Sunday, July 5, 2009

Errol Flynn Turns One Hundred

Guest Blog Post by Steve Latshaw

Errol Flynn as George Armstrong Custer in They Died With Their Boots On(1941).

Robin writes: Errol Flynn (1909-1959) was one of the most gifted actors ever to grace the screen. His films, beginning with Captain Blood (1935), still sparkle with Flynn's talent and grace. He reached the absolute pinnacle of his profession and then, for reasons we still don't completely understand, threw it all away. Beginning as a hard-partying playboy, he evolved into a man addicted to alcohol and drugs and he died, as Michael Jackson did, far too young. But his demons died with him and he left his best for us to see in his wonderful films. Screenwriter Steve Latshaw annually celebrates Flynn's birthday with an unusual group of friends, who this year marked Flynn's centennial.

Guest Blog Post by Steve Latshaw
Hollywood, California

“It isn’t what they say about you, it’s what they whisper.” Errol Flynn

I was born on August 13, 1959, just sixty-one days before the death of Errol Flynn. Later, as a teenager, I read Flynn’s autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways. It was the tale of an adventurer who took Hollywood by storm, but then didn't seem to want what he had. For good or ill, it was just the sort of story that opened my eyes to the great, wide world outside of the corn fields and plains of Central, Illinois. I was ruined forever.

Now here we are, fifty years after Flynn’s death. I’ll be fifty myself in a few weeks. If I want, I can always drive up on Mulholland, past Flynn Ranch Road, and see where the old sport used to live. And I can celebrate his birthday with some like-minded fellows, which is the point of my story here.

There was no one like him, before or since. The son of a famed international scientist, Errol Flynn was born and attended private schools in Hobart, Tasmania. Before he was twenty-two, he was an adventurer, gold miner, war veteran, gigolo, thief, and slave trader, sailing his way through the Pacific. He came to Hollywood, by way of England, and transformed his rugged, devil-may-care, Tasmanian self into a movie actor.

Errol Flynn, 1938, in a Warner's production still published in Grand Illusions by Richard Lawton.

“There was just one word for Errol Flynn—outrageous. In his real life as on film he was constantly sprinting out from behind the arras, pursued by an angry husband or a flummoxed female. He was married three times, fathered four children and won a law suit charging him with fathering another. He loved the company of young girls and he was accused three times, but never convicted, of statutory rape." Life Magazine obituary for Flynn, 1959.

Would we have been pals? Good question. I’d have liked to think so, but maybe at a distance. I've been a fan of Flynn's since I was 15. That’s 35 years. I have read just about everything there is to read about the guy, including all of his own work as a writer. He was a complex man, born out of his time, more interested in exploring the world (and everything that entails) and writing about it than he was in Hollywood or movies.

My understanding, from talking to his friends and family members, is that he was great fun to be around, generous and a very good parent. He was probably easiest to get along with in the 1930s and early 1940s, when he was still very much a Tasmanian kid turning Hollywood on its ear, enraging Hal Wallis and Jack Warner and making millions of bucks in the process.

Errol Flynn in his prime in a photograph by George Hurrell.

In the late forties and into the fifties he was much more cynical and world-weary. He had lived through a trial on charges of statutory rape. It turned out to be a set-up, cooked up by the Los Angeles Police Department because Warner stopped paying kickbacks to the Chief of Police. Flynn was acquitted. But the subsequent snickering about his trial--hence the phrase "in like Flynn"--was something he hated.

“I had now made about forty-five pictures, but what had I become? I knew all too well: a phallic symbol. All over the world I was, as a name and personality, equated with sex.” Errol Flynn

"In twenty-five years of movie-making he earned and grandly spent more than $7 million. He drank two quarts of vodka daily, three when he got up early enough ..." Life Magazine, 1959

He carried a lot of anger about those days that he couldn't wash away with booze or drugs. The fact that he couldn’t get into World War II had broken his heart. He’d tried to get into every branch of the service but was turned down because he had serious health issues. The biggest, most athletic action star in the world spent most of his life a very sick man. It was a secret kept by Warner Brothers. So, Flynn fought the war in Warner’s Burbank soundstages, feeling like a fake, when, as his friend David Niven put it: "So many opportunities for real life heroism were all around.”

"He was a scamp, bounder and barroom brawler in the great and mannered tradition of Cellini, Casanova and Don Juan. The truth was not in him when a lie made a better story. Large numbers of people loved him dearly." Life Magazine, 1959

The worst of it came from Flynn’s best war film, Objective, Burma! (1945). It was a simple story about an American, behind-the-lines mission. Burma was mostly a British show, and though Americans did fight there, the Brits hated the movie's exclusively American point of view. Flynn, born in the British Commonwealth, got the blame.

By the late 1950s (when he was in his late forties) he was a dying man, drowning in his own shredded lungs and heart. He'd had tuberculosis since the early 1930s and had his first heart attack on the set of Gentleman Jim (1942). Yet he continued to chain-smoke cigarettes, drink heavily, and take massive doses of morphine. Toward the end, so the story goes, he was still charming but prone to bouts of drug-fueled rage and hallucinations.

The old sport near the end of his life.

"Last week, at fifty, Errol Flynn lounged about a Vancouver doctor's apartment while the classic pains of a coronary spread through his body and down his arms and legs (he knew them, for he had suffered them before) and talked of other things, of long-gone friends, of John Barrymore and W. C. Fields. He said, 'Hell, dying is not so much,' and asked for a room to lie down in." Life Magazine, 1959

His second heart attack killed him, in October of 1959. Yes, I think I would have enjoyed being his friend, though I would have wanted him to stay with us a little longer than he did.

“My problem lies with reconciling my gross habits with my net income.” Errol Flynn

I worked with--and got to know his daughter Deirdre a little bit--and saw through her stories her Dad's talent for survival. In the 1950s he taught her how to steal silverware from expensive Beverly Hills restaurants and how important it was to wash your socks in the tub when you got the chance to take a bath.

I also think I would not have gotten too close to Errol: like a fire, it might not have been too safe. He reminds me of Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, whom I met a few times in the last couple of years of his life. He was very much like Flynn, right down to the explosive presence and the furious dissipation.

Yet Flynn was so complex. He also wrote articles, papers and books and pursued writing with the same reverence he pursued women. He was a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War and a novelist. Beam Ends (1937) and Showdown(1945) were published to great acclaim. He even sold a swashbuckling screenplay, The White Rajah, to Warner Brothers. It still sits on their shelves, waiting for Brad Pitt, or Johnny Depp, or Russell Crowe to give it life.

Now I'm just about the age Flynn was when he died.

And I must say a splendid time was had by all at my pal Jack Marino's "Mulholland In Burbank" retreat, as the "Mulholland Drive Boys" held a 100th birthday celebration for Errol Flynn.

Flynn's birthday cake sits adjacent to a sculpture taken from a life mask of the actor.

“Mullholland Drive Boys?” We’re fans of Flynn (who used to live up Mullholland near Hollywood). We are men and women who have some connection to him. Some few of us, now getting on, met or knew him. Some others have had occasion to encounter his family. For myself, I won’t get into detail, except that I once had an opportunity to help one of Errol’s children.

Now let me help you get something straight. This is not just a group of fanatical Flynn fans. We’re doing this because thirty years ago Flynn history was rewritten into fiction. And we’re doing our part to restore the truth.

To explain: Charles Higham wrote a terrible book in 1980 that purported that Flynn had been a Nazi spy. The story was not true and was later disproved by a number of sources in the 1980s and 1990s, including the FBI. No less a figure than Sir William Stephenson, “The Man Called Intrepid,” personally intervened after the book was published. Stephenson had run combined British and American Intelligence during World War II. He contacted Flynn’s widow, Patrice Wymore, assuring her that Flynn had been a loyal patriot.

But over time, the story has become legend. It has even been presented as the truth in the Disney movie The Rocketeer, in which Timothy Dalton plays a Flynn-like character who's a Nazi spy. It has affected Flynn's reputation in film history. Part of what the "Mulholland Drive Boys" do is work to restore his reputation, as it benefits his family. And it has. New documentaries, books and films are surfacing. Warner Brothers has thus far put out three DVD boxed sets of Flynn classics, and the old boy's reputation is getting a new coat of paint.

Who are we? Well, we all have some connection to the film business. But the founder is someone special. Jack Marino is a filmmaker. A conservative filmmaker, actually, and there aren’t too many of them in Hollywood. He was raised a Kennedy Democrat, directed a very good, old-fashioned, Warner Brothers-style war picture about the Vietnam War called Forgotten Heroes. Jack’s movie reminds me a lot of Flynn’s Objective, Burma!.

He meant it that way--an old-fashioned war picture. It doesn’t glorify war--far from it. But it puts the American soldier on a pedestal, where he ought to be. The movie stars baddie William Smith, who also attended our Flynn birthday party. Because, like Jack, Smith is also a big fan of old Errol.

On to the party: posters and memorabilia were everywhere. Flynn's gold cigarette case--his cigarette holder floated around as some brave souls smoked through it. Longtime Errol Flynn expert Trudy McVicker attended: she goes back to the 1940s with Flynn, one of the original five collectors of Flynn memorabilia and one of his friends. (Author and soundtrack producer Tony Thomas was one of the other "original five." He passed away a few years ago.)

Flynn's gold cigarette case.

Others in attendance included Thomas McNulty, author of Errol Flynn: The Life and Career, which is just about the best book on Flynn in existence. Also attending: the daughter of Flynn's last girlfriend ... daughter of "Cuban Rebel Girl" Beverly Aadland.

Actor and Errol Flynn fan, William Smith, with his wife JoAnn. Screenwriter Steve Latshaw is posing in Flynn's last trenchcoat.

Smith told a story of meeting Flynn when he, Smith, was sixteen, and Flynn's Cord sports car crashed into a ditch near Chandler Street in Los Angeles. Flynn was in jodhpurs, having just come from, no doubt, a polo match. Bill, who is a big man, was even bigger in those days and graciously (and single-handedly!) lifted Flynn’s car out of the ditch.

We even had a surprise international guest ...

Jack and some of the "Mulholland Boys" visited Errol's grave site on his birthday morning. While observing a respectful silence, Jack and friends ran into a fan who had flown all the way from Sweden to visit Errol's grave on his birthday.

After everyone recovered from the shock and awe of that, our new friend was invited back to Jack’s place for the celebration. All night long he kept insisting we all take pictures with him because no one at home would believe him.

The Flynn centennial party gathers for a memorial photo. The fan from Sweden is at the back, wearing a black hat. He can use this photo to prove to his friends back home that this evening really did happen.

Our Guest of Honor was another famed character actor: a fellow contract player with Errol at Warner Brothers. Paul Picerni, of The Untouchables, House of Wax, and many other fine films and TV series, brought his wife and manager along to the festivities. Fast-moving, quick and funny, a sprightly 87, Paul sat down in a semi-circle with the guests as video cameras rolled and did an hour of great stories about working with Errol and the glamour of old Hollywood.

Actor Paul Picerni chats with friends at the Flynn centennial.

What did Paul have to do with Errol? They were co-stars in the 1952 melodrama Mara Maru. One of Paul’s great Flynn stories involved Jack Warner. It seems in the middle of production, Flynn had been making a series of long distance calls to his then wife Patrice Wymore (his co-star in Rocky Mountain). Exasperated, Warner sent a note to the set, berating Flynn for the extra expense. Flynn read the note out loud to Paul, then said, “Watch this, sport.” Flynn wrote the following carefully on the note:

“Jack--I'll forget about all of this if you will. Best, Baron.”

Baron was Jack Warner's nickname for Errol. Flynn handed the note back to the messenger.

Warner gave up trying to collect.

Flynn and Warner eventually parted. In 1952 he told Warner to go to stuff it: he was going to make his own movie--and, he hoped, a fortune with it. It was called William Tell and would be the first swashbuckler shot in CinemaScope. But Flynn was bamboozled by his Italian backers, robbed by his business manager (who said on his deathbed, somewhat belatedly: “Tell Errol I’m sorry.”) Flynn was also betrayed by Tell co-star and long-time friend Bruce Cabot, who attached Flynn’s car, furniture and clothing in order to get paid for his work in the film.

About the same time, Flynn’s European doctors told him, at age 42, he was suffering from hepatitis, lung disease, from various other ailments caused by his heavy use of alcohol, nicotine, and drugs and that he did not have long to live. So, he loaded up his family, stuffed his briefcase (labeled “Flynn Enterprises”) with vodka and took to the sea, living on his boat the Zaca for the next few years.

Flynn was as good at sailing as he was at everything else and he truly loved it. This is one of his favorite photos.

He’d land occasionally, in London or Hollywood, and make a film, later garnering the best notices of his career with character parts in movies like The Sun Also Rises (1957). In that one, Flynn finds himself in a Spanish hotel room during the running of the bulls and confronts his own alcoholism. He raises a glass to Tyrone Power, saying “Bung Ho, old boy."

Dissolve back to 2009. As the sun goes down, the booze and food continues to flow at our Flynn party. As a capper, we all settle back to watch a movie. What else? Paul Picerni's co-starring turn with Errol in Mara Maru, projected onto the big screen, in Jack's backyard.

It was a great way to celebrate the old boy's life. But what I loved the best is that I am completely convinced Errol showed up for the festivities.

About forty-five minutes into the movie, during a dull bit (some long dialog scene between Raymond Burr and Ruth Roman) there was suddenly a scratching noise in one of Jack's movie speakers. We listened, as the scratching suddenly became recognizable. For about ten seconds, we heard the unmistakable voice of Cab Calloway, singing the refrain, "Hi-de Hi-De Hi-De Ho!" from his hit song "Minnie the Moocher". Just that little bit. "Hi-de Hi-De Hi-De Ho!"

And then Cab faded away, never to return.

This was Errol, of course, playing a little joke. He was known for practical jokes during home screenings of movies, especially his own.

“One thing I always knew how to do: enjoy life. If I have any genius it is a genius for living. I spent myself to the full, dissipating all that I wanted to, testing how much my constitution could stand, bending where others might break.”
Errol Flynn

A great night. Hi-De Hi-De Hi-De Ho to you, too, old sport.

And Bung Ho.

* * * *

More on Flynn's Films

Forgotten Heroes Movie Web Site

Jack Marino’s Errol Flynn Web Site

Subscribe to Robin Chapman News


Florida Beach Basics said...

a compelling read - thanks! marge

Philip Deaver said...

I was born Aug. 14, 14 years before Latshaw, and lived also in Central Illinois. Though I hadn't seen him to remember him, I do remember the news reporting the death of Errol Flynn. Most likely that would have been WCIA, Champaign, Illinois, a CBS affiliate with, I think even then, Cronkite reporting. I'm wondering what town Latshaw was in. I was in Tuscola. Later I moved to Florida, to raise my family, and watched Robin Chapman and Steve Rondinaro. I never have known why Robin isn't still here in FL on the news. She was the best, probably still is somewhere.

Robin Chapman said...

Ah Philip, you are such a discerning viewer! I'll let Steve respond on the other question.

Steve Latshaw said...

Robin IS the best, Phillip. No question about that. To answer yours... I was born and raised in Decatur, Illinois. I watched Mr. Roberts do the weather for years on WCIA. My first pro job as a TV news photographer was with WAND, CH.17, in 1976. Tuscola I remember well, primarily because of a big chemical factory.

Jack Marino said...

Steve you need to post this on BIG HOLLYWOOD let Hollywood know what we did for Flynn.

Joan Marino said...

Great article Steve! It was a great party and everyone is still talking about it. Jack and Louise did a great job, as always, hosting the party and getting everything together. Flynn would be proud.

Anonymous said...

The Errol Flynn centennial was a wonderful idea. I wish I could have attended. Beverly Aadland

Robin Chapman said...

For those of you who don't know, Ms. Aadland was a great a good friend of Flynn's who was with him when he died. Thanks for contacting us Ms. Aadland and we hope you will keep in touch!

Anonymous said...

Why was Oliva de Havilland not invited? Never mind some gold-digger like Beverley Aadland.

Olivia was the love of Flynn's life.

private schools said...

That is really great! I need to check out this guys movies! I really think that it would be a lot of fun to learn more about this guy and see what kind of cult movies he was in.

Robin Chapman said...

I don't think she "appears" in public anymore.

Anonymous said...

The reason EF went off the rails was the two rape cases which did him such harm. The CIA set him up using known whore types. The CIA were jealous of him.

Daniel Ortega said...

I live 2 blocks from where he died, in West Vanc