Flynn: A ca­reer type­cast in heroic roles

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

GARY ARNOLD

It’s easy to con­tem­plate Er­rol Flynn as a cen­ten­nial fig­ure. Af­ter all, it was 1935 when he emerged as a hero­ically pre­co­cious movie star in one fell swoop, when cast as the ti­tle char­ac­ter of “Cap­tain Blood,” a gal­lant physi­cian-turned-buc­ca­neer.

Born in Ho­bart, Tas­ma­nia, on June 20, 1909, Mr. Flynn had ap­peared in only four pre­vi­ous films, one an ob­scure pro­duc­tion made in his na­tive Aus­tralia and the oth­ers mi­nor ti­tles from Amer­ica’s Warner Bros., that thought him pho­to­genic and promis­ing enough to be hired as a prospect.

The top choice for Peter Blood had been English ac­tor Robert Donat. He was un­avail­able, so the stu­dio took a chance on a new­comer. Er­rol Flynn thrived so hand­somely on the op­por­tu­nity that he be­came the most plau­si­ble swash­buck­ler since the hey­day of Dou­glas Fair­banks, who had re­tired in 1934, at age 51. The moviego­ing pub­lic was so ready for a young suc­ces­sor that they em­braced not only Er­rol Flynn in 1935 but also Ty­rone Power two years later.

The down­side for Mr. Flynn, de­spite epit­o­miz­ing high ad­ven­ture for the next sev­eral years in “The Charge of the Light Bri­gade,” “The Ad­ven­tures of Robin Hood,” “The Dawn Pa­trol,” “Dodge City,” “The Pri­vate Lives of El­iz­a­beth and Es­sex,” “The Sea Hawk,” “The Santa Fe Trail,” “Dive Bomber” and “They Died With Their Boots On,” is that Warn­ers found it so lu­cra­tive to type­cast him as heroic fig­ures that his ap­peals for a va­ri­ety of roles were dis­re­garded. There are many vari­a­tions on the fol­low­ing lament in a post­hu­mous, ghost-writ­ten au­to­bi­og­ra­phy ti­tled “My Wicked, Wicked Ways”: “As the months, the years, rol­licked on [. . . ] the stereo­typed roles I played stamped out of me my am­bi­tion to do finer things or ex­pect to be able to do them in Hol­ly­wood. [. . . ] I do not know to what ex­tent this stereo­typ­ing [. . . ] this hand­ing me a sword and a horse [. . . ] led to my re­bel­lions, high jinks and horse­play over the globe, but I think it had plenty to do with it.”

Ev­i­dently, he failed to no­tice that col­leagues at Warn­ers were will­ing to risk sus­pen­sions in or­der to bar­gain for bet­ter roles and terms: James Cag­ney, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bog­art and Olivia de Hav­il­land, Mr. Flynn’s de­mure lead­ing lady in eight movies. David Niven, a close friend (and Mal­ibu house­mate for a time dur­ing the late 1930s), sur­mised that Mr. Flynn’s pride was de­ci­sively wounded by his fail­ure to be ac­cepted for mil­i­tary ser­vice in World War II. He had a his­tory of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and malaria that ac­counted for a 4-F sta­tus, but the re­jec­tion it­self must have ag­gra­vated the dis­par­ity be­tween his Hol­ly­wood im­age and pri­vate as­pi­ra­tions.

Mr. Flynn had gone looking for ad­ven­ture as a Hearst cor­re­spon­dent dur­ing the Span­ish Civil War, ac­com­pa­nied by a pal later re­vealed to be a covert Soviet agent. At one point, there were hasty news­pa­per re­ports that the ac­tor had been killed. To- ward the end of 1942, he pro­vided a dis­trac­tion from war news by be­com­ing the de­fen­dant in a statu­tory rape case. His adroit at­tor­ney, Jerry Giesler, se­cured an ac­quit­tal, but not be­fore the catch­phrase “In like Flynn” had be­come a na­tional joke.

The most shock­ing thing about Er­rol Flynn’s life in ret­ro­spect is the speed of his phys­i­cal de­cline. It’s still dif­fi­cult to ac­cept the fact that he was only 50 when he died in Oc­to­ber 1959, a fa­tal­is­tic hostage to dis­si­pa­tion. By that point, chronic drink­ing, smok­ing and drug abuse had taken such a toll of heart, liver and kid­neys that the coroner pro­fessed to be as­ton­ished that he had reached 50. There were de­cep­tive signs of life in a cou­ple of his late per­for­mances, both as prodi­gious drinkers: Mike Camp­bell in the film ver­sion of “The Sun Also Rises” and John Bar­ry­more, a Flynn idol, in “Too Much, Too Soon.” At the time it seemed pos­si­ble that he might still be ca­pa­ble of us­ing the pre­ma­ture wreck­age of his once en­vi­able vis­age for pow­er­ful and stir­ring ef­fects. In truth, it was a strug­gle for him to re­mem­ber one line for a sin­gle take.

If a self-loathing side of Er­rol Flynn was in­tent on con­tra­dict­ing the valor and de­cency he pro­jected in his most pop­u­lar early roles, the ef­fort suc­ceeded with a vengeance. Iron­i­cally, the abid­ing joke is on the vic­tim, since the ad­mirable works of fic­tion will en­dure long be­yond the un­sa­vory re­al­ity that doomed the per­former.

Per­haps Mr. Flynn un­der­rated the sub­tleties that he was ca­pa­ble of while em­body­ing heroic young men. Peter Blood and Robin Hood may qual­ify as over­whelm­ing and ir­re­sistible paragons, but the Flynn reper­toire also in­cluded brave men of clouded tem­per­a­ments and trou­bled thoughts. For ex­am­ple, “The Charge of the Light Bri­gade” has so lit­tle to do with the Crimean War that the ti­tle seems a mis­nomer un­til the con­clud­ing se­quence. But if you ob­serve the emo­tional be­tray­als that con­front Mr. Flynn’s char­ac­ter, par­tic­u­larly when iso­lated in some of the most beau­ti­ful close-ups ever pre­served of an ac­tor, the rat­tle­trap his­tor­i­cal frame­work is al­most dig­ni­fied by the na­ture of one of­fi­cer’s dis­en­chant­ment. For this man, the fa­tal charge be­comes a kind of sac­ri­fi­cial de­liv­er­ance.

Th­ese un­der­cur­rents were evoked in a more sys­tem­atic way by di­rec­tor Ed­mund Gould­ing in his 1938 re­make of “The Dawn Pa­trol,” much im­proved from the Howard Hawks ver­sion of 1930 by the rap­port of Er­rol Flynn and David Niven as dare­devil com­bat pi­lots in World War I. Mr. Flynn does jus­tice to a stir­ring range of emo­tions in this role, ini­tially re­flected in the con­trast be­tween his guarded sor­row, when re­call­ing the ap­par­ent death of the Niven char­ac­ter dur­ing a dog­fight, and his amaze­ment when his friend sud­denly reap­pears among the liv­ing.

If it means some­thing to have com­mand of such char­ac­ter­i­za­tions, and his­tor­i­cally that form of mas­tery is a thing of beauty in mo­tion pic­tures, Er­rol Flynn had the ap­ti­tude per­sua­sively in his grasp for the bet­ter part of a decade. Maybe it came so eas­ily when he was young that squan­der­ing it was also an easy for m of ne­glect or self-re­proach. There was def­i­nitely some­thing triv­i­al­iz­ing about “My Wicked, Wicked Ways,” es­pe­cially when it ap­peared so soon af­ter the sub­ject’s pre­ma­ture demise. The dou­ble “wicked” seemed to mock the idea that any­thing valu­able had been lost by Er­rol Flynn’s self­de­struc­tive ten­den­cies. On the con­trary, some­thing rather ex­alted had run to ruin.

Er­rol Flynn worked with Olivia de Hav­il­land in “The Charge of the Light Bri­gade.” Un­like Mr. Flynn, Miss de Hav­il­land was among a num­ber of ac­tors at Warn­ers will­ing to risk sus­pen­sions in or­der to bar­gain for bet­ter roles and terms.

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