Errol Flynn Olivia de Havilland


While researching one of my books at the Academy Library in Beverly Hills, I came across a juicy letter, and I can’t even remember whose papers I was looking at. Logically speaking, it was a John Huston file because the letter was written from Olivia de Havilland to John Huston in January 1967. She opened by saying that she took her kids to the theater to kill time and the picture they walked into was The Bible, and she claims to have been shocked when she heard his voice narrating, and the voice took her back to another time and place, and she went on to describe intimate details about places they spent time together in 1942. I’ll quote the letter a little later, but first, some backstory.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland prepare for a scene on a darkened soundstage during production of They Died with Their Boots On at Warner Bros. In three months they would be estranged.

It was the wildest time in the life of a talented, no-nonsense survivor, the time she threw caution away and drove with the top down and no scarf. She was 25 and in a dark place, broken up not long from former boyfriend Jimmy Stewart (see Mission, coming soon), battling Jack Warner over her Warner Bros. contract and on again, off again romantically with long-time costar Errol Flynn. In January 1942 Errol and Olivia were off again because she had gotten too close to him around the time they completed They Died With Their Boots On and finally realized what a troubled soul he possessed. So that January she was a free agent and began production on a drama called In This Our Life with Bette Davis. The first day of work, kaboom, she fell under the spell of the picture’s director, who happened to be the hottest commodity in Hollywood at the time, 35-year-old writer-director (and notorious ladies’ man) John Huston. What Huston didn’t have in the classic looks department he more than made up for in charm, brains, and killer wit. Livvie, known as “Old Iron Pants” around the soundstages at Warners, found herself struck by the big thunderbolt like nothing ever before, not even with Flynn. Livvie was not only in love, she was in total, all-consuming lust, despite the fact that Huston was married at the time. High-profile Huston was involved in making a documentary on the war, Report from the Aleutians, and for a time they carried on from afar, but carry on they did through that year in what became filler for news columns, and a full-fledged scandal among gossip-mongers at Warner Bros.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

John Huston doesn’t seem to be very happy with Olivia looming over him in this 1942 shot. They were seldom photographed together in what was supposed to be a secret relationship.

There was no way it would end well, and of course it didn’t. Serial-monogamist Huston grew bored pretty fast and moved on to Livvie’s Gone With the Wind co-star, Evelyn Keyes, while Livvie’s dark time went on. She would battle Warner Bros. for two more years, endure blackballing by all the studios, remain estranged from Flynn, battle her sister Joan Fontaine endlessly, and nearly die of illness contracted when she went off to entertain the troops in World War II. The clouds finally broke over Livvie’s head in 1946, and boy-howdy, what a dawn she witnessed. She won an Oscar for her 1946 picture To Each His Own, then topped that performance playing mentally disturbed Virginia in The Snake Pit in 1948, then won another Oscar in 1949 for The Heiress.

The thing to remember about Livvie is she has always been a loner. She has now spent a century as an island, a closed book, a tough cookie. To me, after having corresponded with this woman since 1978 and studying her life for my book, Errol & Olivia, this was the most revealing document I’d ever encountered. It read in part, “…I heard your voice. It was an extraordinary experience, for no one had told me that you had done the soundtrack, and, of course, with the first word I knew it was you speaking. It brought back, with a rush, the year of 1942 and the Aleutians, and the film you made there, that beautiful film, and ‘I’ve Got Sixpence,’ and your voice on the soundtrack for that picture, and, well, many things. I hope all goes well with you—I always have. I always will.”

Livvie is a beautiful writer, and here in a rare instance she bares her soul and engages in some flirting with a one-time lover who had meant the world to her, who had hurt her so deeply, and this was to say it’s all right. I forgive you and remember the good times. Classy move. Classy woman.

Happy 100th Birthday, Miss de Havilland. Speaking of your talent as a writer, I hope everyone goes right out and buys your terrific 1962 book, Every Frenchman Has One, which has just been re-released.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Next time we’ll look at one of the most incredible moments in Hollywood history, the time the aforementioned men in Livvie’s life fought over her, almost to the death.

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.


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.

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.

When I Grow Up…

Rudy Behlmer…I want to be Rudy Behlmer. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but I can dream, can’t I? If you’re a fan of classic film, Rudy’s work has likely touched you in some way. If you have seen Ken Murray’s Hollywood Without Makeup, which plays often on Turner Classic Movies, then you’ve watched a program directed by Rudy Behlmer. If you have read Memo from David O. Selznick or Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck, just two of his many books, then you’ve been enriched by Rudy Behlmer’s scholarship. If you have explored the bonus features of DVDs like The Adventures of Robin Hood or King Kong or dozens of others, you’ve been enlightened by Rudy’s crazy knowledge of the production of classic Hollywood pictures. Rudy is the guy who took us Inside Warner Bros. where he sifted through those terrific inter-office memos that circulated during the production of Warner classics and gave us glimpses of the off-camera dramas. And, of course, Rudy was co-author along with Tony Thomas and Clifford McCarty of The Films of Errol Flynn, the 1969 Citadel volume that put Flynn’s career in perspective. Just this week I was enjoying the BYU CD original score of Dodge City—Rudy wrote the liner notes—70 pages worth!

I have asked for Rudy’s help on a number of occasions and at first it wasn’t easy because the man’s a legend and has an imperious quality about him. He has known and worked with the greats. Every time he answered one of my questions (or 10 of my questions) or reviewed a piece of my writing, I felt honored that he thought my work was worthy of his time and expertise.

No, I will never be Rudy Behlmer when I grow up; there’s only one, and I appreciate his love for Golden Hollywood. I respect his desire to protect the memories of those who made the pictures. I revel in his body of works that have benefited those of us who care about the studios and the stars. If there were a Mount Rushmore of film scholarship, he’d be on it.

I’m curious to know what your favorite Rudy Behlmer work is. If you look him up on IMDB you won’t believe how many credits he has in media. He’s one guy that we just haven’t taken time to appreciate and thank for a lifetime of service to classic film.

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.

Feathering the Nest

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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.

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.


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.


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.


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.