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Errol Flynn: Oh to Be In Like Him
One of the most flamboyant, exciting film heroes of the 1930’s through World War 2 was Tasmanian born Errol Flynn. His exploits both on and off the camera were the stuff of legend. And while his life was relatively short, passing away at the age of 50 from a heart attack, he had more adventures than most of us would live in a dozen lifetimes.
If anything, Errol Flynn was the most, if not the only, famous person born in Tasmania, having accomplished that feat in the city of Hobart in 1909. From there, his life was chocked full of adventure starting with his move to Sydney, Australia. From entering and being thrown out of one boarding school after another, Errol became a boxer, lover, and rode the high seas to the isle of New Guinea where he and his friends engaged in many different ventures, including it’s rumored the art of “blackbirding”, better known as slave trading. It was there to his misfortune that he contracted malaria, a disease that would plague him for the rest of his life.
Perhaps his sense of adventure led him back to Sydney in 1933, to star in Australia’s first sound film, “The Wake of the Bounty”. Of course, Errol had never been an actor before, but his good looks and solid speaking voice were enough to land him the lead role of Fletcher Christian. From there, he travelled to England (and had many different adventures along the way, at least according to his autobiography, “My Wicked, Wicked Ways” which was published shortly before his death) and joined a repertory theater group which eventually garnered him a couple of decent movie roles before Hollywood beckoned him in 1935.
From his first starring role in 1935 to 1942, Errol Flynn was Warner Brothers #1 box office star; after that his career began a slow decline for several reasons. Errol was put on trial for statutory rape, but was found not guilty. He couldn’t join the military because of his recurring bouts of malaria and a bad heart and America’s taste in films were changing away from what Errol excelled at. All of these events combined with Errol’s abuse of alcohol and morphine addiction which physically aged him greatly led to his slow, sad decline with but a few brief moments of glory before his death in 1959.
But at the height of his career, few have matched what Errol was able to accomplish in terms of creating a unique, full blooded action hero with a rogue’s heart and dashing good looks. And it’s from that time I’ve chosen three films that you may want to take a look at to see what all the fuss was about. I’ll leave out the obvious one, “The Adventures of Robin Hood” since it is so well known to movie fans and is, admittedly, his greatest success and screen performance.
Flynn plays Dr. Peter Blood in his first starring role at Warner Brothers. During the Monmouth rebellion in England, Dr. Blood is captured after giving medical care to a rebel leader He is convicted of treason, sent to Port Royal, a colony in the West Indies and sold into slavery to the governor’s daughter, Arabella Bishop (Olivia De Havilland). After a raid by pirates, Blood and several other slaves capture the pirate vessel and escape to the seas and become pirates themselves.
This is a remarkable, joyous, energetic effort directed by Michael Curtiz who would go on to direct several more Flynn pictures including “Robin Hood”. What may be more amazing is that Warner Brothers actually let not one, but two relatively unknown actors in Flynn and De Havilland star in a major motion picture, a practice almost unheard of at the time. But Flynn handles the demands of a lead with remarkable ease, his athletic and fencing skills are convincing, and his on screen chemistry with De Havilland sparkles.
The final hour of the film is action filled and highly energetic, leading to a wonderful conclusion where Flynn faces the now-former governor of Port Royal with his daughter at his side. Flynn practically shines all through the picture and it’s somewhat interesting to note that this was before he grew his famous pencil-thin mustache.
And for you trivia buffs, a great question to stump your friends with is, “Name the pirate movie that starred an actor born in Tasmania and an actress born in Tokyo?”
The Sea Hawk
Another picture with a strong pirate theme, this time Flynn plays Jeffery Thorpe, an English captain who actually works for the Queen of England (played with great authority by Flora Robson). Flynn convinces the Queen to allow him to raid Spanish wagon shipments in Central American, but gets caught and is enslaved aboard a Spanish warship, destined to row in the bowels of that vessel for the rest of his life…or until he gets sick of rowing when he and his shipmates steal the vessel and sail it back to England to warn the Queen about the impending Spanish invasion.
This effort, again directed with great energy and fire by Curtiz, is faster paced and more consistent overall than “Captain Blood”. The production values are top notch and the rest of the cast is wonderful, from the Spanish ambassador Don Jose’ Alvarez played by the great Claude Rains (I’ve got to do a Hub on him someday) to the quite evil Lord Wulfingham (a never better Henry Daniell). The scenes that Flynn shares with Robson are also quite remarkable; they have a solid on-screen chemistry that is not romantic, but more friendly and personal. About the only disappointment is the failure to get Olivia De Havilland in the movie, though Brenda Marshall who plays Flynn’s love interest gives it a good try.
Needless to say, I love this film; it’s full of action, adventure and romance with lots of comedy, mostly provided by Flynn’s constant companion in many of his great films, Alan Hale. Not “The Skipper” Alan Hale from Gilligan’s Island, this “Hale” was his father and his career is certainly worthy of a Hub as well.
Usually considered the last of the great Errol Flynn pictures made during his peak years, “Gentleman Jim” is based, really loosely based on Jim Corbett, a fighter generally considered the first modern heavyweight champion of boxing. In this film, Flynn plays Corbett, a bank teller who lives in late 19th century San Francisco. Corbett is also a boxer, but is generally not taken very seriously because of his good looks (few boxers at that time, especially in the pre-glove era, could maintain “good looks”) and a somewhat dandified attitude. After smacking around the local prospects, Corbett signs a contract with a fight promoter and soon enough takes on the reigning heavyweight champion John Sullivan (Ward Bond, who’s quite good).
By this time Olivia De Havilland had stopped appearing in Flynn movies so Alexis Smith takes over as the love interest, she would star in several other Flynn pictures as well. She plays a more sophisticated and worldly character than De Havilland normally did, so Smith made a good fit for Flynn at the time. What’s more unusual is that Alan Hale, who’s normally cast as Flynn’s sidekick, plays his father in this role.
The film itself is a joy to watch and Flynn considered it his favorite work. Even though the storyline only vaguely follows the historic events (Corbett had actually boxed with Sullivan years before their title fight), one aspect they did get right and is fun to watch is Corbett using his footwork, not only in the ring, but also on the streets of San Francisco in avoiding getting touched. Corbett is considered the first boxer to popularize the importance of footwork in the ring.
Flynn didn’t have too great a time playing the role since he did suffer a heart attack during the shooting of the title fight. But he does show his remarkable comic timing and cool, roguish demeanor that made him such a pleasure to watch on the screen.