Errol & Olivia

20 Great de Havilland Moments

As we draw closer to July 1, which will mark Olivia de Havilland’s 100th full year on this planet, I started to think back to the most memorable moments of her screen career. She didn’t have the usual run of a Hollywood legend because she went to war with Warner Bros. and stayed off the screen for three years, and then faded from leading lady status in the 1950s, retrenching in Paris, where she has remained for 60 years.

As I detailed in Errol & Olivia, OdeH never rushed into anything in life, and turned down many scripts that became unmemorable pictures. But those she did make, she made well. I thought about doing the top 5, and then the top 10, but they kept coming so I finally decided to stop at 20, realizing that I’m missing many other great moments. I simply haven’t seen pictures like The Great Garrick, The Strawberry Blonde, The Dark Mirror, and My Cousin Rachel in recent times, so I’m depending on all of you to identify the considerable number of great scenes I must be missing. Yes I skew to Flynn-de Havilland just because I’ve seen them most of all.

Here they are, in reverse order, from 20 to down to 1, a list of memorable screen moments courtesy of OdeH—they just happen to include some of the most powerful scenes in motion picture history.

20. Government GirlSmokey slithers across the floor of the crowded hotel lobby looking for a missing wedding ring, and Ed can’t miss her high-heeled legs under the sofa. Livvie wasn’t a comedic actress, but she does well in this crowded-hotel-lobby sequence, and also plays along to sell the sex. This little picture proved to be a surprise hit at the box office for struggling RKO.

19. Dodge City—On the staircase Abbie yells at Wade, “You can’t boss me!” and he stifles her protests with a surprise kiss and she makes a noise in her throat as if to convey, “Oh! This isn’t so bad!”

18. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex—Penelope’s big brown eyes light up as if in neon every time she sees Robert Devereaux. This was her worst screen experience, a thankless role in a prestige picture courtesy of Jack Warner. She stood around a lot, but did what she could with the part.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Down yonder, there he is, Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex. Penelope rather fancies him.

17. The Adventures of Robin Hood—Sir Guy paws Marian’s jewel case and then rips it open to find the written warning for Robin. Awesome sexual tension between jilted Sir Guy and scheming Marian, revealing just a little of Basil Rathbone’s undisguised lust for Olivia de Havilland.

16. Light in the Piazza—After her daughter’s wedding to Italian innocent Fabrizio, Meg says to herself, “I did the right thing.” Even though the picture never made sense as presented, Livvie still owned those last moments and made them powerful.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Meg gushes with pride at the wedding of her daughter at the conclusion of Light in the Piazza.

15. The Snake Pit—Virginia stands in the common room at the sanitarium and her gentle, internal VO likens her surroundings to a snake pit. The camera changes focal length, lifting high above the soundstage until the illusion of all those crazy people is of snakes in a pit. And she remains fixed there, alone and vulnerable and, worst of all for her and for us, returning to sanity so she understands what’s going on.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Virginia stands in the middle of snakes in the pit in director Anatole Litvak’s beautiful, chilling shot.

14. They Died with Their Boots On—George scales the trellis to Libby’s balcony and proposes, and she swoons, and then it dawns on her what he just asked, and she scolds, “Oh, lieutenant!” and then a moment later, “Yes, general!”

13. Gone With the Wind—At the door chatting with Scarlett, Melanie spots Ashley coming up the road to Tara after the war.

12. Captain Blood—Snooty young Arabella decides to buy a pirate for personal use and he turns out to be a sassy, wrongly imprisoned English doctor. (Peter to Arabella, with a bow: “Your very humble slave, Miss Bishop.”)

11. Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte—Sweet Miriam stops the car and ever so slowly turns to Charlotte, revealing pure evil, and smacks her across the face repeatedly. Then she leans close and hisses, “Damn you. Now will you shut your mouth!” It was Livvie’s darkest moment onscreen in a picture seen as pure camp today, even though it received seven Academy Award nominations in 1965 and won three Oscars. Somewhere deep down it must have been fun to slap around Bette Davis after their long history together that includes contentious moments on the set of In This Our Life.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

If Charlotte thinks she’s troubled now, just wait another minute.

10. Dodge City—At the newspaper office, Wade comes in to taunt Abbie after she takes a job there because a woman working for a living “Tisn’t dignified!” And during their byplay she hints that the natives object to his face. (Wade: “You should be home, doing needlework!”)

9. The Snake Pit—Virginia realizes she isn’t crazy anymore and doesn’t really love Dr. Kik. Then she connects with Hester in a brilliant crowning moment.

8. The Adventures of Robin Hood—Marian lets her hair down and begins to speak of love with Bess, and then Robin Hood barges in and he and Marian both proceed to let their hair down together.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Letting their hair down was a bear to shoot and took three tries with two directors.

7. Gone With the Wind—After Scarlett shoots the Yankee in the face, Melanie drawls, “I’m glad you killed him.” Then she strips off her nightgown to wrap the bloody dead Yankee in.

6. They Died with Their Boots On—Libby strolls onto the West Point green and engages Custer on guard duty, and they get into a big fight right off the bat. It was her first day of work on the picture, and she unleashed pent-up energy that Flynn matched for a terrific sequence.

5. The Heiress—Spinster Catherine finally locks the door on Morris and turns out the lights. She earned Oscar #2 here–she should have won it for The Snake Pit a year earlier.

4. The Adventures of Robin Hood—King Richard commands Robin to claim Marian as his bride; the king asks if she would like that and she beams, “More than anything in the world, sire.” Slam-bang ending to an epic picture. Livvie wasn’t crazy about playing a damsel in distress, but gave it her all anyway.

3. Gone With the Wind—Weakened Melanie forces herself up the long staircase at Tara to tend to Rhett after the death of Bonnie Blue Butler. Did this scene tip the Oscar to Hattie McDaniel? Both were flawless and completed the dramatic stair climb in an unbroken take.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

A posed still can’t begin to capture the brilliance of de Havilland and McDaniel on that long walk up the staircase.

2. To Each His Own—Through the whole picture, old Miss Norris has been pinch-faced and bitter, but then the Army lieutenant realizes that she’s his mother and asks her to dance. It was the scene that sealed her first Oscar win, and if it doesn’t make you cry, you don’t have a pulse.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

“I believe this is our dance, Mother.”

1. They Died with Their Boots OnGeorge says goodbye to Libby, both sensing they’ll never see each other again. It was the best moment for both actors, and for director Raoul Walsh, and for the technicians who lit the set. Yikes.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

If you want to destroy me no matter the mood or time of day, put this scene on. And BTW, however much you’re paying the lighting guy? It ain’t enough.

All right, lay it on me. What are some more great de Havilland moments?

For more on Olivia de Havilland and her upcoming 100th, check out Self-Styled Siren’s blog.

When Swords Flew

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

In a key lobby card from the set, Robin Hood stares down Sir Guy of Gisbourne in the middle of a duel for the ages.

I was prompted to think about the duel scene in The Adventures of Robin Hood by an email Tom Hodgins sent just this morning. In it he says:

“…years ago I mentioned on your Errol and Olivia blog that there is a moment in the Robin Hood duel where a sword fumble by Rathbone can still be seen in the film. Ralph Dawson edited it so beautifully that the eye can’t really catch anything, but, by pausing and freeze framing the image you can clearly see it. The only reason I made this discovery is because one day I thought I saw a slight blur on the film at that point, so I stopped my DVD to check it out. Voila—a boner by Basil that’s been on the film since its release without anyone having noticed it. (At least, I’ve never heard of anyone else having written about it). I’m sending you a couple of snapshots of the fumble taken on my computer off the DVD, just in case you never saw it for yourself. Basil, I’m sure, would not be pleased.”

I remember Tom mentioning this but never did think to follow up until the new prompting this morning. With Flynn lying under the candelabra, Rathbone says, “Do you know any prayers, my friend?” and Flynn responds, “I’ll say one for you!” and his next swing with the sword, as he’s lying flat on his back, is so ferocious that it catches Rathbone unaware and knocks the blade from his hand. It’s not supposed to, but that thing goes flying—which I didn’t notice in nine theatrical viewings of the picture and dozens more on the small screen. It’s only a few frames, literally like a quarter of a second, but it’s there with the sword tumbling high in the air end over end.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

In Tom’s freeze frame, Rathbone’s sword has been knocked from his hand by an over-eager Flynn and is tumbling in the air–something NOT choreographed as part of the action. As can be seen, candles did not fare well in this encounter.

In general it proves how difficult the swordfights were to choreograph and how long it took and how exhausting for the actors, director, DP, and crew. Rudy Behlmer used some of the Rathbone color home movies to lead us through an examination of the filming of this duel scene in the bonus feature, Welcome to Sherwood, included as bonus material in the Robin Hood deluxe DVD package released years back.

We have all seen some fantastic cinematic duels, and for me this one is near the top of the list, with its terrific flow as the duelists fight their way out of frame to hack and slash in shadow and then re-emerge into view, still going at it furiously. They’re not fighting with foils but with heavy swords, their occasional, resonant clanking serving as reminders that these weapons are lethal.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

As per another lobby card from the original set, the duel begins in the Great Hall.

In The Mark of Zorro there’s a fantastic moment when Esteban (Rathbone again) demonstrates his prowess with a blade to Zorro (Ty Power) by deftly slicing off a candle with a flick of his wrist. Then Zorro does the same and seems to miss because the candle is still sitting in place, but then he reaches out and lifts the sliced top off the remaining bottom and smiles innocently. Well, there’s no such gentlemanly foreplay in Robin Hood—when those big candles get hacked by the swinging swords, wax flies in all directions. In general, candles take a lot of abuse in the Robin Hood duel; not only are they hacked up by both combatants, but candelabras are tipped over and a candle is hurled as a missile by Robin at one point.

Wasn’t Basil Rathbone something? When the duel scene was shot, he was 45 years of age (17 years older than Flynn) and a heavy smoker, yet easily up to the rigors of shooting that scene. Two years later at 47 he nearly topped it in The Mark of Zorro. There’s a moment at the end of the Robin Hood duel that makes me frightened in retrospect for the safety of Mr. Rathbone and others in the cast, and that occurs after Sir Guy has been defeated and Robin hurries to the dungeon where he knocks the hand of the jailor holding the keys to Marian’s cell so hard that he bends his blade. He doesn’t bend it a little; he bends it a lot, demonstrating—what are we—78 years later how explosive Flynn was as a physical presence in his action pictures, and how wary stars and bit players alike would have been at the moment the director called, “Action!” and the film started to move in the magazine. That was when the money was spent, and when Errol would have been ready to make it look good, come what may for the other guy—as when he used muscle on the shot that Tom Hodgins pointed out, and Rathbone’s sword went flying. I know I’ve mentioned how Christopher Lee used to boast that Flynn nearly took off a finger shooting a duel scene during production of an episode of The Errol Flynn Theater, “and I have the scar to prove it,” Lee sniffed in an on-camera interview.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Basil Rathbone fights Tyrone Power in The Mark of Zorro. This duel was just as furious and just as lethal an encounter, but confined to a much smaller space. In both, Rathbone displayed fine fencing form.

I’m tempted to say that Flynn just didn’t have self-discipline in any regard except maybe for tennis. Archival film footage shows he was an awfully good tennis player and, as any weekend hacker knows, tennis is all about discipline. And when you watch the Robin Hood duel scene and the extra footage as described by Rudy Behlmer, you see that the swordfights were meticulously shot over a course of days and through all those movements with exposed sword tips, Flynn must have had discipline there too or Rathbone and so many others would be dead or blinded for life. But they lived to act on, so Errol must have been doing something right. You can cite for me all the instances where Fred and Al Cavens were doubling for Errol and Basil but there’s still a heck of a lot of Flynn-Rathbone footage visible in the Robin Hood duel, so these two must be given the credit they deserve for making it look lethal from beginning to end.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Thanks to the vision of Mike Curtiz, the combatants duel in shadow for a time, only to reemerge in frame still fighting with fury.

The near-impossibility of shooting this duel scene is demonstrated when, in the middle of the duel, Robin moves aside and Sir Guy flies past him and off the winding stone stairway. Sir Guy’s sword flies far off as dictated by physics and lands a good 25 or 30 feet away, but in the next shot, it’s magically laying on the floor under Robin’s feet so he can kick it back to Sir Guy in an admirable display of sportsmanship. So, let’s think about that moment on Stage 1 (or wherever it was) in January 1938 after Curtiz called “Cut” and they assessed what had just been captured on film. There must have been 40 people who saw the sword go to a spot where it would be impossible to retrieve unless Robin spent 15 seconds walking down the stairs, picking up the sword, and returning it to Sir Guy after he had collected himself up off the floor and dusted himself off. Talk about sapping dramatic tension! So what was that moment like, and what led to the decision to cheat through it the way they did? Was the stunt man doubling Rathbone the key player? Did he say, “If I have to do that fall again, it’s going to cost you another $500,” which prompted Mike to decide that yes the sword flew off but print it anyway and we’ll cheat. Was it a safety thing where the stunt man said, if I’m falling this way, then I’m making sure the sword goes that way so I don’t impale myself. Actually, that’s more likely and could explain why there isn’t a memo to or from Hal Wallis about this situation—it was a safety thing and you either X the fall out of the script in red pencil, or you cheat. All of which speaks to the incredible challenge of staging a fight like this.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

The iconic promotion still. A few seconds after telling Robin Hood, “You’ve come to Nottingham once too often, my friend,” he will lunge and go head-first off the steps. His sword will fly far off camera.

I will never forget standing in front of the edit booths under Jack Warner’s window on the Warner lot, thinking about all that used to go on in those rooms, all the sweat and missed meals and midnight oil burning brightly as deadlines neared. Can you imagine the pressure of cutting film by hand on 1937 equipment when the final still needed to be processed and prints run in whatever, 36 or even 24 hours? I’ve never counted the individual shots in the Robin Hood duel scene but each one had to be spliced into a continuous flow in the work print—down to the right frame. There was no iMovie or Avid or Premiere Pro back then; there were just a lot of men and women working themselves into an early grave slicing film stock on crude machines under the scrutiny of bosses like Hal Wallis and Mike Curtiz. All I can say when I think about those poor people is, yikes. Oh, and, they’re not paying you enough.

So that’s what came to mind this morning when I saw Tom’s two frames from the DVD of The Adventures of Robin Hood. I’m probably not the only one who missed this remnant of a flub and I smile thinking about Ralph Dawson in his little room in the dark in Burbank thinking about how to make the frames work with what came next. In the foreground is Flynn squirming out from under the candelabra, which is critical to show, and in the background the sword is flying when it’s not supposed to be. But Dawson made the right decision, because the classic remains a classic, and it took the eagle eyes of Tom Hodgins and the luxury of frame-by-frame DVD stop motion to spot the goof.

Paradise Missed

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Dakota Fanning as Beverly Aadland and Kevin Kline as Errol Flynn in the fanciful and largely unseen “The Last of Robin Hood.”

I finally got around to watching The Last of Robin Hood, the 2013 curio made by Wash Westmoreland and the late Richard Glatzer and starring a powerhouse threesome of Kevin Kline, Susan Sarandon, and Dakota Fanning. When word of this production got out, fans of the late Errol Flynn asked: If you want to make a picture about Flynn, why focus on the last two miserable years of his life? Why not tell the story of Errol in his heyday? Well, it’s obvious that…

Actually there’s nothing obvious about why this film was made; I sat as it unspooled wondering who invested money in this production, and how the stars were convinced to participate, and who was expected to go see it, and why. It couldn’t get a distribution deal for the longest time and then when it did, release was limited. The very fact that I wrote two books about Flynn yet it took me a couple years beyond release to bother to see it says something about the desirability of the product, well, in this house, anyway.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

The real Beverly Aadland soon after Errol’s death. She was a natural beauty and by all accounts a sweet soul. And I have to ask: Does she look 17 years old to you? Maybe a tad bit older?

In a nutshell, the plot centers around a Hollywood hopeful named Beverly Aadland toiling away at Warner Bros. in 1957, when she is spotted by Errol Flynn. He’s back on the lot where he was once a contract star, this time playing near-death John Barrymore and way past his prime. Errol arranges to meet Beverly, has sex with her against her will (assuming as he does that she like all other females wants to feel the sword of the master). Then she falls for him and the romance of their lives ensues. But there’s a catch: he’s 48. She’s 15. She swears she’s legal but she isn’t; her stage mother Flo had arranged for a fake birth certificate to back up the fact that this girl looked much older than her years. Really she did. When the real Beverly was 13, she already looked like a full-fledged adult.

There are things to like about The Last of Robin Hood. The production design has a nice 1950s feel, with icily muted color tones. The screenplay has a cheeky vibe for the first 45 minutes. The stars are perfect. These are Academy Award performers letting it all hang out and they nail it—down to Kevin Kline’s rendition of Flynn’s odd Aussie/Tasmanian/English accent. Dakota Fanning is Beverly Aadland—we get that she feels Beverly at a soul-to-soul level. Beverly’s mother, Florence Aadland, could only ever wish she were the babe-version portrayed by Susan Sarandon, a basically good-hearted mom (or is she?) who can’t resist the lure of Hollywood. Flo has no idea how overmatched she is by people like Errol Flynn.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

In a scene vividly and accurately capturing reality, Fanning as Aadland is ambushed by reporters in the wake of Flynn’s death by heart attack.

As for Kevin Kline as Flynn, I (and many others) always thought he would make a perfect Errol from the days of The Pirates of Penzance. But the years passed and it kept not happening. He absolutely nails it in Last, as in, he depicts the guy his fans always imagined Errol Flynn should be at age 48, this elegant, dashing, aging-but-dignified movie star back to conquer Hollywood one last time.

At one point early on Beverly sees Flynn’s jaggy question mark stitched into some garment he’s wearing and asks what it means. And he says it means he questions things, but this throwaway moment had the potential to represent a theme in the picture: The jaggy question mark represented his cynicism about those people who were out to get him, people like the reporters who went after Flynn for living with an underage lover. How hard would it have been for the writers/directors to have tied the question mark into the scenes of “poor” Beverly collapsing as the press mobbed her at the airport after Errol’s sudden death from a heart attack?

Oh, sorry. Spoiler alert.

A disclaimer at the beginning of the picture would have helped: Any resemblance between this Errol Flynn and the real one is entirely coincidental. In truth, you didn’t want to spend an evening with the real Flynn by this point in his life. He was so debauched people didn’t recognize him—not even his frequent co-star and past love, Olivia de Havilland. He was by now the sum of thousands of bad decisions in his life, including washing down hard drugs with a fifth of vodka a day to ease the pain of having no money and few prospects. And he was a mean man, as described by Earl Conrad in Errol Flynn: A Memoir. Only an enabler would say that Errol Flynn was screwed over by life; Errol screwed himself over with all those bad decisions, one of them being to chase teenaged girls around.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Sorry folks, but this is the real Flynn in 1959. Paunchy, boozy, miserable. Bev looks awesome, though, and check out the caption where it says she’s 22.

Which leads me to the most perplexing thing about The Last of Robin Hood. Why in the world did the filmmakers choose this story about a man nearing 50 but looking older (cue the creepiness factor) having a sexual relationship with a girl who ages from 15 to 17? In our politically correct world, are you kidding?? We can’t feel sympathy for the predatory male, or for the girl who’s date-raped but stays with her attacker, or for the mother who wants her daughter to be a good girl on the one hand but play the Hollywood game on the other. It’s a fact that Flynn and Aadland had a close relationship, and a successful one—proving once again that you fall in love with who you fall in love with, and after a certain point, if the love is grand enough, it’s up to the world to deal with it. Flynn-Aadland was a salacious story when Flo Aadland sold it in The Big Love, a sleazy paperback published shortly after Flynn’s death. In our more enlightened age—actually I don’t think it’s more enlightened at all; I think it’s a more judgmental age and just as morally uptight—the Flynn-Aadland story simply couldn’t have succeeded in feature motion picture form as anything other than somebody’s tax write-off. It’s just a shame the three leads were wasted in this sanitized, superficial little fantasy version of complex, real-life happenings.

Earl Conrad got to know Flynn when Errol came down with writer’s block as he was drafting his memoirs; his publisher, Putnam, called Conrad in to save the day as Flynn’s ghostwriter. It’s interesting that the writing of My Wicked, Wicked Ways wasn’t interwoven into the plot of Last because this ultimate project of Flynn’s life engaged him just as much as Beverly did. In fact there’s your movie—why the hell didn’t they make this one: Flynn, the writer of two previous books and numerous pieces for major magazines, is now incapable of writing his greatest book of all. And as he works with Conrad, whom he despises, Flynn the actor and man comes face to face with a lifetime of demons, until, grudgingly, he begins to accept Conrad’s help, and then genuinely comes to admire and rely on him. I understand this story well because I knew Earl Conrad and we talked about it often, and a compelling drama it was as Flynn found redemption and then, finally, his missing words, with Earl’s guidance. I think a lot of people might have paid money to sit down and watch that one, with Kevin Kline as Flynn, Dakota Fanning as Beverly, and you name the Conrad. Matt Damon, maybe. I’d have been first in line and cried a river.

bev6

Beverly had a difficult time of it after Errol’s death, as this caption attests. Depicted with the coroner and police lieutenant is, wait, not Susan Sarandon, but the real Florence Aadland.

Leslie and the Professor

Little-known fact: Joan Leslie got her start with a bit part in Garbo's Camille in 1936 at age 11.

Little-known fact: Joan Leslie got her start with a bit part in Garbo’s Camille in 1936 at age 11 under her real name, Jane Brodel.

Joan Leslie passed on last week at the age of 90. I met Joan only once for a brief conversation that I wish had been a whole lot less-brief given that her first picture under Warner Bros. contract was with Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra, and within two years she had appeared with Gary Cooper in Sgt. York (he won a Best Actor Oscar for it) and then with James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy (he won a Best Actor Oscar for it as well). If you ask me, Joan Leslie helped these two legends win the big prize because she was that damn good.

How good was she? Well, when she played opposite Cooper she was 16 and he was 40, yet she was entirely credible as Coop’s girl. When she played opposite Cagney she was barely 17 and he was 42, but she was believable as his wife—the episodic storyline called for Joan to age 50 years as Mrs. George M. Cohan. In later scenes she was 17 playing 70, which for those times was kind of crazy. But the Oscars for her leading men in successive years don’t lie–this woman had talent. In fact she was a triple threat who could act, sing, and dance (with no less than Fred Astaire).

With Coop in Sgt. York at age 16 versus his 40. What a charmer as Gracie.

With Coop in Sgt. York at age 16 versus his 40. What a charmer as Gracie.

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen

Next year, with Cagney at age 17.

I get the feeling from the progression of her career and from speaking with her that Joan Leslie was a little too sane for Hollywood. One year after Olivia de Havilland took Jack L. Warner to court and gained freedom from her Warner Bros. contract, Leslie did the same thing. But while Livvie prospered from freedom and snagged two Best Actress Oscars in four years, Joan went to work for impoverished studios PRC and Eagle-Lion and ended up in obscurity. But it really didn’t matter to her so much because she married in 1950 and gave birth to twin girls soon thereafter. She made some minor pictures in the 1950s and did some TV all the way into the 1980s before calling it quits. By then, she had become a powerhouse in the fashion industry with her Joan Leslie line of women’s dresses.

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen

Just Errol’s type.

My meeting with Joan took place in 2008 while I was writing Errol Flynn Slept Here with Mike Mazzone. I asked for her recollections of Errol because they were under Warner contract at the same time in the 1940s. Boy did her eyes light up at the mention of the bad boy’s name. As related in EFSH, Joan wanted to meet Errol in the worst way, but since she was 15 when she signed and didn’t turn 18 until January 1943, the brass at Warner Bros. had to practically put her under guard to keep Flynn away. It was no secret he liked his women young; in fact, he was on trial for statutory rape when Joan finally did meet him. She had managed to give her handlers the slip at a party and felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned and there stood the king of adventure, smiling his dazzling, devilish smile. “Hi, I’m Errol Flynn,” he said and she told me that she sort of melted as she stood there. “Oh, I’ve been wanting to meet you for the longest time, Mr. Flynn!” she gushed. Encouragement was the last thing Flynn needed, but before he could deliver his next line, which presumably would have been something to the effect of, “How about we go someplace quiet where we can talk?” Joan’s bodyguards caught up with her and were, like, “No no no no no no,” and whisked her away to safety. I can imagine they used everything short of crucifixes and holy water to keep Flynn at bay during the rescue.

I asked Joan if they had met up again during their time at the studio, and she gave me a polite, enigmatic no. To this day I’m not sure if no really meant no.

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen

Now a free agent, Joan tried her hand at film noir with Repeat Performance.

A year and a half prior to her meeting with Flynn, Joan had nearly ended up as his co-star in They Died with Their Boots On. She was Hal Wallis’s backup plan for the role of Mrs. George Armstrong Custer if Olivia de Havilland wasn’t available to play the part. Mind you, Joan was all of 16 at the time, but considering her success in Sgt. York and Yankee Doodle, she would have done fine as Libby Custer. Not to mention the off-screen education she was sure to have received in the hands of Professor Errol Flynn.

Wedding

Joan married Dr. William Caldwell in March 1950. The union would last 40 years until his death in 1990.

More than Marian

In the category of, “You never know,” Olivia de Havilland turns 99 today. Happy Birthday, Livvie! I say you never know because the woman spent her first 40 years sickly. There’s no other way to put it. She was a delicate flower, driven to bed many times by various maladies and at least once by a nervous breakdown. She was also a smoker at various points, and we know what that does for a person’s longevity (right Errol? Clark? Joan? Bogie? Coop?).

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Olivia de Havilland’s first book, published in 1962. Her second has been eagerly awaited for going on 40 years.

Livvie has resided since the 1950s in Paris after marrying a Frenchman and for a long time commuted to Hollywood occasionally to work in pictures and television. She wrote a terrific book about life in Paris called Every Frenchman Has One, published in 1962. She charmed the pants off me with that book, making me wish she had written a lot more besides, like the memoir she promised her publisher in 1979. I clipped an article out of the paper back then (I could only use safety scissors because I was in my playpen); in this page-6-or-whatever story, OdeH regretted that there would be a delay in completing her manuscript beyond the first of the year. As in, beyond the beginning of 1980.

As the crow flies, it’s now 35.5 years later and the publisher continues to wait. The woman has lived a fascinating life from her birth in the Far East as a member of the British Empire to her eventual migration to Hollywood in 1934. As noted in Errol & Olivia, OdeH had a toxic relationship with her stepfather that included sexual abuse. She was driven from her home in Saratoga, California, upon graduation from high school and joined the theater, ending up in Max Reinhardt’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There, Warner Bros. spotted her and the rest is, well, you know. Legal victories (this little bulldog of five-three went toe-to-toe with the Hollywood moguls and beat them); Academy Award nominations and statuettes; national honors from the presidents of the United States and France.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Olivia de Havilland, just turned 18, sits on a prop cart at Warner Bros. with Errol Flynn in the summer of 1935.

You’d never know it to look at her because today she is a Grand Dame who has carefully crafted an image of Grand Dameitude, but Livvie in youth was a handful. She took a lot of anger with her from that tudor-inspired frame house at the end of that quiet dead-end street in Saratoga. Toxic relationships will do that to you. She grew up a loner with loads of self-discipline and has stayed that way all her life. When she moved to Hollywood after signing her Warner Bros. contract in 1934, her mother went with her and kept a watchful eye on young Livvie until 1938 when Mom moved back north and daughter, now age 21, stayed behind to sow some wild oats. That’s when things began to get interesting with Flynn, and with Jimmy Stewart, and with John Huston. There was nothing Grand Dameish about that last one when the movie star and the brash young writer-director embarked on a wild sexual adventure. All that self-discipline went flying out the window when she fell as hard for Huston as a girl could fall. Then he dumped her, and she carried a torch that I am sure still burns on Rue Benouville today.

OdeH could have written several books in the last 35 years. One about her day job, another about Huston, a third about Flynn, and, of course, a whole Harvard Five-Foot Bookshelf about her own sister, Joan Fontaine, the little girl born less than 18 months after Olivia. It’s no fluke that I chose the title Twisted Sisters for my section about the battling de Havillands in Errol & Olivia. These two went at it with only short respites for 96 years, until Joanie gave in and left us in 2013. Today, Olivia lives a life of quiet seclusion in her Paris townhouse. Last I heard she had hired someone to help her finish that memoir so long in the making, and on occasion she receives visitors, like Errol Flynn’s daughter Rory.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Livvie in recent times.

Let’s take a moment and raise our glasses to this great award-winning star of Hollywood’s Golden Era. Way back when she toiled in make-believe Sherwood Forest in northern California portraying Maid Marian, Olivia strived to be much more than Errol Flynn’s girl and she got her wish through hard work, attention to her craft, and when necessary, legal action. In her 40s she embraced exercise and healthy eating and brother has it paid off. Maybe we should convince her to take five from the memoir and write Olivia de Havilland’s Secrets to a Long, Successful Life.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

The OdeH abode in the embassy section of Paris.

At the Oscars

One time I got into a feud with my sister Dorothy that lasted six months. When you’re in your twenties you get all full of yourself and feuding seems like a good idea. She said she didn’t think I would ever make money writing—because up to that point I’d made precious little—and I took umbrage and off we went, giving each other the silent treatment. Dorothy died of breast cancer last year, and I’m glad that I indulged in the luxury of a feud only once, only that time; otherwise we managed to spend the rest of our lives thick as thieves.

This story comes to mind as I look back to the Academy Awards of 73 years ago this Thursday, February 26, 1942, at the Biltmore Bowl in the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. What a night. The United States was 2.5 months past Pearl Harbor, and the assemblage of actors, directors, moguls, and technical craftspeople included many men in uniform. Second Lt. James Stewart of the Army Air Corps was one of them; Jim had come back—as was custom—to present the Best Actor Oscar since he was the incumbent. High above the giant room and deafening roar of the pre-dinner crowd hung a pall. Clark Gable, king of Hollywood, was not in attendance because 41 days earlier Carole Lombard, his wife, had died in a plane crash. Some at the Biltmore this evening had not gotten past the grief of it; some never would. The absence of mile-a-minute Lombard was deeply felt, because she was in the middle of seemingly everything, every huddle of gossip, every gag, every warm gesture.

Picture this: all the industry bigs pack into the Biltmore Bowl for what is, at this time, a banquet followed by the awards presentation. All the stars but Gable and Lombard are there for the kind of formal dinner we’ve all experienced: too many place settings at tables that are too small. Food in insufficient portions for human sustenance arrives at the table cold. You’re bumping elbows with your neighbors and the waiters are bumping you in turn. You are glad you used Dial and you wish everybody did because it’s hot in there, and between all the body heat and all the nerves, before long the air is overripe.

Among the 10 features up for Best Picture in the auspicious year of 1941 were Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Sergeant York, and two of special note, Suspicion starring Joan Fontaine and Hold Back the Dawn starring Joan’s sister, Olivia de Havilland. As cited chapter and verse in Errol & Olivia, Livvie was an interesting character, a wounded and closed-off soul who professed to have no close friends and who was now into year four of a bitter feud with her boss, Jack L. Warner of Warner Bros. Early in her career Livvie had portrayed Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the play Hermia is described with, “Though she be but little, she is fierce,” and never was there a more perfect description of Miss de Havilland, all five foot three of her.

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

Livvie makes nice with Joanie as Burgess Meredith looks on prior to the presentation of Oscars.

As problematic as everything was with Livvie, her relationship with sister Joan de Havilland, rebranded Joan Fontaine, was equally difficult beginning when they were sprouts in Saratoga, California. If you go to the house where they lived as children, you can still see in the concrete driveway their little handprints and carefully carved names beside them, almost as if they were practicing for Grauman’s Chinese. These two were stamped out of the same mold—independent, headstrong, and not afraid to use sex as a weapon. Livvie came first and blazed the trail and Joanie came after and used her sister’s connections and fame and even her dwellings in Hollywood to build a powerhouse career. Livvie spent a lot of her time seething about the encroachments of Joanie but was often shushed by their mother, who lived with and chaperoned the sisters in Hollywood into 1938.

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

Why, they look so happy. Almost like … sisters.

On this night in February 1942, not only are the sisters’ films going head to head, but so are the actresses themselves, both nominated for Best Actress. Livvie figures she has the leg up because she had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Gone With the Wind but lost to co-star Hattie McDaniel. As one of GWTW’s also-rans, she would pick up the sentimental vote. But wait—Joanie is an also-ran as well, having lost last year’s Best Actress nomination for Rebecca to last year’s sentimental favorite, Ginger Rogers.

If you’re starting to think that nobody ever seemed to win an Oscar for the right picture, you’re starting to catch on to the politics of Hollywood.

Photos taken prior to the awards ceremony show the sisters cordial because nobody has yet lost anything. Then comes the big moment. And the winner is…………

Joan Fontaine, for Suspicion.

All Livvie’s seven years of hard work in big and little pictures, all her fighting the good fight for better scripts and her quest to be more than “Errol Flynn’s girl,” all of it crumbled like buildings in a California quake as little sister Joanie swept up to receive the Oscar. The situation would come to a head five years later at the Shrine Auditorium when Livvie finally won a Best Actress Oscar of her own. That year, 1946, Livvie was the true sentimental favorite for recently besting Jack Warner in court and winning the freedom of contract players across Hollywood. Livvie wasn’t up against Joanie that evening, and the field was much weaker, and when Joanie approached her sister to offer congratulations, Livvie spun on her heel and snubbed Joan. Said not a word. Stormed off, statuette in hand.

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

The winners: Gary Cooper for Sergeant York, Joan Fontaine for Suspicion, Mary Astor for The Great Lie, and Army Reservist Donald Crisp for How Green Was My Valley.

They would apply some plaster to the fracture on and off over the years but split forever in the 1970s when their mother died. Joan refused to talk to me about Olivia when I was writing Errol & Olivia; Olivia refused to talk to me about anything of substance ever. My interactions with both were always pleasant, but the secret dark places in their souls remained locked away.

Finally, at the end of 2013, a little more than a year ago, Joan died at age 96 in California while Olivia, aged 97, remained resolute in Paris. I guess you could say the feud ended with Joan’s passing, but did it? The enmity of these two, which came to a head twice at the Academy Awards ceremony, was something for the ages. Me? I’m glad my own sibling feud was just once, and long ago.

Invaded by Mights

Pardon my grumpiness, but five Errol Flynn pictures played in succession on Turner Classic Movies U.S. on Tuesday evening, hosted by Robert Osborne and guest programmer Rory Flynn, Errol’s daughter. Here are some things I wish they had discussed:

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Objective, Burma! should have been one of Flynn’s most popular pictures, but it wasn’t.

Objective, Burma!, the first picture shown, is an action drama set in the latter stages of World War II in Burma. Grim and realistic, it presents a fictional account of U.S. paratroopers dropped into the Burmese jungle to raid a Japanese radar station. They wipe out the Japs just fine but then everything goes to hell and they are 200 miles from help.

Objective, Burma! is most notable as a disaster of the first order for Errol Flynn the actor. It was by far the most rugged picture he had ever made, shot mostly in exterior locations—deserts, jungles, swamps—and he worked his ass off. His performance is highly regarded for a particular tone of understatement, and he fit well in an ensemble cast. He did every single thing right in making Objective, Burma! And what was his reward?

The British government protested that Objective, Burma! showed an American operation in Burma when it was in fact the British who were fighting there. British big cheese Lord Earl Mountbatten was furious and went out of his way to slam Flynn for make-believe heroics, saying that Errol was in effect grinding his heel into the graves of British war dead. As a result, Objective, Burma! played in first release, was never reissued, and became a poison pill for Errol Flynn the actor. Soon he was boozing it up through a string of features and then fled to exile in Europe. It’s a picture that hastened his decline and early death.

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen and Michael Mazzone

Well, boys, this is going to be a big success. What could possibly go wrong?

Another notable talking point is that the plot of Burma was stolen directly from the story of Rogers’ Rangers and a raid during the French and Indian War that was recounted in the historical novel Northwest Passage and depicted in the 1940 motion picture of the same name starring Spencer Tracy as Rogers. The way the studios sometimes operated, scripts were put into a pile and they’d periodically pull a script off the bottom of the pile and redo it. In this way Warner Bros. took the 1945 property Objective, Burma! and adapted it into a 1951 Gary Cooper pic called Distant Drums. This time it’s a pre-Civil War story as Cooper’s men sneak into Florida and destroy a Seminole Indian village before everything goes to hell. Raoul Walsh directed Objective, Burma! Raoul Walsh directed Distant Drums, and used some of the same camera setups in the latter that he had used in the former.

More recently, the same plot was reused in one of my all-time favorite pictures, Predator (1987) starring Arnold Shwarzeneger. This time mercenary commandos go into South America to rescue hostages and wipe out a guerilla stronghold before everything goes to hell, this time because of one nasty alien. The raid is so similar to Errol Flynn’s 1945 radar station incursion that during Objective, Burma! I was quoting Jesse Ventura’s Blain with perfect timing when he says his incredulous, admiring, “What The Fuck?” as Arnold opens the battle in unorthodox fashion. The classic exchange between Poncho and Blain also fit perfectly into the Flynn action:

Poncho: “You’re bleeding!”

Blain: “I ain’t got time to bleed.”

Poncho: “You got time to duck?”

And Poncho launches mortar rounds that blow bad guys out of their machine gun nest overhead. Predator is an homage to Objective, Burma! and the familiarity of this plot through generations of Hollywood filmmaking—good guys stage a raid and then everything goes to hell—is something the TCM hosts might have mentioned on Tuesday.

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen and Michael Mazzone

“I ain’t got time to bleed!” No, wait, that’s from a different (albeit similar) picture.

Second up on Tuesday night was The Adventures of Robin Hood, Errol Flynn’s classic of classics, and I cringed when it was asserted during the intro that tension between Errol and RH director Michael Curtiz resulted from the fact that Curtiz had once been married to Errol’s wife, Lili Damita. Yes, this internet rumor was announced as fact on broadcast television. Unless I have missed some important news, a Curtiz-Damita marriage has never been verified and since so many European paper records were destroyed during World War II, it is doubtful this allegation will ever be confirmed.

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen and Michael Mazzone

Flynn’s most physically demanding picture included this scene shot at Lucky Baldwin’s Ranch in Arcadia, CA.

The hosts might have talked about any number of interesting angles to Robin Hood. They could have discussed the high cost of the production—highest yet for Warner Bros. There might have been discussion of Olivia de Havilland’s growing distaste for playing Errol Flynn’s girl in picture after picture, especially a character she found as two-dimensional as Maid Marian. Mention of the location shoot in Chico, California might have been made as an epidemic of influenza swept through cast and crew. Or of the fact that Basil Rathbone, playing Errol’s rival, was 17 years older than Errol but just as athletic in the climatic duel. Or that Rathbone, who was run through and killed in that duel, was actually a more accomplished fencer. Or that this was an Academy Award-winning film (it won three), or that it was re-released several times and always successfully, or that Flynn owned a 16mm print of the film and watched it often, or that de Havilland refused to go to the premiere and didn’t condescend to watch Robin Hood until 1959—21 years after its initial run.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

After you are dead, Errol, I am going to tell everyone how–even at 17 years your senior–I was the better swordsman and could have kicked your ass in a real duel anytime I wanted to, except the script would never let me.

The audience for these pictures might have been enlightened, but they weren’t, although props go to Robert Osborne for stressing repeatedly that Errol Flynn was an underrated actor, which was borne out in all the pictures screened (the others were Gentleman Jim, Rocky Mountain, and Never Say Goodbye). Hopefully, the evening billed as “Starring Errol Flynn” will lead a new audience to seek out more information about one of the most enigmatic personalities of the Twentieth Century. There is plenty of information out there waiting to be accessed in, oh, I don’t know, maybe [insert shameless holiday plug] two outstanding hardcover books loaded with information and photos, Errol Flynn Slept Here: The Flynns, the Hamblens, Rick Nelson, and the Most Notorious House in Hollywood and Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood.

Main Event

Tom Hodgins shared this photo with me, and suddenly a past bio subject confronted a future one. It’s Errol Flynn with wife Nora on one arm and her mother Madge on the other, all looking at James Stewart, who seems … tense. My question is, where the hell is this, and when?

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

James Stewart, Marge Eddington, Errol Flynn, and Nora Eddington Flynn, except, where, when, and why?

The backstory is that I co-authored Errol Flynn Slept Here with Mike Mazzone in 2009 and then wrote Errol & Olivia in 2010. My next book is tentatively titled Capt. Stewart, and details the exploits of James Stewart in the U.S. Army Air Corps air war in Europe. Jim dated Errol’s girl, Olivia de Havilland, or “Livvie,” in 1940. Errol was an insecure sort and didn’t like the fact that Jim was doing the nasty with Livvie. Didn’t like it one bit. Then Jim enlisted in the Air Corps in 1941 and soon thereafter, following Pearl Harbor (73 years ago today), Errol journeyed to D.C. and tried to enlist but was turned down because at 31 his health was shot with a capital S. All that hard living in hard conditions like the jungles of New Guinea had boiled his innards. Jim became a war hero and flew 19 missions in the air war in Europe, rose from private to lieutenant-colonel, and, as of the time of this photo, was a colonel in the Air Force Reserve. Errol, well, Errol fought World War II on the soundstages of Burbank, California, in pictures like Edge of Darkness and Objective, Burma! and always resented all the men who were able to go off and fight in the war while he was forced to ride the bench at home.

Here we are in 1948 (according to Tom) or 1950 (it seems like to me), and Jim is on the verge of becoming the most successful freelance actor in Hollywood, and Nora is on the arm of Errol while they are about to divorce or already are divorced. Flynn has had a drink or five, and Jim is stone-cold sober. One seems to be bombed and irritated; the other uncomfortable. The women are ecstatic, but why? My impression is that Jim is the center of attention, but again, why? Was Jim receiving some award or was he the guest of honor at some benefit? Why is Stewart in a suit and Errol in a tux?

Other clues: Is that snowflakes behind Stewart, making this holidays 1948? 1949? Knowing both these men as I do, it feels very much that they are unhappy to be in this scenario, but they both understand how to handle themselves before a camera—Stewart better than Flynn because at least Stewart is sober. Errol was 6-foot 2 and Stewart was 6-foot-3+. But both were lean and you’d have to classify them as middleweights. It would have made an interesting bout as these two settled whatever score there was.

The only thing I can figure is that this is the Photoplay Awards at the end of 1949, wherein Jim won for The Stratton Story. But that’s a shot in the dark. If anyone has any clues as to the date and occasion of this most interesting photo I have seen in quite a while, Tom and I would love to know.

**Note: Tom also points out that Rory Flynn is hosting an evening of five pictures starring her father on Tuesday December 9 on TCM/U.S. beginning at 8 P.M. Eastern time.

Babies and Bathwater

As you may know, I don’t approach biography like most writers. I like to tell the story of a life like a story, not as a series of chronological events. Maybe I’ll start a new wave of biography, who knows, but with co-author Mike Mazzone I told Errol Flynn’s story from the perspective of his home, Mulholland Farm. Then I surveyed the lives of Flynn and co-star Olivia de Havilland from the vantage point of their intersection at ages 25 and 18, respectively. I projected the story of Carole Lombard through the prism of the plane crash that killed her. Next, I hope to reveal James Stewart through the global stage of World War II.

So, yesterday I received an email concerning Mr. Flynn from a woman who recently, as she says, “became fascinated” with him and did a lot of reading. She doesn’t say specifically that she read either Errol Flynn Slept Here or Errol & Olivia, but she addressed the message to me because I was the most easily accessible of his biographers.

In the course of reading about Flynn she became turned off. Her distaste for the man is evident in her communication to me and centers around the fact that Flynn recruited men into slave labor among his 67 other odd jobs in the years after he left home and before he found England and acting. (Note: Errol had so many jobs because he was lousy at everything, including slave trading.) This episode in Flynn’s life rendered the man entirely unsympathetic, and this woman figured she would “start a fight” on my blog by stating her negative opinion of Errol Flynn.

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

Errol Flynn, age 21, in one of many failed jobs, this one running a copra plantation in the absolute fringes of the British Empire. Hollywood stardom was still four years away.

Here is Errol Flynn Psychology 101: His brainy father knocked up his histrionic mother and forced matrimony ensued. Mom was an aspiring gadfly who never, repeat never, forgave Errol for making an appearance in this world. She loathed her son from his first breath, and soon he was loathing himself, and forever seeking the two things she would never give him: love and approval. He began to act long before he found a stage or camera. He began to project a successful, attractive self to cover up the poisoned soul inside him. He always had anger close at hand and once in a while it would whip out of him snakelike and take down a bystander. David Niven’s classic line about Flynn, “You could count on Errol; he always let you down,” was funny in delivery but rooted in the pain of one friend experiencing another.

If ever there were a person damaged beyond repair by a parent, it was Errol Flynn. It was the wildest, one-in-a-million fluke that this human survived his early years in a remote corner of the world to become a world-famous actor in Hollywood. He not only engaged in the slave trade, he was involved in the shooting death of a native; he lied and stole his way to England in the globe-trotting course that he eventually led him to become the king of adventure films.

In my return email, I postulated to my correspondent that her opinion of Flynn would not cause a ruckus on this blog because my readership is sophisticated and would readily admit Flynn’s shortcomings. I, for one, have never been a hero worshipper of Flynn or anyone else, and I’ve stated publicly that if given the opportunity by some time warp or other, I wouldn’t want to hang around Flynn for long because of that cruel streak.

BUT.

There are two buts, actually.

  1. If one is going to use the slave labor argument to condemn Errol Flynn, then condemn the entire British Empire of several centuries along with him because Flynn was a British subject at a time when entire races were subjugated in the normal course of events. If you were a white Brit within the span of empire in 1925 you were one of the cool kids and God help anyone in your way. These days, there’s this tendency to look at historical events and people with 2014 sensibilities, which I find unrealistic and unfair, whether you’re talking about Thomas Jefferson or Errol Flynn.
  2. Flynn did some beautiful things in his life. He became a writer, a good writer. He aspired to be a writer instead of an actor, being of the opinion that one was far more noble than the other. He wasn’t thought to be a good actor but left behind performances that stand the test of time 60 and 75 years later. He could channel good guys and make people root for him, which means to me that he had good stuff inside him, residing in there with all the bad. The particular mix of good and bad in Flynn makes him, in my mind, one of the most compelling people of the twentieth century, even before you consider the fact that he entertained millions over the course of his career. I am not going to touch millions of people in a positive way through the course of my life. I doubt that this Errol Flynn critic will either. Whatever poison was in his soul, he gets credit for spreading a lot of good.

The writer concludes her email with, “I really just cannot understand why every biographer judges Flynn so generously.” I laughed at this one because my correspondent must have missed a volume called Errol Flynn: The Untold Story, the 1980 poison pill written by the late, unlamented biographical hack, Charles Higham. In this volume Higham listed Flynn’s shortcomings chapter and verse, some of it pure fabrication that was later proven so, but all of it a study in loathing of a biographer for his subject.

As for me, I would respond to the assertion that I’m too easy on Flynn this way: Why would I take the time to write a book about a person I disliked? I leave that to the Charles Highams of the world. I like to think that I bring to the table a natural curiosity to understand what made my subject tick. Who was he or she? Why was a particular course undertaken? What were the factors? What were the outcomes? I strive to present real people making real decisions and often, real mistakes. And, brother, Errol made his share like we all do, and then some.

Now you know what I think. I’m curious to get your thoughts on this subject.

Feathering the Nest

Notes: Check out the latest bestseller list for Movie Biographies. Fireball peaked at #2 on the list last Sunday and is still going strong. Also, please consider clicking the Follow button on this blog to get an alert when a new column appears, and if you’re a Twitter person, you could follow me (@RobertMatzen) to receive important updates on book lectures or other Fireball news.

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.