Tuesday, December 27

Untamed: Errol Flynn

He was a man of unbridled passions and he gathered some fame and notoriety because of a few of them.  Sailing, sex and drinking certainly headed the list and somewhere in there was living the high life, a profound sense of adventure, practical jokes and when he could manage it, a little debauchery. Hmmm, where does acting figure into all of this?  Well, Mate, except for the goodies the profession provided him, it didn't much register on his scale of desires.

His two-time costar, Bette Davis, for the most part, hated his guts. She thought he was a lightweight and she not only greatly resented being paired with him but put up a fuss when told to do so by their boss, Jack Warner. The thing was Warner agreed with her completely.  He thought Flynn couldn't act and greatly resented the actor's cavalier attitude toward all the studio did to promote him. Warner not only loathed Flynn but was privately, at least, annoyed that Flynn went around the studio saying how much he detested his boss.  So why did Warner put up with it?  You know.  I know you do.  

The undisciplined Aussie brought in the bucks... the big bucks. Most of his nine pictures with Olivia de Havilland were enormous hits... why pair them over and over again if they weren't?  When one thinks of Hollywood's Golden Age and the great stars that came from that time, one would be remiss to not mention the name of Errol Flynn because he was one of the biggest. No, I didn't say one of the best (Davis and Warner were certainly correct on that score) but if you know who he is (and you know you do), it's because on the screen he was a serious swashbuckler and off the screen an even more serious swashsuckler. You read it here. You may not believe you did but you did.

It may be fair to say that there had never really been anyone in Hollywood quite like him.  Mitchum tried but never quite measured up to Flynn's sense of defiance or contempt of authority or recklessness.  Few actors came to Hollywood kicking and screaming but Flynn did.  His main beef was that seven-year contract he had to sign.  It's also oh-so-likely he reluctantly gave in to it all because of one thing... it was an easy way to the women.

He was groomed to be a flamboyant vagabond and to live life to the fullest by his mother.  She always wanted him to be one of those manly men Australia is famous for.  When he was quite young she took him everywhere with her and clearly pampered him into hedonism.  He was born in 1909 in the Tasmanian capital of Hobart.  His mother was a free-spirit who left her husband for long stretches to simply return with little or no explanation or apology. Flynn grew to dislike her for these absences. 

He appeared to have great admiration for his father, who didn't make a great deal of money knocking around teaching science, physics and chemistry in his son's early years.  The mother lorded over her passive husband and Flynn took note of it and determined no woman would ever get the upper hand with him.

He was well-liked by most everyone because he was so outgoing, so confident.  A handsome face and athletic body didn't hurt nor did his saucy wit.  Around eight he was caught exchanging physical examinations with a neighbor girl.  By 10 he was downright rebellious while a great love of reading seemed contradictory to his wilder ways. In later years there were those who found it odd that he was so enamored of opera.   

He continued getting kicked out of every school he attended.  He took up tennis, cricket and boxing with a vengeance.  And while by this point he couldn't stand his mother, he mimicked her in a number of ways.  The main one was a strong sense of adventure and it was something he would never lose.  Its main outlet was on the high seas.  He loved his seafaring novels and was determined to live such a life.  

As a teenager he took jobs on various ships and traveled a great deal.  When he was 20 he got his first taste of movie-making with an involvement in a documentary about ships. Around this time and perhaps through the film, he met Hermann Erben, an Austrian physician who served in German military intelligence, who became his good friend and would figure in Flynn's life a bit later.  His adventures often found him sick from bouts of malaria and a touch of gonorrhea.

Back in Sydney and in need of money, as always, he began working as a model.  All he ever heard was how good-looking he was and he decided to see how far his face could get him.  The experience was also his first in seeing his face photographed professionally and he admitted he quite took to it.  

At this same time he purchased an old, beat-up yacht which he promptly named Sirocco. Times on the open sea with his mates were unquestionably the best he'd ever had and he determined there and then, no matter what vocation he may acquire one day, that sailing would always come first.  No one was a particularly gifted sailor but the huge quantities of rum they consumed dulled caring. The main sport was wenching in the various ports.  He also managed to find time to write a couple of books on his adventures.

In 1933 he appeared in his first film, In the Wake of the Bounty, as Fletcher Christian, and by all accounts he was handsome but out of his element.  He was also very poor which may be why he relieved a woman he was seeing of her jewelry.  It's not so astonishing that he spoke of this when one considers his enormous capacity for pomposity and a disregard for doing the right thing.

When his pal Erben returned to Europe, Flynn went with him but they wound up in different countries.  Flynn decamped to England where he thought he might take up performing of some sort.  He caught the acting bug along with his other bugs in the South Pacific.  He managed some extra work with the Northampton Repertory Players and ultimately, in becoming his own publicity agent, basically bluffed his way into acting assignments.  

He appeared in 20+ plays for the Players and one day was noticed by a producer from Warner Bros.  He soon snagged the lead role in Murder at Monte Carlo and featured roles in two other films, all 1935, and all filmed in England.  When the fan mail started pouring in for him, the producer alerted Jack Warner... I thought he showed not much acting ability or enough training as yet, but he has great looks, great charm and he moves easily and well. California, here he comes.

On the ocean liner bringing him to America, Flynn met tempestuous French actress, Lili Damita, who worked mainly in Europe.  For some inexplicable reason they married in 1935, a few months after meeting.  While all three of his marriages and scores of relationships were hard fought, this was a union of two completely different people. Sex was the key and it is unlikely that too much thought went into how to make the marriage itself work. He was never faithful to her from Day One although she wasn't sitting home crocheting either.  The seven-year marriage did produce Flynn's only son, Sean, who would famously disappear in Cambodia in 1970 and was never heard from again.  Flynn, who had been a hearty drinker for years took to the bottle big time after Sean's disappearance.  It would get worse and worse.

In addition to his marriage and arrival in America, 1935 also signaled the start of Flynn's swashbuckling career with Captain Blood.  Signaled the start may be a little pale.  Exploded like a huge bomb would be more accurate.  If it were already difficult for him to pull a sweater over his swelled head, it was impossible now. He was thrilled that shortly after the picture's release, extra staff had to be brought on to handle the fan mail. Equally thrilling to him was that the hero, Peter Blood, was a seafaring adventurer. Flynn knew he had found his niche.  Now all he had to do was lie back and enjoy it.  That would not be a problem.

Captain Blood also brought into Flynn's life two people who were going to be very important to him and with whom he would work many times.  One was a mainly fine friendship and the other was the most adversarial working relationships he would ever have... or at least right up there alongside the one with Warner.

Along with Captain Blood, his other mega-hit with de Havilland was The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), his most famous film. The others were The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), Four's a Crowd (1938), Dodge City and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (both 1939), Santa Fe Trail (1940), Dodge City and They Died with Their Boots On (both 1941). The actress has commented that there were times when she said to the brass no more Flynn pictures but still did another and another.  She was tired of doing period stuff but she was mainly worn out with Flynn's pranks, embarrassments and his laziness as an actor.

Flynn and de Havilland on one of their western sets

She has gone on record to say that in the early years she had indeed fallen in love with him but the more she understood the type of person he really was, the easier it was for her to not become involved in a romantic relationship.  I wonder.  Did he ever have women friends?  Was he capable of that?  It seems more likely that what she resisted was marrying him.

Flynn and director Michael Curtiz would work together 13 times, an astonishing record considering they hated one another.  Each begged Warner time and again to get another director or another star... and sometimes one or the other won.  Still, there were 13 pairings for the prankster and the gestapo.  As I said in the posting on the director, he ran a tight ship and put up with no nonsense-- from anyone else. He wore jodhpurs, carried a riding crop and had a swagger... all of which Flynn mocked while Curtiz saw red.  It's not difficult to imagine some of their strain came from the fact that Curtiz had once briefly been married to Lili Damita.

A couple of bios said that Flynn did not go into the military because he had tuberculosis and had had it for years.  It was said that WB was aware of it but agreed that to make it public would do no good for the swashbuckling image all wanted to continue promoting.  True or some fiction?  Flynn had no interest in fighting for his adopted country. 

He managed to make several films that were pretty decent.  The Sea Hawk (1940) was swordplay on the high seas and in command of the ship... well, it didn't get any better than this for the man who never set out to be a rival to Olivier.  He just wanted to have fun and get paid for acting like a kid.  The coins clanged at the box office.   Gentleman Jim (1942), was next.  You think WB didn't find just the right roles for their troublesome star? Who better in all of Hollywood to play the cocky, conceited cad, James J. Corbett, boxing extraordinaire in his day?  Objective, Burma! (1945) has a familiar theme in that a platoon is sent in a jungle to blow things up but has a hard time getting out.  Errol Flynn will show the way and let's be clear that's why that exclamation point is in the title. Oddly the two films with Davis, The Sisters (1938) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex are among my favorite Flynn movies. The truth is she didn't find him to be a completely rotten actor and she hesitated not a moment on mentioning his stunning physicality but she said he was wretched to work with.  Flynn loved his heroic roles to the degree that he did because he didn't feel like a hero in real life and who would have disagreed with that?  

His marriage was on the rocks.  His cheating, boozing and self-loathing were out of control.  He had tumultuous exchanges most days with at least one someone.  He didn't filter what he said... if you couldn't take it, you needed to take a bloody hike. When he got insulting and his recipient got mad at that, Flynn got even angrier. How dare you. Do you know whose air you're sharing? Oh, he could be a piece of work.  Like a lot of actors, then and today, he had problems with the press.  He was hounded in the gossip columns and bothered when he was having dinner with a companion half his age.

In 1941, one such columnist, Jimmy Fidler, had been particularly unrelenting in his dishing as much daily dirt on Flynn as he could. Walking into a restaurant, the actor, already feeling no pain, spotted Fidler and his wife in a fancy booth.  Flynn walked right up to them, started spitting profanities at the top of his lungs and grabbed Fidler by the throat.  At the same time, Mrs. Fidler stabbed Flynn with a fork.  The incident, of course, was front page news.

When Damita or Curtiz or Warner or countless playmates or that horrible job got to be too much, there was always more drinking or more sex to serve as a salve. But what he preferred to do was board the Sirocco and head out to sea.  And he did it as much as he could, realizing that one of the best things about being at sea is that he could still have the sex and drink, too.

In September, 1942, an event happened in Flynn's life that was catastrophic for him... he certainly thought so.  He, two pals, a few crewmen and three young women headed out for a day of sailing. Nothing was heard about that day until two months later when Flynn was charged with rape.  The story went that he had sex on the boat that day with just one of the young women but she was underage.  The other two women claimed that although they did not have sex with the actor that day and they were not underage at that time, they were underage when he had sex with them at an earlier time.

Of course, it all sounded precisely what Flynn would have done and often bragged about doing. After all, hadn't he said for publication once or more... I like my whiskey old and my women young?  The irony, of course, is that he was exonerated of all charges.  But the trial and the glaring headlines day after day, delivering every breathless detail, with the writers 
of the pieces, like Jimmy Fidler, adding all they could to the unsavory stew, was profound for the actor.  Nonetheless by the time the melee was finished, so was the popularity Flynn had once known. It would never be the same.  And a new expression was coined... in like Flynn.

And what did he do when he saw all going down the tube?  More of what he always did. After Damita divorced him, his excesses got worse, if that was even possible.  He got into more public ruckuses and in general was simply more careless about most everything... what he said to others, his appearance and the booze.  His good looks by now started to be called former good looks.

Rumors had been circulating for awhile (and would continue for many years) that he was both a Nazi spy and a bisexual.  Flynn bisexual?  What?

Over the years these little tidbits were served up.  Most of his biographies addressed them although his family usually took the time to issue denials. I am not aware, however, of Flynn ever denying them but that doesn't necessarily mean anything either. The mosaic of his life was based as much on caprice as anything. The truth should never interfere with the legend as far as he was concerned. Whatever fit at the moment was fine with him.

He certainly had the time and the means to be a Nazi spy or sympathizer.  His loyalties were often questionable in any number of ways in his world.  I suspect, however, that the real culprit was his friend Erben. Perhaps Flynn helped Erben out in some manner. The truth is probably lost to history.

The bisexual angle is another thing entirely. No one would deny that Flynn wasn't whipped on women but the truth is likely more accurate if we speak of him being hooked on sex.  I maintain he rarely cared who he had it with.  His home was called Mulholland Farm.  It actually was a working farm and he was crazy about life there.  When he had it built, it was installed with two-way mirrors, peepholes, gloryholes and various implements of affection with which he could indulge in his love of debauchery and humiliation. He and male friends would get tanked up and horned up and watch others go at it.

He was also known to be very buddy-buddy with Tyrone Power, himself a bisexual and lover of debauchery.  Each thought the other one was the most handsome man in Hollywood (and one of them was right) and if there's no reason to believe something did happen between the two of them, there's no reason to believe it didn't either.

Nonetheless, Flynn married again in 1943. Nora Eddington worked in a coffee shop at the courtroom where the rape trial was held. She believed in his innocence and stuck by him.  He rewarded her with a wedding ring but cheated on her throughout the marriage. Their fights were heated but never as legendary as the ones with Damita. Eddington gave him two daughters and divorced him after six years.  He became addicted to opium while with Eddington. During their marriage and after, she worked mainly as a documentary filmmaker with Errol Flynn as the subject of most of them.

By the 1950s he was a caricature of his former self.  His longest marriage to Warner Bros singer-dancer Patrice Wymore in 1950 produced another daughter and while by some measure it was his best time up at bat, it was less of more of the same.  She seemed more patient than the others. She turned away from his fatuous behavior.  By the time she had married him he was no longer the big-deal movie star although he never stopped trying to live like one.  They lived most of their time in Jamaica.

To describe his movies of the 1950s as horrible is an understatement.  We'll only mention four of them, one of which a major embarrassment and even though I actually liked the other three, they weren't regarded as great either.  The best of the lot is 1957s The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway's souffle of expatriates in France and Spain during the 1920s and 1930s.  It must have been an interesting time seeing Power again and working together for the only time. Along with Ava Gardner, Mel Ferrer and Eddie Albert, they were all a little long in the tooth to play these characters.  Who knew that in no time at all, both Flynn and Power would be dead.

With good buddy Ty Power on the set of The Sun Also Rises

Too Much, Too Soon (1958) was a terrible, fictionalized biography of alcoholic movie star Diana Barrymore (played by Dorothy Malone).  Flynn played her father John Barrymore which was rather inspired because Flynn certainly took up the Hollywood mantle of Barrymore in many respects and they had been good friends for a period of time.

Flynn looked old enough to play Malone's father even though he was only 16 years her senior.  He was usually drunk by two in the afternoon and no longer camera-ready.  He had a devil of a time remembering his lines and was often sick.

In 1957 he met a well-developed 15-year old, Beverly Aadland, on the Warner lot and became besotted with her.  Unconcerned about her age (both claim they didn't sleep together at first), he was also left unfazed by the fact that he was still married.  He would have Aadland and that was that.  Her mother was at first alarmed and angry but he won her over as well and she sanctioned the relationship.  The three of them often traveled together. When the press coverage between the blonde nymph and the bloated has-been movie became fodder for the columnists, Wymore separated from him.

Aadland accompanied him to the African location of The Roots of Heaven (1958). How he managed to pass insurance requirements to travel there is a mystery but he was sick as a dog with dysentery once he arrived. Nonetheless while Aadland practiced her ABCs, Flynn's French doctor provided him with drugs and local Ubangi women.  He was top-billed in Roots but actually had a costarring role.  It was all he could manage.

How he found the time and energy to write a screenplay but write one he did.  It concerned a group of teenage girls (oh?) who set out to help Fidel Castro overthrow Battista.  Flynn loved Cuba and considered Castro a friend.  The film, Cuban Rebel Girls, would star Aadland with Flynn as the lead. It was beyond horrid but by the time of its 1959 release, Flynn had died of a massive heart attack.  If Aadland expected to inherit a fortune, there wasn't one and besides, he had never been divorced from Wymore.  It seemed that no one missed him except for some in his inner circle.

With teenage girlfriend, Beverly Aadland

Over the years Flynn has been portrayed in the movies... and why not?  If he was large in real life, it certainly transferred well to the screen.  Fellow Aussie Guy Pearce played him in Flynn in 1993, Jude Law did the same in The Aviator in 2004 and Kevin Kline handled the older Flynn during his Aadland years in The Last of Robin Hood, 2013.

Next posting:
A good 40s film
(some would say the best)

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