Flynn said he was “a rich man’s Roy Rogers”
All Errol Flynn’s feature Westerns have been reviewed on this blog individually, so click the links for more on any particular film.
Errol Flynn was one of the most glittering of the stars of Hollywood in the late 1930s and early 40s. The Australian Flynn arrived in Hollywood, after two years in England at a repertory theater company, in 1935, aged 26. He was very handsome, dashing and charming, as well as intelligent and well-read, and already had a reputation as a chaser of women. He had everything to learn about acting in front of cameras but he was a quick study. Though he himself favored light comedy, he was seen by Jack Warner as ideal casting for historical adventure pictures and when Robert Donat dropped out of the project to film Rafael Sabatini’s blood-and-thunder tale Captain Blood, Flynn got the part. It was a major hit and Flynn’s career path for the next few years (and for some viewers and fans, forever) was decided. Even bigger swashbuckling successes followed with The Charge of the Light Brigade and The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Leading Warners director Michael Curtiz helmed Flynn’s first costume-drama hits. The director was famously hard on actors, whom he called bums and who, he felt, were there to the bidding of the director, the true creator of the film. Anti-authoritarian Flynn put up with it at the start because he was a newbie and because his career so clearly benefited but little by little he chafed at the bit.
For most of the 1930s, the Western, at least in the sense of a big-studio A-picture for adult audiences, had languished. Major failures early in the decade such as Fox’s The Big Trail and Metro’s Billy the Kid had made execs wary of scheduling more, and the genre was relegated, with one or two exceptions, to one-hour second features, especially for the juvenile market. In one way pictures like The Charge of the Light Brigade or Paramount’s Beau Geste were the new Westerns: the genre left the country for a different frontier.
But at the end of this period studios discovered a new market. Fox started the ball rolling in January 1939, releasing its big-budget color picture Jesse James with its top star Tyrone Power, a monster hit, and the month after, John Ford’s Stagecoach was a considerable critical success. Paramount was making an epic ‘manifest destiny’ railroad picture with Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck, Union Pacific. There was no way Warners were going to miss this boat (or stage). They decided to have Curtiz direct a big-budget color Western for grown-ups with high production values, and Jack Warner had Errol Flynn lead the cast. Dodge City hit the theaters in April ’39.
Flynn was very unsure, even reluctant. He had found his niche sword-fighting on the Spanish Main or in Sherwood Forest, and his ambitions lay in the direction of what we would these days call rom-coms. He knew nothing of the Stetson and six-gun. But he was still docile enough and keen enough on another box-office smash to say yes.
And he did really well. They ‘explained away’ his very English-sounding accent by saying he was an international adventurer, which was entirely plausible, for the West was full of such men. And Warners paired Flynn again with his co-star Olivia de Havilland (she had graced Captain Blood, Light Brigade and Robin Hood). She too was reluctant and had other ambitions (and her part was a bit perfunctory) but the pairing was one made in box-office heaven. The picture was big and noisy and fun, with high Warners production values. It grossed $3.5m, more even than Jesse James and three times the receipts of Stagecoach.
The last reel of Dodge City had Flynn and de Havilland setting out by wagon for Virginia City, thus neatly setting up a sequel. And Jack Warner saw no reason to fix what wasn’t broke, so had Curtiz put together Virginia City, with much the same cast and crew. There were a couple of differences: it was in black & white (though beautifully shot by Sol Polito) and above all Olivia seems to have fallen off that wagon because the leading lady was now Miriam Hopkins, which disappointed some fans. The picture, released in March 1940, made just over $2m. But they strengthened the male cast with Randolph Scott and (a miscast) Humphrey Bogart. It was the same recipe, with action galore, mega-saloon brawl and so on, and it got great reviews. Flynn now accepted that the genre was indeed right for him.
A third oater followed hard on its hooves. In December the same year Warners released Santa Fe Trail, with de Havilland back again (and in a stronger part), another historical absurdity, a tale of John Brown (Raymond Massey giving it everything) with Flynn as JEB Stuart and Ronald Reagan as Custer. Curtiz was at the helm again and much of the supporting cast was the same. It was another big and brash picture, and another hit, grossing $2.53m.
Flynn, though, was becoming somewhat overbearing and full of himself. He refused to do another Western with Curtiz (there is a persistent story that he sabotaged Santa Fe Trail by driving an automobile in the background of a key scene) and de Havilland, tired of his egoism, rudeness and drunkenness, told him she wouldn’t work with him again.
So his next outing in the saddle came with Raoul Walsh in the chair, when Flynn would take over from Reagan and himself become George Armstrong Custer. They Died with Their Boots On was a 140-minute biopic which told the tale of the boy general from the Civil War right through to Little Bighorn. It was again complete baloney historically but it was huge fun, big, noisy and fast-paced. Walsh and Flynn were made for each other. There is a story, possibly apocryphal but recounted in Walsh’s memoirs, that Walsh stole John Barrymore’s corpse from the funeral parlor and sat it in Flynn’s home to frighten the drunken star. De Havilland relented and agreed to star as Custer’s wife Libby. The picture grossed a huge $4.01m. It seemed now that Flynn could do no wrong and he was more settled in the saddle that he even had been in sword-and-cloak dramas.
In the early 1940s Flynn was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and hugely popular but he was declared medically unfit for military service (he had become a naturalized American) which much of the press mocked and Warners did not help by refusing to admit that their star, promoted for his physical beauty and athleticism, had been disqualified because of health issues. Then his careless philandering came back to bite him when he went on trial for statutory rape. Although he was acquitted in a sensational court case, his popularity nose-dived. Warners kept backing him, though (he made three pictures that year) and in early 1945 the war film Objective Burma!, with Walsh again, was another critical and commercial success. Jack Warner thought it was time for another Western.
San Antonio was directed by non-Western specialist David Butler, Flynn having fallen out now with Walsh too, and, faute de Havilland as it were, co-starred Alexis Smith. Flynn was very much chastened after his ordeals. Thomas McNulty, in his biography Errol Flynn: The Life and Career, says, “The egomaniac who had caused delays during the filming of Santa Fe Trail had been replaced by a courteous professional. Flynn let his carefree personality carry him through the drudgery and long hours of filmmaking. His co-stars, the extras, and the always cynical Warner Bros. crew now looked forward to working with him.” That was new. He also knew his Westerns were popular (all four had been big hits) and was glad to be back in the saddle after what could have been a career-ending moment. His worsening alcoholism, however, was a handicap. The picture did reasonably well, but took some time to make back its big budget. It was the Flynn/Warners formula as before but maybe that was the problem. McNulty says that “its familiarity worked against it. Audiences had seen it all before.” No one would pretend that San Antonio is a great Western. It’s a fast-moving, commercial oater with no art pretensions whatever. But it’s a lot of fun and by no means the worst Western of the 1940s.
By 1948, though, the year of his next Western, Silver River, Flynn’s high-octane lifestyle (he had become a regular user of hard drugs in addition to his alcoholism) had begun to take its toll. Now pushing forty, he was noticeably stockier and all the craft of the lighting guys and make-up artists were required to make him look still youthful. But he was back with Walsh (for the moment), and the team was similar, with Sidney Hickox photography and Max Steiner music. Ann Sheridan was the female lead, and very good she was too. Flynn was actually pretty good in his part. He took it seriously and said at the time, half jokingly, “I play a cross between a rogue and a heel. Sort of a self-portrait you might say.” He wanted the critics to take his role seriously. He said, “For a change, I don’t merely walk through it. This time I’m actually giving it my all” – though he couldn’t resist adding, “more or less.” Some of the writing is rather pedestrian in Silver River. The New York Times commented, “Only a resourceful and soundly constructed script could have restored interest, but the story … gets increasingly incredible and stilted as it goes along.”
But it was not a big hit this time, maybe because of the lack of de Havilland, more probably because Flynn’s character is basically pretty nasty, and his popularity was definitely in decline. Variety estimated that by the end of 1948 the film had earned $2.2 million, not bad, but that was on a $3.2m budget. Later it earned $1.3m overseas, so wasn’t a total loss for Warners. The New York Times said “You can tell Silver River is grade A western by the magnificence of its sets, the generous amount of extras used to swell the cast and the presence of Mr. Flynn and Miss Sheridan. But is it good entertainment? We say no.” Thomas McNulty says, “It was not a bad movie by any means; it simply lacked that creative spark that might have lifted it above the mundane.” Flynn made a bigger splash later the same year with his Don Juan, but even there he was certainly showing signs of wear and tear.
He only made two pictures in 1949, neither a box-office hit, and almost in desperation Jack Warner had him do a couple more Westerns in 1950, to try to recover some of his appeal. They would be the last feature Westerns Flynn did.
Personally, I think Montana and Rocky Mountain (during the filming of which he fell in love with and later married his co-star Patrice Wymore) are quite good Westerns but they didn’t receive critical acclaim, even if they did decently at the box office. Montana made $2.1 million and was Warner Brothers’ fifth-biggest movie of the year, while Rocky Mountain earned $1.7m and was the studios ninth-biggest film of 1950. It seemed that Flynn still had it. It is true that he was no longer the action hero and he was distinctly unathletic but he did come across with some gravitas as a slightly older world-weary Westerner and he clearly still had his fans. You might see his glorious and self-sacrificing death in Rocky Mountain as an adieu to the genre.
Flynn didn’t think so at the time. While shooting Rocky Mountain in New Mexico he became very interested in the life of Kit Carson, and wanted to make a film about him with himself as Kit. It never happened, though. His physical decline in the 1950s was even more pronounced and with the studio system breaking down and always strained relations with Jack Warner reaching breaking point (Warner had put up with a lot while Flynn pictures were making money), the writing was on the wall. He made his last picture for Warners in 1953, finally ending an association that had lasted for 18 years and 35 films.
An extravagant lifestyle and alimony and child-support payments took their toll. He lost his beloved Mulholland home. He borrowed money and didn’t repay it. He clung onto his yacht but in the end even that had to go. Sometimes he turned to TV work to earn a buck.
In 1952 Flynn took part in a Western skit with Abbott and Costello in The Colgate Comedy Hour on NBC. He was the Mexican bandit Black Pedro who shoots one of Rhonda Fleming’s paramours and then faces Sheriff Costello in a showdown.
In 1957 Flynn appeared in a Playhouse 90 episode directed by Charles Marquis Warren, Without Incident. In it he renewed his partnership with Ann Sheridan from Silver River. Flynn is a captain who leads a group with two women and a captive Indian which is attacked by Apaches. One of his men lets the captive go and the captain is ready to resign over the failure but in an unlikely plot twist the Apaches return the prisoner because he was unworthy as an Apache, and so it all comes right and Flynn reports that the mission was accomplished “without incident”. There isn’t much action and McNulty says, “Flynn’s performance can only be described as an emotionless walk-through.” Cameraman Joe Biroc was, despite his talent, unable to disguise Flynn’s pretty devastated appearance. Sheb Wooley was in it too and they renewed their drinking bouts from Rocky Mountain. Wooley later said of Flynn that “he was a good-hearted guy and not too different from the rest of us, just a bigger name and a bigger yacht. He lived a little more dangerously than most of us.”
In fact Errol Flynn’s last screen appearance was a TV Western. The Golden Shanty, which NBC aired 26 days after Flynn’s death, shows the star in a bad way physically. You can watch it on YouTube here (external link) if you are interested. He played a traveling peddler (which he had briefly done in Montana) hawking patent medicine. A woman to whose husband the peddler had sold a worthless old saloon recognizes him and hurls a brick from the building at him, which narrowly misses but lodges in his wagon. Later, he discovers flecks of gold in the brick and decides he wants the saloon back. He turns the old Flynn charm on the wife (though it is a sad flicker of the old Flynn charm) and the story is more of a con-artist one than a Western. Flynn couldn’t remember his lines at all. The director, Arthur Hiller, wrote, “That was one of my saddest experiences because to see this man who you had seen flying through the air in films … to see his difficulty in climbing up into a wagon was sad.” Flynn simply couldn’t manage one key scene in the saloon. Hiller said, “At one point he put his head down on the bar and he cried.” Hiller added that Flynn said, “Arthur, I can’t do it. I don’t know what I’m doing.” Hiller later called Flynn’s agent and said, “Don’t do this to the man … Just let him stay out of work.”
It was a tragic end to a great career.
Errol Flynn was never the Western star that, say, John Wayne was (but then can you imagine Duke in tights in Sherwood Forest?) Nevertheless, he had something, and his oaters, especially the early ones, had zip and pzazz. A Western tale that required a dashing adventurer was ideal for Flynn and he carried it off with aplomb. In fact for most of his life Flynn ‘did’ aplomb.