I want to begin with a digression. I grew up in a white Republican household, and one of many who weren’t in favor in the Matzen house was Mohammed Ali. To my parents he was a draft dodger, a punk, and a loudmouth. So of course I thought so too as a kid, and then over the years I realized my very smart parents were dead wrong and that this was a magnificent human being. Oh, how I mourned when Ali died in early June. “I’m too pritteh,” I can hear him saying, pointing at that magnificent face. Smug, playful Ali was such an evolved being that I am only sorry he went into prizefighting instead of into curing cancer or securing world peace.
So, maybe you saw that TCM recently ran an old spot showing Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer for 20 years (died 2010), Bert Randolph Sugar, famed boxing writer (died 2012), and boxer Ray “Boom-Boom” Mancini sitting watching and analyzing James Cagney’s boxing in The Irish in Us, and then Errol Flynn’s boxing in the 1942 Warner Bros. picture Gentleman Jim. I got a big kick out of the way the three of them choked out rebuke of Cagney’s attempt at prizefighting for the screen and practically held their noses watching Jimmy’s silly attempts at the sweet science.
Then they turned their attention to Errol Flynn, and pink hearts practically popped out of the eye sockets of Angelo Dundee watching Flynn in a clip from Gentleman Jim. At one point in the historic climactic boxing match reenacted between heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan (played by Ward Bond) and James J. Corbett (Flynn), Errol threw a particular punch. They froze the film and Dundee exclaimed, “How about that counter left jab he threw!”
“When was the last time you saw a left jab in a movie?” said Sugar with enthusiasm. [Note: A jab is a punch thrown straight from one body to another, as opposed to a hook, which comes out and around.]
“A counter left jab!” said an excited Dundee. “Forget about a regular jab. My God, there’s so much talent there, it’s scary!” The highly decorated boxing great Angelo Dundee concluded by saying, “I would have wanted to manage that guy!” This was the trainer of the greatest prizefighter in history saying he would have liked the opportunity to manage a boxer with Flynn’s talent.
CUT BACK TO A GRAVEL DRIVEWAY — NIGHT — FLYNN AND HUSTON
As you’ll recall from “Juicy 2: A Shot Across the Bow,” a drunken Flynn had made a vile remark about Olivia de Havilland to John Huston at a David O. Selznick party at the DOS mansion on Summit Drive. Huston wouldn’t say what it was except to call it “something wretched,” uttered one womanizer to another. Now, I don’t for a moment believe that Errol just insulted Olivia for no reason. What he said was really about some aspect of the deH-Huston liaison, as in, she was cheating on you, John, with me. Flynn had at this point been jilted three long years ago by Livvie, but Errol was thin-skinned and carefully fed and watered his grudges, so this one was top of mind. Always top of mind. Huston then called Flynn on the remark, called him a “sonofabitch” as a matter of fact, and they took it outside so as not to incur breakage on stately DOS interiors.
Down past Selznick’s famous gardens they trudged in the wilds of the Hollywood Hills off Benedict Canyon to a gravel road. They removed their jackets and squared off, ready for combat, with Huston feeling pretty confident since he had been a prizefighter in his colorful youth. Boom. That left jab of Flynn’s, the one that made Angelo Dundee all giggly, the one that caused Bert Randolph Sugar to gasp in admiration, shot out of nowhere and turned out Huston’s lights. You see, one of Flynn’s cronies was ex-welterweight boxing champion Mushy Callahan, now a Warner Bros. grip, who had spent many an hour sharpening Flynn’s form and footwork for Gentleman Jim. In fact, Errol had been a huge fight fan from his brawling days in the South Seas and loved nothing so much as mixing it up after a few drinks.
Huston landed on his elbows, gained his wits, and jumped up as if to say, no big deal, and Flynn set him right back down again. “Each time I landed on my elbows,” said Huston, who claimed that for years afterward slivers of bone would emerge through the skin of his right elbow courtesy of his bout with Flynn.
Tale of the tape on these two was that Huston was then 38 and Flynn 35. Flynn was an inch taller and 25 pounds heavier than Huston, all of it lean muscle. Huston had gone 22 and 3 as an amateur boxer and was once California champion. Flynn’s record is unknown because he fought his bouts like this one, outside the ring, although it’s confirmed that ex-wife Lili Damita knocked him out cold with a champagne bottle on their anniversary in 1938, so Flynn was something-something and 1 at the least.
Huston wrote about his fight with Flynn in An Open Book, his autobiography. He figured going in that Flynn would fight dirty, and when Huston had gone down on his elbows those first times, he expected Errol to kick him in the head and end the fight in a hurry. “He didn’t,” said Huston. “He stepped back and waited for me to get up, which I thought rather sporting of him.”
Flynn kept his guard high to protect that pretty face, which was where the money was, so Huston started going for the body and played Flynn’s ribs like a xylophone. John knew he was getting to Errol when Flynn started to lean in and hold onto Huston—the classic sign in boxing that body blows are taking a toll and wearing down a combatant.
Far from a brawl, they boxed, and boxed, and kept at it until headlights from departing party guests illuminated the pair and tipped off Selznick about what was happening practically under his nose. At that point he burst out enraged and broke things up. Said Huston, “David assumed Errol had started the fight, since he had that reputation, and there were recriminations.” Whoa, Nellie, I bet there were! Both Flynn and Huston ended up in the hospital and would find their fight a bonding experience to the point that Flynn ended up calling Huston “Johnny,” and a dozen years later Errol would star in the John Huston African adventure film, The Roots of Heaven.
And what of the lady in question, the subject of the remark by Flynn? Olivia de Havilland would remain estranged from both men, although Flynn wrote to Livvie less than two months after the boxing match inviting her to star opposite him in his new comedy, Never Say Goodbye. This was shortly after the “de Havilland Decision” had broken Jack Warner’s power and she was unable to find work because of a Hollywood blacklist organized by Warner against her. She declined Flynn’s offer in a return note, no doubt in part because making this picture would require her to return to Warner Bros. Flynn made it clear Never Say Goodbye was to be made by his own production company so he had the power to get her in, or, as he phrased it, “I could guarantee that not only would the Bros. not get in your hair but on the contrary would lay out a good number in velvet carpets for you.” But it also meant working in close quarters with Errol again, and so even though offers weren’t coming in, she said no. It would be another 13 years before they met up face to face, an occasion described in my book Errol & Olivia (2010) that would wound her deeply and break his spirit.
Flynn, de Havilland, and Huston were three solitary, not-very-happy people living in an age long before email and text messages. Where today a wistful lover can tap out a smartphone message in a nostalgic moment and hit send, in the old days there was a deliberate process that had to be followed: pull out paper, pull out pen, sit there and reminisce and write, then sign your name, fold it up, address an envelope, lick and place a stamp, and (heart pounding) drop in mailbox. It was slow, calculated torture to send handwritten notes to lost loves via snail mail, like those exchanged by Errol and Livvie in 1945, and by Livvie and John in 1967. But in both cases—the love of Errol and Livvie and the love of Livvie and John—the relationships were poisoned and there was no going back.
Thanks, Robert, for supplying a colourful reminiscence (a two parter yet!) of that legendary 1945 scrap between Flynn and Huston that went to a no decision when it got broken up by an angry party host.
Curious how, to the best of my knowledge, there are no recorded comments about the incident by Errol. Not even in his autobiography, though he was working on that book right after having worked with Huston in Africa so, perhaps out of a sense of professional courtesy, thought it inappropriate to re-live the incident once again for the world to read.
Still, we have Huston’s take on the fight. It’s a shame we don’t have his opponent’s.
Yes, I also caught that TCM clip of Angelo Dundee extolling Flynn’s boxing technique from Gentleman Jim, and It made me beam with Flynn fan pride to hear his enthusiastic endorsement of what he saw.
By the way, if it wasn’t for Dundee, it’s highly unlikely that Muhammad Ali would have become a legend. It was in the fifth round of Ali’s first fight with Liston that a salve used by Liston’s corner for some facial cuts on their man got into Muhammad’s eyes. (He was then known as Cassius Clay, of course).
Clay returned to his corner, his eyes burning, blind, not knowing what had just happened, screaming for his corner men to cut off his gloves. Dundee washed his eyes out as best he could then forced him to get out for the 6th round to continue the fight. A still blind Clay got on his bicycle and avoided Liston’s blows as his eyes slowly cleared, before he then started to take command of the fight once again.
Liston remained sitting on his stool at the start of the 7th and soon Clay was running around the ring screaming how “I SHOOK UP THE WORLD!” with Dundee and other corner men hugging him in happy celebration over his winning the heavyweight crown.
And shake up the world Ali would do, too, past his courageous stand against the Viet Nam War which vilified him in the eyes of many (most?) Americans at the time, past his legendary three time heavyweight championship boxing career to his 1990 trip to Iran to free 15 American hostages from Saddam Hussein and his 1996 trip to the Olympics in which, with shaking limbs, he fought the disease that would be his greatest opponent to light the Olympic cauldron, telling the world, in essence, “I am a proud Olympian.”
Like the rest of us, Ali had his flaws as a human being. Yet he grew in wisdom as the years rolled by, refusing to let the debilitation of the parkinson’s disease take away his spirit. He once said that if a man at age 50 felt the same way about the world and people as he did when he was 20 then he hadn’t learned anything in those past 30 years.
No one could dictate to Ali. His entire life, in fact, is an inspiration to the world telling it that the “impossible” is possible.
Yet none of his subsequent behaviour might have occurred if, on that 1964 night in Miami, Angelo Dundee had not forced an excited, blind kid back into the ring once again to face the Big Bad Bear that was Liston.
Magnificent, Tom! I figured talking about Ali would get you going. These were bigger-than-life guys in a bigger-than-life time. I remember the turbulent ’60s a little too well (although I was very small) and I can’t blame my parents, a couple of Eisenhower Republicans, for being confused and angry. But Ali was the future of a brash and bold America that the world had never seen before. I wish he had been in better health these last 30 years because I think he would have done much more to head off the kinds of incidents that are all-too-common in the white-vs-black U.S.A. of today.
I agree, Robert, that the world lost out on what might have been a remarkable ambassador for peace because of the disease that stilled Muhammad Ali’s voice.
Even then, though, as a reflection of the power that Ali still had even at the very end of his life, he sent a message to Iran in March, 2015 asking for the release from prison of a Washington Post journalist, Jason Rezaian, imprisoned on a charge of espionage. Rezaian, finally released after 545 days, says that he still gets chills when he thinks of how the Champ, as he calls him, spoke up for him.
He also said that when his Iranian guards heard Ali’s words (through their press) that their attitude towards him changed in the jail and they started to treat him better. He said it gave him a feeling of empowerment that he hadn’t had before.
Even today, with all of the racial dissension that continues to wrack the very soul of America, Ali’s is a voice that I feel many would have listened to, both black and white.
Robert, I had never before heard that Errol Flynn had corresponded with Olivia asking her to co-star with him in Never Say Goodbye.
Last week on TCM, after the broadcast of The Heiress, the host said that William Wyler’s original casting choice for the role of Morris Townsend had been Flynn (playing the role as more of an out-and-out cad than Monty Clift’s interpretation) but Errol had turned him down. A few years ago I heard the same statement made on TCM, but I can’t recall ever reading that anywhere else.
By any chance, would you know if it’s true?
I’ve also heard it stated as fact on TCM (by Robert Osborne) that Lili Damita had once been married to Michael Curtiz. I was really surprised to hear Osborne say that since, to the best of my knowledge, that “marriage” is an internet rumour frequently repeated to which there is no sound basis.
Therefore, I also wondered about this Flynn turning down The Heiress offer that TCM claims to have been the case. It’s a shame that on the two occasions in which I heard a TCM host make this statement that they didn’t provide their sources.
Errol Flynn as Morris in The Heiress? Then, what if Basil Rathobone, who won a Tony award for the role, was cast as Dr. Sloper? Now, there’s some interesting casting. However, I think Flynn was probably too old for the part (or as the dissipation began to set in, would look too old). I can only imagine how William Wyler, the king of retakes, would handle Flynn. The two would probably be near fisticuffs by the end of the picture.
You made me LOL, Rosemarie, imagining Dr. Sloper pulling a sword out of that cane of his, and Morris pulling one, and they fight a duel to the death on the Sloper staircase.
“You’ve come to New York once too often.”
“After this, my friend, there’ll be no need for me to come again.”
I’ve got a couple of letters here that I’m holding onto for the updated Errol & Olivia ebook, Tom, which is on my list of things to do.
I sat with Rudy Behlmer sometime back, while working on E&O, and he gave me hell for assuming that the internet factoid about Curtiz being married to Damita were true. He wanted to know the source; he wanted verification, and I realized there is nothing out there to back it up. I imagine you could mount an expedition to Hungary or Germany to search the archives, which were probably destroyed in WWII, and you’d still have nothing. It’s way too pat for my taste and too easily explains the enmity between Flynn and Curtiz, which I feel has been overblown anyway. There could be a column in my future on that topic.
It was news to me about Flynn in The Heiress when I heard Osborne say it, and I wondered then where that information had come from and of course there’s never verification from the TCM hosts, just Enquirer-style tidbits. All I can say is that in every pre-production phase of every picture, there’s a quick flurry of memos about casting, and names are thrown around and discarded, and maybe Flynn’s name came up as an obvious choice to play against de Havilland, whether or not he would have been valid in the role. Which he wouldn’t have been. Flynn had already sort of played that role in The Sisters and there were shades of it in Escape Me Never, and neither showed him to good advantage. I think he’s lucky Clift took it. And if you look at Flynn’s timeline, he was all into his MGM work at this time, making Forsyte Woman, considering King Solomon’s Mines, making Kim. I just don’t know that he had time for a production at Paramount. And since Livvie had turned him down for Never Say Goodbye, which was an important picture to him, how receptive would he have been to The Heiress?
As far as the Damita-Curtiz “marriage” is concerned, common sense tells you that if that had been the case Errol would have made reference to it in his book. How could he not?
Love to see any future column you may have about the relationship between Flynn and Curtiz. He owed the director big time for his career, if only for Captain Blood, something I don’t think Flynn ever acknowledged.