Errol & Olivia

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.

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.

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.

You Can’t Win ‘Em All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar nods do not result from death by bees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Little Don Juan

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

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

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

Swedish-born Viveca Lindfors as Queen Margaret of Spain.

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

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

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

And then there are the scenes with Flynn.

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

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

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

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

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

The chemistry between the two stars is visible early on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kindred Spirits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.