Errol & Olivia

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.

You Can’t Win ‘Em All

I bet you never saw Olivia de Havilland’s last theatrical picture. I bet you didn’t know it was a swashbuckler set around the time of Captain Blood. I bet you didn’t know she played a queen and the key to solving the plot of the film. Do you want to know why you don’t know?

After her Academy Award run of the late 1940s, Livvie tried everything to remain relevant. Screen, stage—nothing went according to plan. Into the 1960s she sought to reinvent herself with the shocker, Lady in a Cage and then she took over Joan Crawford’s role in the follow up to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, this one called Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Like all actresses from the Golden Era, she had an ever more difficult time finding good parts in decent pictures, which is what led Miss Bette Davis to make everything from Baby Jane to Return from Witch Mountain—it was a living.

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

Her biographer, Tony Thomas, would never quite forgive Olivia for showing so much skin in 1970’s The Adventurers.

OdeH lay low from 1964 until the 1970 Harold Robbins Eurotrash feature, The Adventurers. There she became the best thing about the picture, playing a 40-something cougar to young Bosnia/Herzegovina leading man Bekim Fehmiu. If you think about a Bosnia/Herzegovina leading man in a Hollywood picture, the problems with The Adventurers become pretty obvious pretty fast, and speak to the dearth of parts for Miss deH and the questionable judgment she brought to bear when something did come her way. She even showed some flesh this time around, much to the mortification of some of her admirers.

If you weren’t yet born in 1970, you missed a hell of a brouhaha when Airport hit big screens, and by 1972 turnstiles were spinning madly as The Poseidon Adventure capsized its way to box office history. Suddenly, the all-star disaster epic was in vogue. Olivia saw aging Helen Hayes claim an Oscar for Airport and Shelley Winters nearly follow that path for Poseidon. From there, Livvie watched Earthquake shine the spotlight on aging sexpot Ava Gardner and MGM ingénue Monica Lewis, and The Towering Inferno do likewise for Selznick discovery (and wife) Jennifer Jones.

Lots of water--too much water--and not enough substance plagued her appearance in Airport '77.

Lots of water–too much water–and not enough substance plagued her appearance in Airport ’77.

Meanwhile, on a separate track, swashbucklers came back in vogue with Richard Lester’s irreverent version of The Three Musketeers, shot in 1973 and released in 1974. Of all people, Raquel Welch scored biggest this time, winning a Golden Globe for her wacky Constance. Livvie had to get in on this gravy train and gain back some relevance. After all, she was then in her youthful 50s with a lot yet to offer the motion picture world. Then she got what seemed to be her break with a role in Airport ’77, sequel to the huge Airport 1975. Yes, work was work, but what a thankless part, with endless reaction shots in her passenger seat aboard an airliner that sinks to the bottom of the ocean, and then a less-than-flattering dunking during the ocean rescue. I’m on your side, Livvie, but, it’s hard to look good with a couple tons of water smacking you in the face.

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

Oscar nods do not result from death by bees.

Airport ’77 did well, not as well as the previous two, but well enough. By this time Hollywood was groping for disasters with which to imperil all-star casts, and somebody at Livvie’s old studio, Warner Bros., decided that bees hadn’t been done and bees are scary and why don’t we do bees? Hence, The Swarm. This time Olivia shared screen time with Ben Johnson and Fred MacMurray, but fans of the great dual Oscar winner had a hard time watching her get stung to death, her face eaten, as the bees rampaged. Never mind that these days killer bees have since been proven to exist, and they really are scary. Way scarier than those depicted by Warners of Burbank. And how strange must it have been for Olivia de Havilland to return to the studio she so desperately sought to sever herself from 35 years earlier? Oh the ghosts she must have brushed past during production since so many of her colleagues had by then passed, including Errol Flynn.

Which brings us to the little-known swashbuckler that became Livvie’s swan song in feature pictures. It must have looked like a godsend in 1976 when the idea first came up. Behind the Iron Mask, based on Alexandre Dumas’ Man in the Iron Mask, would be lensed in Austria by Director of Photography Jack Cardiff and directed by Ken Annakin, veteran of Disney pictures and some all-star hits, including Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.

Behind the Iron Mask would feature 60-year-old former fencing champion and veteran Hollywood heartthrob Cornel Wilde as D’Artagnan, Oscar winner for his Cyrano (a brilliant swordsman) Jose Ferrer as Athos, and Alan Hale Jr. as Porthos. In a 1952 Howard Hughes picture for RKO named Sons of the Musketeers, Cornel Wilde had portrayed the son of D’Artagnan and Alan Hale Jr. had played the son of Porthos. That in itself was a kick because his dad, Alan Hale, had portrayed Porthos in the 1939 version of Man in the Iron Mask.

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

Sons of the Musketeers was renamed At Sword’s Point for its 1952 release. Here a very young Alan Hale Jr. portrays the son of musketeer Porthos. Next to him is Cornel Wilde as the son of D’Artagnan. The “twist” is offered by Maureen O’Hara as the daughter of Athos. As modest as this RKO B picture was, it feels like Citizen Kane next to The Fifth Musketeer.

So here was Alan Hale Jr. back in a role that had been in the family for 40 years. And into this cast was invited Olivia de Havilland—Alan Hale’s co-star on so many Warner Bros. hits—to portray Anne of Austria, wife of Louis XIII and mother to wastrel Louis XIV and his good-hearted twin brother, Philippe.

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

This was not your father’s Man in the Iron Mask. Although I’m pretty sure Dad would have approved–of the European version at least.

How freakin’ great is this? Olivia must have thought, to cavort with a veteran cast that also included Rex Harrison and old Warner Bros. contract player Helmut Dantine. But a funny thing happened on the way to swashbuckling glory. Actually, a series of funny things. The script stank. The key role, that of Louis/Philippe, was given to Beau Bridges, an actor with zero romantic appeal. The director couldn’t figure out how to approach the material. The audio was bad, even by European standards. The producers decided to shoot a European version featuring nudity for the two leading ladies in the picture, Sylvia Kristel of Emmanuelle fame and Ursula Andress, who was ready and willing to show off her still formidable 43-year-old body. Unfortunately, some of the plot was embedded in the nude scenes and so when they were cut for U.S. audiences and a PG rating, the picture didn’t quite make sense. And finally, those same infallible producers changed the name of the picture to cash in on the success of The Three Musketeers and its sequel The Four Musketeers. The picture that was shot in 1977 as Behind the Iron Mask now carried the U.S. title The Fifth Musketeer, which made no sense, and Fifth was launched in limited U.S. release in 1979 after sitting around a good while and sank so far and so fast that if you blinked, you missed it. The run on cable TV was similarly short, and if I hadn’t happened upon a late-night run of Ursula Andress pictures on Turner Classic Movies this past week and DVRed Fifth in its pre-dawn run, I would never have thought of The Fifth Musketeer again.

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

One more, just because. Sylvia Kristel in the European version of Olivia de Havilland’s last feature picture, The Fifth Musketeer.

I told myself that it couldn’t possibly be as bad as I remember. But, oh, my friends, it is. In 1979 I was appalled that the swords were made of obvious plastic, as if from the Marx toy factory, and for the especially dangerous scenes, and I kid you not, the swords were made of rubber so, I guess, to keep the advancing-in-age musketeers from hurting themselves or skewering an Austrian extra. The dubbing sounds just as horrendous today as it did back then, and the musical score is an offense to musicians everywhere.

Livvie shows up in three scenes for a total of about six minutes of screen time, in a nun’s habit. You should probably be aware you’re in for a rough time as an actress when the script calls for you to be amidst a 30-year vow of silence. But she does pipe up to vouch for her son Philippe at the climax of the picture, one of too-few lines for the actress who launched Errol Flynn, became the Maid Marian of all time, brought Jack Warner to his knees, and earned two Oscars in four years and should have claimed a third for her most daring picture of all, The Snake Pit.

So there you have it. Olivia de Havilland ended her screen career in a costume picture, which is how she started it. But it’s a picture with maybe five great moments that remind us how talented these actors were in their prime, and how much they still had to offer in the right hands and the right vehicle, which this most certainly was not.

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

Plastic swords and costumes that must have been scrounged from Barry Lyndon.

Note: Portions of the European version of Behind the Iron Mask are available on Youtube. Although they are dubbed in French, these segments allow a glimpse into this picture that should have been one for the ages.

A Little Don Juan

I find myself down of late. I started to spell out exactly why, but I’m a little too private for that, so let’s just leave it as, I’ve got the blues. I’ll admit that, in part, it has to do with Fireball, my baby and the book of my life to date, being out there in the world, all grown up. And there are some other things.

At times like this I find myself needing to reach for the touchstones of my life, the things that evoke strong memories of other times. One of these is Adventures of Don Juan, Errol Flynn’s Christmas 1948 masterpiece that many people haven’t ever seen. To many, there’s only one “Adventures of” picture connected to Errol Flynn, but they just don’t know.

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

Swedish-born Viveca Lindfors as Queen Margaret of Spain.

Adventures of Don Juan is a sassy picture that pokes fun at Flynn’s reputation, but it’s also the very sad story of the seventeenth century character Don Juan falling in love, really in love, after a lifetime spent wooing women and carousing. It’s a brilliant depiction of vulnerability and sacrifice, of a wanderer who finds something he’s been seeking—one great love—and must give it up for a greater good. It contains sequences that move me every time, interactions between Don Juan and the woman he falls in love with, who happens to be Queen Margaret of Spain.

They say Flynn had great chemistry with Olivia de Havilland. Wait, I said that, in the book Errol & Olivia. Sure they did. They were point/counterpoint: big, athletic, hedonist Errol and diminutive, depressed Livvie. They recognized a kinship from the first time they met—two young people who had endured brutal childhoods at the hand of tyrannical parents, and two beautiful people who made a beautiful couple onscreen and, sometimes, off.

But chemistry’s a funny thing. Errol and Olivia had it, but not to the degree that Errol had it onscreen with Swedish actress Viveca Lindfors, newly brought to the United States by the Warner Bros. under contract to make pictures, the first and biggest being Adventures of Don Juan. This lady had talent. She would go on to a great career as an acting teacher, and here she presents every inch a queen. Every single inch, in every frame in which she’s seen.

And then there are the scenes with Flynn.

In her memoirs, Lindfors—26 years old when shooting commenced—would say she liked Errol, she really did, and she could see that the weight of being a sex symbol was crushing him to death. Of course she was right; he was oppressed by the pressure, and production of Adventures of Don Juan was a year-long exercise in hell for all involved because Flynn spent a good deal of time off the deep end. Undiminished, however, is the fire between Flynn and Lindfors; such natural combustability in three particular sequences that it’s no wonder the climax of the picture involves a fire at the palace.

In the first, Don Juan shows Queen Margaret around his workplace, the fencing academy. We know via a previous scene that he’s fallen for her, but she doesn’t know. He describes the workplace with veiled references to his attraction; we see from her nonverbals that she’s attracted but fighting it, and with Max Steiner’s score behind them in this high-ceilinged set, we face more repressed passion than Hollywood had presented in all the film noir produced to that time.

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

Sequence 1, Don Juan is infatuated and the Queen is starting to soften.

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

The chemistry between the two stars is visible early on.

In the second sequence, he makes it clear that he has fallen in love with a mysterious someone, and as the queen, she commands him to talk about it. Steiner’s score again sets up a gut-wrenching moment: He confesses he is in love with her, his “paragon among women,” and for a flash, an instant, she is happy at this news, but then suspects that he’s just laying the ol’ Don Juan line on her and she’s furious. She orders him away, and he’s crushed.

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

In sequence 2, Don Juan confesses his love for his “paragon among women,” and she explodes in fury.

In the third, after Don Juan has gained credibility by thwarting the bad guy and proving himself a national hero, she comes to him and confesses her love. This hard, nationalist leader is now laid so bare, so tortured, ready to give up the throne to be with Don Juan. The scene between two vulnerable people is so intimate that I’m surprised it passed the 1948 censors. My friend Trudy and I have long marveled at the string of saliva between Flynn’s lips and Lindfors’, captured in 35mm Technicolor after their passionate, all-revealing first kiss. These two didn’t just enact a stage kiss; these two kissed like they meant it. You can’t fake a kiss like that. For all time we’ve got it on record. When she kisses him a second time in this sequence, it’s clear she’s not interested in the kind of buss learned in acting school. Come on, Errol, let’s sell this thing! And we can see that the boy was willing.

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

Sequence 3: Queen Margaret is ready to abdicate and run away with Don Juan, but he knows she can’t do that because “the people will suffer.”

Yes, I’m a little down and so I turned to one of my touchstones, Adventures of Don Juan, in part to wallow in a wistful and bittersweet picture, and in part to lift myself out of the blues (such a magnificent, Technicolor masterpiece from the tail end of Hollywood’s Golden Era).

What it leads me to is, what are your touchstones? What are the things you turn to when you’re down? Movies? Books? Music? Places? People? Why do you turn to them? Maybe we can form our own support group to get through a couple down days in this crazy thing called life. It’s the place where I am this evening, and I know I’m not the first person ever to be here, and I won’t be the last.

Kindred Spirits

Note: Here is another classic column from my Errol & Olivia blog, with the comments of readers embedded.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert MatzenI was listening to a Beatles song called In My Life. It’s a John Lennon reminiscence (with contributions by Paul McCartney) that’s particularly bittersweet and acknowledged by Rolling Stone and others as one of the greatest popular songs ever. We all reach a point in our lives when it’s time to look back. I can’t imagine how John Lennon did it so brilliantly at age 25, but he did. Errol Flynn was nearly twice that age when he sat down and tried to assess his life through the exercise of writing an autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, which got so hopelessly bogged down that the would-be author needed to call in a ghostwriter.

The words had never come easily to Flynn, which makes his accomplishments as a writer all the more impressive. He generated a strong-selling book in the 1930s and another one in the 1940s. He wrote a couple screenplays, many articles for magazines, and even some op-ed pieces for newspapers. Flynn was so much the writer at heart that he wanted his tombstone to bear the inscription, “They read my stuff!” Imagine, then, the serving of humble pie he was force to accept by agreeing to bring in a hired pen to work on his stalled memoirs, a move insisted upon by publisher G. P. Putnam’s Sons of New York. That ghostwriter, Earl Conrad, chronicled this adventure in his book, Errol Flynn: a Memoir, detailing the hostility, both passive and aggressive, that marked Flynn’s approach to the writer-for-hire in his midst.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert MatzenIt’s hard to imagine that you’re reading my “stuff ” now without having ingested My Wicked, Wicked Ways at some point in the past. Over the years less and less credit is given to Flynn for the actual writing, but my research leads me to believe that he did write some of it himself and took an active interest in the crafting of every word because he was, after all, a bestselling author. For the dawn of 1960, this was one frank reminiscence that evoked days of drunken leading men, naked starlets, and uproarious Hollywood shenanigans. In the next sentence Flynn would turn introspective and wonder why. Why had his life taken such regrettable turns? Why hadn’t he become what he wanted? Why had friends let him down?

Which brings me back to John Lennon’s In My Life. Some years ago I had a collaborator in the production of feature video documentaries, Tom Wilson, who is also a musical expert. We’d sit and listen to music to use in our documentaries, and he taught me that “minor keys are sad.” In My Life is written in a minor key and is indeed sad, just as My Wicked, Wicked Ways is (in its fashion) written in a minor key and also very sad. Errol Flynn used the pages of his book to trace the course of an unorthodox life, taking liberties with the facts but also revealing ultimate truths about himself. And the truest of the truths may have been his affection for Olivia de Havilland. He gets around to it on page 208 and he doesn’t go into any detail, as if bringing up Olivia is just not something he wants to do. But he speaks from the heart, as a man who has finally grown up and is forced to look back on a time when he was in the presence of a great love but emotionally incapable of dealing with the flesh-and-blood human being so nearby on a daily basis. This verse by John Lennon mirrors the Flynn passage about de Havilland:

But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more

Errol did love Olivia more, and her feelings for him were strong as well, but their love didn’t lead to commitment and marriage. Instead, the association became for each a tragedy; a thing they dared look back on only with the most fleeting of glances.

All our lives have their share of sadness, failed relationships, and regrets. Here was Flynn revealing one of his regrets, just as John Lennon would bare his soul a few years later. I think it takes courage to do such a thing, because as far as Errol knew as he was creating his memoirs in 1958, Olivia was going to read this book, and he might have to deal with her directly as a consequence. It’s possible, probable even, that he was inspired to write the de Havilland passage after he had met up with her at that Hollywood party for The Proud Rebel as detailed in Errol & Olivia. What a horrible and unexpected turn of events that had been for him. But his writing about the Flynn-de Havilland association showed wisdom without ever veering into self-pity. I really do think that there was a fearlessness about Flynn in most things, including love and death, that has infused the legend.

I get the sense that there would have been kinship between Flynn and Lennon if they had met. Both struggled at times merely living their lives and being themselves, and both made their mark as individualists who were capable of remarkable bursts of self-reflection that became timeless works of art.

8 Comments

1. Would you believe I was listening to the Beatles, and then I find this?

What a haunting song; the regrets, sadness, and remembering what was and what could have been. That’s what the song suggests to me, and it’s so appropriate for the story of Errol and Olivia.

Looking back for them had to be bittersweet, and perhaps at times, very painful. But still, that unbroken bond, that very real connection.

Thank you for another great posting. Comment by Elle July 24, 2011 @ 6:57pm

2. Oh wow — what a beautiful and moving entry. Mr. Matzen! Thank you for sharing this with us!

While I’m not really a Beatles fan, I don’t doubt John Lennon’s amazing talent for song writing, and I agree those particular lyrics you posted above do. ironically, seem to symbolize Errol’s true feelings for Olivia.

However, I have to say that when I read MWWW (which was prior to my reading your E&O book), I was surprised (and a bit disappointed) that Olivia is barely written about in the book… though, as you pointed out in this entry, when Errol did talk about Olivia, his true feelings for her were, for the most part, apparent. It just seemed odd to me that, if Errol loved her as much as we think he did, there would be that lack of writing about her in his own autobio. It made no sense to me at the time of reading the book, but now having read your blog entry on it, it makes more sense to me. I guess Errol didn’t want to be “gushing” about Olivia in a book that he was thinking she would read. It’s kinda sweet, and silly, and sad all at once. Ultimately, it’s such a shame that, as you stated, their love for each other became a kind of tragedy. But at least we know that today, in recent interviews, Olivia’s voiced her feelings of love and affection for Errol and continues to do so, more than half a century after his passing.

Comment by Rachel — July 25, 2011 @ 8:53 am

3. This was a beautifully written and thoughtful piece, in fact my favorite of all you’ve written here thus far. I feel as if you’ve read my thoughts, because I’ve often thought of the star-crossed, bittersweet love between Errol and Olivia when I hear the lyrics to the elegiac In My Life. With its semi-baroque sound complete with the delicate strains of a harpsichord threaded into the middle eight, it has a classical, poetic aura, which for me evokes Errol and Olivia.

I absolutely adore the Lennon/McCartney songbook and the remarkable yin/yang relationship between John and Paul that sparked the creation of those enduring works. In My Life is one of my favorite pieces of music, of any genre, and was the song I chose for the first dance between my husband and I at our wedding. It certainly does capture the musings of the journey of life, and all that we’ve seen and experienced, and what we’ve loved and lost. It is a lyrical teardrop.

Indeed, I think that if Errol had ever met John Lennon, he would have been intrigued and delighted. They were similar souls. Lennon also had a strong connection to the sea and ships, having grown up near the Mersey River in Liverpool, his wayward father a ships’s steward and his maternal grandfather a seaman. He claimed that one of his ancestors was a pirate. He was described by one of his art teachers as a man born without brakes because of his restless, quicksilver nature, and Thomas Hoving (then director of the Metropolitan Museum) once said that if Lennon were a painting, he’d hang him in the museum. He was the author of several best -selling books of nonsense verse much akin to that of Lewis Carroll, and Paul McCartney once stated that if John had lived he would have likely become a novelist, because it was a dream of his. He and Errol were both quite literate and loved the written word.

Like Errol, Lennon was fearless, but also wrestled inner demons. They were both iconoclasts. (Jeff Bridges claims to have used Lennon as his inspiration for his character in the film “Fearless.”) But unlike Errol. Lennon was not afraid to take the dare and risk his career for artistic freedom and love. Errol couldn’t quite make that leap.

And one other thing they had in common was they both fell in love with a woman from Tokyo. Comment by Bonnie July 26, 2011 @ 10:20pm

4. Well, you’ve succeeded in giving me goosebumps. Bonnie. I wrote this piece and then sat there wondering if I was nuts for making such a connection.. .and here you are affirming that it’s not so strange after all. What a great quote, that John Lennon was “a man born without brakes,” which is something that could also easily have been said about Flynn.

Comment by Robert — July 27, 2011 @ 9:34 am

5. When I first read Wicked Ways, I also wondered why Flynn had said so little about de Havilland, but digging through all the correspondence and interviews led me to the conclusion that each was dedicated to protecting the privacy of the other before and since their last day of shooting together at Warner Bros, in September 1941. In short, Flynn didn’t talk about his feelings for de Havilland… because of his feelings for de Havilland.

Comment by Robert — July 27, 2011 @ 9:39 am

6. Thank you, Mr. Matzen, for making the above statement and clearing it up for me.. .now I understand it better.

It was just that, after having read MWWW through the first time, and not knowing what I know now, I was thinking that perhaps Errol hadn’t really loved Olivia as much as one was led to believe. But now I know that wasn’t the case at all, and it’s a relief.

In a way, it’s sweet and kinda romantic that they both wanted to protect each other’s privacy like that. I give them both kudos for that! Comment by Rachel July 27, 2011 @ 2:36pm

7. Yes, the “born without brakes” description of Lennon is apropos for Flynn as well, which is why I included it here.

I agree with your conclusion that Olivia was not mentioned much in MWWW intentionally, because for Errol his feelings for her were a deeply personal matter. I sensed that from the first time I read the book. There is a strain of melancholy when he talks about her, particularly in a passage when he is describing collaboration with his Hollywood colleagues, and he goes from generalized discussion of friends and enemies, hates and loves and those you could work with and those you wanted to kill, and then leaps right into his frustration over Olivia and how it took them so long to understand each other. How he couldn’t have known that she was sick to death of playing “the girl” and that he couldn’t read her mind. And his frustration that she hadn’t known that he wanted to do something creative himself. The intensity of emotion that he still felt for Olivia was palpable even all those years later.

And in the other passages in which she is mentioned, he speaks of her with an air of lost love and regret. It is evocative of the song “In My Life”, which is why you are absolutely right on with the connection between the two.

Speaking of MWWW, I noticed that Errol sometimes created what I call ‘factional’ characters for his book, that were based on real people but embellished in order to disguise their true identity. For example, Dr. Hermann Erben became Koets in the book. I have often wondered if the woman he refers to as Amelia Holiphant in MWWW is really Olivia de Havilland with a fictional name that sounds somewhat similar to hers and the basic facts about her circumstances altered to disguise her true identity. In the book, Flynn talks about having a love affair with “Amelia” around the time he was building Mulholland Farm. I have read somewhere that biographers had tried to track down this woman (Amelia) but came up with nothing to suggest she ever existed. I’ve always been very suspicious that Amelia is in reality Olivia, with the name and facts changed to protect her privacy. I know that seems far out, but to me it’s plausible.

Comment by Bonnie July 27, 2011 @ 9:15pm

8. I am just loving these posts! Such interesting takes on Errol/Olivia. I believe that Errol didn’t write too much of Olivia in MWWW because, sometimes, people want to keep deeply personal things private.

That’s interesting about “Amelia Holiphant” possibly being a private name for Olivia. It’s such an elaborate sounding name, and if it wasn’t Olivia or some other famous woman, why would the reader care? (don’t mean to sound mean, but really, why should they?) Very, very possible it could be a pseudonym. Well, that’s my take for now. Comment by Elle — July 28, 2011 @ 7:45pm

 

 

Have Profile, Will Travel

Note: In honor of the showing of The Adventures of Robin Hood on TCM/U.S. during the 31 Days of Oscar, I am reprinting a classic 2011 column from my Errol & Olivia blog.

If you comb through the UCLA Warner Bros. Archives in Los Angeles, you see lots of memos about the casting of Warner Bros. pictures, with key roles going to the Warner stable of stars. In The Adventures of Robin Hood, there was no question that Errol Flynn would portray Robin of Locksley once he had become known as an action hero, or that contract player Alan Hale would portray Little John, a role he had already played once in the silent Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks 15 years earlier. When freelancer David Niven wasn’t available for Will Scarlett, contract player Patric Knowles got the part.

For a while contract player Anita Louise had been considered for Maid Marian, but Louise had just appeared with Flynn in a little medical drama called Green Light, and their chemistry had been minimal. But pickings were slim at Warner Bros. in 1937. Joan Blondell was wrong; Margaret Lindsay too. There was “the de Havilland girl,” but Hal Wallis had no confidence in little Livvie for the biggest-budget Warner Bros. picture up to that time, and continued to push for Anita. Jack Warner saw nothing special in 19-year-old de Havilland either, but he recognized the box office appeal of Olivia with Errol that had already paid off in Captain Blood and Charge of the Light Brigade, so the role went Livvie’s way.

Standard practice was to go to the bullpen for freelancers to round out the cast—you needed a rotund male and called in Gene Pallette; you needed a traditional English maid and the call went to Una O’Connor. When you sought an elegant bad guy, the first choice would be South African-born Basil Rathbone, who had cut a swath through 1930s Hollywood in pictures like The Last Days of Pompeii, A Tale of Two Cities, Romeo and Juliet, and Warners’ own Captain Blood. You could get a Pallette or an O’Connor for a couple grand per picture, but Rathbone was up there around five or six G’s because of his multi-faceted set of talents, including that stunning, classical profile and handsome face, athletic ability that played younger than his 45 years (at the time of Robin Hood), and a baritone voice and approach to dialogue crafted in classical theater.

Rathbone-Busch

In the final shooting script for The Adventures of Robin Hood, Basil Rathbone’s Sir Guy of Gisbourne—arch-rival of Sir Robin—is handicapped from the start. In their first scene together, Robin gets the drop on Sir Guy and holds him at bow-and-arrow point, forcing Guy to ride off with his men in humiliation. Sir Guy’s next sequence, a Saxon celebration in the Great Hall of Nottingham Castle, shows Rathbone’s range as a player, and why the major studios counted on him. He’s comfortable and confident in this setting, except that as written, his character is in love with virginal Maid Marian, and he’s reduced to an idle boast or two within her earshot as he tries to impress her. Then Robin Hood bursts in and spoils the party, and again Sir Guy begins to pale. A reel later, Sir Guy and his entire army are taken prisoner by Robin Hood’s band—with Maid Marian an observer.

The original (and far better) pre-production script for The Adventures of Robin Hood called for a jousting tournament to open the picture, and here Sir Guy would have been introduced more robustly, mounted on a steed and jousting with Robin to establish their rivalry. But just weeks before production commenced, Wallis cut this sequence for budgetary reasons. The new script made the odds against Sir Guy much longer because in almost every encounter, the situation favored Robin Hood. Still, we understood Gisbourne and his human wants and needs, as evidenced by his crush on Marian. At every turn the scriptwriters were stacking the odds against poor Sir Guy, so that by the time (a third of the way into the picture) that Guy boasts of outlaw Robin, “I’ll have him dangling in a week,” the audience stifles a giggle and wonders what picture this poor fellow is watching, because up to now he hasn’t made a dent Robin’s command of every situation. Still, a part of me always pulls for Sir Guy to hold his own, including the time he captures Robin at the archery tournament and almost makes him dangle. Rooting for a bad guy isn’t exactly what you’re supposed to do in an Errol Flynn picture, which to me indicates how good Rathbone was in the prime of his career.

ColorGlos

Just a year after finishing The Adventures of Robin Hood, Basil Rathbone would find the role of his lifetime, as Sherlock Holmes in a pair of pictures at Fox. Three years later Universal would pick up both actor and character for a long-running and popular series that he would one day walk away from. For a long time I assumed that Rathbone feared type casting as Holmes, but the real reason he left Holmes and Hollywood behind had to do with marital strife and not career concerns.

Proof of Rathbone’s talent and versatility can be found in the fact that one year after walking out on Baker Street, he earned a Tony for playing Dr. Sloper in the stage version of The Heiress on Broadway. He would remain a busy actor for the remainder of his life and move from suave bad guy parts to mad doctors and crotchety old men while covering the range from horror to comedy and even sand-and-surf musicals. Basil Rathbone kept his name relevent on the big screen, television, radio, and theater. Desperate for money, he went on to tour universities for “an evening with Basil Rathbone” and make a new generation of fans.

In 1949 Basil Rathbone was knighted for services rendered to the British people, to which I say, bravo, Sir Basil! You lived a lot longer than poor Sir Guy’s, and tonight I’ll root for you like always, even though one isn’t supposed to. When you bloody Robin in the climactic duel, I’ll cheer you on and hope that just once you manage to escape the castle to fight another day. But thanks to those meddling Warner scriptwriters, it never seems to happen.

RHpositive