Errol Flynn, A Hollywood Death

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Hollywood Legend

Errol Flynn, with his exceptional good looks and athletic abilities, dominated the early Hollywood adventure films. He became one of the earliest Hollywood superstars and at his peak in the early 40's had become nothing short of a Hollywood God. Even now, over half a century later his name conjures up images of beautiful female conquests and heroic feats of bravery, and his reputation remains secure amongst the greatest performers of the golden age of Hollywood.

For a time his life seemed the epitome of every man's dream, he was handsome, immensely rich and world-famous, his days and nights full of beautiful, available women, adventures in foreign climes and new challenges always on the horizon. But it did not last, Errol Flynn did not allow it to last. Errol Flynn allowed the demons to take over.

At the moment when the world was his, when all his early ambitions were being realised, Flynn began to slowly implode. He experienced failure, illness and far too early at the age of 50, the premature and undignified death of an alchoholic. Errol Flynn was a determined and focused man; it did not take him long to drink himself into the grave.

 

Early Years

Born in Hobart, Tasmania in 1909, the son of distinguished Australian marine biologist/zoologist Prof. Theodore Thomson Flynn, Errol was taken to Sydney, Australia as a child, where he attended Sydney Church of England Grammar School from which he was expelled for fighting and, allegedly, impregnating the daughter of the school laundress. He was also expelled from the next school he attended. In his late teens he left home and set out to find gold, but instead found a series of short lived odd jobs.

In 1930 he and 3 friends sailed to New Guinea where he bought a tobacco plantation, a business which failed. A copper mining venture in the hills near the Laloki Valley behind the present national capital Port Moresby also failed.

In 1933, after starring in the Australian-made film In The Wake Of The Bounty, Flynn left for Britain and, in 1933, got an acting job with Northampton Repertory Company, where he worked for six months. During that short time he became a legend with the young ladies of the town, and his good looks and athleticism also came to the attention of a Warner Bros. executive, who signed him up and shipped him to America as a contract actor.

Captain Blood

Robin Hood

The Charge of The Light Brigade

Stardom

In America Flynn languished in tiny parts until studio star Robert Donat suddenly dropped out of the big-budget swashbuckler Captain Blood (1935). The studio took a chance on Flynn as the eponymous pirate hero, and the result, to Flynn's own astonishment, was overnight stardom. His future was assured.

There followed several years of undiluted and increasing success in a succession of blockbuster movies. Flynn was most effective in period costume films, as in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and Dodge City (1939). At his romantic best onscreen, Flynn continued to make major films such as "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex," "The Sea Hawk," "Santa Fe Trail," "They Died With Their Boots On," "Gentleman Jim," Dawn Patrol and "The Adventures of Don Juan.

By the early '40s, Flynn ranked among Warner Bros.' most popular and lucrative stars and as his film career blossomed he now had the power and financial resources to indulge almost his every whim. This he did with great gusto and his off-screen carousing as well as his on-screen heroics, contributed to the legendary status which continues to this day.

Flynn was a rich, famous bachelor (in 1942 he had divorced from his first wife, the tempestuous Lili Damita), and he had the world at his feet. It seemed that he could do no wrong, but then things did start to go wrong, sensationally wrong. At the very time when life seemed perfect, Errol Flynn's world was about to start unravelling.

With his daughters, Rory(left) and Deidre
With his daughters, Rory(left) and Deidre

Downward Spiral

Errol Flynn's predeliction for booze, young women, and brawling had been keeping studio executives and PR men nervous and busy for years, and his popularity soared because of it. But In 1942 it got him into serious legal trouble.

He was brought up on statutory rape charges - sex with girls under the age of eighteen. If convicted, he could have spent the next twenty-five years in prison. Flynn's lawyers cleverly played on his reputation as a rake and attacked the two accusers - Betty Hansen, 17, and Peggy LaRue Satterlee, 15 - as under-aged sirens. The revelation at the trial that Satterlee had had a previous affair and later an abortion was all Flynn needed to secure acquittal.

He was nevertheless seared by the experience, and those who knew him said he never fully recovered from the embarrassment and jokes that went with being tried for underage rape. Such serious allegations could easily have destroyed a lesser star's career, in Flynn's case, instead of finding his career in ruins, he found himself just as popular. In fact, the matter inspired a new catch phrase: "In like Flynn."

But while Flynn's pictures continued to score at the box office, the actor, himself, was declining both physically and mentally. He was already upset by being judged unfit to fight in World War II due to a variety of health problems - including recurring malaria, tuberculosis, and a bad heart - and his lack of active service during the war when real blood was being spilled by men and women injured and dying by the thousands every day, caused public aversion to his lifestyle. As he got older so his drinking and carousing increased. His overall behavior became erratic and by the time he starred in The Adventures of Don Juan (1949) - not a demanding role for an actor with his experience - Flynn was suffering from short-term memory loss and seemed unsure of himself. His startling good looks were also beginning to fade as his lifestyle started to take its toll.

He divorced his second wife, Nora Eddington, in 1949 and the following year married actress Patrice Wymore. By the mid 1950s, Flynn had become a physical wreck. Heavy alcohol and drug abuse had left him prematurely aged and bloated and was almost unbearable to see in one who had been worshipped for his looks. His box-office appeal was lessening and as his debts grew larger, Flynn left for Europe to make a few films, including The Master of Ballantrae (1953) and Crossed Swords (1954). The final blow for Flynn came when he lost his entire fortune on an ill-fated attempt to film the story of William Tell. To cope with his pain and losses, Flynn took to the sea, sailing about for long periods in his 120-foot ocean-going sailboat, the Zaca.

Failure and Death

Returning to Hollywood in 1956, Flynn made a final bid to recapture his earlier glory, offering excellent performances in The Sun Also Rises (1957), The Roots of Heaven (1958), and Too Much, Too Soon (1958). Ironically, in the latter film, Flynn played another self-destructive matinee idol, John Barrymore. Strapped for cash during this period, Flynn penned his memoirs, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, which were published after his death in 1959. (He had wanted to call it 'In Like Me' but his publishers objected.) His final film was the extremely poor Cuban Rebel Girls (1958), in which he appeared with his girlfriend at the time, 17-year-old Beverly Aadland.

Four months after turning 50, Flynn's years of hard living caught up with him and he died of a heart attack on October 14, 1959. He had flown to Vancouver, British Columbia in order to sell his yacht. When he fell ill he was taken to a friend's apartment. In typical Flynn fashion a party ensued with Flynn charming guests with stories and impressions. He complained of pains in his back and legs and went to the bedroom to lie down. He died there but he had one more public appearance to make. According to the Vancouver Sun (12/16/2006), "When Errol Flynn came to town in 1959 for a week-long binge that ended with him dying in a West End apartment, his local friends propped him up at the Hotel Georgia lounge so that everyone would see him."

According to the coroner's report, his body was so bloated by illness and ravaged by substance abuse that it looked as if it belonged to a much older man.

Flynn's body was flown back to to America and buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. Interred with him are 6 bottles of whisky, purchased for him as a parting gift from his drinking cronies. A sadly fitting memorial perhaps.

TCM Intro to Errol

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Comments 10 comments

William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

A wonderfully entertaining -- and accurate -- portrayal of a great movie. I always loved watching Errol Flynn's many excellent movies. There was no better swashbuckler. His private life was legend, but I was bowled over when I heard that a book was published accusing this great American hero of being a Nazi spy. It, of course, was an obvious effort to capitalize on Flynn's fame. Out of curiosity, I looked up the title. It was Charles Higham's "Errol Flynn: The Untold Story (1979." I wouldn't even bother to read it. Thanks for a great hub.


gunsock profile image

gunsock 8 years ago from South Coast of England Author

Thanks William. I've read reviews of the Charles Higham book and it seems like sensationalist rubbish.


raven1967 profile image

raven1967 6 years ago from Atlanta, GA

Great hub gunsock...My older brother introduced me to all the great Errol Flynn movies, back in the seventies. I have great memories of those days. He was definitly one of a kind, every guy wanted to be him and every woman wanted to be with him. Him and Olivia de Havallin(spelled that wrong)had a magical screen chemistry. Well done


d dean 5 years ago

my mom served him breakfast in gander nl when she worked at the airport


steve m 5 years ago

My father introduced me to his movies in the early 60s and i loved them and still do. Whenever i watch one i always think of my dad.My dad and Errol Flynn movies forever in my mind


Mel Jay profile image

Mel Jay 5 years ago from Australia

Great hub, well presented and well written, just makes you want to keep reading. I thought I knew a lot about Flynn but I have just learned more, up and awesome from me - thanks, Mel


emily koester 5 years ago

Just finished reading his autobiography - easy reading. Wish that he had not led the life he did as he was great in his movies even if he did not think so.


Errol Paulicpulle 3 years ago from Toronto

It is always interesting to read about old Hollywood stars.


maymac 2 years ago

He was and still is an irreplaceable rascal-charming, dashing, witty, certainly "wicked" and full of life. RIP.


Ordimalas p 2 years ago

...such potential...such influence...such waste of a human life. Life is not just the body I hurt for his family. There is a way that seems right. Errol followed a road without regard to signs. What a loss...

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