Errol Flynn Robert Matzen

Olympic Shark Jumping

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Him: Penny for your thoughts. Her: I hate you.

I know the examples are legion, but tell me some of the instances where an actor or actress was miscast for a picture. Then I’ll play my hand: the time the pint-sized Lubitsch veteran was cast as a dance hall girl in an Errol Flynn western.

In his recent book Miriam Hopkins: Life and Times of a Hollywood Rebel, Allan R. Ellenberger claims that Jack Warner blackmailed the blond-haired, going-on-40 Hopkins into making Virginia City—if she didn’t do it, Warner would reveal she was having an affair with writer Carl Zuckmayer and ruin her already fragile career. That’s exactly what her performance in this picture reflects—an actress performing under threat of blackmail.

Errol & Olivia by Robert MatzenFor historical perspective, Virginia City is a splashy Warner Bros. production from 1940 that was made in the wake of Aussie-accented Flynn’s giant success in the previous year’s Dodge City. Flynn had been big box office from the start, but after The Adventures of Robin Hood, ka-boom! Huge. He justified ever-bigger budgets for his pictures, and for Virginia City, which was shot at the end of 1939, the Warners signed checks with reckless abandon. Jack Warner and right-hand-man Hal Wallis followed the lead of cash cow Gone With the Wind, then smashing records in theaters. The American Civil War was all the rage in 1940 and Virginia City drips with Suthun drawwwwwls and talk of the noble lossst cawwwws.

The catch was, Flynn thought it ludicrous that with his accent and South Seas background, WB would put him in westerns. He didn’t believe he belonged there.

I’m going to figure, judging by the description of shooting Virginia City in Alan K. Rode’s definitive 2017 bio Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, that the renowned director would go on to erase this credit from his resume because the location work in Arizona was long and chaotic, punctuated by sniping and factionalism among cast and crew. Then I checked Rudy Behlmer’s Inside Warner Bros. and revisited one of my favorite studio memos ever, to associate producer Mark Hellinger from producer Robert Lord: “Dear Mark: Your basic story line is about as good (perhaps a little better) than the basic story line of Dodge City and Union Pacific. That is to say: ‘It stinks and they stank.’” Under that memo in Behlmer’s book is another, this one to Hal Wallis from screenwriter Robert Bruckner begging him not to extensively rewrite the script and giving the reasons why. Bruckner lost and in fact the script was rewritten day by day just ahead of the shooting schedule to the extent that nobody knew their lines. When a final screenplay features more blue pages (denoting rewrites) than white pages (originals), you’re in trouble.

Then there was the ad-libbing, which the Marx Bros. could pull off but not so much the Warner Bros. (who didn’t have a funny bone in their bodies). In his Curtiz bio, Rode describes a long bit of comedic improvisation by Flynn and idiot co-stars Alan Hale and Big Boy Williams that made it into the final cut—and a more uncomfortable, unprofessional couple minutes of film you’ll be hard-pressed to find, except in the productions of Edward D. Wood Jr. Everything that worked between the three actors in Dodge City grew embarrassing, even offensive this time out. And damned if they didn’t get together and do it again for Curtiz in Santa Fe Trail later that year!

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

The notorious ad-libbed scene. With friends like Moose and Marblehead (I’m not kidding–those are their names in the picture), who needs rebels or Mexican bandits? And Flynn does himself no favors by trying to improvise comedy before loaded cameras.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Anybody call for me? I’ve already got the costume.

Plot in 30 seconds: Flynn and his Yankee bumpkin friends are confined in a southern prison run by Randolph Scott, but they escape and it turns out they are intelligence men (full disclosure: I didn’t see any intelligence among the three of them) who have uncovered a southern plot to sneak $5M in gold from Virginia City, Nevada, into the Confederacy to keep the war going. By sheer coincidence the man in charge of the rebel plot is Randolph Scott who gives up his job running the prison and goes to Nevada to supervise the gold-sneak. Meanwhile Flynn and bumpkins take the stage from (apparently) Virginia to Nevada, and during what must have been a long and painful ride he falls in love with southerner Miriam Hopkins. Then—

Oh hell, why bother because there’s a whole lot more plot but suffice to say, a little boy dies in reel 2 as per all Warner Bros. western scripts of the time, and there’s a wagon train (also mandatory) that ends up under attack not by Injuns but by Mexican bandits led by Humphrey Bogart. Can someone please explain to me why Indians in old-time movies (or Mexicans in this case) ride around and around the circled wagons when all that happens is they get picked off one by one or two by two or five at a time and never, ever accomplish anything except to lose? Was life really that cheap in the real Old West? Not to mention that, inevitably, the cavalry is going to arrive, and they do here of course, just in the nick of time. Douglas Dumbrille, yet another character actor, is leading them and in such a sour mood that it seems like he’s sorry he saved the day.

Blah blah blah more plot. Whatever. This exercise in shark-jumping begins with Miriam Hopkins as a Scarlett O’Hara wannabe in the office of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and ends with Hopkins pleading for Flynn’s life in the office of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln—on the morning of his assassination yet! Even in 1940 I can’t imagine buying this crap.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Say, wasn’t there supposed to be a girl in this scene? Whoa! I didn’t see you down there, little lady!

I found Flynn horrible in Virginia City. He’s uncomfortable and disinterested and doesn’t bother to learn his lines except in the instances where he knows he’ll get close-ups. In the scene where he learns his lady-love is really a dance-hall girl, he doesn’t know his motivation and instinct tells him to turn nasty. This ain’t the Flynn we’re used to. I think he was shell-shocked after completion of the marathon Elizabeth and Essex. That production, also for Curtiz, co-starring Bette Davis, and documented in Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood, left our boy scarred, unsure, and angry at his treatment by the front office. And here again he was saddled with a sour-puss co-star, this time Miriam Hopkins, a fine actress in pictures like The Smiling Lieutenant, Trouble in Paradise, and Design for Living, all for Ernst Lubitsch. Supposedly, she was a flaming boil to work with (arrived late, offered suggestions on how co-stars could play a scene, demanded dialogue rewrites, etc.), and we know Flynn could be an infected hair follicle himself. What a pair! Here Hopkins is lost in a dusty western and ill-suited to costumes meant for a Vegas showgirl and not a woman who was so diminutive that she looked like a sapling among tall pines Flynn and Scott. The part cried out for Warner contract player Ann Sheridan who had already played it in Dodge City—I swear Bruckner wrote it with Sheridan in mind—but Hopkins was also under WB contract and at a far higher rate, so she got the nod.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

You feex me up, eh, doc? Why of course I will, Mr. Bogart, because I’m reliable character actor Moroni Olsen. (Observe Randolph Scott as he looks on with unwavering solemnity.)

Some of the veteran character actors come off well by comparison to Flynn, Hopkins, and inscrutable Randy Scott, whose monotone delivery and solemnity are unwavering. If you want reliable, call John Litel, Moroni Olson, and Russell Hicks. The actor who surprised me pleasantly on this recent viewing was Bogart, who has been called “miscast” by every Hollywood historian who ever addressed this picture. To me, that’s rear-view-mirror stuff because in 1940, Bogart was not a lead but rather a character man and this was a character part. And his accent sounds exactly like that of Jesús, our favorite server at El Paso Mexican Restaurant, so who’s to say it’s not authentic? Bogart owns the scenes he shares with Flynn. They try to out-smug each other but Bogart’s got the chops and Flynn doesn’t, so Bogie wins. We know Errol was capable of good performances because he gave them in The Dawn Patrol and Essex, but here he just seems to be pissed off and when Flynn’s pissed, he shuts down.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Errol sets his co-star in a tree. A real, exterior, in-the-middle-of-a-river tree. Of course you can’t see the river because Curtiz has filled his foreground with junk.

There’s a scene I always thought odd and uncomfortable: The stagecoach gets stuck in a river and Flynn, knee-deep in water, carries Hopkins to an overhanging tree limb and sets her there like a high-wire-act sack of potatoes. Then later he fetches her off the branch and carries her to dry land. For decades this scene has raised my hackles and I don’t know why. I think it’s because you can feel the contempt between the players at somewhere around 120 Hz—too high a frequency to actually see but there nonetheless. “All day long I have been afraid that Errol would drop me in the water,” she said that evening on location. “Perhaps it would have been better if he had.” Yes, Miss Hopkins, drowning was one quick way out of this mess.

Flynn liked younger women (the younger the better), and Hopkins at eight years his senior did not ring the bell. “They simply couldn’t stand each other and were at swords point all the time,” said screenwriter Bruckner. And it shows; does it ever.

Then there’s the aforementioned dance-hall sequence, which was the last thing to be shot, back in Burbank after contentious weeks on location in Arizona. Hopkins had started out dancing on Broadway in the 1920s, but as was common in those days, spent no time in the gym since hitting Hollywood in 1930. As a result, she faced these days on the barroom set at the studio like her own execution. She dislocated her hip rehearsing two days before Christmas—perhaps one of those self-inflicted wounds you hear about in extreme combat—which delayed the shoot until January 11, 1940. “That morning, she arrived late and hid in her portable dressing room,” wrote Ellenberger in his biography. “After two hours, Curtiz remarked, ‘Now, either she dances or else,’ lightly tapping on her dressing room door. Miriam stepped out wearing a black, laced bodice and a ruffled skirt. ‘Let’s get this over,’ she said, smiling.”

Now, I’ll tell you, dear reader, that I couldn’t get up on a stage and sing and dance in a chorus line any better than Miriam Hopkins in Virginia City. But I don’t think I could do a lot worse, either. I can safely say from the distance of going on a century, as a dance hall girl, Miriam Hopkins is no Ann Sheridan. And I like Miriam Hopkins. She’s a terrific actress, but so so so miscast in Virginia City.

It’s obvious I’ve seen this turkey several times in the distant past because I knew the lines before they were delivered, but my sensibilities must have changed in the past two score plus 10. This time, I sat horrified. With a painful run time of 121 minutes, everything got tossed in during all those rewrites, including the kitchen sink. I will credit Curtiz for some nice scenics and action shots and dollies over and cranes up and cranes down, and of course there’s foreground junk cluttering up the frame. But even Curtiz couldn’t junk up spectacular Arizona Painted Desert vistas. And when Max Steiner’s hired for the musical score, all is not lost. According to Curtiz biographer Rode, the picture did boffo business, proving that at least in this case, more was deemed to be better. You know what Virginia City would be perfect for? A Friday night send-up like Rocky Horror, complete with people dressed as Mexican bandits and showgirls and Abe Lincoln and sing-alongs of “The Union Forever” with Miriam Hopkins. That would finally do justice to this, one of the more incredible motion picture releases of the golden era.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

In their only big sequence together, Bogart and Flynn smug it out trying to out-suave each other. My verdict: Bogart wins. Is Errol actually looking at his fingernails? I thought they only did that in the movies. Oh, right.

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.

Mystery Woman

You remember how I posted a picture of James Stewart and Errol Flynn and jokingly said one of the women with them was Marge Eddington just to see if you were paying attention? Well some of you were and stated that this is NOT Marge Eddington, mother of Nora Eddington Flynn Haymes Black, who in turn was the mother of Rory Flynn, who co-hosted an evening of Errol Flynn pictures this past Tuesday evening on Turner Classic Movies. Rory was one of those saying this pic did not show the elusive Marge—David De Witt did a posting featuring the photo on his excellent Errol Flynn blog.

Actually, I could have sworn it was Marge. There’s a facial resemblance to Nora and her daughters. But to me the takeaway is that people are reading this column and it’s moving them to thought and action. I’m happy to review comments by new participants like Betsy, who commented on recent Carole Lombard columns.

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen

Uncomfortable James Stewart, the mystery woman, burr-under-his-saddle Errol, and his wife Nora. We still don’t know the context for this meeting. Also note that Flynn at six-foot-two is still looking up at the towering Stewart–something else to make Errol uneasy.

At any rate, below is a photo of Marge from Nora’s landmark 1960 tell-all, Errol & Me, which paints Errol none too kindly as a date-rapist and drug addict. By the time I knew Nora 20-some years later she was anything but an iconoclast. She had come to terms with all the facets of her ex-husband’s character, the good and the bad, and was feeling quite protective of his memory.

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen

Marge and Errol captured in a photo from Errol & Me. This photo would have been taken several years after the Stewart-Flynn photo op. So you are SURE that if you take the cat’s-eye cheaters off this woman, she’s not the one in the poodle perm seen in the photo above?

The funny thing is that the identify of the woman is a topic of discussion, yet no one has commented on the event that brought James Stewart and Errol Flynn face to face, and no one has noted the discomfiture of both the males in this photo. Stewart has forced a smile and stands there stiffly, hands in pockets (we do that when we’re on guard), as if counting the seconds until he can exit stage whatever; Errol is wearing his most smug, unfocused expression of disdain. Yet here are these two women who appear to be genuinely thrilled to be in Stewart’s presence at a time in his career when he wasn’t anywhere near the cult symbol that he would become with the re-emergence of public domain It’s a Wonderful Life. He was just another leading man in trouble at the advent of television. If this is 1948, which Tom Hodgins believes, Stewart was in the process of reinventing himself with pictures like Call Northside 777 and Rope. In retrospect it turned out to be a good Stewart year, although I’m not sure it seemed so to him at the time.

If this is late 1949 or 1950, then it’s after Nora and Errol split up. One critic claims it’s impossible that the photo was taken in 1950 for this very reason: Errol and Nora were divorced in 1949. However, Mr. Critic, Marge continued to work at Mulholland Farm, and according to Nora herself, Errol grew more civil after they split. Plus the fact that Errol continued to participate in the upbringing of his children. For the unorthodox Flynn, squiring your ex to a formal affair is well within the sphere of credibility.

Whatever the truth of this photo may be, Tom Hodgins has surfaced quite the Kodak moment.

Invaded by Mights

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

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

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

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

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

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

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen and Michael Mazzone

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

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

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

Poncho: “You’re bleeding!”

Blain: “I ain’t got time to bleed.”

Poncho: “You got time to duck?”

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

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen and Michael Mazzone

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

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

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen and Michael Mazzone

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

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

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

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

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

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.