Andrew Sarris once wrote that no photo could do justice to Vivien Leigh’s beauty, for “she lives in our minds and memories as a dynamic force rather than as a static presence.” The same applies to Errol Flynn. His roguish good looks were made for studio portraits, yet, as befits the heir to Douglas Fairbanks’s throne, he seemed to exist in flurries of movement—swinging from a chandelier, leading a crew of pirates onto an enemy vessel, eyeing the maiden whose bodice he yearns to rip. That sprinting drive, grist to the mill of such Warner Bros. action specialists as Michael Curtiz and Raoul Walsh, was not merely a reflection of the swashbuckling heroes Flynn played, but also an extension of the man’s notorious appetites.
While Fairbanks’s athletic grace projected the vanishing innocence of the silent era, Flynn’s dash had an unmistakably wolfish gleam, and, indeed, scandals involving sex, brawls, and booze frequently pockmarked his career. (The lothario-wannabe expression “in like Flynn” became popular after his trial for statutory rape.) There is also a certain anxiety under the devil-may-care high spirits, the hint of a desperate, defiant search for pleasure in the face of mortality which informs his comment about intending to “live the first half of my life. I don’t care about the rest.” Little of this side is visible past the tangible zest in yarns like Captain Blood or The Adventures of Robin Hood, where his ardor for the pulse of rippling action and the heart of luminous Olivia de Havilland gave audiences the most cheerful of screen action heroes. Deprived of action, however, Flynn’s randy gusto could wilt into male-ingénue earnestness, with the impatient star all but stifling a yawn. Except for one great exception, it is this side that’s emphasized in the second volume of the Errol Flynn Signature Collection.
The Charge of the Light Brigade, the follow-up to Flynn’s breakout role in Captain Blood, brings back much of the earlier film’s cast and crew (including leading lady de Havilland and director Michael Curtiz), but it belongs less to the actor’s beloved swashbuckling cycle than to the school-boyish view of Hail-Britannia imperialism which fuels Lives of a Bengal Lancer, The Four Feathers, and Gunga Din. Never mind that the 1854 Crimean War charge on which it is based took place on Russian soil, most of the film similarly busies itself with members of Hollywood’s British enclave (David Niven, Henry Stephenson, Nigel Bruce) bringing civilization to dark-skinned infidels in India, with Flynn climatically leading the troops to suicidal glory in a thundering enactment of the eponymous Lord Tennyson poem: “Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do and die.” The charge itself is a rousing feat, but even cannier is the film’s manipulation of outrage in audiences, who, by the time the camera does a leisurely pan over a field of massacred bodies (capped with Donald Crisp’s lifeless hand clutching a Bible), may have enough bloodlust stirred in them to forget what a loathsome historical and racial deformation the film really is.
The most interesting thing about Charge of the Light Brigade may be the way its romantic elements are repressed in favor of militaristic grandeur: Flynn is here actually cast as The Other Guy (de Havilland, his bride, is really in love with his brother), the better to build up stamina for the final ejaculatory charge through cannon fire. A ritual repeated in The Dawn Patrol and Dive Bomber, the discarding of the love object (no woman appears in Patrol, Alexis Smith is virtually ignored in Bomber) reflects nothing so much as the inexorable approach of WWII in the late 1930s and early 1940s, during which romance could never compare to the manly issues of men under pressure in the eyes of wartime reviewers.
In The Dawn Patrol, Flynn is shorn of his star-patina, even to the point of ceding the big moments to erstwhile nemesis Basil Rathbone, who invests his role as the leader of a squadron of British pilots during WWI with muted anguish. Director Edmund Goulding successfully integrates Flynn into the flyboy ensemble, yet because the star is never at his most exciting when grounded, the victory is a Pyrrhic one. While The Dawn Patrol gives lip service to the waste of war while surreptitiously rah-rahing us vs. them, Dive Bomber is at least more open about its propaganda, culminating in V-for-Victory-shaped warplane formations in Technicolor skies. Other than a minor footnote as Flynn’s break-up film with director Curtiz, however, it’s a roundly routine, forgettable effort.
Everything that Flynn was made to repress in the other films is exhilaratingly unleashed in Gentleman Jim, easily the set’s keeper and a treat from beginning to end. Raoul Walsh’s enormously likable evocation of fin de siècle Americana gives Flynn, lean and wicked in gym trunks, his own favorite role as 19th-century prize fighter Jim Corbett, an irrepressible Irish-American prole who crashed high-society pugilist clubs and brought the sport to the masses. Flynn’s own brashness as a performer is marvelously channeled into a character whose nimbleness, in and out of the ring, is spiked with a sweetness that consistently undercuts the swagger usually associated with boxing movies. Much of the credit goes to Walsh, who, though regularly lumped with Curtiz as a Warner Bros. action pro, is deep down a humane behaviorist whose large-spirited heroes display an unexpected streak of vulnerability. (He was also more of a woman’s director than he was ever given credit for: Alexis Smith, a frosty Amazon in Dive Bomber, is fully her own gal here.) More than a high-spirited rebuke to the self-important biopic genre, Gentleman Jim is a lovely portrait of a passing era as the old-world bravado of the sport (symbolized by the wonderful Ward Bond as blustery champ John L. Sullivan) gives way to the new century’s event-packaging careerism.
There’s a sense in which Flynn’s Corbett taking over the heavyweight title from Bond’s Sullivan reflects the way Flynn took over Douglas Fairbanks’s role as the screen’s grand adventurer. Their personas were quite different, but both stars in their fading years went on to play their uncredited role model, Don Juan—Fairbanks in The Private Life of Don Juan, Flynn in the set’s last film, Adventures of Don Juan. Both films are rather forlorn in the way they show performers known for their mobility going through their older paces while visibly racked by years of Hollywood lifestyle. Flynn was 39 when he starred in Vincent Sherman’s semi-parodic costume piece, yet he looked much older, a spent matinee idol whose eternal search for pleasure was at long last catching up with him. Adventures of Don Juan is but a shadow of the previous decade’s swashbucklers as far Flynn is but a shadow of his former self, and yet, when he grabs a rapier and fights a batch of Spanish guards on a staircase, it’s hard not to be moved by the buoyancy of a true star who until the end lived by his wicked, wicked charm.
The black-and-white transfers survive a little better than the color films, where Technicolor tones are either a bit faded (Dive Bomber) or too bright (Adventures of Don Juan). The dialogue often sounds tinny, but the scores throb triumphantly.
There's plenty to rummage through, but almost all of it feels thrown together from the Warner Bros. vaults. Out of the mountain of shorts, featurettes, and trailers scattered across the five discs, the choicest bits are a radio show adaptation of Gentleman Jim (featuring Flynn, Alexis Smith, and Ward Bond) and a gaggle of early Looney Tunes cartoons. The late Vincent Sherman, then in his 90s, provides an affectionate, anecdote-filled commentary for Adventures of Don Juan, nicely contrasting with historian Rudy Behlmer's reading-from-his-notes dryness.
Not as wicked as the first set, but Gentleman Jim by itself makes it a must for fans.