. Part of it, of course, is the passage of time. The Allen child abuse scandal happened during my lifetime, when I was an adult, and I ignored it and glossed over it like most people. Like the press told us to. I don’t have that visceral a response, obviously, to things that Flynn did 80 years ago. His career was finished before I was even born, and sad as it is, we feel less visceral about things that happened long before we were around. And part of it is because I think he’s underrated as an actor; instead of his detractors — referencing, for example, the rape trial — saying, “He was a terrible man,” they tend to say, “He was a terrible man who was a lousy actor to boot.” I find that last part riotously untrue, and felt a need to “set the record straight.”

      But most of my affection for him, as noted, stems from the fact that the elements I enjoy most in his work are elements that I particularly admire in actors: the ability to think fast on their feet, to convey so much in so little. At his best — particularly in that string of late ‘30s films that I reference — he’s so phenomenally alert on the screen. He really gives you a window into what his character is thinking; you understand his hopes, and you understand his delusions. That’s a tricky tightrope to walk, and I think he was better at it than just about any actor of his era.

    2. I don't know what it is about Woody Allen. There are just certain films of his I love very dearly that I couldn't imagine never watching them again (Sleeper, Love & Death, Annie Hall, Stardust Memories, Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah & Her Sisters, Crimes & Misdemeanors)...but after "Crimes", the quality drops off and it is kind of ironic that it coincided with the Farrow/Soon-Yi controversy. I was VERY young when it I suppose I grew up knowing an Allen who had been sort of rehabilitated by most.

      It wasn't until about 10 years in the early days of the #metoo movement that I feel like it became hip to attack Allen again. By then, however, I met people who knew him from working on his films and they had nothing good to say about his character.

      The "time" angle definitely applies to Chaplin, whose grooming of young girls was appalling behavior...and yet...he was a cinematic god who made some of the best films from early Hollywood. It also didn't hurt that I loved a lot of his politics otherwise.

  2. I can only imagine what a younger Errol Flynn could’ve done playing James Bond. I think he would’ve been the best ever… by a long shot.

  3. Tommy, do you know Jeanine Basinger's The Star Machine? Besides being an excellent read as a whole (and on a rather neglected topic, the specific way the old studio star process worked), she has an insightful chapter about Flynn. She gives him due credit for what he achieved on film, and made me want to explore his work further. As you do too, of course.

    1. Jon, I confess I don’t know the book at all. I have a lot of books devoted to specific screenwriters and directors, but very few books about the industry in general. Because it’s about a period in film history that I love, I’ll definitely check it out. Now that I seem to be writing more and more about classic film, I probably need to read a lot more books that give me insights into the studio system. (There are occasionally presumptions I make because they seem so obvious — then I desperately try to double-check them to make sure I’m not just making stuff up. LOL ) My knowledge of television history is obviously much more thorough than my knowledge of film history. So please: anything else you think is worth reading, feel free to suggest away.

      I confess, I knew very little Flynn when I started this binge. As noted, I had originally thought to write up his wartime films, based (as I recall) on the fact that TCM aired four of them in very short period last summer or fall. But once I got started with Flynn, I couldn’t stop, and as noted, his best performances – especially that string of five from Robin Hood through Dodge City, but also a few before and quite a few after (as you’ll see when I post part 2) — dazzle me. I don’t remember having that response to him the last time I watched his films — which was probably 35 years ago. I truly don’t know what accounts for the difference. I never thought our tastes in movie stars change as we get older, the way our tastes for various foods do — but who knows?

    2. A great thing about Basinger's books (the ones I've read, anyway) is that they each have a specific focus that I hadn't thought about in quite that way before -- the specific genre of the "woman's picture," or a focus on marriage, or the actual year-to-year functioning of the studio star system in practical terms. And always in a down-to-earth way, dealing in practicalities rather than theories. In The Star Machine, Flynn shares a chapter with Lana Turner, as instances when the system worked successfully, benefiting both studio and performer, but ran into bumps because of off-screen publicity.

      As examples of other chapters in the book (just to entice you), there an examination of Tyrone Power (who wanted to be a great actor carrying on the family prestige, and probably had it in him, but was restricted by how the system used him), of two who defected (Jean Arthur kept leaving and returning; Deanna Durbin quit and never looked back), and of two men groomed for specific niches who cannily endured: "Boyer, Powell—and Flynn—are three dashing, handsome “gentleman” stars of the old Hollywood system. Boyer is the romantic one, Powell the sophisticated comic version, and Flynn the adventurous swashbuckler. All three seem to stand to the side of the action, projecting an amused, ironic distance, even when they’re playing at their most sincere and passionate. They enter their films already disillusioned, and thus are disconnected from any plot disappointments. This quality makes all three of them remarkably modern, and their movies date well."

  4. Well mate thank you,about time someone had another look at Errol films. I think the rape trial did a lot of damage to him personally,I've just turned seventy and been a fan all my life and the man just fascinates me. All the best from Australia!

    1. I’m so glad you found your way here, and I’m so glad you enjoyed. I’m 65 myself, and I confess, I did not know the man’s work the way I now realize I should have. I’d seen a couple of his films maybe 30 years ago, but felt like I was watching with fresh eyes this time around. And I was properly dazzled. :)