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Errol Flynn: An Appreciation

“I allow myself to be known as a colorful fragment in a drab world.” – Errol Flynn

When Errol Flynn died suddenly in October of 1959, Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons had this to say about the man: “A world of living was crowded into the 50 years allotted to handsome, tumultuous, devil-may-care, exciting and adventurous Errol Flynn.”

For once, Parsons was not exaggerating. As a matter of fact, the only true way to describe the essence of Errol Flynn is to describe him as … well … Errol Flynn. A Tasmanian devil of excess and passion—outrageous, charismatic, gregarious, and an unabashed womanizer who was “happy to note that even at an early age” he was observant of the ladies.

And yet what endears him so to us is that Flynn got his own joke.

He held no delusions about Hollywood (“They’ve great respect for the dead in Hollywood, but none for the living”) his work (“I felt like an impostor, taking all that money for reciting ten or twelve lines of nonsense a day”) his own talents (“I really can’t fence worth a damn, I just know how to make it look good”) or his character (“I like my whiskey old and my women young”). To Errol, said his last wife, Patricia Flynn, everything was an adventure.

He was born Errol Leslie Thomson Flynn on June 20th, 1909, in Battery Point, Tasmania to a marine biologist, Theodore Flynn, and a beautiful ball of fire, Marelle Young. Errol’s life, from the start, was a series of adventures and, most often, misadventures. As an occasional runaway and perpetual troublemaker, he found himself expelled from most of the schools he attended.

His mother, a severe woman of scant affection had made the idea of a conventional family life unattractive to Errol’s daring, impulsive nature and he set his sights on everywhere and everywhere except home. By his early 20s, Flynn had embarked upon a remarkable swirl of intrepid undertakings, including tobacco plantations and copper mines, and had traveled as far away as New Guinea—unfortunately none of those enterprises, however ambitious, resulted in much success.

Although his mother’s side of the family had some connection with theatrics, acting was by no means in Flynn’s blood and it was far from a life ambition. Think of it this way: in 1932, while Clark Gable was pretending to run a rubber plantation in French Indochina in the pre-code classic Red Dust, Flynn was physically rounding up backers to finance his very own tobacco plantation in New Guinea.

The plantation failed.

But then an Australian film producer saw a picture of Errol and offered him the starring role in his picture low-budget picture In the Wake of the Bounty.

Errol Flynn at age 24.

Filming commenced in September 1932 and was shot on a Sydney soundstage.  Flynn admitted he had no idea what he was doing, only that he was supposed to “be an actor,” whatever that meant. The film wasn’t successful, but his screen debut was picked up by a periodical with the headline: Paupan Tobacco Planter Becomes Talkie Artist.  Encouraged by positive response to his performance, the ever opportunistic Flynn set his sights on perhaps the most opportunistic racket of them all: film acting.

He set sail for England and joined the Northampton Repertory Players where, through 1934, acted in some 22 plays. Flynn’s striking good looks garnered him much attention—mostly from women. But soon motion picture producers took notice, too. Flynn had done some bit extra work for Warner Bros before, but it was the managing director of Warner Bros.’ Teddington Studios, Irving Asher, who gave Flynn his first real break. Asher cast him as the lead in Murder at Monte Carlo (which is, unfortunately, a lost film) and even though Flynn’s acting hardly impressed him, Asher sensed there was something there. 

He went to a good friend of his for a second opinion: none other than Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Doug liked what he saw and agreed with Asher: Flynn’s screen appeal was undeniable. That was enough for Asher, and he cabled back to Hollywood about his discovery:

“He is the best picture bet we have ever seen. He is twenty-five, Irish, looks like a cross between Charles Farrell and George Brent, same type and build, excellent actor, champion boxer & swimmer, guarantee he’s a real find.”

Not long after, Flynn sailed for the United States with a seven-year contract waiting for him at Warner Bros.

He made his US screen debut in Michael Curtiz’s Perry Mason mystery The Case of the Curious Bride (1935) before beginning work on his first major feature: another Curtiz film, the big-budget swashbuckler Captain Blood with Olivia de Havilland. (It was their first of eight such pairings).

Captain Blood had a lot riding on it. Warner Bros. head of production, Hal Wallis, had to keep the film’s budget under the $1 million mark while making damn sure the film was personal win for him: he’d only recently taken over production from Darryl F. Zanuck and desperately needed a hit. Unfortunately, his director, Curtiz, was not one to take orders from anyone–even the head of production–and the production was fraught with tension. Adding to it was Curtiz’s merciless, authoritarian approach to directing: his deep criticism of Flynn’s takes wounded him. But Flynn he had faced far worse adversity than a Hollywood director, and steeled himself to the task at hand. As film historian Alan K. Rode‘s writes in his excellent biography Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, “Flynn improved so quickly that before the end of the production schedule, Curtis was authorized to reshoot a number of the actor’s earliest scenes to improve the picture.”

The result was a damn fun picture that became one of the year’s top grossers, was even nominated for *five* Oscars and the rest, as they say, is history.

CAPTAIN BLOOD, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, 1935

Flynn’s natural athleticism, inherit sense of adventure, deep-rooted passion of the sea and terrific good looks made him an absolute natural to step into Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s shoes as Hollywood’s new seafaring, swashbuckling, death-defying adventurer. Fairbanks will always be the creator of the swashbuckler adventure film, but Flynn shone on screen as Fairbanks’ rightful successor.

For the next several years, right through the outbreak of the second World War, Flynn made an impressive string of successful films: The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Dawn Patrol, The Sea Hawk, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, They Died With Their Boots On and Gentleman Jim, all benefited from Errol’s freewheeling, contagiously energetic presence.

By that time, his reputation as Hollywood’s premiere adventure hero was just as unquestionable as his reputation as one of its most scandalous citizens. A live wire with a band of boozing buddies (including David Niven), Flynn flouted convention and was widely loved and admired.

He was, as Arthur Hiller once said, Flynn was “impossible to dislike.”

It is much to Flynn’s credit as a professional actor, too, that he was able to turn out such solid work in spite of offscreen clashes. In addition to his volatile partnership with Michael Curtiz,  he also butted heads with the likes of Bette Davis.

Take for instance Michael Curtiz’s 1939 Technicolor The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, a highly fictionalized yet highly entertaining historical romance. Flynn is tremendous as the dashing Earl of Essex whose relationship with Queen Elizabeth (Bette Davis) is tumultuous at best.  Both major stars at the time, Flynn and Davis felt the film should cater more to their individual star power: the title went from Elizabeth the Queen (for Davis) to The Knight and the Lady (for Flynn) to the boring but democratic The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Don’t let the title fool you: it is one of 1939’s strongest pictures. Adroitly directed (after all, for all his complexities, Curtiz was a master craftsman), Davis delivers a knock-out performance as the Virgin Queen while Flynn proves he is more than up to the task of keeping up with her: their scenes together are immediate; urgent. It is required viewing for anyone unconvinced of Flynn’s acting ability.

THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, 1939

Upon becoming a naturalized US citizen in 1942, Flynn was keen to join the war effort and enlisted. A weak heart, however, kept him out of the service which led him to touring with the USO through Europe. (And no, Flynn was not an English spy. We will not even approach that rumor here, so look elsewhere, sorry.)

1942 was also the year that Flynn’s very public escapades caught up with him in the form of a lawsuit filed against him: two teenage girls, Betty Hansen and Peggy Satterlee accused him of statutory rape.  But Errol was acquitted (a band of his guy pals rallied to his defense) and the scandal only added fuel to his fiery film success and he was forevermore coined with the now age-old adage: “In Like Flynn.” (I’d love to know if there have been any serious pieces written about Flynn’s acquittal in light of the #MeToo era.)

Three times married, twice divorced and dating a 15 year old at the time of his death, it can be honestly said of Flynn that his on-screen escapades, such as in the Adventures of Don Juan, paled in comparison to his real life.

Throughout the 1950s, both his career and his health slowed down, but his lifestyle certainly didn’t. A bad heart didn’t keep him away from the bottle, and his appearance suffered visibly from it. The films he made were of decidedly lesser quality, however his dramatic turns were surprising and promising–particularly Too Much Too Soon and The Sun Also Rises.

Death came to Flynn much the same fashion of his life: fast and unpredictable. Flynn had traveled from his home in Jamaica to Canada to lease his yacht to a millionaire. Feeling ill, he was taken a friend’s apartment to rest. During a party being held at the apartment, Flynn was his normal, gregarious self, until he excused himself to rest, bidding the group “I shall return.” He never did, suffering a massive heart attack alone in the bedroom.

He left the world a legend, yes, but more than that, Flynn remains an enigma. Fabulous, flamboyant, fast. Thoughtful, intelligent, articulate. Amorous, troubled, enchanting. Destructive, mischievous, camouflaged. Flynn is a Hollywood original because there was never anyone quite like him–nor has there ever been anyone quite like him since.

Flynn once said, “I allow myself to be known as a colorful fragment in a drab world.” How grateful we are to have had that colorful fragment grace the screen, making the world feel a brighter, lighter, more exciting place to live.

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