Friday, December 24, 2010

My Favorite '30s Actors: #6

I chose the above photo for a reason. When I first saw it nearly 20 years ago, I knew of Errol Flynn and his reputation but had not seen any of his films. I dismissed him as one of those wild, hedonistic stars who made lightweight action movies but cared of little more.

But this photo knocked me out. Instead of looking like a picture from the 1930s, he looked contemporary, almost timeless. There’s a touch of slyness to this photo, yet it’s so magnetic that I began to wonder about his films.

Once I began watching them, I was hooked. He may not have displayed the versatility he craved – he desperately chased more diverse roles in later years but never really found them – yet Flynn was a joy to watch.

His first film, ironically enough, was as Fletcher Christian in a 1933 Australian production of “In the Wake of the Bounty,” made two years before MGM’s famous “Bounty.” This led him to the UK for a low-budget film produced at Warner Brothers’ London branch. Warners liked what they saw and brought him to Hollywood.

It didn’t take long before he became a star. After a small role in a Perry Mason film, Flynn made “Captain Blood” in 1935, in which he plays a physician turned pirate (below). It was his first swashbuckler, his first pairing with Olivia de Havilland, and his second film with director Michael Curtiz. It’s dynamite stuff. Flynn never looks stiff, and his natural charm and instincts make it clear that this man had that elusive “it” that makes a star.
The next year Flynn, de Havilland and Curtiz teamed again for “Charge of the Light Brigade,” a lavish adventure based on Tennyson’s poem (with music from legendary Max Steiner, his first score for Warners). Once again, his romantic good looks and athleticism made both de Havilland and audiences swoon.

In 1937, his film roles were varied but not all classic, from the romantic comedy “The Perfect Specimen” (again helmed by Curtiz) to the well-intentioned “Green Light.” But “The Prince and the Pauper,” from the Mark Twain story, is lots of fun, and while Flynn may be the star he doesn’t appear until the second half of the movie yet is engaging.

But in 1938 he made the ultimate action film of the decade: “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” Once again teamed with de Havilland as Maid Marion (below) and Curtiz directing, this movie is about as much fun as you can have at the movies. It was big, colorful and exciting, and leading the way is Flynn. He’s the definitive Robin Hood, and no other Robin Hood portrayal since has come close to Flynn’s. He’s dashing, daring, intelligent and commanding.
Perhaps lost in the accolades of 1938 is “The Dawn Patrol,” a fine remake of the 1930 version with Flynn playing a World War I flying ace.

By this point, Flynn’s reputation was beginning to precede him. His limited range as an actor and lazy work habits annoyed some, while his off-screen sexual exploits offended others. Still, there’s no denying that intense charm on screen. Even Bette Davis, by 1938 the reigning queen on the Warners lot, liked Flynn. That year they paired for the first time on screen in the enjoyable melodrama “The Sisters.” Some joked that Flynn was more beautiful than the three sisters in the story!

When Davis and Flynn reteamed for “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,” their relationship had cooled. Apparently Davis had to slap Flynn in one scene, which Davis called a “little slap” and Flynn compared to being slugged by Joe Louis. It’s not Flynn’s best moments on screen. But he was in top form in “Dodge City,” a big western that teamed him again with de Havilland.

Flynn may be the weakest actor on this list, but there’s no denying his charisma. All these years later, when you strip away the off-screen behavior and early death, what’s left are some terrific films that displayed his ease and confidence as an actor. In short, he’s a magnetic 1930s icon.


  1. i agree, but would add he was re-watchable. look at leslie howard whom bette davis prefered to flynn, or the baron. who would watch. (hint name rhymns with erle phynn)

  2. I'm following your list of '30s favorites with interest. Errol Flynn has always struck me as having so much natural charm and presence that he's just about irresistible. This is the first time I've seen the photo posted at top. Really an intriguing shot that seems to imply many things. The frank, direct look, the smile that isn't quite a smile...I imagine it would've been both very easy and very difficult to be Errol Flynn.
    I've either seen a clip or read a quote in which Bette Davis talked about Flynn. She mentioned "the slap" and her poor opinion of him at the time. Apparently when she watched "Elizabeth and Essex" many years later she was much more approving of his performance.

  3. Thank you both for your comments! I agree with the line "it would've been both very easy and very difficult to be Errol Flynn. For "Elizabeth and Essex," apparently his lines were rewritten to make them easier for him to learn. It's not a bad movie, but it could have been stronger.

  4. Errol Flynn is probably my all time favorite actor, and I think a better actor than a lot of people realize. He seems very contemporary to me, often underplaying his roles in a manner that plays very well today. (I have friends who care very little for Golden Age Hollywood, but they respond well to Flynn.)

    "The Dawn Patrol" is probably one of his best performances in a terrific film. In the 1940s he gave two of his best performances in a couple of Raoul Walsh films - "Uncertain Glory" and "Silver River". Both problematic films, but Flynn is extraordinary in them, especially the latter. It's probably my favorite Flynn performance.

    But he's up there with the great screen immortals, because he was an original. He despaired of the swashbucklers, but nobody did it better before or since.

    A family friend of ours knew a guy who worked at Warner Bros. in the 1940s as a carpenter. He didn't have a car so would walk to and from work. Often a large car would pull up alongside him and it would be Errol Flynn, beckoning him into the car so he could give him a ride home. He said Flynn always had at least one or two girls with him, and he never saw the same girl twice.

    He thought Flynn was great, not because of the prowess with the ladies, but that one of the biggest stars on the Warner Bros. lot would stop to give him a ride home from work.

  5. Hi Kevin, Thanks for the story about Flynn. That's really great and reflects well on the man. I think stories of his exploits overshadowed him as a person.