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.
Something tells me that if you hated the score, I might like it!
Also: I’m with you, RE: twilight, and quote Tennyson:
“…—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.”
It’s a bunch of blaring instruments with no melody discernable–right up your alley, Tom. Nice application of Tennyson.
While the Flynn Don Juan is the infinitely superior production, there’s an appealingly wistful quality about Douglas Fairbanks’s last feature film, The Private Life of Don Juan. From anything that I’ve read about him, Doug was not a man who enjoyed going through the aging process. He wanted to remain young and virile forever.
Yet here he is in his final film playing an aging Don Juan who is a bit naive when it comes to the opposite sex. One of the most amusing scenes in the film is when Athene Seyler, a somewhat homely, middle aged woman, tells this Juan well past his prime that, words to the effect, he’s not much to look at but she’ll settle for him anyway. Doug’s horrified reaction to the suggestion is a reflection of the fact that he perhaps hasn’t taken a good look in the mirror for quite some time. I thought it very good natured of Fairbanks (surprisingly so) that he agreed to play a role in which his character was the butt of the joke to a degree.
The Flynn Don Juan I find to have a bittersweet quality about it. On the one hand it’s an eye popping rich Technicolor production, with wonderful costumes and sets, supplemented by a sweeping Max Steiner musical score, alternately exciting and poignantly romantic. The film has a witty screenplay, with Errol seeming to own much of the dialogue, whether it be tongue-in-cheek or sincere. (“An artist may paint a thousand canvasses before he achieves one work of art. Would you deny a lover the same practice?” It sounds like a line right out of the actor’s private life).
No one in the movies could so beautifully personify the role of aging, cynical, world weary Don Juan as Errol Flynn here. He rises to the occasion in this film that was so important to him with a memorable portrayal of adventure and romance that represents the best of the actor as a larger-than-life screen presence. Perhaps no other film in his career would provide the actor with the same opportunity to demonstrate his subtle facility with sly, clever humour.
And, to top it off, Errol was very fortunate to have in Viveca Lindfors an intelligent, sensitive actress with whom our somewhat aging hero had extraordinary screen rapport. I can well understand why their well written and played farewell scene at the end can bring tears to your eyes, Robert, especially with Steiner’s poignantly romantic score playing on the soundtrack.
And yet, watching this film, always seems to produce some feelings of melancholy in this Flynn lover. Because, as you state by the selection of your title for this column, Robert, the darkness of the twilight years was rushing in upon his career at this point. Never again would Errol have a star vehicle of this same handsome opulence to bring out his best, or dialogue of this witty nature or a leading lady who so complimented him on screen as Lindfors.
It would be a gradual downward spiral for Flynn and his career after this. There would be a few films of minor note, of course, in the remaining years but simply nothing to compete with the magnificence of an Adventures of Don Juan.
Yes Tom, you’ve said it perfectly: Fairbanks let himself be the joke, and it was utterly charming the way he did it. And I agree with you that anyone who knows Flynn’s history can’t watch Adventures of Don Juan without understanding that it was, for Flynn, the end. Oh we can talk about The Master of Ballantrae being a rich Warner Bros. production and Cardiff made it especially noteworthy, but the budget, the cast around Flynn, the music–none of it compared with what he had in Don Juan. Others mention The Sun also Rises as a “comeback picture” for Flynn but I find it highly problematic on several counts. No, Don Juan was it for Errol in primetime, and what a treat that Viveca was there for this one last great ride. Tom, am I alone in believing that casting Olivia as the queen wouldn’t have yielded results like Viveca achieved? I mention this because as early as 1939 the Warner Bros. papers mention Don Juan with Flynn and de Havilland.
I wish I could say that the parting scene between Don Juan and his queen left me with such tender and noble sentiments, but I’m afraid my feelings about that scene are more earthly. Did Margaret/Viveca indeed become a woman for an hour rather than a queen, and what an hour that must have been!
Actually, you always have a way of finding my funnybone.
Casting Olivia as the Queen in Don Juan would have brought a different dynamic to the film, and she might have been fine in the role. After all, they always had that great screen chemistry.
But Lindfors, a serious actress, brought an integrity to her portrayal. That wonderful moment when Juan opens up to the Queen about an ideal in women that he has finally found and she gradually realizes that he is speaking about her has the actress bringing a vulnerability and sensitivity to her portrayal that, in turn, brings a greater depth of emotion to the scene than one would normally expect to find in a “superficial” light entertainment of this nature.
While not a lot of people think of this actress when they list Flynn’s best leading ladies (after all, they only share a handful of scenes together in one film), I think Viveca Lindfors deserves to be ranked among his top four female co-stars (along with Olivia, Ann Sheridan and Alexis Smith).
As for The Master of Ballantrae which you mentioned, Robert, it is a swashbuckler which has a great many fine things going for it, enough that I would rank it as Flynn’s one good film of the ’50s. But it’s no Don Juan.
Lindfors was an out-of-left-field casting decision that became Flynn’s stroke of luck. He didn’t always like strong women co-stars (there were stories he didn’t care for Ruth Roman, for example), but Lindfors clearly “got” Flynn and the result is pop and sizzle that’s undiminished despite 67 intervening years.
I think Lindfors was perfect for the role of queen, stately and regal, but with a hint of repressed passion underneath. While Olivia might have been fine in the role, her diminutive stature and natural warmth with Flynn (even when playing cool we know she’s hot for him) might not have worked. In some scenes Lindfors reminds me of a brunette Ingrid Bergman, that kind of bearing and almost ethereal quality.
I’ve thought the same thing, but speaking only for myself, I never found Bergman the least bit sexy, whereas Lindfors has that smoldering-underneath quality you describe.
(I have a tenor voice and it killed me in talkies too)
Oh my, that made me laugh so!
Finally, Priscila, someone who gets me. Thank you.