20 June, 2013

The Adventures Of Robin Hood

Why Errol Flynn?

This is the question Lawrence Bassoff – who compiled and annotated the beautiful book, “Errol Flynn:  The Movie Posters” – was asked when he said he was doing the project on the Australian born actor.

Why Errol Flynn?

His answer was, simply, “Because he’s never been replaced.”

The foreword to that book is written by none other than Stewart Granger.  (Jimmy, of course, to anyone that knew him.  His real name was James Stewart, but that had already been taken by what’s-his-name, so our Jimmy took his mother’s maiden name, Granger, tacked it on, and made it famous.)  He wrote the foreword in brown ink, in longhand;  “a treasure unto itself,” Bassoff writes.  Indeed.  Capturing just snippets of it here, Granger wrote, “I crossed paths with Errol both personally and professionally in some remarkable ways … [He] was not only the best looking man I’d ever seen, but such fun … and thank God he didn’t take himself too seriously … I get so annoyed when people disparage him and his films.  Of course, it’s just jealousy.  Who today could wear a costume like Errol?  And give the verbal skewering with which he finished off the opposition? … You gather by now that I was – and am – a fan.  I was a pretty famous swashbuckler myself in my time … but I couldn’t hold a candle to Errol Flynn.”

So much has been written about Flynn – the successes, the failures, the women, the men, the drinking, the end when he was only fifty years old – so there’s no need to get into that here.  As with my Bob Hope Top 5 Retrospective, I’m not writing a biography or, particularly, a critique of his films (however often notes thereof will undoubtedly pop up).  Rather, I thought I’d start another Top 5 Retrospective;  just some of my thoughts on what I think are his five best films.  Sorry, let me rephrase that.  If not his five best, my five favorites.  And, opinion aside, I’ll stand by these showcasing his best work.

Let’s quickly reset the stage, shall we?

In the early thirties, Warner Bros was considered “a musical studio,” with such hits as ‘42nd Street’ and the Busby Berkeley series.  But by the mid thirties that ardor had cooled (not helped by Berkeley’s arrest) and Warner Bros, then under production head Darryl F. Zanuck, turned to more socially realistic storylines.  “Torn from the headlines!” they claimed and Zanuck got new talent to showcase those headlines.  He not only launched “the gangster picture” but the careers of James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, Barbara Stanwyck and Humphrey Bogart.  Warner quickly became “the gangster studio” with huge hits like ‘Little Caesar,’ ‘The Public Enemy’ and ‘The Petrified Forest.’  As you can imagine, many in the media said it glorified gangsters so it wasn’t long before they found a way to control that, and so the Hays Code was born (you know it by its current personification, the MPAA Rating System).  By 1936, Warner Bros, now under production head Hal B. Wallis, was forced to abandon the “realistic approach” for more moralistic, idealized films:  historical dramas, melodramas, adaptations of best-sellers …

… and swashbucklers.

‘The Adventures Of Robin Hood’ (1938)
w Norman Reilly & Seton I. Miller
d Michael Curtiz & William Keighley

‘Captain Blood’ had already made Flynn a star, but this is a whole new ballgame.  It’s not just the film that would change his life as an actor, it’s the film that remains, even today, his.  And the unequivocal swashbuckler.

            Pageantry, romance and adventure abound in the definitive version of the best-loved bandit of all time.  Never before has good triumphed over evil with such spectacular color and panache.  Flynn shines as the gallant and brave Sir Robin of Locksley, valiant defender of the downtrodden.  Whether swinging from trees, splitting arrows with his own, or trading amorous glances with the beautiful Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland), Flynn displays an irresistible charm.  As Robin’s nemesis, the treacherous Prince John, Claude Rains is wonderfully despicable.  And up there with the best of swordplay in cinema is the climactic duel between Flynn and Basil Rathbone’s Sir Guy of Gisbourne (these two having already faced-off to audience delight in ‘Captain Blood’).  Made for the then-enormous budget of two million dollars, we relish the elaborate sets and costumes, the memorable supporting cast, the regal three-strip Technicolor, crisp film editing and lavish musical score, carrying us back to Sherwood Forest in true Warner Bros style.  What’s more to say?  It’s impossible not to enjoy this timeless legend.

And remember what I said about pedigree in that Bob Hope Retrospective, looking up how often Cast & Crew overlap?  Be sure to carry-on here.  (For instance, how many films did Flynn and Alan Hale make together?  What link does Mr. Hale have to the 1922 Fairbanks version?  And what famous TV show starred Alan Hale Jr.?  Enjoy the search!)  For now, let’s take a look at our Writers and Directors (after all, it’s not often you have two Directors).  Co-writer Norman Reilly is probably best remembered for the seventy-five ‘Tug Boat Annie’ stories he wrote, appearing in “The Saturday Evening Post” during The Great Depression.  He would also go on to write Flynn’s ‘The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex’ and, with Æneas MacKenzie, ‘They Died With Their Boots On’ (the latter also in this Top 5 list).  As if this wasn’t enough, co-writer Seton Miller wrote the 1932 classic ‘Scarface.’  His thumbprint for well-developed characters and gritty, staccato-delivered dialogue typical for Warner Bros’ “gangster period” enhanced his reputation;  so it was no surprise they wanted him to reinvent “the tights-and-swords epic.”  But because the ‘22 Fairbanks – a classic indeed and still holds up well – was still under copyright, Miller had to come up with an entirely new story, ultimately based on a combination of the traditional English lore and Sir Walter Scott's ‘Ivanhoe.’  Miller took over the screenplay from Mr. Reilly who did the initial draft.  The resulting script, full of irreverent humor and wit, set the benchmark not just for subsequent screen versions of the character, but for the swashbuckler genre in general.  (You think I’m generalizing here?  Watch this ‘Robin Hood’ and Johnny Depp’s ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean’ back-to-back.  Similar?  Sure, wonderfully.  Okay, moving on …)

The directors.  I hope I don’t have to go into Mr. Curtiz too much.  You know him from the greats ‘Casablanca’ and ‘Mildred Pierce’ but he was forever linked to Mr. Flynn;  ‘The Adventures Of Robin Hood’ was their fifth of twelve films together (and they couldn’t stand each other).  But let’s talk a bit about the film’s other director, William Keighley.  His professional career spanned three distinct mediums:  the theatre, motion pictures and, finally, radio (as a host, his aristocratic voice was ideal).  Initially trained as a stage actor and Broadway director, he arrived in Hollywood shortly after the advent of sound, landing a job with Warner Bros where he spent most of his career.  Like Curtiz and Flynn’s working relationship, Keighley’s career is closely associated with the meteoric ascent of James Cagney.  (It’s no surprise, then, that ‘Robin Hood’ was originally setup with Cagney in the lead.  No, I’m not kidding.)  Through his film career, Keighley was particularly versatile, from crime dramas (‘Street With No Name’) to comedies (six years before the more-oft remembered 'Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House,' the Jack Benny classic 'George Washington Slept Here’).  Off the great success of Flynn’s own ‘The Prince And The Pauper,’ Keighley began shooting ‘Robin Hood.’  So why was he replaced?  On top of taking too long – Keighley was a particularly slow deliberate Director – Jack Warner and Hal Wallis thought his approach here too light-hearted and that the action lacked impact.  And so enter Michael Curtiz.  (Interestingly, Keighley would go on to direct Flynn in two more films, ‘Rocky Mountain’ and – Keighley’s last before retiring to Europe – ‘The Master Of Ballantrae.’)

When ‘Robin Hood’ premiered, they raved, “Excitement… Danger… Suspense… as this Classic Adventure Story sweeps across the screen!”  And, “Only the rainbow can duplicate its brilliance!”  (I love forties promos.)  While it’s easy to see it as a big movie, its star is undoubtedly bigger.  This is Flynn’s signature performance and he savors every morsel of it.  His grinning and gallant Robin is seamless cinema.  His voice and movements are the ideal embodiment of the warrior rogue.  (And they said he couldn’t act.)  Few vintage Hollywood films have ever been as carefully tailored to showcase the talents of a single performer as this, forever a classic.

Audiences and critics agreed:  the film was a huge success.  It brought in four million dollars at a time when tickets cost twenty-five cents and won three Academy Awards (and was nominated for Best Picture, lost to ‘You Can’t Take It With You’).  In his “The Films Of Errol Flynn,” Rudy Behlmer wrote, “Certainly it is the one vehicle above all others by which Flynn will be remembered.  His playing was by turns virile, jocular, determined, athletic, tender, and romantic.  His quiet and intense love scenes with Olivia de Havilland are the best the two had in their many pictures together.”  (This was their third of eight films together.)  And in his original “New York Times” review, Frank Nugent wrote, “Life and the movies have their compensations, and such a film as this is payment in full … A richly produced, bravely bedecked, romantic and colorful show, it leaps boldly to the forefront of this year’s best and can be calculated to rejoice the eights, rejuvenate the eighties, and delight those in between.”

“The forefront of this year’s best.”  Remember, that was 1938, but I could easily see the same review written today. 

Next up?  ‘They Died With Their Boots On’

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