Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Errol Flynn: A colourful fragment in a drab world
Errol Flynn’s autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, begins as follows:
I particularly detest books that begin something like “Ah, there was joy and happiness in the quaint Tasmanian home of Professor Flynn when the first bellowings of lusty little Errol were heard…” So if you are interested, let’s get down to the meat of the matter.
Many have questioned the accuracy of what follows, but few Hollywood memoirs have been so frank, surprising and compelling. In the next few chapters, he visits brothels (“about the only institutions I never have been ejected from” ) and opium dens, is slashed in the stomach so severely he has to hold his intestines in, steals a lover's jewels while she sleeps, and accidentally blows the bottom out of a boat while trying to kill a shark with dynamite - and he hasn’t even arrived in Hollywood yet.
What happened there was the usual mix of extraordinary opportunity, incredible good fortune and rapid disinterest when the gilt fades – but Flynn’s heyday lasted longer than many, and at his peak his stardom ascended to heights rarely conquered.
David Niven’s autobiographies provide a vivid picture of Flynn at the height of his glory years; “The great thing about Errol,” he wrote, “was you always knew precisely where you stood with him because he always let you down.”
There had been great swashbucklers before him (not least Douglas Fairbanks) and others would just as surely follow. But Flynn remains the supreme exponent of the art, the greatest adventurer that ever thrust a rapier, climbed a rigging or swung from a chandelier. To Ann Sheridan he was “the most beautiful man ever created”. For Olivia de Havilland he was a “shining knight”. Ida Lupino insisted that “if you had Errol Flynn for a friend, you were doing fine.” Others were much less generous.
For Flynn himself, such prowess was a burden as well as a gift. It must have occurred to him very early on in his career that the niche he had elected to fill in Hollywood was one with tremendous rewards in terms of fame, riches and sexual opportunity, but also one that was rarely taken seriously, never won awards, allowed little room to extend his range and lasted only so long as his youth and agility, and the fickleness of public fancy, would allow.
“In those pre-war days, Errol was a strange mixture,” Niven recalled, “a great athlete of immense charm and evident physical beauty, he stood, legs apart, arms folded defiantly and crowing lustily atop the Hollywood dung heap, but he suffered, I think, from a deep inferiority complex: he also bit his nails.”
He himself explained:
It is a habit for me to discount myself before somebody else does it for me… That one stank. This one was no good. I didn’t care for the others. I don’t even like to discuss them. Yet there is a certain hypocrisy in this. Because I know I have done a few things I can take a bow for.
A renowned companion, he was guarded and elusive with the press, rarely gave interviews and was not above litigation if a particularly scurrilous story was false. (But, he stresses in his autobiography, he did not object to ugly rumours if they were true, as they often were.) A talented writer himself, he had worked as a journalist and, in addition to his autobiography, published a novel and an account of a voyage he took around the coast of Australia. He said that writing relieved him of the sense of futility his film career gave him, and claimed he would rather have written three good books than made all of his movies, but as usual was constitutionally incapable of making the effort.
Of Hollywood, he once said: “It’s comfortable, it’s warm, it’s sunny, but it’s filled with the most unutterable bastards.” He dismissed his talents as a film star, perhaps because he genuinely thought them commonplace, so easily did they come to him.
It can only be conjectured what effect a more varied and interesting film career would have had on Flynn – would he have been up to the task? Would the audience have allowed it? And might it have quelled some of that restlessness and dissatisfaction that made his Hollywood experiences so bittersweet?
The likely answers to those questions are perhaps, to the first and second, and probably not, to the third. That his range was greater than his opportunities few can doubt, and there are a few films in his final burst of activity at the end of the fifties that at least give him the chance to play insecure and disreputable. (More the Flynn of the gossip columns than the Flynn of the screen.)
But this is merely to fall into the trap Flynn set himself: that of devaluing the illusions he offered, underrating their significance and overlooking the skill, ingenuity and talent that went into creating and sustaining them. To be the world’s greatest swashbuckler is not to be nothing; to remain a byword for dash, bravery and athleticism nearly fifty years after your death is achievement of another magnitude again.
Vincent Sherman, who directed him in The Adventures of Don Juan, was in no doubt as to his qualities:
Personally, he was the most charming guy you could possibly meet. And I tell you he was very good. Very few people could wear a costume like he could; even though he was no great fencer, when he took that thing out, you thought that he was the greatest. Even if it was just one or two passes or something, but he did it with such style and such grace.
The almost insolent ease with which he sustained this absurd charade over a dozen years of stardom was the key to his appeal. (It was also the first thing to desert him when his run at the top finally ended.)
Viewed today, his screen persona seems more ambiguous than it once did, certainly more so than, say, John Wayne’s or Clark Gable’s. Beautiful rather than handsome, he appears athletic and virile but not necessarily all that tough. (Screenplays often call upon him to prove himself physically early on, as frequently, it seems, did life.) The little playboy’s moustache warned of frivolousness and unreliability, and he often seems mildly foppish, careful in his manners and dress and vain about his looks (which Flynn in fact was not).
He did not deal in cynical heroes, but, watching him, we suspect a cynical man behind the lustiness and derring do, despite the total absence of irony in the portrayal itself. His characters seem to wink at us, but at us alone, as if keen to reveal to us facets of themselves they never show other characters.
His rebelliousness often seemed to cross over into his characterisations, too; hence our delight in Custer’s initial sloppiness and aversion to discipline in They Died With Their Boots On or the sight of Robin Hood barging into the king’s dining hall with one of the royal deer (penalty for poaching: death) draped over his shoulders. In these moments, too, audiences sensed something of the real Flynn, the one who bought a house high above that of Jack Warner’s in the Hollywood hills so he would be able to throw rocks down at his nemesis and employer.
Warner’s publicity machine went overboard on Flynn, claiming their star discovery a member of the Dublin Players, recently arrived from the heart of Ireland. In truth, he was born in Tasmania to two Australians in June of 1909. His early adventures call for a depraved Mark Twain to do them full justice. Incapable of committing himself to any form of study or of moderating his boisterousness at school, he had himself expelled from prestigious seats of learning almost as fast as his father’s influence could secure them, before launching himself upon the world with neither assets nor ambition. Drifting through a number of dissimilar jobs, including running a charter boat for a while, he decided to try his hand at gold mining and staked a claim in New Guinea. While there he involved himself in the ‘recruitment’ of native labour, attended a group hanging, witnessed cannibalism and the massacre of an entire village, bought a young girl for two pigs and, he claims dubiously, killed a man.
Professor Flynn, MBE, a marine biologist and a distinguished international figure, remained to the end as bemused as ever by the enigmatic child he outlived by two decades. Flynn’s scientific work often kept him away from the centre of family life, and Errol was raised primarily by his mother. Where affectionate incomprehension defined Flynn’s dealings with his father, his relationship with his mother was more volatile.
She was still alive when his autobiography was published; it describes their relationship as “one long unending scrap”. The dislike was mutual, he assures us, without ever explaining why or, seemingly, anticipating any curiosity. It was a fact, like everything else in life, to be noted and responded to appropriately, but nothing to waste a second of life pondering:
As she tells it today – she is living, with my father, in England – I was a devil in boy’s clothing. I can only sympathise with her. I can readily understand she had a good case in finding me unmanageable. I wish I could say that time had changed the situation between us. It has not. We have fallen out all our lives.
Inevitably, biographers have seen in this tempestuous and uncomprehending relationship the essential template for all of Flynn’s future dealings with women. Olivia de Havilland thought that being ridiculed by her was at the heart of much of his later behaviour; director Vincent Sherman was one of many who felt his flippancy owed more to fear and mistrust than disrespect:
He liked to debase a woman – I could tell in the way he talked about his mother – he’s the first man I ever heard talk about his mother in a scurrilous manner. Loved his father, detested his mother.
Sooner or later with Flynn, the conversation must turn to women. His reputation as a prodigious sexual Olympian would come to disgust him, but it was not unearned. (“I hate the legend of myself as a phallic representation, yet I work at it to keep it alive,” he would write in My Wicked, Wicked Ways. ) Incapable of monogamy, he indulged his sexual urge without restraint, discretion or, he claims, much choice in the matter:
I only know if I touch the arm of a girl or woman who fires me, I have got to go as far as I can or as far as she will let me. The emotion rises. What are you supposed to do? Just say good night, or have a Coca-Cola or something, and go home aching from the scrotum up? Nonsense.
All of his three marriages ended in divorce. He met his first wife, the charming pre-Code actress Lili Damita, on the boat to America to begin his film career. She gave him his only son, Sean, and she knew it was over, she said later, the moment the box-office receipts for Captain Blood were in.
Never remarrying during his lifetime, he claimed that her demands for alimony bled him dry for the rest of his life. “I had to ride a lot of horses and wave a lot of swords to take care of her expensive tastes,” he wrote in his autobiography, claiming that over the years “she had siphoned hundreds of thousands of dollars out of my hide.” “He lies for the fun of it,” she once said of him. Gossip columnist Sheila Graham considered him “even meaner with his money than Chaplin.”
Damita and Flynn divorced in 1942, the same year that he went on trial for statutory rape (unlawful intimacy with a girl below the legal age of consent, which was eighteen in California at the time). In fact, two girls, Peggy Satterlee and Betty Hanson, both under eighteen, claimed that Flynn had seduced them.
It is often suggested, and was certainly thought by Flynn, that the trial was a trumped-up witch-hunt designed to bring Hollywood back into line after a number of scandals. Niven noted how the girls, though technically underage, were neither inexperienced nor unwilling, and that though they normally dressed as sophisticated young women, the prosecution had “ordered them to take off their make-up, do their hair in pig-tails, wear Bobby socks and carry school books.”
Though there is little doubt Flynn’s sexual appetite was rapacious and rarely dormant, it seems equally certain that he was often as much the seduced as the seducer: coercion would have been neither appealing nor necessary. (According to Ida Lupino: “Errol never raped any girl; they all raped him.” )
Flynn was an innocent suddenly loosed in an unreal world of fantasy and fabulous reward, one where morality was largely a matter of choice. There is no doubt he liked his girls young. Niven remembers being invited to join him in seeing “the best looking girls in LA”. Expecting a visit to a chorus show, Niven was surprised when Flynn’s car pulled up outside a local girls’ school just as the pupils were leaving. “What a waste,” Flynn observed ruefully, before being moved on by the police.
If the ungentlemanly and sexually insatiable Flynn revealed by the hearings harmed his popularity, as in some quarters it must have, it is equally certain that to others such revelations only added to his roguish allure. (It was at this time that the phrase ‘in like Flynn’ became common parlance.) William F. Buckley Jr, at prep school at the time, founded ABCDEF – The American Boys’ Club for the Defence of Errol Flynn.
The jury smelled a rat too, and quickly acquitted him. But even as the corks at Warners were popping, the District Attorney amazed all by claiming the rarely evoked right to proceed with a prosecution anyway, invalidating the original jury’s decision. Warners hired grandstanding showbiz attorney Jerry Geisler, and the result was another acquittal.
There were a million things he might have been doing when destiny finally cornered him; as it happens he was managing a tobacco plantation when low budget producer-director Charles Chauvel, recognising a certain magnetic quality in him, cast him as Fletcher Christian in a cheap production called In the Wake of the Bounty (1933). Flynn claims he shot the film on location in Tahiti, in truth it was shot in a small studio in Sydney. Chauvel was correct in his hunch, however: this young man with no experience was a definite presence on screen.
At last finding his vocation, but perceiving himself already somewhat larger than the Australian film industry, he made up some fake titles for non-existent films in which he claimed to have appeared and set off for England. Work was not forthcoming and he ended up doing eighteen months in provincial rep, realising in the process that acting was not just fun and easy but could also be satisfying. (He loved the Good Companions atmosphere and recalled this period as one of the happiest of his life.) It also gave him the skills and confidence to relaunch himself upon the movie studios. The result was a lead in Murder at Monte Carlo (1934), and a summons to Hollywood.
It is easy to imagine him arriving at Hollywood much as George Custer does at cadet training camp in They Died With Their Boots On: with “more gold braid on him than a French admiral”, trailing servants, dogs and aristocratic self-confidence. Such is his bearing and certainty of success he is mistaken for a visiting general, just as Flynn the ingénue was so quickly mistaken for a star by Warners, and by an adoring public shortly after.
The swashbuckler film had fallen from popularity since Fairbanks’s heyday; it was expensive, and Warners were taking something of a risk with Captain Blood (1935) even before its star – the temperamental (and asthmatic) British matinee idol Robert Donat – pulled out over a contractual disagreement. In the rush to find a replacement, it was director Michael Curtiz who suggested the cocky young nobody he had directed (as a corpse) in the B-thriller The Case of the Curious Bride.
Flynn was called, tested and cast, and almost immediately began playing the star, oblivious to the many simmering resentments he caused. (Niven notes that “the extras, among whom I had many old friends, disliked him intensely.” )
It was during the shooting of this film – and not before production of the second, when the box-office reaction may at least have justified it somewhat – that he began his famous habit of withdrawing labour until his salary was increased. (According to Sheila Graham, “with every film, he would not show up for wardrobe fittings or meetings until his contract was renegotiated. It was not long before he had brought his salary to $150,000 a picture.” ) For a more or less unknown actor, being given the opportunity of a lifetime in a major studio lead, this really is breathtaking self-assertion; few others would have dared to enrage Jack Warner from such an unguarded position.
And yet, though similar confrontations and mutual recrimination would ever characterise their relationship, there was affection there, at least on Warner’s part. He indulged Flynn as one would an ungrateful favourite son, equally impossible to handle and to dislike. “I was at Errol’s funeral when there was a far smaller crowd than was anticipated,” recalled director Vincent Sherman. “A lot of Flynn’s so-called friends stayed away. But Warner was there.”
Captain Blood still holds up as an entertainment, but the electric effect it had upon original audiences is harder to recapture. We know exactly what we’re getting from an Errol Flynn movie; they did not. We may even, now, be slightly disappointed by the picture’s occasional signs of indecision as the formula receives its first tentative work through. To contemporary viewers, Flynn was all that mattered, and their verdict was unequivocal: more, please, and don’t change a thing.
As requested, Flynn and co-star Olivia de Havilland were reteamed on a further seven occasions. Director Raoul Walsh approved the teaming: “I considered those two the most beautiful I ever photographed. She was a beauty, and he was a handsome devil, before he took to rumming it up.”
The stars became close friends; though de Havilland was ambivalent about the roles she was given in these productions, and resisted all romantic overtures from her married co-star (despite what she termed “a very deep crush on him” ). As always, his ardour, once frustrated, was channelled into infantile practical jokes: during shooting of The Charge of the Light Brigade he put a dead snake in de Havilland’s underwear. She thought it was living, and waded waist-deep into a pond to drown it. (“She was terrified and she wept… It slowly penetrated my obtuse mind that such juvenile pranks weren’t the way to any girl’s heart,” was Flynn’s much later summing-up of the situation. )
The next few years were a blur of dashing action roles on the screen, and sexual athleticism, pranks, carousing and monumental feats of consumption off it. In all these fields he was a recognised master, with seemingly little effort exerted in his casual mastery of any of them.
He lived for some time with Niven in a pseudo-bachelor home rented from Rosalind Russell; it became “a hotbed of fun and bad behaviour, the booze flowed freely, the girls formed an ever changing pattern and after Flynn came back from a trip to North Africa, we went through a long period when we smoked or chewed kif.”
For the most part a happy drunk, he did get into brawls, though rarely started any. Niven noted that he lacked any of the techniques by which actors such as Bogart or Gable were able to diffuse the inevitable and frequent occasions when a barfly would challenge them to prove how tough they really were. Flynn would simply wade in, and as often as not finish it.
John Huston’s autobiography includes a lively account of a fistfight he instituted with Flynn at a party after the latter made a disparaging remark about a woman of his acquaintance. The original slight was soon forgotten as they launched into a scrap that, according to Huston, lasted an hour, put both men in hospital and “was conducted strictly according to Queensbury, for which I take my hat off to Errol Flynn.” They both enjoyed themselves thoroughly.
Somewhere amidst the horseplay, time was found for a movie career, but Flynn was becoming increasingly tired of the routines:
I just wanted to act, to have a chance to play a character, to say good-by to the swashbuckler roles, to get swords and horses the hell out of my life. I itched to turn in a prize-winning job – but they held to making money: box office! box office! The ruin of creative personalities.
Actually, there were numerous attempts to widen his image and put him in a suit: in 1937 alone he was a doctor in The Green Light (for Frank Borzage), in a love triangle with Kay Francis in Another Dawn (for William Dieterle), and trying sophisticated comedy with Joan Blondell and Edward Everett Horton in The Perfect Specimen. None of these films were bad, but all were seen as indulgences. What audiences really wanted was The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and they got it, though Flynn may well have cursed them for it.
Even today, Robin Hood tends to get overlooked when the great works of Hollywood are recalled. Why should this be so? It is a masterpiece of sustained mood, with Olde Englande evoked as never before or again beneath the Californian sun, Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone oozing villainy, De Havilland the ultimate heroine, and all painted in exceptionally beautiful Technicolor. (It may be the best-looking Technicolor film of the thirties.) It still stirs the blood, and it still works with an audience of children (always a revealing test).
It is the best, but this is the rub: it is the best of the most trivial of genres. Horror was once the genre taken least seriously by critics, now the opposite is the case. But the historical swashbuckler still loiters with the Saturday morning serial, mocked for the superficiality of its boo and hiss morality and its cavalier disregard for the historical record.
But it is important to remember that Flynn is very much in the business not of historical recreation but of myth making, a kind of secular canonisation by popular culture. George MacDonald Fraser, in his book The Hollywood History of the World, defends Hollywood against charges of philistinism and license with history. Robin Hood he calls “a near-perfect motion picture, quite the best evocation of a folk legend ever put on the screen.” As for authenticity, who cares?
For this simply is Robin Hood of the ballads and childhood lore and the world’s imagination. For once, history does not matter. Whether, as seems probable, he was in reality a hedge-robber in Barnsdale, or a yeoman in the royal service, or a mixture of Robin Goodfellow and that Cloudsley of Cumberland who supposedly shot an apple from his son’s head in the presence of Edward III (a common feat in Northern folklore), or a wandering Scottish fugitive – none of this is important. The legend is what counts, and it was the legend that Warner Brothers brought to life.
And what goes for that one film speaks just as clearly for Flynn’s entire filmography, and the ethos underpinning it. The point is not dramatic realism but the elevation of individuals to symbolic and mythic status, and the celebration of courage, resourcefulness and chivalry. The films themselves were lavish, showcasing the latest developments in miniatures, process photography and dramatic editing, with stirring scores by the likes of Erich Korngold and Max Steiner, all effectively marshalled by director Michael Curtiz, Warner’s resident master of spectacle and confrontation.
But however fruitful the Curtiz-Flynn association may have been artistically and commercially, theirs was a far from smooth and amicable working relationship. Curtiz’s attitude to Flynn was not unlike that of Josef von Sternberg to Dietrich: proprietorial, and reluctant to concede that Flynn was more than an especially receptive empty vessel. Both men seemed to think they had not merely discovered but somehow invented their stars.
Flynn, Curtiz said, was his “beautiful puppet”. For an actor whose doubts as to the value of his art verged at times on self-disgust, Curtiz was the worst possible collaborator. The only place their union made any sense was afterwards, on the screen.
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) was a second pairing of Flynn with Bette Davis, following The Sisters the year before. For Warners it must have seemed a safe compromise: double star power, and the reassurance of costumes and courtly derring-do. Flynn did not disgrace himself, but he didn’t try all that hard either, and it is possible that a more sensitive director than Curtiz would have got more from him. As usual, he put far more effort into practical jokes, trying to bed Davis (who was flattered and tempted but ultimately unresponsive) and heckling over title billing, than in playing the character. (The film had begun life as Elizabeth the Queen; Flynn got that changed to either The Knight and the Lady or Essex and Elizabeth, and Davis settled matters by switching the latter around and insisting on the clumsy title the film now possesses.)
Predictably, the two did not bond, largely because she considered him an inadequate talent and freely said so. She later called him “one of the great male beauties of his time, but a terrible actor – not because he didn’t have the basic talent, but because he was lazy, self-indulgent, refused to take his work seriously, and tended to throw away his lines and scenes.” As an actor, wrote Frank Nugent in the New York Times, Flynn had as much chance of dominating the proceedings “as a bean-shooter against a tank”. According to Flynn, Davis pointedly looked away whenever they met again for the rest of his life.
As so often when such an experiment is deemed to have failed, it was back to basics for the follow-up, but The Sea Hawk (1940) lacked the enthusiasm of its predecessors, to say nothing of de Havilland in the female lead. (She was now campaigning for more dramatic leads and fewer swooning damsels, though she later came to see that she, too, had been guilty of underrating the films: “Seeing Robin Hood [again, years later] made me realise how good all our adventure films were, and I wrote Errol that I was glad I had been in every scene of them.” )
What was new, this time, however, was an explicit vein of contemporary propaganda, attacking American isolationism and asserting the necessity of confronting militarist aggression. The Second World War seemed the ideal stage for Flynn’s heroics, and on screen it was: he made six war pictures between 1941 and 1945.
In reality, he did not contribute to the war effort, a fact for which he received a great deal of mockery and condemnation, victim yet again of his public image. It was in his and Warners’ best interests to maintain the illusion that he was the most perfect physical specimen ever hatched on a sound stage; the truth is that every military examining board he went to turned him down.
The real Flynn was vigorous, brave, even foolhardy, but he was not healthy: he was tubercular, had a heart murmur, was prone to recurrent malaria and the veteran of a double mastoid operation that put him in danger of losing his hearing (or even, it is said, his life) if he received a severe blow. (Bette Davis had to be told to pull back on her slaps on the set of Elizabeth and Essex for this reason; she naturally thought it was a lot of fuss about nothing.)
The relationship with Curtiz was severed at Flynn’s request. His replacement was Raoul Walsh, a director capable of greater dramatic depth, and with comparable gifts as a stager of spectacle. The alliance produced results – Desperate Journey, Gentleman Jim and Objective, Burma among them – but it, too, ended in acrimony and incompatibility. (“He was a good actor if he liked the part,” Walsh recalled. “Otherwise he’d walk through it.” )
What followed were mainly disappointments. Vincent Sherman was recruited to handle the last authentic Warner swashbuckler, The Adventures of Don Juan, in 1949. That Forsyte Woman (1949) paired him with Greer Garson at MGM; for once he rose to the challenge offered by the material but the public found it dull. There were a couple of quickies for Warners, two of them westerns. (Flynn made many westerns, but disliked them all and considered himself unsuitable for the genre.) Then there was Kim (1950), another disappointment at MGM, two trips to London to co-star with Anna Neagle that drew the curious in Britain but bombed everywhere else, and a few low-grade pastiches of his old style for much smaller studios. (One of them, the ridiculous Adventures of Captain Fabian , he wrote himself.)
But the biggest failure of all, in fact probably the decisive failure of his career, was William Tell, begun in 1953 again from his own screenplay, and abandoned shortly thereafter in a blizzard of accusations, suits and countersuits. Flynn had sunk his entire savings into the film and was left with virtually nothing. (Impatient to unreel the catalogue of disasters, Flynn abandons chronology to devote the opening pages of his autobiography to an account of this project.)
It was at this point that the United States government opted to bill him for some eight hundred and forty thousand dollars in back taxes. “When flat, put on the old front – you know,” he writes in My Wicked, Wicked Ways: “I went to ‘21’ that day for lunch. It is a habit of mine, when you are down and out, to go to the best spots.”
Flynn’s nemesis was temptation; there was virtually no kind to which he was resistant. It appears to have been somewhere during his second marriage that his prodigious appetite for booze and drugs turned the corner into compulsions he could not control. Typically, eighteen-year-old Nora Eddington had caught his eye working at a cigar stand in the Los Angeles Hall of Justice during his rape trial. They divorced after six years and two daughters, and with no films forthcoming Flynn became a drifter, travelling the world in his private yacht; like Bogart, the sea calmed and commanded him.
“A couple of years before he died,” wrote Olivia de Havilland, “I had an unhappy experience in Hollywood. A tall man kissed me on the back of the neck at a party and I whirled around in anger and said, ‘Do I know you?’ Then I realised it was Errol. He had changed so. His eyes were so sad. I had stared in them in enough movies to know his spirit was gone.”
It was this Flynn, the one with whom time had caught up, that wrote the cynical autobiography, dwelled upon his faults and derided his virtues. He had married again in 1950, to twenty-four year-old Patricia Wymore. (On the day of the wedding he was again charged with statutory rape; again, the charge was thrown out of court.) Wymore gave him another daughter, but like Lili Damita before her, found herself edged out of his life when his career, quite unexpectedly, regained momentum.
A call had come out of the blue from Darryl Zanuck, for whom he had never worked, to play one of Hemingway’s malcontents in an adaptation of The Sun Also Rises (1957). It was a successful comeback, but he must have sensed the irony that his new license to play more complex characters came about only once he had swapped one popular image for another. It was typecasting, same as always, only now he was typed not as heroes but disillusioned drunks. He was too old but otherwise ideal in The Sun Also Rises, back at Warners playing John Barrymore in Too Much Too Soon (1958), in Africa with John Huston for The Roots of Heaven (1958), as a deserter. Now he was Flynn the sozzled, world-weary cynic, older and beyond heroics. Mercifully, the public found this casting not merely apposite but also welcome.
Perhaps it was his willingness to lay bare the extent of his dissipation that re-endeared him to audiences; perhaps they found it comforting to be reminded that men are not gods after all. Arthur Hiller, who directed Flynn in a teleplay that proved his very last acting appearance, was shocked on the first day of shooting to discover the once great athlete “barely able to climb out of a wagon”. John Huston was also saddened by the change he saw in Flynn when they began filming The Roots of Heaven:
Errol Flynn was truly ill, but it had nothing to do with Africa. He had a vastly enlarged liver. He continued to drink, however, and he was also on drugs. He knew he was in bad shape, but he put on a great show of good spirits. He’d brought along some fine French wines, potted grouse and various delicacies from Paris – and plenty of vodka. I remember seeing Errol sitting alone night after night in the middle of the compound with a book, reading by the light of a Coleman lantern. There was always a bottle of vodka on the camp table beside him. When I went to sleep he was there, and when I’d wake up in the middle of the night I’d see him still sitting there – the book open, but Errol not reading any longer, just looking into his future, I think, of which there wasn’t very much left.
The performances were good. The groundwork had been laid for a second career as an older, respected character actor, one that he could easily have sustained for the next two decades. Instead there was almost nothing more, save a characteristically chaotic episode in which, besotted with Castro, he decided to make a semi-documentary film that finally emerged as Cuban Rebel Girls, his last and least film, in 1959.
His co-star was his final girlfriend, the seventeen year-old Beverly Aadland. They had been together for two years. A fresh charge of statutory rape awaited his return to America.
Yet despite the chaos of his own love life, he was sufficiently troubled by his son’s non-inheritance of his own prodigious appetites to write him a cautionary note shortly before his death. In it, he counselled him to live a little more, and enclosed a generous sum of money “for condoms and/or flowers.”
My Wicked, Wicked Ways was published posthumously. It became an immediate bestseller. Based on Flynn’s reminiscences, transcribed by ghostwriter Earl Conrad, it has a superbly direct, conversational style; the outlook and the aphorisms are unmistakeably the real man:
The conventions of Mid-England could not easily hold for a vigorous young man surrounded by feminine and attractive Melanesian girls.
I think I can truthfully say that my behaviour in whorehouses has been exemplary.
I have a genius for living, but I turn many things into crap.
I allow myself to be understood abroad as a colourful fragment in a drab world.
Flynn was fifty when he died in 1959, and it would surely have amused him that the coroner who performed his autopsy expressed amazement that he had lived as long as he had. He would have been pleasantly amazed, too, to learn that in the lottery of longevity his has become one of the select few names never to pass into half-memory, that prelude to oblivion from which few escape. Like Monroe, Bogart, Garbo, his name, image and reputations endure. Perhaps what he did wasn’t so easy after all.
Most importantly, he lived how he had wanted to live. Though Jack Warner summed him up as “one of the most charming and tragic men I have ever met”, to modern eyes there is a wilfulness in his decline, and a relish almost, that is both endearing and defiant of pathos. He confesses to self-pity in his autobiography, but never indulged it in public. He was under no illusions about himself:
My dream of happiness: A quiet spot by the Jamaica seashore, looking out at the activity of the ocean, hearing the wind sob with the beauty and the tragedy of everything. Looking out over nine miles of ocean, hearing some happy laughter nearby; sitting under an almond tree, with the leaf spread over me like an umbrella, that is my dream of happiness.
Unfortunately, an hour later, I might not be happy with that.
He had always pledged to cram two lifetimes into half the span of one and even at the end, he did not regret having made that choice. A failure, he said, was the man who died with more than ten thousand dollars in his pocket. For that reason also, Errol Flynn died a success.