A Little Don Juan

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.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Swedish-born Viveca Lindfors as Queen Margaret of Spain.

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.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Sequence 1, Don Juan is infatuated and the Queen is starting to soften.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The chemistry between the two stars is visible early on.

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.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

In sequence 2, Don Juan confesses his love for his “paragon among women,” and she explodes in fury.

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.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Sequence 3: Queen Margaret is ready to abdicate and run away with Don Juan, but he knows she can’t do that because “the people will suffer.”

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.

10 comments

  1. First of all, Robert, sending courage! to you – I’m sorry about this blues and hope that the next morning brings a brighter sun for you. I understand that you need something like a new goal, something to work and maybe live for, and I hope that you will find it soon!
    Turning to EF when I’m down is not very healthy for me as it makes me even more depressed. Just look at Don Juan – it IS so great, yet it makes me sad that its greatness has not been acknowledged. And that’s the case with everything Flynn-related – whenever I dig into him and his world, there’s a sadness to it all, a “what if” in every direction and dimension of his life. The only thing then that makes me happy is to discover unseen photographs or organise some of my Flynn stuff, pictures and clippings.
    To make a contribution to our support group, I can say that I mostly and successfully turn to work. It helps me forget the things that make me sad. And there’s always lots to do, be it for my job or outside in the garden. So I manage to pass the rest of the day, go to bed, and the next morning, usually, things are already better.
    I hope that they will be for you, too.

    1. Inga, I’ll take that transmitted courage. It’s been a rough last few months for a variety of reasons, but now as I look out the window the trees are leafing out and the world is turning a Robin Hood green. If I’m careful of arrows flying around the forest, I think I’ll be OK. Isn’t it funny how “stuff” helps? I have Flynn stuff too, and I’ve gone through it in the last few days. It’s another touchstone that I value.

  2. Robert, it’s interesting that you should also turn to Adventures of Don Juan for comfort. This film is one of my great favourites, as well, when I need a cheering up, or even if I don’t. As a result, I watch it more often than I do most films.

    I suppose when it comes to an overall appraisal of Errol Flynn’s film career that Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk rank, for me, as probably his two greatest films. Yet it’s his final big screen swashbuckler, Don Juan, from which I derive more emotional satisfaction than the other two.

    Flynn’s four big swashbucklers for Warners all have subtle but definite differences in the actor’s interpretation of his roles. In Captain Blood his character is bitter and out for revenge, his humour sardonic, while as Robin Hood he is a laughing booming extrovert with a large streak of idealism and a need for justice, rather than revenge, as the motive for his activity. In The Sea Hawk his Geoffrey Thorpe is a reserved courtly gentleman, a comfortable leader of men who lacks confidence with women (though pretty smooth talking with them when he does get around to it).

    It was with Adventures of Don Juan, though, that we see more of the real Flynn, I feel, than in any of those earlier characterizations, certainly the man he had become by 1947-8. The actor brings a jaded cynicism to the characterization, and subtle nuances which makes it, for me, far and away with most satisfying of his swashbuckling screen performances. This film’s screenplay provided him with the most clever dialogue of his career which, combined with the often tongue-in-cheek nature of its writing, gave him the opportunity to demonstrate a delicious flare for sophisticated humour.

    There are no broad dunking Friar Tuck in the stream hijinks to be found here. And it’s a bittersweet experience to see Flynn, even if physically past his prime and with all the self destructive trauma that took place during this particular production, bring so much depth to what might otherwise might have been a two dimensional characterization. It’s bittersweet because Warners had never provided this same actor with a screenplay and dialogue combination quite as strong as this before. And it’s bittersweet because Flynn would never again have material of this kind as good again.

    There would be a few more costume films made by the actor in the ’50s, of course, but Don Juan really was Errol Flynn’s last hurrah as a great screen swashbuckler.

    And I couldn’t agree more with your assessement, Robert, about the depth of feeling and passion expressed between Flynn and Viveca Lindfors. I think they are among the very best scenes that Flynn would share with any actress.The Swedish actress brings an intelligence and sensitivity to her performance, making that hoary old sterotype, the repressed woman who experiences love for the first time, ring with complete conviction. She’s a serious actress who brings a respect and understanding to the character that she is playing.

    Flynn and Lindfors are so good in their few shared scenes that I’ve often wished they could have had more scenes together in this film. Still, their moments together are among the highlights of a production filled with highlights, be it humour or action or, in their cases, their touching portrayals of two lonely souls tentatively reaching out to one another. The Queen, who’s ready to give up a kingdom, for the legendary world renowned lover who, in spite of all his travels and experiences, had never been touched by real love before.

    Flynn must have loved a lot of the situations and dialogue of this film, because so much of it was so close to him. Take, for example, that moment in which the Queen mildly reproves Don Juan, telling him, after he makes a humourously negative swipe at himself, that she thinks he paints himself far blacker than he really is.

    “It’s the colour that’s said to suit me best,” Flynn responds, an actor who would later title his autobiography My Wicked Wicked Ways.

    In the film’s final haunting departure scene between Juan and the Queen, poignantly enhanced so breath takingly by Max Steiner’s achingly beautiful string-dominated love theme, Lindfors at one point asks her lover where he will go.

    “Who knows,” Flynn replies as Don Juan, “into oblivion, I suppose, where most legends go.”

    It’s a great line, and it reinforces the essential sadness at the soul of an aging Don Juan. As, I think, it also reflected the futility that Flynn felt for his own personal merry-go-round with increasing disillusionment.

    Years later, after the critical plaudits that Flynn would receive for, esentially, playing himself as a drunk in The Sun Also Rises, Viveca Lindfors expressed the frustration she felt with a man she said, “was a brilliant actor. A genius. And he didn’t know it. He went fishing and f—–g, and paid no attention to his talent.”

    Of his Sun Also Rises perfformance, she said, “He was ugly and fat and puffy, but brilliant.”

    Lindfors then asked, “Couldn’t he have gotten around to it sooner? Did he have to destroy himself first?”

    Flynn’s Don Juan performance, in my opinion, is a reflection of the genius that Lindfors saw in her quixotic co-star.

    1. Love the insight, Tom. You found three beautiful words that I groped for and couldn’t locate: “two lonely souls.” That captures Juan and Margaret, and for all we know, Errol and Viveca. How else could they have so understood, and interpreted for four generations? Another great word you so easily bring to bear: quixotic. That’s Flynn for you. Marina is rightfully impatient with the guy and yet some of us (Inga, Lynn, Tom, me) say, “Yeah, but…” There was a lot going on underneath. A lot of unrealized potential to go with the chaos and the evil discontent. Sure life’s too short to suffer people like that, and yet with Flynn there was something that fascinates and inspires books and blogs.

      Tom, I am glad you are bold enough to call this a brilliant picture. Really, it is. Just because the “experts” have overlooked Adventures of Don Juan doesn’t diminish its value. I think it simply proves how far ahead of his time Flynn was and Warners was in its use of him. Flynn was and is a contemporary actor, sharing with Carole Lombard the ability to live on in today, whenever today happens to be.

  3. Wow! Thank you, Robert and Tom, for sharing your insights on Errol Flynn. I’m not a Flynn fan and I’ve only watched a handful of his movies. While I think he was talented, he was a mess in his personal life which in small doses is interesting but ultimately it’s like reading about/watching a train wreck. I agree with Viveca Lindfors – did he have to destroy himself?

    One of my favorite books is Bring On The Empty Horses by David Niven. It’s Hollywood through his older eyes in 1975 so while not always factually correct, it’s a fun read. He has a chapter titled Errol where he tells stories of their younger days living together. One comment Niven made about Flynn stands out, “The great thing about Errol was you always knew exactly where you stood with him because he always let you down.” Ouch.

    For me escape comes in the form of Flynn’s co-star, Bette Davis, and her many wonderful movies and roles. Three top my Davis list and I watch them time and again; Now, Voyager, The Letter and All About Eve. There are other movies that are higher on my escapism list but for pure acting chops, I can immerse myself in the amazing Miss Davis and find something new every time. And while Flynn led a life of self destruction, Davis led a life of discontent and an inability to really connect with anyone. Her marriages and affairs were doomed, and motherhood didn’t suit her at all. Her work was her life and luckily for her, she garnered parts well into her 70s. Her role as Margo Channing in All About Eve is a glimpse into her real life, an aging star. Both she and Flynn lived through aging in Hollywood which led to lousy movies but she hung on long enough to land a few more plum parts and also pay the bills.

    I don’t think Hollywood is easy for most people. Flynn and Davis were but two of the wounded warriors. They both definitely did it their way.

    1. Ah yes, Queen Bette. My colleague John McElwee of Greenbriar Picture Shows has so wisely pointed out how troubled were the lives of many great stars of the Golden Era. Driven to Hollywood by demons, they thrived there in what became a dark, hedonistic place that would consume them. Bette achieved everything but happiness, and in her wake left all those great pictures you mention. I can stumble upon All About Eve at any point and be captivated by the people and their words and lose all track of time. “Miss Davis” was like that. Compelling. In going through the Warner Bros. Archive I was struck by the memos that always referred to her as “Miss Davis” and “Miss Bette Davis.” Venomous words they were, arranged like that in stacks of memos, written by executives and transcribed by the thriving pool of anonymous typists. She was a handful, Queen Bette was, all brilliant, five-foot-one of her.

  4. Robert, finishing a great novel must carry the same emotions one experiences when a child leaves home. It took a long time, it turned out beautifully, there was pain and euphoria throughout the process; highs and lows, laughter and tears…but now it’s over. It was a job well done and brought great joy. So why do I feel so depressed? After pouring yourself into any project that requires so much of an emotional draw and personal sacrifice also requires, at some point, a “crash and burn” and a period of grief at the finality of it. Yep….know how you feel. This too shall pass, my friend.

    Love reading your comments. As for “Don Juan,” also one of my favorites for the very same reasons you and Tom expressed so beautifully.

    1. Exactly, Carol. In a sense, my relationship with these people is over. Carole, Clark, Petey, Bull, Allie, Fieldsie, and Jack–you live with them day after day, month after month and there’s camaraderie. You dream about them, hang on their words, share their struggles, and feel their sorrow. I know you know how I feel, Carol, and I appreciate your understanding.

  5. Thanks for the kind words, Robert.

    Just as you are now grappling with the end of the emotional involvement of Fireball, as well as the sense of a void that I’m sure you will eventually fill, I wonder, too, about some of the actors and how they may have felt at the end of a film assignment. Even a tough one, perhaps, such as an Adventures of Don Juan. The intensity of those sometimes close relationships formed on the sets of a film, and then, suddenly, they’re over.

    It’s been over six decades since Errol and Viveca Lindfors enacted those scenes of repressed longing to which an audience can still respond so strongly. I’ve never heard of Flynn talking about his Swedish leading lady afterward, while Lindfors would later make comments of admiration, combined with sorrow, regarding him.

    Two acting souls who sparked beautifully on screen together, only to separate, never to see one another again. I’m sure that they, too, to some degree, must have suffered a sense of loss, at times.

  6. Well, I’ve been busy and now I’m catching up on all these wonderful blogposts, one of my own touchstones when I’m at loose ends. I have to say my touchstone is The Adventures of Robin Hood, my late father’s favorite film. As Father’s Day approaches, I often return to those images that were so beloved by him, and those films that his own father brought him to when he was child. My dad grew up in the Depression, and his idolization of that version of Robin Hood also had a lot to do with his Depression politics; here was the guy who wooed Marian by showing his passion for the wounded and the oppressed. I’ve been on the board of a community organizing group that does social justice work, and I have to admit, Flynn’s cheerful rebel always gives me energy and hope. If only we could go about our business with his dash and style, rather than appearing as glum scolds.

    The Adventures of Don Juan is a different animal entirely, but I must admit my imagination has fertile material for what happens after the fadeout in that farewell scene.

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