Warners trots out one of the jewels in its movie crown, and in high style too. Surely somebody over there has finally acknowledged fact that the Warner library, as of about 1999, has finally come back home (well, sort of) by virtue of the linkage between Turner and Time Life Warner. The Warner films had been split since the early 70s.
The Adventures of Robin Hood was a reckless Technicolor gamble on the part of the studio and it paid off magnificently. It wasn't so much a brilliant production as it was a lucky one that benefited from the old studio system. The luck came when Errol Flynn won the lead role almost by default. The studio never seems to have believed in him, and he wasn't considered a great actor like many of his contemporaries. But the old studios in their heyday had a centralized control in creative hands that could be a big boost. Even Jack Warner was no dummy when it came to a good story, and the all-powerful front office was able to do things like replace directors and order reshoots of entire scenes if necessary. Someone also took a risk by moving composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold away from his duties on weepie dramas, to a project that safer players would have given to house action man Max Steiner.
The result is glorious. Forget the negative press on Errol Flynn. As Robin Hood he makes audiences feel young, invulnerable, noble and virtuous. While setting straight the problems of 12th century England, he also seems to be the answer to a 1938 world growing dark with totalitarian threats.
Warner's DVD set is the most elaborate I've yet seen. Both discs are packed with extra goodies for casual watchers and Robin Hood freaks as well. And it's by far the best transfer of the feature.
Script-wise, The Adventures of Robin Hood is the Goldfinger of its day. Every scene takes over from the last with perfect timing, cued by a score that knows our hopes for action and romance, and fulfills them before we even know what we're looking for. The first half of the picture is interrupted with illuminated inter-titles, as with a silent film; when these drop out, Robin Hood becomes an almost perfect action story.
I really doubt that anyone saw Claude Rains or Basil Rathbone as substitutes for Hitler, but Robin Hood appeals to the rogue political vigilante in all of us. Sir Robin of Locksley is essentially a nobleman stripped of his rank by dastards higher up, something that happens all the time in the politics of any age. When he struts on the scene, he's a self-appointed political avenger, out to overthrow the present government in favor of the legitimate one he thinks has been stolen.
Naturally, we early 70s film students rallied behind this guy, even though overthrowing the present government to reaffirm an older one should have sounded reactionary. Robin's righteousness was undeniable, and Seton I. Miller and Norman Reilly Raine gave him the best snappy comeback line in subversive film history:
Robin, not batting an eye: "Fluently."
In The Adventures of Robin Hood, as pointed out in the overkill of commentaries and docus on the disc, the Golden Age of Hollywood was maturing to a level of production value that could seemingly do anything. The color was allowed to be bright and primary, instead of the Natalie Kalmus-dictated subdued tones. Warners didn't build that many new sets, but the ones they went in for were lavish, like Prince John's great hall. If a location was needed to find a green forest in which Robin could hide, that's where the studio went. And, following up on the precedent set by Captain Blood, the fencing duels were more than simply waving swords around, as Douglas Fairbanks had done a generation earlier. Camera speed was manipulated and moves were chosen more for show than for fight, but the Hood/Gisbourne confrontation was a showstopper not to be topped until The Mark of Zorro.
I've never heard of anyone complaining about the casting. Errol looks joyous and says his lines with a spunk and verve that makes them sing. Perhaps he wasn't respected as an actor because he didn't overwhelm his material, or try to give the impression that he was superior to it. Still a good reason to watch Gone With the Wind, Olivia DeHavilland's sweetness is infectious. She's smart and vulnerable and would have made a fine Juliet. Actually, she does make a fine Juliet, as The Adventures of Robin Hood cribs the balcony scene for the first romantic encounter between the two leads. 1
Claude Rains' major bad guy is the perfect disdainful creep, a sneering lout who likes his villainy carried out by others. He performs it at a walk, with few sustained speeches. The studio system was known for using great actors in roles technically beneath their stations; but the result was that movies were sometimes perfectly cast for what the story needed, not an actor's career. Rains must have had the clearest, bluest eyes of all the cast - in closeups, we see in his eyes the reflections of the powerful lights needed to expose the film in the Technicolor camera.
Basil Rathbone is also perfect, an actor who believes that the role is more important than the career. Everyone seems to remember him as a humorless professional, and he's been made fun of as late as his last cheap Science Fiction pictures in the 60s, where he complained bitterly about the changes in the movie industry and the lack of respect given him. Nothing's changed, then or now. The 1938 blooper reel on this disc makes a big joke out of his sober costume tests, and in the home movie section, even host Rudy Behlmer suggests that Rathbone is something of a bore. If so, Warners should have respected him; later costume pictures like The Sea Hawk could have used more colorful & 'serious' villains.
The rest of the cast falls into the line of studio contract players fitting into their correct slots. There must have been a lot of inter-studio flexibility, as we associate Una O'Connor with Universal and Herbert Mundin with MGM. Surely when the studios traded these character actors like playing cards, it was the individual movies that benefited ... someone like Alan Hale reached high levels of popularity, but kept drawing his measley $200 a week or so on their 7-year contracts. But hey, it's show business.
Korngold's music balances his big themes and sweet violin love music against passages scored heavily to match the on-screen action perfectly. Warner's arrangers, used to working with Max Steiner, probably influenced this greatly. If you've seen The Adventures of Robin Hood only a few times, watch it the next time while concentrating on the music. The disc even has a music-only track, if you want to get real extreme. The score doesn't just follow and compliment the scenes, it shapes them and lifts them to the desired emotional level. Fully-scored pictures like this one made Hollywood's pictures easier to watch for audiences anywhere, no matter how poor the foreign dubbing might be. The music carried one along through the levels of drama far more efficiently than an opera or an operetta.
Two small notes in passing: I'm told that an automobile can be seen for a brief second in one of the Sherwood forest scenes. And look at the Escape from the Gallows sequence: the extras show us views of the half-constructed stone church in the courtyard, completed in the final film with a flawless matte painting. In one shot, the composition couldn't avoid showing the church where a matte painting wasn't practical. Instead, the thatched roof of a house is positioned to cover where the church 'ends' in the middle of the sky. It's pretty funny - after being firmly established, the church is suddenly only half there.
Warners' DVD of The Adventures of Robin Hood is clearly a package intended to gauge audience interest in goodies. This time the extras pack both discs, not just the supplementary one. They're all listed below; I'll comment on the ones that grabbed my interest.
The transfer is stunningly good. Only a few moments had traces of iffy encoding, and frankly, I suspect my player more than the disc for those. As with last year's Singin' in the Rain, the color doesn't overpower when one's monitor controls are at medium settings, but the detail and clarity of both color and tones in the image are greatly improved. Turning the saturation up just a bit makes the picture pop like an original IB Tech print. 2
Warners must want to re-try an idea they had on VHS back in the early 80s - packaging a feature with a short subject or cartoon to replicate 'a night at the movies' back when the film came out. Here they've packed the show with 3 cartoons, a newsreel, a musical short subject, all introduced by Leonard Maltin. He pinch-hits for Rudy Behlmer, the overall host for most of the added value material. We can tell that the marketing aim for this DVD is trying to go wider than just rabid movie fans, for most of Behlmer's intros are slightly dumbed-down. There's enough quality, detail, and certainly quantity in this package to keep everyone interested.
The overall docu is a bit long and has too much generalized praise for my taste, but it does nail most of the historically important points, including Olivia DeHavilland's lawsuit against Jack Warner and James Cagney's walk-out that cleared the Robin Hood role for Errol Flynn. A huge quantity of home movies from the set make another featurette about Sherwood Forest a must-see. And finally included is the 1998 Turner TCM docu Glorious Technicolor, a really fine show about the amazing color process and the bizarre story of its inventor. It's not film-specific, but it's a great extra. The value on this disc set is nigh staggering.
The fun highlight is a 1938 blooper reel shown at a company dinner. I've seen cartoon gag reels from the same time, and it looks as if the same Schlesinger cartoon gang was given the job. Most of the big stars are shown flubbing and breaking up, which is a hoot - the quality here is pristine. Pat O'Brien falls off a horse, twice, with a big smile on his face. Pre-star Humphrey Bogart breaks up into laughter different from his film-persona laughter. Only Ronald Reagan doesn't seem to have a sense of humor - when a prop gun doesn't fire, he immediately blames somebody off screen.
There are yet more semi-related shorts, and the expected galleries of art and stills. I have a hard time getting through some of these galleries, as they are programmed so that one cannot fast-forward and has to watch each image hold until the next one takes over. I tend to ditch out of them for that reason.
A final goodie are a set of piano recordings of Erich Wolfgang Korngold themes, from a bunch of his more popular Warners pictures. I'm not sure if they're audition recordings or what; in some you can hear someone singing along faintly in the background. There are several cues from The Sea Hawk, my personal Errol Flynn favorite.
With all of these extras, Warners has surely maximized the appeal of their two-disc The Adventures of Robin Hood DVD set.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Adventures of Robin Hood rates:
1. This scene has a good
example of some rather obtrusive revisions during filming. Robin and Marian are in a clinch, rattling
off dialog that we think is romantic but is really setting up the political exposition of the story.
Suddenly, we cut to mismatched closeups for four or five dialogue lines, surely improvements on
what was there before. Then we cut back to the original clinch two-shot. And by they way, what's
with the hat Una O'Connor wears in this scene? It looks like Klaatu's spaceship from
The Day the Earth Stood Still.
2. Warners' is concurrently distributing new theatrical prints of
the film, made by digitally re-combining the original Technicolor matrices. I've received enthusiastically
positive word of these prints from discerning people who've seen them at the Arclight in Hollywood. I
imagine the audience response might give 2003 audiences a real kick as well - at one point Robin
chastizes King Richard for galavanting out conquering the Far East, instead of staying back home
where he's needed! Touche!