12 August, 2013

They Died With Their Boots On

            December 28, 1895.

That’s as good a date as any to call the beginning of movies.  Why?  Because it marks the The Lumiere Brothers showing La Sortie de l'Usine Lumière à Lyon (widely known as Workers Leaving The Factory) at Le Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris, marking the first time someone paid money for filmed entertainment. 
Fifteen years later -- mind you that’s only 1910 -- there were over nine thousand theatres across the country. 
Movies were, of course, shorter then.  D.W. Griffith, in a five-year stretch, directed over five hundred “movies.”  But they weren’t just shorter, they were simpler too.  One early hit consisted of nothing but a horse eating hay.  (That filmmaker followed that smash with footage of his daughters in a pillow fight.)  Didn’t matter, the audiences loved it.  To hay or not to hay, we were going to the movies. 
Now let’s montage thirty years. 
It’s no longer just a movie business, raking in money -- remember, in 1916, Charlie Chaplin was making $10,000 a week;  and in 1919 Fatty Arbuckle was making a million a year -- suddenly our movie business was storiesSound!  An art form!  By the early forties -- Gone With The Wind swept the nation in 1939 and Citizen Kane monkey-wrenched the medium in 1941 -- we were laughing, crying, cheering alongside our favorite stars.  And by the early forties we had stars.  We think of Garbo, of course, but her last film was in ’41.  So how about these:  Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Gary Cooper, James Cagney, Joan Crawford …
… and Errol Flynn.
They Died With Their Boots On
w Wally Kline & Æneas MacKenzie
d Raoul Walsh

Having invented an entirely new (historical) background leading up to The Charge Of The Light Brigade (also a Flynn adventure), Warner Bros. assumed there was little harm in distorting the history leading up to the famed Last Stand;  a story, incidentally, never before dealt with in a major motion picture.

This is George Armstrong Custer Warner Bros. style.  (And, honestly, what more do you want?)  From his entry into West Point to that legendary demise at The Little Big Horn, we witness the inevitable fate of an ill-fated cavalryman balanced by the love of his wife and his ongoing battle with The Government over Indian Affairs.  So what if it isn’t wholly historically accurate?  Who wants a movie to be?  (This isn’t a documentary, it’s a movie!)  “Ride to the sound of the guns” is the motto in this, and -- come on, it’s Flynn -- we whole-heartedly ride right along with him.

I cringe at calling They Died With Their Boots On a Western but rather -- let’s say -- an Historical Fiction.  (I feel the same way about Dances With Wolves;  a great movie but I wouldn’t call it a Western.)  The original New York Times review of Boots reads (can you tell I love the original reviews?), “[Flynn] is excellent as the dashing, adventuresome cavalryman [and] Olivia de Havilland is altogether captivating as his adoring wife.  Dismiss factual inaccuracies liberally sprinkled throughout the film's more than two-hour length and you have an adventure tale of frontier days which, for sheer scope, would be hard to equal.”  After all, in defense of a good story, I’m happy to site the biopic likes of Young Mr. Lincoln, My Darling Clementine, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Sergeant York, The Jolson Story, The Glenn Miller Story and …

Flynn as the dashing, adventuresome cavalryman?  No doubt.  But I particularly love both “an adventure tale of frontier days” and “hard to equal,” which are both undoubtedly true.  Many of Custer’s personal traits were well within Flynn’s grasp.  Custer has been described as tall, lithe and slender, a man of rare charm, mischievously given to pranks, gregarious and boyish.  So Flynn shines in these boots, especially in the final scene between he and his on-screen wife (the always elegant Olivia de Havilland;  sadly, this was their last picture together).  Flynn and de Havilland both had crushes on each other, though neither admitted it;  and, sadly, Flynn thought this would be their last.  So watching them in that so-well-played final scene has multiple significance.  Basoff writes, “it’s incandescently gentle.”  Indeed.  Especially if you remember Max Steiner’s (always great, especially for Flynn) score there.

While we’re here, a quick bit on our leading lady, Miss Olivia de Havilland.  (Incidentally, if the name sounds familiar outside Hollywood, yes, her cousin was Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, the aircraft designer and founder of that famous company.)  Perhaps best remembered for playing Melanie in Gone With The Wind, our movie today is, as mentioned, the last of eight she made with Mr. Flynn.  She herself said, “He never guessed I had a crush on him.  In fact, I read that he was in love with me when we made The Charge Of The Light Brigade.  I was amazed to read that, for it never occurred to me that he was smitten with me too, even though we did all those pictures together.”  She first appeared in Max Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) -- remember that from our Robin Hood write-up? -- and in 2008 received The National Medal Of Arts, the highest honor given to an artist in The United States.  In between she won two Academy Awards;  including holding the distinction of being one of the only siblings to win the honor, with her sister Joan Fontaine.  Miss de Havilland dated Jimmy Stewart and John Huston, turned down Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire (which of course went to her GWTW costar Viven Leigh;  she winning her second Academy Award for that role) and, in Miss de Havilland’s famous battle with Warner Bros., won one of the most significant legal rulings in Hollywood, reducing the power of the studios over individual performers.  (How significant?  It’s still called The de Havilland Law.)  A longtime resident of Paris -- where she still lives -- she was appointed a Chevalier of The Legion D’Honneur, the highest decoration in France, awarded by President Sarkozy, who told the 95-year-old actress, "You honor France for having chosen us."

And a couple of quick bits on our Writers.  Wally Kline was Hal Wallis’ brother-in-law -- his writing credits are, sadly, short -- but he wrote in his own right too, including James Cagney’s The Oklahoma Kid and, starring our leading lady Miss de Havilland, Hard To GetÆneas MacKenzie worked on The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex (also with Flynn and de Havilland -- and in one of her most honored roles, Miss Bette Davis -- and he’d script Cecil B. DeMille’s famous 1956 remake of his own film, The Ten Commandments.  MacKenzie is also in a film, sort of, when his name is used in the mail-call scene of his scripted (William Wellman classic) Buffalo Bill (1944). 

And finally a bit on our Director, Raoul Walsh.  Great friends that they’d become, They Died With Their Boots On is the first of seven films he and Flynn made together.  One of the A-listers, Walsh’s career spanned 50 years, starting in front of the camera, when he played John Wilkes Booth in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth Of A Nation and starred next to Gloria Swanson in Sadie Thompson.  In fact, he might have stayed in front of the camera if it weren’t for a jackrabbit that came through his car windshield and cost him his right eye.  (It was Walsh -- before John Ford -- who made the eye-patch as synonymous with a Hollywood director as De Mille's jodhpurs.)  In 139 Directorial Credits -- Fairbanks’ Thief Of Bagdad, that’s his -- he would helm The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra, White Heat and Gentleman Jim (and that Flynn film very close to knocking out San Antonio on this list;  I talk a little bit about Jim in the San Antonio write-up).  Preceding all of this?  Walsh was mentored by none other than De Mille when he had Walsh -- are you ready for this? -- document Pancho Villa’s ride from Juarez to Mexico City.  Oh, and Walsh cast Marion Morrison in his first feature, The Big Trail (and if you don’t know, I’ll leave who Marion Morrison is up to you).  Miss de Havilland herself said of Walsh, “I was perfectly delighted when he was assigned [to Boots] and I told Errol I was sure he would be pleased with the choice.”  She remembered Walsh as “a sensitive man” with “great tact” and “a fine insight into character.” 

Keep in mind, at this point (the film was made in 1940), the great Errol Flynn / Michael Curtiz relationship -- ten films in the previous just six years -- was over, both men having had enough of the other.  And, also keep in mind, Miss de Havilland’s quote about being “assigned” is accurate.  The 40s were when Studios assigned projects to Actors, Directors, Writers right down the line.  So, Flynn coming off “the Curtiz nightmare,” it was as important Walsh believed he could work with Flynn.  William Meyer wrote in his The Making Of The Great Westerns (1979), “The actor welcomed the change.  Walsh’s ability to live a rugged life off the set matched Flynn’s own love of adventure.  He treated Flynn gently and, at the proper times, guided him both on and off the set.  Later when Jack Warner wanted to terminte Flynn’s contract, Walsh talked both parties out of actions which they might later regret.  The treatment worked.  Walsh brought out of Flynn some of his best performances.  Olivia de Havilland has often said that the star was a better actor than even he suspected.”  Walsh and Flynn were good together.  So much so it’s the stuff of legend that Walsh borrowed John Barrymore's body before its burial, took it up to Flynn’s house, and left the corpse sitting in a chair for Flynn to find.  (Don’t you miss being able to get away with something like that?)

Sorry, a quick bit more on historical accuracy in cinema.  Wait, what does that even mean?  After all, we’re telling a story!  Often John Ford’s classic My Darling Clementine (romanticizing the famous gunfight at The O.K. Corral;  and, in my opinion, one of Mr. Ford’s best films) gets slapped for “not being true.”  And there’s certainly a blog to be written comparing the Henry King / Tyrone Power classic Jesse James and the Andrew Dominik / Brad Pitt modern classic The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (both great films).  Well, how many times have both those legends been told?  William Meyer again:  “They Died With Their Boots On is an action-packed depiction of one of the most tragic events in American history.  Here Warners distorts the truth about Custer and presents him as he should have been – stong, bold, sensitive, and honorable … [in this] the Hollywood dream factory has made the world go away.  But the writers and director have created a powerful illustration of the shameless manner in which the white man treated the Indian, which makes [the film] both a fantasy and a very real document.”  A fair trade?  I said before, “This is George Armstrong Custer Warner Bros style.”  And it is.  But we can certainly say it another way:  it’s Errol Flynn style.  And -- at least where this film is concerned -- I say a fair trade indeed.

Tony Thomas wrote for his wonderful The Films Of The Forties (1975), “Errol Flynn was an excellent choice to play George Armstrong Custer.  Both the actor and the soldier were handsome, cavalier figures [with] laws unto themselves.  Custer was not the paragon here depicted, neither was he the hysterical, cowardly idiot displayed in Little Big Man (1970).  At a point of departure for a study of Custer, They Died With Their Boots On has much to offer.  But its best offering is a spankingly well-made adventure yarn, with Flynn at the top of his form as a storybook hero and the delightful Olivia de Havilland as the best wife any soldier ever had.”

In wrapping up, I have to share that I personally had the pleasure -- with my dad and Uncle Terry and dear friend Bill Shelton -- of taking a week to visit the real Little Big Horn just outside Billings, Montana.  Where Reno & Benteen received the famed “Be quick!  Bring packs!” note.  Where Crazy Horse crossed the river to the Last Stand Hill.  Where Custer fell.  We stood where they were.  Amazing, in the true sense of the word.  And I couldn’t help but still hear G. P. Huntley playing “Garry Owen” on that piano in that bar as Flynn & Co rode to the sound of the guns …

Up next?  Pure propaganda as Flynn fights The Nazis in Desperate Journey!

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