I find myself down of late. I started to spell out exactly why, but I’m a little too private for that, so let’s just leave it as, I’ve got the blues. I’ll admit that, in part, it has to do with Fireball, my baby and the book of my life to date, being out there in the world, all grown up. And there are some other things.
At times like this I find myself needing to reach for the touchstones of my life, the things that evoke strong memories of other times. One of these is Adventures of Don Juan, Errol Flynn’s Christmas 1948 masterpiece that many people haven’t ever seen. To many, there’s only one “Adventures of” picture connected to Errol Flynn, but they just don’t know.
Adventures of Don Juan is a sassy picture that pokes fun at Flynn’s reputation, but it’s also the very sad story of the seventeenth century character Don Juan falling in love, really in love, after a lifetime spent wooing women and carousing. It’s a brilliant depiction of vulnerability and sacrifice, of a wanderer who finds something he’s been seeking—one great love—and must give it up for a greater good. It contains sequences that move me every time, interactions between Don Juan and the woman he falls in love with, who happens to be Queen Margaret of Spain.
They say Flynn had great chemistry with Olivia de Havilland. Wait, I said that, in the book Errol & Olivia. Sure they did. They were point/counterpoint: big, athletic, hedonist Errol and diminutive, depressed Livvie. They recognized a kinship from the first time they met—two young people who had endured brutal childhoods at the hand of tyrannical parents, and two beautiful people who made a beautiful couple onscreen and, sometimes, off.
But chemistry’s a funny thing. Errol and Olivia had it, but not to the degree that Errol had it onscreen with Swedish actress Viveca Lindfors, newly brought to the United States by the Warner Bros. under contract to make pictures, the first and biggest being Adventures of Don Juan. This lady had talent. She would go on to a great career as an acting teacher, and here she presents every inch a queen. Every single inch, in every frame in which she’s seen.
And then there are the scenes with Flynn.
In her memoirs, Lindfors—26 years old when shooting commenced—would say she liked Errol, she really did, and she could see that the weight of being a sex symbol was crushing him to death. Of course she was right; he was oppressed by the pressure, and production of Adventures of Don Juan was a year-long exercise in hell for all involved because Flynn spent a good deal of time off the deep end. Undiminished, however, is the fire between Flynn and Lindfors; such natural combustability in three particular sequences that it’s no wonder the climax of the picture involves a fire at the palace.
In the first, Don Juan shows Queen Margaret around his workplace, the fencing academy. We know via a previous scene that he’s fallen for her, but she doesn’t know. He describes the workplace with veiled references to his attraction; we see from her nonverbals that she’s attracted but fighting it, and with Max Steiner’s score behind them in this high-ceilinged set, we face more repressed passion than Hollywood had presented in all the film noir produced to that time.
In the second sequence, he makes it clear that he has fallen in love with a mysterious someone, and as the queen, she commands him to talk about it. Steiner’s score again sets up a gut-wrenching moment: He confesses he is in love with her, his “paragon among women,” and for a flash, an instant, she is happy at this news, but then suspects that he’s just laying the ol’ Don Juan line on her and she’s furious. She orders him away, and he’s crushed.
In the third, after Don Juan has gained credibility by thwarting the bad guy and proving himself a national hero, she comes to him and confesses her love. This hard, nationalist leader is now laid so bare, so tortured, ready to give up the throne to be with Don Juan. The scene between two vulnerable people is so intimate that I’m surprised it passed the 1948 censors. My friend Trudy and I have long marveled at the string of saliva between Flynn’s lips and Lindfors’, captured in 35mm Technicolor after their passionate, all-revealing first kiss. These two didn’t just enact a stage kiss; these two kissed like they meant it. You can’t fake a kiss like that. For all time we’ve got it on record. When she kisses him a second time in this sequence, it’s clear she’s not interested in the kind of buss learned in acting school. Come on, Errol, let’s sell this thing! And we can see that the boy was willing.
Yes, I’m a little down and so I turned to one of my touchstones, Adventures of Don Juan, in part to wallow in a wistful and bittersweet picture, and in part to lift myself out of the blues (such a magnificent, Technicolor masterpiece from the tail end of Hollywood’s Golden Era).
What it leads me to is, what are your touchstones? What are the things you turn to when you’re down? Movies? Books? Music? Places? People? Why do you turn to them? Maybe we can form our own support group to get through a couple down days in this crazy thing called life. It’s the place where I am this evening, and I know I’m not the first person ever to be here, and I won’t be the last.