“Flynn does not deal in depth, but he has a freshness, a galvanizing energy, a cheerful gaiety (in the old sense) made to inspire boys.” (2)
“[Walsh] never fights his material, playing directly into the staleness. He is like his volatile, instinctive, not-too-smart characters, who, when they are at their most genuine, are unreclaimable, terrifying loners, perhaps past their peak and going nowhere.” (3)
Introduction: The Legend of Errol Flynn
Although Errol Flynn was one of the most commercially successful and popular stars of the 1930s and 1940s, he has been the subject of very few sustained or substantial critical accounts of his film career. Many biographies and documentaries about the actor largely bypass the films to explore, describe and plot the salacious events and circumstances of his private life, such as his incessant womanising, substance abuse, the notorious statutory rape charges brought against him, and his alleged Nazi sympathies (4). Even such a recent documentary as the breezy and often-entertaining Tasmanian Devil: The Fast and Furious Life of Errol Flynn (Simon Nasht, 2007) feels free to claim and largely rest upon this initial verdict: “His films are the least interesting thing about him” (5).
Alongside this general inattentiveness to the film work, a number of the best discussions of Flynn’s screen persona, such as Ina Rae Hark’s “Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland: Romancing Through History” (6), tend to focus upon either the eleven films he made with the notoriously authoritarian Michael Curtiz in the first phase of his Hollywood career for Warner Bros. or those in which he co-starred with Olivia de Havilland (the films of these two groupings often overlapping). This prejudice is unsurprising considering the quality and iconicity of the films that best represent these partnerships and collaborations: Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (co-directed by William Keighley, 1938), Dodge City (1939), and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1940) (7). These films made in the short period between 1935 and 1940 – alongside the Flynn-only The Sea Hawk (1940) – work to define Flynn’s dominant and inescapable screen persona: a star image that projected a seemingly effortless physicality, balletic athleticism, good humour, anti-authoritarianism, “mock overconfidence” (8), a “fabulous smile – one that both charms and cons” (9), beauty and grace, and was marked by Flynn’s reliance upon Hollywoodised affectations and stereotypes of particular historical periods and a broadly configured Britishness (10). Janine Basinger has more broadly outlined the key components of the actor’s star image:
Errol Flynn’s stardom is defined by four things: (1) his athleticism, which extended his range into action movies; (2) his lesser ability to support female stars – with some he was compatible (Olivia de Havilland and Ida Lupino) but with many he was not (Bette Davis); (3) his scandalous private life; and (4) the fact that he was totally the product of the star machine. (11)
But like many accounts of Flynn’s star persona this checklist undervalues both the development of his screen image over time and his very real qualities and value as a particular kind of actor.
Flynn’s screen persona was relatively static during this initial period in Hollywood but did reflect significant shifts in American attitudes towards England in the years leading up to the United States’ entry into the Second World War. Although the actor was born in Hobart, Tasmania, spent most of his early life in Australia, and routinely broke into a hardly broad but noticeable Australian accent, he was actively promoted by Warners as being of Irish descent and even nationality, a curious deceit considering that MGM star Merle Oberon was in fact erroneously shackled with the Australian island state as her birthplace (12). But as I will argue later in this essay, this uncertainty about origins and identities, and the national and ethnic indistinctness of the Flynn persona (at least across and between films), is a key to understanding his star image and several of the films he made in the key middle-period of his Hollywood career in the early to mid 1940s. This period also coincides with Flynn’s adoption of American citizenship, trial on two statutory rape charges, very public and acrimonious divorce from actress Lila Damita, and often questioned contribution to the war effort (both in retrospect and in light of the heroic war films he made between 1942 and 1945 like Objective, Burma! [Raoul Walsh, 1945]).
The complex relationship between Flynn’s on and offscreen personas, the combination of both heroism and an almost complacent, relaxed, hedonistic physicality is reflected in Warners’ ambivalence to these “real world” assaults on its then massively popular male star. Despite the potential damage to their star property brought on by the statutory rape cases, the studio also recognised the value of the publicity generated, the level of continued popular support that marked the trial (fans massed outside the courtroom), and the interconnectedness of Flynn’s sexual prowess onscreen with his actions off (the origin of the expression “In like Flynn” also dates from this time). The studio worked hard to keep his films in circulation – Gentleman Jim (Raoul Walsh, 1942) was nearing the end of its run and the Lewis Milestone-helmed Edge of Darkness (1943) was in production – and exploited the increased attention. This potentially damaging but also somewhat farcical case definitely did not slow the production of Flynn star vehicles and does not seem to have had, at least initially, much of an effect on Flynn’s screen persona or how it was publicised. But it did work to heighten and consolidate views of Flynn’s perceived amorality and abundant sexual proclivities. Flynn himself was somewhat surprised by the public’s response:
While I believed I would be an object of scorn and derision, it didn’t turn out to be that way at all. On the contrary, the whole country seemed to get amusement out of it… My box office appeal went up… but now it had a rampant character… I felt used. Used by the studio. Used to make money. Used by the press for fun. Used by society as a piece of chalk to provide the world with a dab of color. (13)
In keeping with this cogent and somewhat bitter analysis, it is not surprising that two of Flynn’s subsequent films, Northern Pursuit (Raoul Walsh, 1943) and Uncertain Glory (Raoul Walsh, 1944), refer to and even comment upon Flynn’s widely publicised and reported sexual appetites.One of the few noticeable onscreen attenuations involved the trailer for Desperate Journey and the deletion of the final word (“attack”) from the description of its central character/actor: “Errol Flynn as a flying officer who knew but one command…” The studio’s ambivalence or uncertainty in relation to potentially negative publicity involving its star was equally true of its response to his failure to engage in military service due to physical infirmity:
When he was deemed 4-F for military service, Warners felt it was less harmful to allow him to be thought a slacker than to reveal his medical diagnosis [recurring malaria, liver disease and various other chronic problems], although the evidence was pretty soon written all over his bloated features. (14)
This decision helps to understand the studio’s broad and limited conception of Flynn’s star persona and some of the reasons (along with his much-noted unmanageability and self-destructiveness) why his key period of stardom was so short-lived.
Flynn’s astonishing and almost immediate rise to stardom – he, of course, had previously featured, woodenly, in Charles Chauvel’s In the Wake of the Bounty (1933), a couple of British films made at Warner Bros.’ Teddington studio, and had small roles in several initial films at Warners in America (one in the not exactly featured role of a corpse) – was both a blessing and curse. His prominence in films that featured the actor in period costume, in “tights”, in artificial and carefully modulated environments, and that played upon generalised notions of his gentlemanly British/Irish ancestry, made it difficult for Warner Bros. to conceive of Flynn outside of these established and highly restrictive frameworks. This straightjacketing was not loosened by the fact that many of the Flynn films made outside of the swashbuckling, Western and broader adventure genres were considerably less successful at the box office than their action-centred counterparts. Even Jack Warner, who obviously stood to benefit considerably from more flexible and malleable star personas, admitted, “FLYNN IN MODERN CLOTHES JUST DOESN’T SEEM TO GO OVER” (15). Flynn himself became increasingly dismissive of his film career – for example, his autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways has little to say about his movies – bristling particularly against the efforts of the studio to cast him in Westerns where his accent and manner often required further, somewhat tortured explanation (though this perceived need did not carry over into his playing of Frenchmen and Canadians, as we shall see) (16). Flynn had pretensions as a writer and adventurer beyond the movies, but was also cocooned by the physical comforts and distractions offered by stardom. Nevertheless, it is the period that covers his initial seven-year contract with Warners, and the first half of the second, that incorporates most of his key films and performances. Flynn was essentially a quixotic and mercurial actor whose physical prowess and ultimate psychological and bodily frailty meant that the peak of his career lasted only ten years (Flynn had physical difficulties on numerous films, including a minor heart attack during the making of Gentleman Jim). The loosening of studio controls on talent in the late 1940s and 1950s, circumstances that proved highly beneficial to figures like James Stewart and Kirk Douglas, was more problematic for Flynn. Although he had long wanted to break free studio interference and its deadening work ethic, he actually needed the structure and protection of such systems to control his physical environment and public persona, particularly once his health started to significantly deteriorate.
Kindred Spirits – Flynn and Raoul Walsh
Despite Flynn’s legendary rabble-rousing, unreliability, alcoholism and reactions against the studio system, his career is marked by sustained collaborations with two vastly different directors, figures who were deemed able to control his often distracted and self-destructive approach to making movies. The focus upon the iconic films that Flynn made with Curtiz has tended to undervalue his other significant and sustained collaboration, the seven films he completed with the more sympathetic Raoul Walsh between late 1941 and 1948: They Died With Their Boots On (1941), Desperate Journey (1942), Gentleman Jim (1942), Northern Pursuit (1943), Uncertain Glory (1944), Objective, Burma! (1945), and Silver River (1948). This is despite the fact that several of these films are now highly regarded, were almost all successful at the box office (with the marked exceptions of the deflated and desiccated Silver River and the truly curious Uncertain Glory), and refine and play with Flynn’s star persona. Of course, due to Walsh’s common critical valuation above Curtiz, these works have been partly scrutinised in relation to broader conceptualisations of the director’s work (17). David Thomson has gone so far as to claim that Walsh “was Errol Flynn’s best director” (18), a sentiment that reflects both the consistency and variation of the films they created together as well as Walsh’s greater capacity for “a more searching view of heroism” (19) and a kind of intimacy. But this relationship extended beyond the quality of the films they made with one another and recognised a shared or “kindred spirit” (20) between the actor and director. In keeping with this, Richard Schickel claims that “the closest relationship Raoul ever had with an actor” (21) was with Flynn, while Walsh biographer Marilyn Ann Moss argues, “It could be said, in fact, that Walsh’s relationship – both personal and professional – with the swashbuckling Flynn was one of the most satisfying of his life. Without question, Flynn became several people symbolically collapsed into one in Walsh’s life…” (22)
Although a veteran whose career as both actor and director dated back to the very start of filmmaking in Hollywood (23), Walsh was a relative newcomer to Warner Bros. when first attached to Flynn, joining the studio in 1939 and immediately helming a string of important films including The Roaring Twenties (1939), They Drive by Night (1940), High Sierra (1941) and Manpower (1941), and became something of an emblem of the studio for particular critics (24). He also forged relationships with a range of actors and technicians that helped provide a consistency to his work across a range of genres and helped forge his reputation as a reliable and quick-paced director. This stood in contrast to the increasing reputation of Flynn as difficult to work with, unreliable and dismissive of studio controls and interference. For many critics it is the ten-year-period between The Roaring Twenties and White Heat (1949) that best represents Walsh’s lasting contribution to the cinema. Although his work did betray connected qualities in such earlier “rough-house” films as Me and My Gal (1932) and What Price Glory (1926), it is largely the work of this later period, made when Walsh was in his fifties and early sixties, that led Manny Farber to anoint the director the “great traffic cop of movies” (25). Although Farber was attempting to describe the overwhelming energy and sense of life that marks Walsh’s best work, he was also recognising the director’s ability to marshal action, to modulate the flows, tones and rhythms of cinema.
But Walsh’s films at Warners are also marked by a preoccupation with the details of mise en scène and, as Thomson argues, “a rare fondness for ordinary people and quiet lives” (26). This is, of course, a little less characteristic of the Flynn-Walsh films as the actor was often required to embody larger-than-life, boldly heroic figures, but such elements do surface in the quieter, more domestic moments of Boots and the muted character and performance of Objective, Burma! Gentleman Jim is also dominated by wonderful details of period and what we might call “lived life”, almost despite the unshifting confidence, lack of variation and braggadocio of Flynn’s central character. But even here there are moments that suggest a gentler and less egotistical sensibility. The wonderfully sentimental but still understated scene between Flynn’s “Gentleman” Jim Corbett and the defeated champion John L. Sullivan (Ward Bond) exudes vulnerability, giving a sense “that glory days always come to an end” (27). Although Martin Scorsese has claimed “There’s something […] ‘lived in’ about Walsh’s movies” (28), “the boisterous outweighed the elegiac” (29).
Walsh was also an increasingly important figure in terms of his capacity for dealing with difficult personalities and ability to mostly work to budget and existing shooting schedules. Even from very early on his career, Flynn was marked as a difficult and often unmanageable figure who showed little respect for the “boredom” and “glamour” of the filmmaking process or the roles he was asked to play. Walsh was one of the few directors that Flynn truly bonded with, sharing a similar sense of masculinity, adventure and playfulness, and “became known at Warners as one of the few who could handle the increasingly drunken and recalcitrant star” (30). As Basinger argues: “Walsh always allowed Flynn to be a loose, slightly comic hero. In his Curtiz movies, Flynn’s more romanticized, a British gentleman. He’s not without humor, but has a definite set of values to be defended. Walsh allowed Flynn the margin of self-mockery.” (31) Although Basinger’s discussion of the key distinctions between Flynn’s Curtiz and Walsh movies does give some sense of a key shift in sensibility, character and approach, I don’t think this contrast is as clear or consistent as she claims. The Flynn-Walsh films are fascinating for the ways in which they shift tone and genre, work between verisimilitude and self-consciousness – heightened here but hardly uncommon in the Warner Bros. films of this period – and represent an attempt to both refine and further Flynn’s screen persona. The looseness that Basinger notices is certainly characteristic of Flynn in Desperate Journey and Gentleman Jim, and some moments in the often schizophrenic Uncertain Glory and Northern Pursuit, but does not account for the darker and more muted elements of Objective, Burma!, Silver River, and the second half of They Died With Their Boots On.
Although Flynn and Walsh established a close working relationship and friendship – Walsh often helped Flynn personally and on set, and each had familiar nicknames for the other: “Uncle” or the “One-Eyed Bandit” for Walsh; “The Baron” for Flynn (32)– their collaboration almost started by chance. By the time of They Died With Their Boots On, the relationship between Flynn and Curtiz had become pretty much untenable, Flynn refusing to work with the director any longer. Walsh was brought in to take over the film not long after production had commenced. In many ways, the big budget Boots set the template for many of the subsequent Flynn-Walsh films. This is apparent from the very first scenes establishing West Point in the 1850s and leading up to the subsequent arrival of Flynn’s George Armstrong Custer. Like many of the other films in this “cycle”, the film juxtaposes a variety of tones and even genres, beginning as a largely broad, comic work. This is fully characteristic of Flynn’s first appearance. He arrives at the academy alone and on horseback, dressed in an outlandish uniform that suggests, erroneously, he is a figure of significance and importance. From the outset, the film plays on the importance of Flynn acting a role, projecting an image of self that is both individuated and highly mediated. Although much of the rest of the film acts to redefine Custer as a paragon of honour, loyalty, justifiable anti-authoritarianism and courage, the underlying nature and heroic willfulness of his character is present in this very first scene.
In most of the Flynn-Walsh films the central character seldom undergoes significant change or transformation, a shallow narrative arc that helps project fixed notions of Flynn’s dominant screen persona. Even in a film like Northern Pursuit where Flynn’s character’s loyalty and ethnic identity seem to be in question – he plays a Canadian Mountie of German descent (Steve Wagner) baited by Nazi saboteurs – there is little tension in terms of what his true motivations are (33). It is only in the last three films, two of which Flynn seems to have had more control of, that his characters become either more ambivalent or less strident. This reaches its most schizophrenic phase in the least successful film of the cycle, Silver River. I think it can be usefully claimed that these films not only reflect shifts and changes in Flynn’s persona (or at least attempts to regulate these) but also broader changes in attitudes towards the war and other phenomena. In this regard, the distance between the almost gleeful comic-book antics of Desperate Journey, rushed into production in the very early war period in America, and the sober, matter-of-fact documentary tendencies of Objective, Burma! reflect something of broader changes in attitudes towards and experiences of the war. Even the use of stock footage, and the care taken with its deployment, demonstrates this. By the time of Objective, Burma! great efforts are made to integrate the look of the stock footage, as well as the manufactured surroundings, into something that actually resembled the film’s Burmese jungle setting (34). Although the film was shot on locations not far from Los Angeles, it was actually quite an arduous shoot and the sense of fatigue, exhaustion, relentlessness and uncomfortableness communicated on screen are by no means completely artificial. The film garners a sense of immediacy and reality that contrasts with many of the often parodic or self-conscious films that Flynn was to make across the rest of his dissipated career.
“Now for Australia and a crack at those Japs.”
– Flynn’s Flight Lt. Terry Forbes in Desperate Journey
The Flynn-Walsh films are also marked by a malleability and indistinctness of identity, ethnicity and nationality in relation to their central characters. They are even more fascinating in this regard when one recognises that they coincide with a broader interrogation of Flynn’s loyalty, heroism and even nationality by certain parts of the critical fraternity and the popular press. The final line of dialogue from Desperate Journey, spoken by Flynn’s character and quoted above, is particularly ironic because it suggests Flynn’s imminent presence in Australia at this crucial juncture in the Pacific war, and his possible and announced participation in the country’s defence (this is also picked up in Objective, Burma! where it is noted that Flynn’s American unit has previously served in New Guinea). In reality, Flynn never set foot in Australia again after leaving in 1933, and failed to contribute significantly – beyond his film roles as heroic soldiers and leaders of men, sometimes in theatres of war where Australia was present (though often not in the films themselves) – to the war effort. His lack of loyalty or commitment to the British and Australian cause prior to direct American involvement in the war has been questioned by such figures as his friend David Niven (35) and biographer Charles Higham, while his adoption of American citizenship and failure to join the armed services have been looked upon suspiciously by various commentators both during the war and in later account of Flynn’s career. This response came to a head during the British release of Objective, Burma! in late 1945, and its hostile reception by the British press as a result of its heightened representation of America’s role in the Burma campaign. Although Flynn was not responsible for these decisions and absences, negative responses to the film often incorporated critical perceptions of the actor’s role in the war (36).
Desperate Journey was one of the first Warner Bros. films to deal directly with combat in Europe after America’s entry into the war in December 1941. Unsurprisingly, it emphasises Allied harmony and the shared cause of its symbolic, but unrealistically cross-national bomber crew. This is also the only film in the series, and one of the few at any point in Flynn’s career, that allows the actor to play an identifiably Australian character. But even in this regard, the film somewhat fudges questions of nationality and identity. Although the very early scenes of the film go out of their way to highlight Flynn’s Australianness and circulate particular clichés of national identity – at one point Flynn’s character, Terry Forbes, even sings “Waltzing Matilda”, and Ronald Reagan’s character makes a half-hearted “joke” about searching “kangaroos’ pouches for Fifth Columnists” – he is repeatedly mistaken for and called British throughout the rest of the film. Even Flynn’s character becomes somewhat confused about his origins, mouthing such patriotic statements as: “There is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England” (37).
Across the seven films in this cycle Flynn played a celebrated, foolishly courageous and, in this telling, heroically self-sacrificial American general of the nineteenth century, an Australian airman (who can speak German) serving on a multinational bomber crew, a San Francisco born Irish-American boxer of the late 1800s, a Canadian Mountie of German descent, a French criminal given the chance to redeem his honour by posing as a saboteur, a tight-lipped American officer standing in for what should have been a British serviceman in Burma, and a Yankee soldier stripped of his uniform who forms a new identity as a ruthless tycoon. Although the range of roles Flynn played in these films is relatively wide, it was of course fairly common for actors at the various studios to play characters of varied ethnicities and nationalities (possibly more so at Warners than any other major studio). It was also common for some of these actors to vary their performance styles and accents little between these roles covering disparate ethnicities and historical periods. That said, it is hard to imagine a less “French” scene than the one between Flynn’s Jean Picard and the woman he meets at his friend’s apartment and immediately starts off a “relationship” with in Uncertain Glory; both actors completely failing to communicate any sense of their characters’ continental origins. Of course the Irish-American milieu of Gentleman Jim is much closer to the backgrounds of both Flynn and Walsh, and relies upon similar aspects of period décor, ethnic stereotyping and detail that marked the slightly earlier The Strawberry Blonde (1941), with a particular emphasis being placed on the physical interactions and playful fighting of the Corbett family. But Flynn’s character, despite communicating a wonderful sense of what made him such a refreshing and groundbreaking figure within the boxing fraternity, always seems slightly out-of-place in his home environment.
Playing “Errol Flynn”
There is a fascinating and revealing screen test of Flynn shot by Chauvel for In the Wake of the Bounty. As is evident from this test, and Flynn’s performance in the subsequent film, he had very little experience of acting in front of the camera and was not adequately supported by Chauvel’s direction (though his performance is in keeping with many others elsewhere in Chauvel’s ambitious but highly artificial, often mannered cinema). Other than the roughness and raw magnetism of the actor (still evident beneath an appalling wig and frankly stilted, glowering delivery), the most interesting aspect of this test is Chauvel’s direction: “I want you to forget you’re Errol Flynn”. Although this is a common instruction to untrained actors trying to embody a fictional character (in this case Fletcher Christian) it resonates across Flynn’s subsequent career, and the difficulties the actor encountered breaking free from particular types of roles and specific ways of reading the relation between the star and the characters he played (it is also remarkable and quite revealing that Chauvel already recognised this).
The conflation of star and character is a common trope of classical Hollywood, but in many ways Flynn represents one of the most extreme instances of this trope. By the time of such “late” films as The Adventures of Don Juan (Vincent Sherman, 1948), Against All Flags (George Sherman, 1952), and even his performance as the alcoholic John Barrymore in Too Much, Too Soon (Art Napoleon, 1958), it is almost impossible for Flynn to escape his cast-in-stone on and offscreen persona. But a number of his films with Walsh represent a more complex and nuanced dramatisation of these blurred boundaries. This is as true of such a comic-book style war film as Desperate Journey as it is of the more restrained and seemingly downplayed role Flynn takes on in Objective, Burma! For instance, although Flynn does not dominate the latter film, and gives one of his least showy and most sincere performances (it was one of the few films he expressed being proud of in his autobiography) (38), he was still singled out and often blamed in negative accounts of the film’s Americanocentric view of largely British Commonwealth operations in Burma. It is in fact largely the war films he made with Walsh, as well as suspicion about his lack of active involvement in the war, which defined popular ideas of Flynn winning the conflict single-handed. As mentioned above, this view was illustrated and affirmed by the British release of Objective, Burma!, and is reflected in the following report that appeared in the newspaper The Star: “Wisely it has been decided to withdraw Errol Flynn’s cinematic liberation of Burma from British audiences. We can take a lot, but this was too much.” (39)
There is a moment in Gentleman Jim that provides a wonderfully economical and revealing transition of its lead character from rising star to celebrity. This is initially managed by the movement from the onscreen figure of Corbett in the ring to his stilled and then framed photographic image positioned over a bar. Throughout the film, such a stilling and framing of the image is an indicator of increased public notoriety and the progressive development of the Corbett and Sullivan legends. For example, in one of the film’s most iconic images, Corbett is shown copying the stance of Sullivan in front of a poster. This is matched by similar moments in the Flynn-Walsh Westerns that signify the shift of the central character towards popular culture icon through the self-conscious fictionalisation of figure and event, the reproduction of illustrations, and the serialisation and advertising of the stories of such figures as Custer and Silver River’s Mike McComb. But Gentleman Jim takes this preoccupation with the creation of celebrity and stardom, and the multiplication of media and images this entails, much further. Immediately following the scene described above we are shown the juxtaposition of both Sullivan and Corbett performing on stage (this is prior to their actual fight). We initially see Corbett ineptly acting in a “play” as Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith), the combative upper class woman he will inevitably marry, comments: “Why would people pay good money to see him as an actor?” This is then matched by footage of Sullivan performing in The Honest Woodsman as Corbett remarks, “What a ham – acting with an axe!” Both of these responses can be read as commentaries on the action and the bloated celebrity images of the two characters involved, as well as self-conscious, though playful meditations on widely held views of the two actors themselves. Although a highly enjoyable and ubiquitous actor who worked across various studios, Ward Bond was often also a “ham” who reveled in the type of heightened, blustery role granted to him by directors such as John Ford in films like The Searchers (1956) – though, like this later masterpiece, Gentleman Jim also utilises subtler aspects of Bond’s persona. These scenes plainly also refer to popular views relating to Flynn’s limitations as an actor, and even the star’s own dismissive accounts of his abilities. They can also be clearly related to the increasingly self-conscious nature of Flynn’s star image and the prevalence of such modes of “direct address” across Walsh’s cinema.
Flynn or Cagney?
Walsh also established significant working relationships in Hollywood with other actors such as Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Ida Lupino, Rock Hudson, and James Cagney, but his string of films with Flynn represents the most sustained and concentrated collaboration of his career. Nevertheless, I think a brief comparison between his use of Flynn and Cagney can provide further clarification of the strengths and limitations of his work with the former (40). Although Cagney and Flynn are both very different actors and personas, particularly physically, they do share a feeling for the here-and-now, the immediate space and time of both the film and the individual frame or shot. These correspondences are most clear in the direct connections that can be drawn between The Strawberry Blonde and Gentleman Jim. The two films share their roughly “Gay Nineties” setting – this backdrop can be directly related to Walsh’s early childhood and his actual exposure to such figures as Sullivan (41) – and feature ever-optimistic protagonists who, although they undergo various trials, tribulations and experiential lessons, change little in either their bold outlook on life or their physical exuberance. Nevertheless, it is Cagney who is ultimately truer to the spirit and life of Walsh’s best work. Unlike Flynn, Cagney fully embodies the characters he plays, finding a means to be “completely present” within this most presentational and fragmented of art forms. Character and star are thus fully integrated in a manner that goes beyond the common cliché of Hollywood actors who merely “play themselves”. Cagney’s Biff Grimes bursts through and dances around the frame, and at one point in The Strawberry Blonde, after Virginia (Rita Hayworth) agrees to a date, performs a cartwheel into a garbage bin. But the film also provides something of a commentary on Cagney’s film persona till this point (and this it shares with the Flynn-Walsh cycle). The swift decline of Biff’s business career results in him serving time in jail, the striped outfit we see him in seemingly out of place in this film but explicable in relation to the history of Cagney’s star persona and the roles, character types and situations he was most commonly associated with.
Flynn’s series of films with Walsh progressively plot attempts to stretch and adapt to the actor’s star persona. This is taken to an extreme in the final scene of Northern Pursuit where Flynn breaks character to provide a knowing comment to the audience that makes more sense of then popular perceptions of the actor than the role he is playing. When asked if she is the only girl he “ever really loved” by Julie Bishop (Laura McBain) at their long delayed wedding, Flynn replies: “But of course you are darling… What am I saying?” His final double-take (“What am I saying?”) is directed straight at the camera and makes no sense of the often tense, seldom comic, and mostly chaste film that has preceded it. Tag Gallagher has argued that this “presentational” style is broadly characteristic of Walsh’s work, a “first person” cinema that is marked by a preponderance of close-ups, point-of-view shots and images of eyes: “Veritable melodramas of eyeballs mark Errol Flynn’s decisions to sacrifice his life in They Died With Their Boots On and Uncertain Glory” (42). But this “closeness” is less characteristic of the more distanced and removed films of the Flynn-Walsh cycle. Uncertain Glory, for instance, deliberately avoids such close-ups until its final moments, a shift to a closer aesthetic that is paralleled by Flynn’s character’s final acceptance of some kind of national identity and public role:
Maybe it was a look I saw in Marianne’s face when she lit a candle. But there’s more to it than that. It’s… it’s too many things to have a name. I suppose there’s a time when any man, even a man like me, can find something, something bigger than himself for which he’s ready to die… without question. Almost… almost happily.
By 1943-44 the tales of Flynn’s sexual appetites had become legendary, and the details of the then recent statutory rape cases were still fresh in the minds of many viewers. Thus Flynn always provides, despite an equal sense of presentness or newness to Cagney, a degree of distance or self-consciousness. This is possibly less characteristic of some of the Walsh films than others that Flynn made at Warners, and Objective, Burma! strived very hard to subsume this star consciousness almost completely, but still stands in marked contrast to the nuggetty, committed physicality and lack of falsity that defines Cagney. There is nothing in Flynn’s filmography that comes close to the almost embarrassing and excessive expression of emotion, pain and sado-masochistic violence that marks Cagney’s performance as Cody Jarrett in the explosive White Heat.
Conclusion: Uncertain Glories
It is only in the last of the films that Flynn made with Walsh that issues of loyalty, courage, heroism and belonging are truly at stake (43). Generally, as Nick Roddick has astutely argued, “Flynn becomes the least problematic embodiment of Warners’ philosophy of individual morality, reflected more ambiguously in Paul Muni’s biographical impersonations and James Cagney’s contemporary struggles between selfishness and social conscience.” (44) But, as David Thomson has claimed, Walsh was attuned to “a more searching view of heroism than Curtiz” (45). In both Uncertain Glory and Silver River attempts are made to attenuate Flynn’s screen persona, and both films rely upon a key tension in relation to the motivations and development of Flynn’s character (46). But by the time of Silver River the relationship between Walsh and Flynn had significantly deteriorated and the director was no longer able to curb the actor’s bad habits and wanton self-destructiveness (or that of his co-star Ann Sheridan): “They were both on the bottle… They wanted to get away from Warner. It was just terrible.” (47) Nevertheless, Silver River is a fascinating amalgam of a strident, range Western and the psychological insecurities characteristic of some postwar cinema. Although it would be inaccurate to call the film “noir”, an epithet more appropriate to the previous year’s Pursued (Walsh, 1947), it does share some of the sensibilities of the “genre”. Most of the Flynn-Walsh films provide very little in the way of backstory for their central characters. It is only in the two films that bookend this cycle, and the only two Westerns that the duo made, that some effort is made to explore and ground character motivation. Silver River opens dynamically – and, unfortunately, atypically – during a Civil War battle in which Flynn’s character sets fire to a payroll while being pursued by the Confederate cavalry. His subsequent court-martial and discharge from the Union army provides the key motivation for his ruthless and single-minded pursuit of personal wealth and individual morality (which is constantly checked by his friend, conscience and, ultimately, nemesis, John “Plato” Beck). This early experience scars him to such an extent that he is even willing to knowingly let a sympathetic rival ride to his imminent death at the hands of local Indians, bolstering his claims on the region’s silver mines and the man’s wife in the process.
But Flynn’s characterisation in Silver River is bewilderingly schizophrenic, and suffers from the obvious tension that exists between character and actor. Flynn is generally unsuccessful in suggesting a sense of genuine development or transition in the characters he plays. The extraordinary journey taken by Mike McComb fits uneasily with the somewhat distanced and breezy persona that defines Flynn’s screen image, despite the very real sense of age and experience registered on his somewhat bloated and pock-marked features. The final moments of the film provide a neat reversal of the opening scene of They Died With Their Boots On, as Flynn’s character leaves on horseback, “stripped” of the finery and baggage that initially weighed down his almost comic figure in the former film. The final line of Silver River, spoken by Sheridan’s Georgia Moore, is both ironic and an apt summation of the unshifting nature of Flynn’s screen persona: “You haven’t changed a bit Mike McComb”. Flynn’s performance as McComb both affirms and questions commonly held views of the actor’s star persona, and provides an evocative final stanza in one of the most underrated collaborations to be found in classical Hollywood cinema.
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- A line spoken by Flynn’s Mike McComb in the final Flynn-Walsh collaboration, the incident filled but depleted Western, Silver River.
- David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 4th ed., Little, Brown, London, 2002, p. 297.
- Manny Farber, Negative Space, Da Capo Press, New York, 1998, p. 288.
- These claims were most stridently leveled by Charles Higham in his scurrilous biography, Errol Flynn: The Untold Story, Granada, London, 1981. The front cover of the paperback edition features Flynn with a swastika positioned behind his head. Although often well-documented, the substance of Higham’s claims largely revolves around a process of guilt by association and is the result of sifting through a range of declassified documents that trace Flynn’s long-standing relationship with minor Nazi agent Hermann Erben. Flynn’s connection to Erben actually dates back as far as the period he spent in New Guinea in the early 1930s. Others have claimed that Flynn’s miscalculations in this regard are more a result of his naiveté.
- This voiceover is scripted by Nasht and Robert De Young and spoken by Christopher Lee. This Australian-made documentary does provide some refreshing material on Flynn’s early exploits and later career.
- Ian Rae Hark, “Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland: Romancing Through History”, Glamour in the Golden Age: Movie Stars of the 1930s, ed. Adrienne L. McLean, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey and London, 2011, pp. 153-73.
- Although generally a highly fruitful collaboration, the Flynn-Curtiz cycle also contains a number of unsuccessful and largely forgotten films like The Perfect Specimen (1937) and Four’s a Crowd (1938). Most of these commercial and critical failures depart from the historical settings and adventure/action genres that largely define Flynn’s star persona. Probably the only truly memorable non-Curtiz Flynn film made in this initial period is the remake of The Dawn Patrol (Edmund Goulding, 1938).
- Farber, p. 284.
- Hark, p. 257.
- Flynn was also closely associated with what was then called the British colony in Hollywood. This included membership of the Hollywood Cricket Club alongside such figures as David Niven, Leslie Howard, Joan Fontaine and C. Aubrey Smith.
- Janine Basinger, The Star Machine, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2007, p. 230.
- This lack of willingness to accept or promote Flynn’s Tasmanian origins is somewhat difficult to explain or justify. A possible lack of public knowledge of Tasmania and its subsequent exoticisation may be a significant factor. These qualities are also characteristic of the cartoons that feature the character of the Tasmanian Devil produced by Warner Bros. from 1954 until the early 1960s. For a further discussion of the “imagination of Tasmania” see my article, “I knew I should’ve taken that left turn at Albuquerque”: The Warner Bros. Cartoon Down Under”, Studies in Australasian Cinema vol. 4, no. 3, 2010, pp. 267-81.
- Flynn quoted in Basinger, p. 247.
- Hark, p. 172.
- Included in a memo from Jack Warner to producer Hal Wallis. See Rudy Behlmer, Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951), Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1986, p. 174.
- Warners had a slate of male stars who were mostly even less suited to the Western than Flynn: Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, et al. The studio’s focus on contemporary, urban, crime and social issue related material did not make it well-suited to engaging with the resurgent popularity of the Western genre. There are of course notable exceptions to this including The Searchers and Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959), but the studio was never a major producer of films in the genre. Its major period of Western production stretches from the early to mid 1950s and constitutes around 23 percent of production during that time (prior to this only two to three films in the genre were made per annum). See Edward Buscombe (ed.), The BFI Companion to the Western, Atheneum, New York, 1988, pp. 426-28.
- In his massively influential taxonomy of classical American cinema, Andrew Sarris placed Walsh in the rarefied category “The Far Side of Paradise” and Curtiz in the much less feted classification “Lightly Likable”. See Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, Da Capo Press, New York, 1996, pp. 119-21 and 174-76.
- Thomson, p. 913.
- Thomson, p. 297.
- Basinger, p. 245.
- Richard Schickel, The Men Who Made the Movies, Atheneum, New York, 1975, p. 47.
- Marilyn Ann Moss, Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director, The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, p. 220.
- Walsh’s first directorial effort, The Pseudo Prodigal, was released in late 1913. Up until his eye was badly injured during the shooting of In Old Arizona (completed by Irving Cummings, 1929), Walsh also commonly appeared as an actor, an experience that undoubtedly drew him closer to the performers appearing in his own films. Although he featured in such key films as Sadie Thompson (Walsh, 1928), his most noted screen appearance was his uncredited performance as John Wilkes Booth in D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915).
- In contrast, Curtiz was often called the “workhorse of Warners”. But both filmmakers racked up a prodigious output during their tenures at the studio. See Clive Hirschhorn, The Warner Bros. Story, Mandarin Publishers, Hong Kong, 1979, p. 230.
- Farber, p. 287.
- Thomson, p. 913.
- Martin Scorsese, “Irishamerican”, Projections 7, ed. John Boorman and Walter Donoghue, Faber and Faber, London and Boston, 1997, p. 73.
- Scorsese, p. 74.
- Scorsese, p. 70.
- Philip Kemp, “Raoul Walsh”, World Film Directors Vol. 1, 1890-1945, ed. John Wakeman, The H. W. Wilson Co., New York, 1987, p. 1155.
- Basinger, p. 245.
- See David Brett, Errol Flynn: Gentleman Hellraiser, JR Books, London, 2009, p. 97.
- In retrospect, this film provides a fascinating correlative to the widely publicised claims that Flynn was actually a Nazi sympathiser or spy.
- This sense of veracity was noted in many contemporary reviews of the film. Writing in The Nation on 5 March 1945, Manny Farber claimed: “It is as earnest as Hollywood has been in its attempt to show war and soldiers exactly as they are”. See Farber, “Close Shave in Burma”, Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, ed. Robert Polito, Library of America, New York, 2009, p. 223; Thomas M. Pryor, “Objective Burma”, New York Times 27 January 1945, p. 15.
- See David Niven, Bring on the Empty Horses, Hodder and Stoughton, London, pp. 124-25.
- For an excellent and detailed account of the film’s brief release and then withdrawal from British screens in late 1945 see Ian Jarvie, “Fanning the Flames: Anti-American Reaction to Objective Burma”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television no. 1, 1981, pp. 117-37.
- This level of confusion has carried over into the accounts of various writers when describing the film. For example, Moss calls Flynn’s character British when describing the film. See Moss, p. 221.
- See Flynn, p. 251. He does also express a fondness for Gentleman Jim.
- As quoted in Jarvie, p. 127.
- Walsh’s great ten-year period at Warners is bookended by two seminal films starring Cagney: The Roaring Twenties and White Heat. Walsh did make further films at the studio, including the fascinating A Lion is in the Streets with Cagney in 1953, but the period from 1939-49 represents his great contribution. In comparison to Flynn, Walsh’s collaboration with Cagney is more dissipated, encompassing four films made over a 14-year period. The six films he made with Flynn between 1941 and 1945 represent his most concentrated collaboration and closest personal relationship with an actor.
- Walsh has often referred to his New York upbringing in the 1890s and his introduction to figures such as John L. Sullivan by his father. Walsh’s autobiography is notoriously unreliable and makes claims that do little to endear him to the reader. Although the preposterousness of some of the stories and details draw this book close to Flynn’s autobiography, the latter is a far more revealing, readable, self-critical and even credible account of a career. Nevertheless, Walsh does deflate his recounting of an early meeting with Sullivan: “the ex-champion turned out to be disappointing”. See Walsh, Each Man in His Time: The Life Story of a Director, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, p. 13.
- Tag Gallagher, “Raoul Walsh”, Senses of Cinema no. 21, 2002: http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/great-directors/walsh/.
- This self-conscious view of both Flynn’s star image, and the notions of heroism and courage commonly attached to it, was playfully referenced in the musical number (“That’s What You Jolly Well Get”) Flynn performs in the all-star film Thank Your Lucky Stars (David Butler, 1943). Flynn plays a cockney who brags about his heroic exploits in various theatres of the war (complete with the repeated group chorus of “he’s won the war”).
- Nick Roddick, A New Deal in Entertainment: Warner Brothers in the 1930s, BFI, London, 1983, p. 236.
- Thomson, p. 297.
- Similar claims could be made for Objective, Burma! in terms of the ways in which it de-emphasises Flynn’s character. But the matter-of-fact heroism and sense of calm that circles around Flynn’s character also reinforces his common on and offscreen persona.
- Walsh cited in Kemp, p. 1156.