Errol Flynn: A Wonderfully Loathsome Man
“One thing I always knew how to do: enjoy life. If I have a genius it is a genius for living.”—Errol Flynn, My Wicked, Wicked Ways
Errol Flynn: the famed Epicurean, drunkard, and womaniser. The adventurer, whose life was full and tumultuous, and who consequently expired long before his time. A man whose antics are widely believed to have spawned the popular expression “In like Flynn”, used to refer to an easy seduction. A Tasmanian Devil—commonly cast as a swashbuckler or war hero due to his athleticism, gung-ho spirit, and remarkable matinee idol looks.
So goes the myth.
Errol Leslie Thomson Flynn was born in Tasmania in 1909. A bright, curious child, he first ran away from home at the age of seven and was gone for an astonishing three days. His naval ancestry inspired in him a passion for the sea—his great love, which women could never rival. Abandoned by his parents to be schooled in Sydney, Australia, he avoided buggery and suffered academic disinterest. After the inevitable expulsion and, inspired by news of a gold strike, the fearless Flynn traveled to New Guinea, and later to England in 1933, where he earned his acting stripes in the theatre well enough to secure the star-making role of Captain Blood in Hollywood two years later.
To his chagrin, he struggled to build a serious reputation as an actor. Instead, as the years passed, he was held aloft, at first as a figure of fun and later an object of ridicule. He developed an intense dislike for the comedians of the era, who routinely mocked him and whose gags perpetuated this disrespect. His 1943 trial for statutory rape, for which he was found innocent, had a wounding effect on his morale, leaving him suicidal. And callously, in the aftermath, the allegations were used, by press and public alike, to label him as sexually transgressive and predatory.
Flynn, however, remained his own worst enemy. His affairs and exploits were exhibited carelessly in the public arena and he frequently played up to his dastardly reputation. One, self-confessed example: Post-trial, he paraded young, stark-naked female twins around his home as a salacious tidbit for visiting journalists.
His candid autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, both reinforces his reputation, by documenting his numerous real-life affairs and escapades, and fleshes Flynn out , revealing a keen intellect and self-awareness, which was nevertheless powerless in preventing him from lapsing into parody. The text entertainingly rattles through countless amusing and troubling incidents, painting its narrator as restless and eccentric. These range from: accidentally flinging his pet dog into the fire as an exuberant child; his tendency to buy animals when drunk, including an (unsurprisingly) volatile lion cub whom he later abandoned to a desk clerk; pretending to be a tramp with old mucker John Barrymore for kicks; his entanglement in the Spanish civil war; how he ostentatiously hired a Cuban orchestra to follow him everywhere he went; his habit of carrying around two false noses for quick disguise; his arrest after a fight in a Parisian lesbian brothel; and how he nearly came to blows with Bette Davis. And that’s just skimming the surface.
In Howard Hawks’ deliciously witty His Girl Friday (1940), star reporter Hildy (Rosalind Russell) snaps at her editor and ex-husband Walter (Cary Grant), “You are wonderful in a loathsome sort of way.” This seems to me an apposite way to describe the appeal of a typical Errol Flynn performance. He was part of a generation of cinematic rakes, their urbane appearances serving merely as a threadbare disguise for more wanton priorities. Whereas the abiding memory of the on-screen Grant is that he generally had the decency to focus his attentions on one, initially reluctant but eventually permissive, woman, Flynn, more commonly, and all too convincingly, assumed the role of philanderer (even if this tendency is only referred to in passing). He was held rigidly in this typecast for the bulk of his career. Whereas others were tamed or seemingly romantically redeemable, Errol Flynn, in character, stayed resolutely his own man. Only one of the films in the box set reviewed below, Gentleman Jim (1942), follows the trajectory of an ultimately fruitful courtship. As he takes the lady in his arms for the consummation of the clinch, he flippantly informs her, “I’m no gentleman”, thus shamelessly undermining the romance of the moment—and assuring that the film’s title will be read as wittily ironic. In Dive Bomber (1941), he remarks, “As far as I’m concerned, a woman is like an elephant: I like to look at them but I don’t want to own one.”
Flynn possessed a potent combination of wily Antipodean energy and smooth as silk British charm. Unsurpassed by his peers in his depiction of brazen self-love—a remarkable feat in an era that produced a wealth of cocksure rivals—it’s as if he could see himself reflected back in the camera’s lens, and was permanently pleased with the handsome devil he found there. Thus, in purely reductionist terms, the screen Flynn can be perceived as the Narcissus of his time; the impression being that he never held another as dear as himself. His air of constant self-congratulation is such that a person of a prurient nature can almost imagine him in a permanent state of sexual excitement, generated from the knowledge that he is the Errol Flynn.
Off-screen, in his attitude toward women, he appeared to cement this reputation for self over all other. Referring to his three marriages he comments, “I have never married. I have been tied up with women in one legal situation after another called marriage, but they somehow break up.” However, Flynn is a pleasing contradiction. He recognised his flaws as a performer and the limitations they imposed upon him. He had an ambivalent attitude toward the concept of ego saying, “I am not usually regarded as an egotist, as an obnoxious or too-important person. I do not carry myself that way. But I don’t tell myself I don’t have the goods.” He designed an insignia, a monogram resembling a squarish question mark and had it sewn onto all of his suits, commenting, “This, my own confusion, became my trademark. My own questioning of myself.”
Casting his mind back to the making of Cruise of the Zaca in 1952, Flynn ruefully writes, “I had by now made about forty-five pictures, but what had I become? I knew all too well: a phallic symbol. All over the world I was, as a name and personality, equated with sex. Playboy of the Western World. That was me…How far afield had I gone from my early ambitions? Does any man ever set out to become a phallic symbol universally, or does this not rather happen to a man in spite of himself?”
The film Adventures of Don Juan (1948) had earlier explicitly played on this perception—and his notoriety as a well-endowed man. During the commentary, director Vincent Sherman describes how the slinky costumes were designed to give him “prominence down there”, to the extent that a scene had to be re-shot because it appeared so outrageous. Sherman’s wife wrongly accused him of stuffing a towel down his tights, to Flynn’s embarrassment, and the film’s producers toyed with the idea of taping his manhood up as “the dancers do.”
Ever the self-analyst, Flynn sums up his life’s work in a modest fashion: “Maybe all that I am in this world and all that I have been and done comes down to nothing more than being a touch of colour in a prosaic world. Even that is something.”
from Gentleman Jim
Errol Flynn – Signature Collection Volume 2
Volume 2 is a collection of five films spanning approximately the first decade of Flynn’s career. It offers considerable variety and a reasonable glimpse at Flynn’s range, from the physicality of Don Juan and Captain Geoffrey Vickers in Charge of the Light Brigade to his more cerebral, almost mad scientist in Dive Bomber. Flynn displays a knack for broad comedy in Gentleman Jim and shows great sensitivity as a tortured pilot in Dawn Patrol.
Special features include Warner Night at the Movies showreels, with vintage newsreels, shorts, cartoons, and trailers presumably designed to help replicate the original cinematic experience and evoke the periods.
The Adventures of Don Juan (1948)
The highlight of the set, this tongue in cheek swashbuckler will have great appeal to modern audiences, with Flynn sending himself up in glorious style as the infamous lothario. Sumptuous sets, vibrant Technicolor, and playfully elaborate costumes combine for a visual treat. Flynn benefits from one (obscene) tights change and love interest after another. Such is his prowess that even the reserved, dignified Queen of Spain eventually falls for this upstart hook, line, and sinker. High-energy, relentlessly thrilling, and expertly staged, it is the only film of the set to feature a commentary, with Director Vincent Sherman and Historian Rudy Behlmer providing the insight. The occasionally dated humour includes the King’s dwarf companion whom he (gasp) refers to as “Monkey”, but who does get to swing a sword with the best of them. So that’s alright then.
Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)
A disappointingly turgid and overlong depiction of the events leading up to the scintillating charge itself – the only rousing moment of the film – which is an exhilarating 9 minutes at the film’s close. Flynn plays Captain Geoffrey Vickers, the canniest and most heart-achingly stoic member of the British Lancers, whose sage advice is routinely ignored to everyone’s detriment. An unnecessary romantic triangle shoehorns Olivia de Havilland into the action, with Geoffrey’s wet blanket brother, Perry, making a flimsy rival for the brave, toothy Flynn. The film is fatally hampered by a duff script. For instance, after the massacre at Chukoti, Flynn lamely comments, with regards the villainous Surat Khan, “We shouldn’t have trusted him. Those poor little kids. ‘orrible.”
The Dawn Patrol (1938)
A World War I drama focussing on a group of British fly-boys. Their Squadron Commander, Brand (Basil Rathbone), fumes at his impotent ground command before Flynn himself takes up this unenviable mantle. It has a vein of melancholy that gently pulses throughout, and a rich humour to it. On crashing his plane just shy of enemy territory, a topsy-turvy Scotty (David Niven) jovially grumbles, “I’m pointing the wrong way!” It is a film which memorably imbues the enemy with depth and honour. A handful of set- pieces keep things adequately thrilling and Flynn’s restrained, humane performance—as a man who embraces his own fate and thus comes to embody the futility of war—reveals him as an actor of substance.
Dive Bomber (1941)
A rather curious film, focusing on the unsung heroism of flight medics. Flynn, with characteristic enthusiasm, plays Doctor Douglas Lee, a maverick with crackpot ideas. Dismissed as a halfwit by his Lieutenant Commander (Fred MacMurray), he wins respect after inventing an inflatable pouch to be strapped to the pilot’s groin, ostensibly to prevent blacking-out, but which has the added bonus of being pricelessly comic during Errol’s po-faced test run. The subject matter doesn’t always make engrossing viewing; I audibly groaned when he announced excitedly that he was to turn his attention from blackouts to the “great unfathomable” high-altitude sickness. The largely laboratory-based heroics mean that it’s disappointingly low on tangible peril. It’s a film which is, by turns, admirable, bemusing, and deathly dull. It, thankfully, tempers its high technical content with snappy dialogue, but, in the end, it’s best put by Alexis Smith’s disgruntled Linda when she says, “You know I fly, too, but I’m not such a bore about it.”
Gentleman Jim (1942)
Billed promisingly by its trailer as “the gayest picture of the fighting forties”, this rollicking comedy is a shameless and historically inaccurate depiction of James J Corbett’s rise to boxing fame. Bouncing around like a kangaroo in his (then trademark) tights, Flynn apes Corbett’s high-speed artistic style with great flair, and the energy of his performance carries over to the non-sporting sequences. His infectious joie de vivre is a delight to behold, especially as he goads his stuffy “superiors” with his mischievous antics. In part, a celebration of the joys of drunkenness, its characters spend the majority of the running time in a state of high inebriation. Flynn, at one point, boasts “I come from a long line of drinkers. I can probably drink more than anybody in the world!”