Feathering the Nest

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Think how profoundly we all have been impacted by the cellular telephone. A generation is growing up that knows nothing about the “phone booth” or telephones in your house that used to be tethered to walls. What? It’s all part of the march of technology, and as I sat and watched Errol Flynn’s 1952 pirate picture, Against All Flags, last night, I thought most of all about technology and how it brought about pictures like this one.

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

What red-blooded lad could resist this art announcing another pirate picture hitting port soon? Many a dad also felt the call of this particular brotherhood of buccaneers

There’s a lot to like about Against All Flags, which has the look and feel of a big-budget picture the way Universal International made them at the time, and they made them that way at that time because of the impact of television. Movies had to keep being bigger and better to lure people out of their homes because in 1952, families could suddenly sit at home while metal antennas pulled broadcast signals out of thin air and allowed people to watch grainy black-and-white images on television for free. You didn’t have to get dressed up and haul the brood to a theater with all its related expenses at the concession stand. You could lounge at home and be entertained.

In Against All Flags, Errol Flynn is a British naval officer who goes undercover to bust up a band of pirates. How could any kid not find this to be a disagreeable plot since Hollywood pirates were always attractive, well-costumed rule-breakers—every boy’s dream of the way life should play out. Anyway, here’s Flynn undercover and since he is Errol Flynn the script tosses out a lot of innuendo, playing on his bad-boy reputation with the ladies, lines that came oh-so-close to being snagged by the censors but never quite crossed the line.

The key gag in the picture is that a virginal Indian princess, age about 16, falls for Flynn on first sight and after an innocent Flynn kiss to quiet her, she spends the second half the picture puckering up and exclaiming with youthful enthusiasm, “Again!” She’s young and willing as portrayed by 19-year-old brunette Alice Kelley, and the tailoring of the subplot says something about how Flynn swashbucklers were constructed at this time. They traded on his reputation as a swordsman in more ways than one and offered sexual morsels in vivid Technicolor that television couldn’t begin to rival.

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

What you couldn’t see on TV in 1952: flesh-baring, under-aged girls throwing themselves at Errol Flynn, in Technicolor yet. Or does Spitfire want the wench for herself? Alice Kelley broadcasts raw sexual desire for the bad boy as Maureen O’Hara and Mildred Natwick look on.

There’s a big-three starring here, including Flynn, Maureen O’Hara, and Anthony Quinn, who cuts a fine figure as “Captain Roc” in his black headscarf. And how many of these pictures did Maureen O’Hara make? Here she plays buccaneer Spitfire Stevens in a man’s clothes and fetching leather hip boots and does so with credibility. Am I the only one who sees a hint or two of masculinity in everything about her? How else could she carry and wield a sword as if she could hold her own in a duel and actually hurt somebody? Plus the androgynous nature of her character gives a kinky undertone to dialogue about ownership and uses of a slave girl—television certainly wasn’t offering such suggestive fare.

Maureen O’Hara was smart enough to follow the money wherever it led, including many a swashbuckler, and feathered her nest in these sweet Universal International profit participation deals. It was a setup that Carole Lombard had dreamed up for herself in 1941 with To Be or Not to Be; had she lived past 1942, she would have blazed this trail as an independent for the remainder of the decade.

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

Hmmm, who to root for…Flynn the undercover do-gooder or Quinn the minding-his-own-business pirate?

In the early 1950s, Universal International managed to thrive on this setup in the ongoing war between the studios and upstart television. UI turned out lush Technicolor offerings that drew top stars like Errol Flynn and Maureen O’Hara specifically because they knew that black ink was likely and they would be getting a cut.

It doesn’t matter that Against All Flags frays long before the last reel and becomes just another loud and mindless pirate picture. I admire the pluck of the studio, the writers, and the stars for managing to turn out product more than 60 years ago that maintains enough sass for a Friday night primetime broadcast run on Turner Classic Movies/U.S. In this case, the dreaded medium, television, is taking a moment to salute a one-time enemy that only went down after one hell of a fight.

7 comments

  1. Well, Robert, I find that there are a few small pleasures to be found in a run-of-the-mill pirate yarn like Against All Flags. For starters, any film of this type that manages to snag a couple of old swashbuckler pros like Flynn and O’Hara brings it some distinction, if only because this Universal production is the only one to do it.

    O’Hara is fun to watch with her typically high spirited performance as Spitfire Stevens, with an on screen energy level that Errol no longer possessed. But Flynn does show a few brief flashes of the rogue charm that was a part of his legend.

    I can’t say that I have ever considered Maureen O’Hara to have any hint of masculinity about her. Quite the opposite. However, she was a very physical lady who took great pride in the fact that she could handle a sword well and do her own stuntwork. (Probably a lot more so than our hero Errol, whose health problems were increasingly catching up with him).

    And I must say that I am shocked – SHOCKED, I say – that you could even suggest such a thing as Spitfire possibly having designs of any kind on the Indian princess. (Might have been a more interesting film, though, if that had been the case).

    Against All Flags was, as it turns out, the last film that Flynn would make in the U.S. when he was still a major star, even if that star was looking a little shakey at the time. His career would go over the cliff just a year later when his Italian backers stopped funding his production of William Tell – thus, the death of any of the swashbuckler’s hopes to get back on top once again. After that, it would be a slow but steady emotional and physical decline for him. Considering his increasing health problems and financial woes, it seems a small miracle that Errol would last as long as he did.

    O’Hara and Flynn became friends while making Flags. She would later commend his professionalism during the earily part of the working day, while exasperated that his alcohol intake (sometimes through vodka soaked oranges) made it impossible to get a good take with him by 4pm. Still, she said that Errol’s work was so impressive in the first part of the day that she couldn’t hold it against him.

    Flynn and O’Hara had met years before, and Errol’s bad boy antics at the time had made it a rocky encounter as far as the lady was concerned. However, O’Hara later wrote of the actor, presumably because of her Against All Flags experience with him, “Father Time was calming his wicked, wicked ways, and deep within that devilish rogue, I found a kind and fragile soul.”

    There’s a photograph that can be found on the internet of Flynn and O’Hara horsing around together during what appears to be the tide stakes scene in Against All Flags. (I found it by entering her name plus the film’s title on Google Images).

    The picture shows O’Hara, in pirate costume, lying on her back laughing as Errol, grinning ear to ear, is clearly enjoying himself, too, as he tires to remove one of her hip high leather boots. It’s nice to see this shot of a playful Flynn, an aspect of his personality which I understand he never lost.

    1. I guess it IS just me and my dirty mind, Tom.

      I will take umbrage with O’Hara’s description in her memoirs of Flynn’s drinking. The lady was there, after all, and I wasn’t. However, there’s reason to believe that Flynn played it pretty straight on this picture because he always did when he had a stake in the production. And he definitely had one here–he had points against profits and would have wanted the best possible outcome for his pirate picture. It always makes great copy to talk about Flynn being in the bag in the afternoon. Viveca Lindfors talked about it in her autobiography, but the difference is that we can see his drunken takes in plain sight in Adventures of Don Juan, but I saw little evidence while watching Against All Flags in HD the other night. He looked bone-weary, and of course he broke his ankle in one of the melees, but I can only remember one instance where his heavy-lidded, out-of-focus eyes betrayed a blood-alcohol level that meant he shouldn’t have been operating heavy machinery, or a sword for that matter.

  2. Robert, I have to tell you, I don’t pick up on those moments in Don Juan when Flynn looks like he’s drinking. Maybe my radar for that stuff isn’t as strong as your’s (and I say that knowing that you love that film and have read the Warners production notes on the shoot).

    Even that scene in which Don Juan remains seated in the chair, as the Duke De Lorca stands, confronting him with a sword. I’ve read, I think, that Vincent Sherman said Flynn couldn’t stand well that day because of his drinking so there was a little improvisation and it was Robert Douglas that stood in the scene instead. But I have to be honest and wonder if Sherman might have been telling a good tale. I look at Errol’s eyes in that scene and they look pretty clear to me, and and I listen to his diction, no problems, and his facial reactions to Douglas are impressive, too.

    By any chance, do you happen to recall any particular moments in Don Juan when you think Errol was a bit bagged?

    By the way, I agree with your logic about Errol holding off on the booze when his own money was at stake. I’ve never heard of his drinking being a problem during either Crossed Swords or William Tell. (For that matter, I think he was even on pretty good behaviour during the Master of Ballantrae shoot just before them).

    The fact that O’Hara liked Flynn and spoke fondly about him makes me tend to take the lady at her word. But, again, your logic about Flynn’s profit share participation on that film curtailing that boozing inclination makes a lot of sense to me. A lot of sense.

  3. Robert, just to clarify in a brief followup on my previous comment, I know that Flynn looks rough in a few shots in Don Juan, presumably from a hard night out. But there’s a big difference between that as opposed to drunken takes that end up in the final product.

    1. Tom, I need to run through Adventures of Don Juan so I can cite chapter and verse. Flynn looked rough in this picture for various reasons at various times. Some was depression, some was medical-related, and some was booze. It might not seem to make sense for WB to allow “drunken takes” to make the final print, but there are sound financial reasons why lots of times, those takes got through. Sometimes Flynn was in the bag and the director knew it, but what was that director to do? Send home the bombed actor, the other actors, and the entire crew and let the studio eat the cost? Not likely. So all pressed forward. More often, Flynn would have a nip here and there until he’d had one too many and the director wouldn’t know it and cameras would roll and once film is exposed, the dollars are committed. There was tremendous pressure on directors and stars alike to get a buy and a backup in as few takes as possible because of the cost of film and processing. There must have been many examinations of the Don Juan dailies by the front office to ask, “Can we get by with this scene?”

      As much as I doubt some of director Vincent Sherman’s blarney about the production of Don Juan, the business about improvising and having Flynn sit makes a lot of sense for the above reasons: the red light is on, dollars are burning every minute of the production day, your actors are in costume and the set is lit, and if the key actor is on the sauce, you do whatever it takes to get through the scene. If your action star can get through the dialogue by sitting while the bad guy stands, so be it. Get the man a chair and let’s roll camera! The dream factories were factories in the truest sense of the word, and the director was accountable for his budget. Nobody else but the director.

      As noted previously, Flynn had a strong first six weeks of production before things went to hell and the picture was forced to shut down, so I don’t mean to imply he didn’t do some fine work in Don Juan. When it did go dark, oh, the anguish in the front office. You might as well have opened up an artery on every executive the way they suffered over this. The passion in those memos is what makes me want to do a Don Juan book (that only 5 people would ever read). The memos also inspire a lot of sympathy for what Flynn was going through personally. He was in hell and that’s what you see in some scenes later in the picture: a man who has just returned from a trip to hell.

  4. I hoped you two guys would take a look at Against All Flags and provide some commentary. I enjoyed it more than I should have, particularly the double entendres. The scene where O’Hara kisses Flynn with his hands tied was I think pretty close to the censorship line or even crosses. I think he says something about being willing to serve under her, and my adult son and husband gave a few guffaws at that one.

    I have to disagree with the production values of Against all Flags, though. It was clearly set bound, and hardly lavish, in my opinion. I think the money was spent on the cast, not the sets. Watching Captain Blood as a follow up was an interesting comparison, revealing a director who could create interesting shots and atmosphere with limited budget and sets. I didn’t realize until my fourth or fifth viewing of Captain Blood that most of the indoor shots had very little furniture, except for what the characters were sitting on or immediately using. Everything was suggested by shadows.

    Of course the other contrast — the transformation of the earnest young hero depicted in Captain Blood, filled with a passion for justice and righteous anger — into the aging roue of Against All Flags, who is the butt of jokes throughout the film about the actor’s image.

  5. Thanks very much for the detailed response, Robert.

    Your explantion as to why Sherman would re-stage that scene with an unsteady Flynn sitting in the chair makes perfect sense since time is money, and there was tremendous pressure on that director to just get the job done.

    My problem with Sherman’s story, though, is when I actually watch the scene and observe Flynn’s performance in it. Can anyone honestly say in watching that particular sequence that the actor looks like he suffering from the effects of too much whatever that is supposedly in his bloodstream?

    Mind you, having said that, I don’t know that the scene was shot in just one day. There are a number of shots which are on Robert Douglas and you only see the back of Flynn’s head as he sits in the chair. Perhaps those were taken on a day in which Errol couldn’t do an adequate job. But, certainly, his dialogue exhanges with Douglas and his facial reactions in the scene do not betray any medical issues, from my perception, at least. Thus, my cynicism about the director’s story about that scene.

    Then, again, Robert, you saw the production notes, notes that sound like they were fascinating to read. (You know, of course, that I would be one of the five to read that Don Juan book of your’s). You obviously read accounts and saw frenzied exchanges to verify much of Sherman’s overall account about the difficulty of dealing with the actor’s condition, and there’s no doubt that Flynn does look rough in a number of scenes in the film. To return to that much-discussed scene in the chair, though: I’m sorry but Flynn’s performance is simply too effective in it for me to not question Sherman’s account.

    You have made it apparent that Errol was going through far more than just a prolonged bender during the Don Juan shoot. Flynn gave an account in his autobiography of going through a suicidal period in which, for a few days, he repeatedly placed a gun inside his mouth without being able to finally pull the trigger. I have often wondered if that occurred during the months of 1947-48 when Don Juan was in production.

    Amazing, isn’t it, considering the circumstances of what was happening to Errol Flynn at the time, that his performance in the film is as marvelous as it is. He’s charming and wryly amusing, while at the same time a world weary cynic. There’s also a touch of disillusionment and, at times, melancholy about this film Don Juan, characteristics so reflective of the actor that was playing him.

    If only the eternal optimism that Flynn had brought to his Robin Hood could have stayed with the actor forever. While a part of me sheds a tear for Flynn’s Don Juan, another part rejoices that such a wonderful portrayal was left on screen for us. This really is one of Errol’s most enduring performances, I feel, one in which his intelligence really shows through. And for that, too, Vincent Sherman, a sympathetic directorial ear to the actor during the shoot, undoubtedly deserves some credit, as well.

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