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Warners return to the classic stable for more films by the dashing Australian swashbuckler and lady killer: Errol Flynn The Signature Collection Volume 2. This time around the titles aren't nearly as stellar, but they include some of the biggest favorites of Flynn fans. Oddly, this isn't the best place to see Errol play the great lover. Out of five titles, only the obvious one (The Adventures of Don Juan) makes him a 9-to-5 skirt chaser, and even there he's sort of on the wagon. In the other four Flynn mainly ignores women, perhaps sees some off-screen and ends up being the unnecessary corner in a romantic triangle. Was Flynn perhaps trying to downplay his much-publicized legal problems?
The Charge of the Light Brigade from 1936 reunites Flynn with Olivia de Havilland not long after their mutual triumph in Captain Blood. The point of this extravagant historical epic seems to be to glorify England and its empire. It is often singled out when an example is needed of history atrociously re-written. The truth probably isn't quite as nasty as in Tony Richardson's 1968 remake but it's hard not to wince at Michael Jacoby and Rowland Leigh's exaltation of Her Majesty's colonial forces. It's implied that English rule would be Utopia, if it weren't for backbiting renegade Emirs conniving with the Queen's enemies. What the British called the Sepoy Mutiny is considered by India as her First War of Independence.
When the Brits stop paying some Emirs on the border of "Suristan", a warlord named Surat Khan (C. Henry Gordon) makes an alliance with England's enemy Russia and gleefully massacres hundreds of innocent women and children. British officers Henry Stephenson, Nigel Bruce and Donald Crisp miscalculate, while young Major Geoffrey Vickers (Flynn) alone intuits Khan's treachery. We enjoy a tiger hunt, a fancy dress ball and a few too many cavalry jaunts in an India that greatly resembles the Lone Pine region of California, only bursting with the bombastic themes of Max Steiner.
Olivia de Havilland's beauty would carry much lesser roles but her indecisive Elsa Campbell does little more than fret and shrink at the shame of being engaged to Geoffrey, yet falling in love with Vickers' younger brother Perry (the stiff Patric Knowles). Interrupted meetings and the interference of biddy Lady Octavia Warrenton (Spring Byington) drag out the romantic suspense. When Geoffrey finally accepts the bad news, it's just in time to help motivate him to a new record in self-sacrificing (but personal legend-building) gall: he forges orders and takes his brother's place in a suicide mission.
All of the above has transpired just to set up Tennyson's Ride of the 600 (sorry, Spartans) into The Valley of Death. The screenwriters have contrived to relocate the verminous Surat Khan with the Russian defenders in the Crimea (is this even remotely possible?), thus making it essential for Geoffrey to issue false orders and lead his lancers in an insane charge into a valley studded with Russian cannon. Director Michael Curtiz, his stunt arrangers and the Warners effects department put on a heck of a show. Max Steiner's march ratchets up its pace to match the horses as they change gaits ... walk, trot, canter ... gallop. The sequence is quite dynamic; George Amy's editing deserves special praise.
David Niven plays Vickers' dashing buddy, who suffers from SADS (Second Act Death Syndrome). This is the film where Niven got the title for his autobiography Bring on the Empty Horses. That line was apparently said, or mangled, by director Michael Curtiz. To represent dozens of violent horse falls The Charge of the Light Brigade employs every cruel trip gag known to the wranglers. Steeds tumble, collapse and practically do somersaults; the camera lingers to show some getting up afterwards but we're told that a number had to be destroyed. The ASPCA probably has a poster for this movie with a black "X" painted on it. 1
With Tennyson's words superimposed over the screen, we're told that the famous Charge at Balaklava was not vainglorious insanity but one of the most glorious human deeds in history. We're also assured that it was a resounding tactical success that turned the course of the war in Britain's favor. I'm sure those points are still debated but the last article I read said that the Charge was a pointless flop, and a dismal example of the sham of 'glamorous and glorious' traditional warfare.
The DVD (which is available for purchase separately) of The Charge of the Light Brigade has been given the Warner Night at the Movies treatment. A newsreel of Britain defending Jewish settlers in Israel is followed by an early Technicolor history lesson about Patrick Henry, Give Me Liberty, a comedy short about a department store starring Bob Hope and a funny B&W cartoon called Boom Boom featuring a proto-Porky Pig. Trailers for Charge and Anthony Adverse round out the bill.
The Dawn Patrol creaks, but it's a classic nonetheless. When Mad magazine first started making fun of movie clichés in the early 1950s this was one of their first targets, what with lines like "You can't send my brother up in a crate like that!" and, "It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it!"
Flynn is a dashing member of a British squadron in WW1 France, flying dangerous missions over German-held territory. As repeated and imitated in countless spit 'n' glue aviation epics from The Blue Max to Charles Schulz's "Snoopy vs. The Red Baron" comics to last year's abominable Flyboys, the staff 'back at Wing' send up kids with only a few hours' flying time, to be slaughtered by the enemy's seasoned aces. Chivalry is not entirely dead, as reflected in salutations exchanged between combatants and the warm treatment accorded a captured German flyer (Carl Esmond).
Squadron commander Major Brand (Basil Rathbone) almost goes nuts sending men to their deaths; he gives Flynn's Captain Courtney and David Niven's Lt. Scott grief for acting as if all the killing is a crazy joke. Scott is shot down and presumed lost but miraculously interrupts his own wake, laughing and carrying an armload of champagne. Scott and Courtney eventually get angry and go on an unauthorized raid on the enemy aerodrome (why isn't this Standard Operating Procedure?). Instead of being arrested, they're rewarded -- except Brand moves up to Wing. Courtney inherits the dirty job of sitting on the ground while others die, including Scott's beloved younger brother Donnie (Morton Lowrie). To atone, Courtney pulls off a flashy stunt of his own, going on a fateful suicide mission instead of sending his best friend.
Donald Crisp is another staff officer and a bewhiskered Barry Fitzgerald is a clownish aide. Most of the rest of the cast are handsome young men who show up, eagerly vie to be the first to fly a real mission, and then don't come back. Flynn erases their names from the duty board with increasing bitterness.
Audiences in 1938 probably thought that director Edmund Goulding's entire show was rather familiar, and it was. It's a scene-for-scene remake of a Howard Hawks' 1930 version starring Richard Barthelmess, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Neil Hamilton. We're told that most, if not all of the vintage flying scenes were re-purposed for the new version. The look of the final raid on a German rail-head confirms it: The effects look like 1930 vintage, especially the bomb hits on large miniatures where the explosions are six or seven times too big. If WW1 airplanes were that effective, air power would have decided the war very quickly!
The disc of The Dawn Patrol looks quite handsome, even the recycled 1930 footage that on earlier tapes was fuzzy and with higher contrast. The Warner Night at the Movies playbill includes two musical shorts, one of them a parody of The Prisoner of Zenda called The Prisoner of Swing. It stars June Allyson when she must have still have had her baby teeth. That's followed by a funny combat cartoon called What Price Porky? and a trailer for Four's a Crowd, with Flynn in he kind of comedy role that isn't remembered all that well now. I've never seen the 1930 Dawn Patrol and wonder if it was literally disassembled to make this remake. A close friend deeply absorbed by WW1 flying films has looked for it all his life, and has only seen clips on a show about Howard Hawks.
The weakest film in the Flynn 2 package can boast a beautiful restoration to its original Technicolor luster. Dive Bomber is a 'get ready, war's coming' enlistment booster filmed with the eager cooperation of Naval Aviation. By 1941 The Dawn Patrol's pacifist attitude of 'no war is worth this' has vanished. Besides making the flying force look formidable and up-to-date (which it wasn't), the many scenes of dozens of bright yellow planes flying over Hawaii and San Diego were a general boost to America's fighting forces.
Unfortunately, the story and screenplay by naval specialist Frank Wead (They Were Expendable) has an impossible mission. Audiences for a movie called Dive Bomber surely expected combat action but were instead treated to 132 minutes of the noble struggle of a Navy flight surgeon (Flynn) to counter the effects of high altitude and G-forces. The tale sees Flynn's Lt. Lee (a Harvard man) winning the confidence of Lt. Commander Rogers, (Ralph Bellamy) and joining him in his research. Lee must also overcome the typically Wead-ian macho grudge of Lt. Commander Joe Blake (Fred MacMurray, borrowed from Paramount), who thinks Lee is a playboy unconcerned with the death of one of his buddies.
That's really the entire story. Alexis Smith drifts into the frame several times; she's a gorgeous young woman of leisure forever hanging around Naval installations. Going completely against his screen persona, Flynn's Lee forgets all about Smith when Blake uses a nightclub tablecloth to work out a new air valve for their experimental flight suit. Smith announces that she's going off to play footsie with the Marines instead, and exits the movie! The movie presents Flynn as too preoccupied to be concerned with the opposite sex. Perhaps it was an effort to combat his off-screen reputation?
The rest of the picture is stitched together from uncooperative elements. Allan Jenkins appears in several annoying comedy relief scenes, avoiding his new wife: in Wead's world the Navy is a swell place for real men to duck those pesky females. The flight surgeons tell Lt. Griffin (Regis Toomey) that he can't fly any more, and he runs off to volunteer for the RAF. And the film reverts to form by having Flynn's Lt. Lee prove he's a real man by going on an apparent suicide mission to test the new flight suit. It all falls very flat, although 1941 audiences were probably wowed by the sparkling Technicolor photography. It looks as if real 3-strip cameras were mounted in airplanes and many shots are indeed beautiful.
Among the cast is future Peter Gunn Craig Stevens as a Yale flier who gets into a fistfight with Flynn after a fender-bender. Can't have a Spig Wead movie without some fightin' tars, swabbie.
This DVD skips the At the Movies treatment for a trailer and an okay featurette. Rudy Behlmer and Bob Osborne both break up while imitating director Michael Curtiz's mangled English phrases. They tell us that Curtiz and Flynn parted company on unfriendly terms after this picture, but can't explain exactly why.
Gentleman Jim is easily the most entertaining picture in this Flynn stack, and one of his best vehicles ever. The script by Vincent Lawrence and Horace McCoy from boxer Corbett's own biography is a perfect match for Flynn because it allows him to play an idealized version of himself: ambitious, gracious and good-humoredly vain. Director Raoul Walsh provides an energetic pace and wild sense of humor that even Michael Curtiz couldn't touch. A lot of that humor is rambunctious Irish comedy contrasting Corbett's immigrant roots in South San Francisco with the rich folk uptown. Frankly, Walsh's handles boozing and brawling Irishmen a lot better than John Ford does. A running gag has Corbett and his two brothers rushing to the barn to settle some idiotic squabble or another with their fists, while an excited neighbor shouts into the camera, "The Corbett's are at it again!"
James J. Corbett and his buddy Walter Lowne (Jack Carson) are bank clerks when Corbett smiles and bluffs his way into the prestigious Olympic Club as a promising boxer. His narcissistic attitude both attracts and repels beautiful Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith), who repeatedly hopes that Jim will be put in his place by a better boxer. But under the tutelage of coach Harry Watson (Rhys Williams of How Green Was My Valley) Corbett bests all comers, including an Australian champ and a local Polish mauler. He eventually quits the Olympic Club to protest the snobbery of Victoria's fiancé Carlton De Witt (John Loder) and goes pro after an unplanned fight in Salt Lake City, where he picks up a manager, Billy Delaney (William Frawley). Soon Corbett is a national celebrity augmenting his fighting take by appearing on stage in New York. Victoria is still incensed by Jim's refusal to play humble for her. Yet she secretly comes to his aid, putting up the $10,000 side bet money demanded by the champion, John L. Sullivan (Ward Bond) to give Jim a crack at the title. Victoria doesn't know it, but she's proving to herself that Corbett's been the man for her all along.
Gentleman Jim is one of those movies guaranteed to cheer up the gloomiest moviegoer. Errol Flynn is irresistible in a role that allows him to play up his natural charm and flair for mischief. He sticks to his desire to act the gentleman with his rowdy stevedore brothers, is faithful to his friends and stands up to Victoria's hoity-toity Olympic Club crowd. True, Corbett makes a nuisance of himself with his self-promotional baloney, having himself paged at the club. He keeps Victoria off-balance, never directly admitting a weakness. As Corbett says, he's not a conceited phony: a phony only claims to have talent, while he really does!
The old-fashioned fight scenes are truly fun. Flynn presents a convincing imitation of the 1890s fancy-man boxer defeating the old school bruisers with their artless slugging. All of the fights are exciting, but the best is a wharf match with Joe Choynski (Sammy Stein) with the audience watching from both ships and shore. Perhaps we're seeing a Warners swashbuckler boat being reused? Corbett is knocked clean off the barge, and climbs back into the ring spitting water like Popeye.
Alexis Smith finally gets her chance to click with Flynn, and she makes a terrific impression trying to dent Flynn's dashing, ever-smiling armor of vanity. In the middle of a fight, Corbett complains that his helpers are mussing his hair! The millions of American girls dreaming of being in Flynn's arms finally have a worthy identification figure in Smith's spirited refusal to be swept off her feet. The romance in Gentleman Jim is resolved well because the characters have earned a happy ending. We simply like them both as individuals, a rare occurrence in movies.
Gentleman Jim won over its audience with a sentimental ending. Ward Bond has perhaps his best role as the boisterous and boastful John L. Sullivan, a bruiser who doesn't realize that the younger Corbett can out-fight him. We know that Corbett has the advantage when he's able to goad the World's Champion into giving him a shot. Their post-fight meeting probably struck Americans as a pure expression of good sportsmanship.
Gentleman Jim always looked good but Warners' DVD adds the final polish to Raoul Walsh's crowd pleaser. The Warner Night at the Movies selection of goodies presents a fragment of a newsreel, two sports oriented Technicolor short subjects (one with Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman), a fairy tale spoof cartoon called Foney Fables and a trailer for The Male Animal.
1948's The Adventures of Don Juan is much better than its reputation. After heart attacks, legal travails and the ravages of high living, Errol Flynn still looks pretty good; just a couple of seasons later in The Master of Ballantrae he will have to rely much more on his stunt people. Just as Flynn is a tiny bit of a letdown (virile stars are expected never to age, it seems) the script by George Oppenheimer and Harry Kurnitz depicts the incorrigible womanizer at low ebb, as if his reputation or the Production Code had finally worn him down. Don Juan is caught in a couple of compromising situations, but only when women (like Orchestra Wives' Ann Rutherford) lead him astray. The rest of the time, Don Juan de Maraña is in a reforming mood. That doesn't fit Errol Flynn, no matter what the time period.
The Adventures of Don Juan is the Technicolor swashbuckler that Flynn never got again after 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood, yet it seems ten years out of date. Max Steiner manages a pretty love theme but his Von Korngold-flavored main title music works too hard. Director Vincent Sherman is no Michael Curtiz or Raoul Walsh, and the production economizes on angles and frills. Early action in England borrows a half-dozen shots from Robin Hood. Alan Hale is along as the all-too-familiar sidekick. He has only one really good scene, sizing up another balcony seduction job for his pal. Hale is like a good caddy, telling the ace golfer to watch out for the water trap.
The sets are suitably gigantic but the rest of the cast is a disappointment. Only Robert Douglas (The Fountainhead) really gets into his role as the scurvy villain. This was supposed to be Swedish beauty Viveca Lindfors' big Hollywood break. She's woefully miscast as the reserved Queen Margaret, and made to appear unattractive in the bargain. With her hair pulled back tightly, Lindfors always looks as if she has a headache. Frankly, director Sherman doesn't look out for her, either. In group shots, our eye never goes to Lindfors, which is not a good sign. 2
Aided by a fencing master (Fortunio Bonanova) and the court jester Don Sebastian (Jerry Austin), fighting dervish Don Juan saves the day, another expected development. The best bits show Don Juan trading quips with amorous wives and fending off jealous husbands. The censors must have watched the show like a hawk, because the humor stays squeaky clean throughout. The only erotic interest is generated by the heavy breathing of various ladies on the sidelines, like Jean Shepherd, Mary Stuart and Barbara Bates (All About Eve). A young Raymond Burr is a traidor who ends up feeling Don Juan's cold steel, where it hurts.
The Adventures of Don Juan looks much better than it ever has on video. The Technicolor is bright and sharp, with only a few matte shots looking a little hue-challenged around the edges. Robert Douglas's makeup and hair are almost comically severe. During their one screen kiss, we can even see little strands of saliva between Flynn and Lindfors' mouths. That's kind of a "yeesh" thing to say, but it shows just how sharp this transfer is.
This disc has a lively commentary with the late director Vincent Sherman, and critic Rudy Behlmer. Sherman recently passed away, but Warners has recorded commentaries for all of his films. It's too bad that the DVD format didn't take hold ten or fifteen years earlier so more first-person accounts could have been preserved.
The Warner Night at the Movies extras include a Joe Doakes 'behind the 8-ball short, a Bugs Bunny cartoon and a Technicolor travelogue about a rodeo in Calgary. Note that the title card says 'printed in Technicolor'. Some short subjects were filmed in 16mm (Kodachrome?) and then converted to 3-strip 35mm in the Technicolor plant on Cahuenga Blvd. in Hollywood. You can tell, as the image is softer and has less snap.
Flynn fans won't care, but newbies should know that the Errol Flynn: The Signature Collection Volume 2 is composed of one genuine winner (Gentleman Jim), three good movies and the pretty but otherwise vacant Dive Bomber. Are there more Errol Flynn treasures to be discovered? Together with Set #1 and a couple of exceptions like Objective Burma!, I think they've hit the ones I know.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. I've actually been to the local ASPCA and, believe me, you won't find them making jokes about the subject.
2. Viveca Lindfors didn't take Hollywood by storm, but she can do no wrong with this viewer ... she has the best female role in all of Science Fiction, as a free-thinking sculptress in Joseph Losey's These are the Damned.
3. Note from Keith West, 4.06.07:
Hi Glenn, I liked your review of the latest Errol Flynn collection.
The The Charge of the Light Brigade reportedly had approximately 200 horses that had to be put down after filming the charge scenes. If you freeze frame some of the shots, you can see the trip wires pull down horses going at full gallop. Between Light Brigade and One Million, BC (which had the "slurpasaur" reptiles actually tearing each other apart), the ASPCA was able to get legislation enacted that prohibited animal cruelty in most movies. (Not so in the 1965 Soviet War and Peace, that appears to have destroyed hundreds of horses.)
A stunt man was also killed when he fell off his horse and was impaled on a broken sword left by another tumbling stunt man. This movie was notorious for the dangers involved, and unlike the '59 Ben Hur, actually killed someone during the production.
I did think the charge sequence in the 1936 The Charge of the Light Brigade was a pretty amazing piece of editing. I felt it was superior to the editing in the 1968 version, which was a severely compromised film when you read about the production history. (It also had its share of dead horses because of location filming in Turkey.) Thanks again for your excellent reviews. -- Keith West