Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Barrel of Errol

Of the many classic stars to find success in Hollywood, Errol Flynn (known to millions as the star of the legendary and colorful The Adventures of Robin Hood) is among the most provocative and gossiped-about. Though he was a notoriously voracious sexual animal, he projected a heroic, dignified, at times even wholesome (!) image in many of his films. His background is shrouded in mystery, thanks in part to himself and the creative writing he did in his autobiography "My Wicked, Wicked Ways." Mr. Flynn seemed to delight in shocking people and spinning tall tales about his life, though some of them were likely true.

Before he broke into films in the early 1930s, he had led quite an adventurous life. Born in Tasmania to Australian parents, he was involved in an assortment of business, shipping and hunting ventures, giving him a background that would aid him in his many later roles as swashbucklers, rebels and other assorted heroes. His first role was as Fletcher Christian in an Australian version of Mutiny on the Bounty, though few, if any, Americans saw it. He did a few bit parts at Warner Brothers until they needed an immediate replacement for Robert Donat in Captain Blood and gave Flynn a shot. The highly successful film made him an instant star and he continued to headline major adventure movies for many years afterwards.

Occasionally, Flynn would attempt to break out of the mold by doing a contemporary drama or a comedy (something he was surprisingly adept at), but the public wanted him swinging on a rope with a sword in his hand or riding a horse firing a pistol. Flynn, being Australian, was surprised to find himself in many American westerns, but the truth is he was at home in any genre that required a dashing, confident man, especially if it involved any kind of uniform. Flynn looked smashing in period dress, sometimes beautifully carrying off looks that would have made other actors of his generation look silly.

Warner Brothers paired him eight different times with Olivia de Havilland and it’s easy to see why. Not only did they share wonderful chemistry on the screen (perhaps because of the tension deriving from the fact that the pair never consummated their relationship in real life despite having strong feelings for one another?), but they just looked plain terrific together. Errol enjoyed playing tricks on Olivia, some of which incensed her, but she retained a fondness for him as long as he lived and far beyond.

One costar who did not want to work with him was Bette Davis. They did The Sisters together in 1938 and were actually discussed as potential Scarlett and Rhett candidates when Gone with the Wind was in preproduction. However, she would not accept her role if it meant acting opposite Flynn. When they appeared together in 1939’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, her loathing of him was at full steam and when it came time for her character to slap his, she gave him a strike that would have put many men down. Many years later, she admitted to her pal de Havilland that her dislike for Flynn was misplaced and that he was not only good-looking, but also good! Incidentally, I think this film is the one in which Flynn is his most handsome.

The stories surrounding Flynn and his private life are mind-boggling. Apart from the public scandal that erupted in 1942 regarding the alleged statutory rape of two underage girls, he was accused, often posthumously, of everything including involvement in white slavery, spying for the Nazis, carrying on lavish sex and drug-fueled parties, barely surviving a raft of diseases, watching houseguests have sex through two-way mirrors, and carrying on affairs with Tyrone Power and Howard Hughes. We may never know how much or how little of these and other allegations are true, though it is generally believed now that the Nazism claims, at least, are either heavily exaggerated or altogether false. Certainly, Flynn packed enough living into his relatively short 50-year life that he died looking 70. Here in Poseidon’s Underworld, however, you won’t find photos of him looking bloated and worn. For some reason, the men here tend to be on display at their peak!

What does remain for everyone to examine and enjoy is his body of film work. I am of the belief that no still photo, no matter how beautiful – and some of them are, can truly capture the magic of Errol Flynn. He has to be seen in motion with his graceful moves, charming voice and that glint in his eye. At first, he didn’t take his film career very seriously. Then when he did, the audiences and producers didn’t, and they couldn’t or wouldn’t accept the inherent gifts that he’d previously been squandering. Do yourself a favor and, the next time the TCM documentary The Adventures of Errol Flynn comes on, watch it. It’s a fascinating, affectionate, but encompassing, look at this complicated and gifted man. See if you don’t have a newfound appreciation for his work and his beauty or, if you are already a fan, if that devotion isn’t enhanced even further.


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