On this past rare Friday night alone I sought out the equivalent of cinematic comfort food: Errol Flynn’s Adventures of Don Juan. I wanted something I could completely relax to and enjoy after a tough week, and yet something that if I fell asleep, no big deal, I knew what was going to happen anyway.
Did you ever notice that when you watch a movie over and over, the same things happen? I mean, every single time. You can count on Mr. Takagi saying the wrong thing and Hans Gruber shooting him. You can count on Johnny to get fired from that place but come back for one last revenge dance. Hiller and Levinson survive reentry to earth against the odds every single time. It’s uncanny!
However, the thing I realized Friday evening is, as the years go by, the movies don’t change but my awareness about them does. Don Juan is presented in this picture as a diffident lover. We get the sense he has had a great number of adventures with women, but he’s bored and no longer into the challenge—and these are genuine babes that are falling all over him. What the Bros. Warner were doing, I’m sure, was making sure that Errol Flynn of all people wasn’t seen as taking advantage of the women. They were systematically taking advantage of him, and he was letting them. He was a very reluctant don juan. Then all of a sudden he falls in love and not just with anybody but with the queen of Spain. Yikes, the chemistry of Errol Flynn and Viveca Lindfors in this picture. Because he is Don Juan, he has a whopping arsenal of lines to lay on this woman he has genuinely fallen in love with, but she’s a sharp cookie and easily parries the obvious ones. In their early scenes together, it’s clear he’s trying to manipulate her, but pretty soon the tables are turned and he’s in over his head. When he lays his cards on the table, she of course thinks he’s just naughty boy Don Juan putting on the moves. The love scenes in Adventures of Don Juan are so intimate and so lyrical that I cry—that’s another given in repeated viewings of this picture.
Not too long ago I watched The Private Life of Don Juan with Douglas Fairbanks, a Korda picture made in 1934 with Fairbanks way past his prime and displaying that tenor voice that killed him in talkies (I have a tenor voice and it killed me in talkies too). I did not cry at this version. But the thing is, the Fairbanks Don Juan is a middle-aged guy (50 as cameras rolled) also going by the numbers, so obviously middle aged in fact that the ladies don’t fall for his attempts to be Don Juan. There’s some pretty good shtick in The Private Life of Don Juan, some recurring gags, as he always looks into a woman’s eyes and reveals, “You baffle me. Once again I’m just a frightened child. I could kill you for being so attractive.”
In both pictures, Juan’s sidekick is wry and cynical Leporello—Melville Cooper in the Fairbanks version, Alan Hale in the Flynn. The plot for Fairbanks seems trivial—an imposter Don Juan is killed and the real one uses the death as a way to take some time off—because the Flynn version is a deadly serious story about very nasty men attempting to seize control of the Spanish crown. I can tell you that 38-year-old Flynn took his Don Juan more seriously than did Fairbanks, seeing it as a comeback picture that could hoist him back up to the kind of popularity he had enjoyed with The Adventures of Robin Hood a decade earlier. In fact, Flynn’s well-documented self-destruction six weeks after production was, I believe, America’s heartthrob buckling under the pressure to make a big comeback picture. Far from walking through the role, as some have alleged, he’s trying very, very hard, and for the most part he pulls it off. But owing to changing tastes among the public, his smash picture just didn’t come to pass.
I made it a trilogy of stories about heroes in their twilight years by watching Olivia de Havilland’s last picture, The Fifth Musketeer, which had the working title Behind the Iron Mask when it went into production in Austria in 1976 on the heels of the popular Richard Lester Three and Four Musketeers. It was based on Dumas’ final “d’Artagnan romance,” Man in the Iron Mask, about the dissolution of the musketeers, who ended up feuding to the grave. When I first saw The Fifth Musketeer in 1979 I wasn’t impressed, but this time around the casting really got me. Cornel Wilde was the perfect d’Artagnan; in fact he had played d’Artagnan’s son in the 1952 Howard Hughes picture, Sons of the Musketeers. People, Cornel Wilde was born to play d’Artagnan. And Alan Hale, Jr. (yes, the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island) had played the son of Porthos in the same picture, Sons of the Musketeers, which was mysteriously and stupidly retitled At Sword’s Point. What?! Hale’s father the original Alan had played Porthos in the 1939 version of The Man in the Iron Mask. Well, Hale the younger was back as Porthos in The Fifth Musketeer, with Jose Ferrer, one-time Cyrano de Bergerac, as Athos. Phenomenal casting! Lloyd Bridges made an OK Aramis but his lack of ties to previous costume pictures and his main claim to fame as skin diver Mike Nelson in Sea Hunt made him feel out of place for me. I’ll tell you—Cornel Wilde and Jose Ferrer were 64 at the time, and Bridges 63, and they strut about and handle the action sequences like men half their ages. Wilde had been a fencing champion and Ferrer had practiced his use of the blade through hundreds of Broadway performances as Cyrano. It’s just too bad that a number of things worked against their sincere attempts to pull this version off, like a miscast Beau Bridges as Philippe and Louis, like a terrible musical score, like a great deal of period-incorrect costuming, and like the use of plastic swords that I’m sure cut down on injuries but also any sense that deadly things were happening. Olivia shows up for two scenes and a handful of lines of dialogue dressed in a nun’s habit both times. It wasn’t much of a part and there wasn’t much she could do with it but bellow as directed by the script. Don’t get me wrong—hers is the role that reveals the Big Secret of the plot, but as the last theatrical role for a talent like hers, it was an anti-climax. Behind the Iron Mask got a European release in 1977 but barely made U.S. theaters in a terrible 1979 distribution deal under its alternate title, and died a quick, miserable death.
It’s nearing autumn in Pennsylvania, with the crickets, tree frogs, and locusts singing their sad songs, and watching these great stars in pictures about aging and the passing of legendary characters—for many of them their swan-song as actors in features—I mourned that their time had come and gone. Look! There’s Errol Flynn giving it his best! Over there, Cornel Wilde lunging and parrying! And Doug Sr. so charmingly self-deprecating in his final feature! All long gone now, but such treats they left us for a lonely Friday night.