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The 5 faces of Errol Flynn

'I don't know whether I can convey how deep the yearning is of an actor who has been stereotyped, who has the sword and horse wound around him, to prove to himself and to others that he is an actor.'
Errol Flynn

We remember Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, Peter Blood and Don Juan – all of them swashbuckling heroes who are as equally good at fighting as they are at being charming. It was an image that gave Flynn his fame and one that he would return to over and over, but it was also one which trapped him.

‘If a stereotype makes money, keep the stereotype alive. Don’t make a switch. Don’t experiment, don’t pander to an actor’s whim that he might like to do something special, different.’

Flynn wanted to be more than a one-trick-pony and here are 5 films that show how he brought different personas to his films.

Flynn the adventurer: Captain Blood (1935)

Although Robin Hood is probably his most famous role, the swashbuckling pirate, Captain Blood, is where it all started for Flynn in 1935. Originally offered to Robert Donat who had to turn it down due to ill-health and a desire to work more in the UK, it can be viewed as one of those twists of fate that actually turned out for the better.

Flynn

In real life, pirates can be a pretty rotten bunch, so perhaps that is why although Captain Blood is a pirate film, Flynn doesn’t actually play a pirate at all. His character is actually a doctor who, whilst trying to help an injured man, is falsely accused of treason and shipped to the Caribbean as a slave. There, he is bought by Arabella Bishop (Olivia De Havilland) and sparks fly. It is only after he escapes that he becomes a pirate, although he is a pirate with a moral code and sense of honour. When fellow pirate, Captain Levasseur (played by the fantastic Basil Rathbone), reverts to typical brigand behaviour and captures Arabella, one of the best sword fights on screen ensues.

What makes Flynn so good at the pirate persona is that there is so much of himself in it. The genre allowed the film studios to bypass the Hollywood code and show drinking, fighting, bawdy behaviour and womanising. Flynn was good at all these, although they would eventually lead to his early death at 50. But it was more than that. Flynn was born to play debonair, athletic and dashing heroes, and sword fights were his shop window. He makes a good adventurer because that is exactly what he was – in his memoirs Flynn claimed that he had once been a real-life pirate, and although it may not have been true, somehow it seems possible.

flynn

It would not be the last pirate he played: there would also be The Sea Hawke (1941) and Against all Flags (1952). He would also continue to play adventurers, even at the end of his career when his looks were fading and his body was giving up, such as The Master of Ballantrae (1953), his last movie for Warner Brothers. Audiences still believed in him because he was Errol Flynn and he would always be the personification of the handsome, charming rogue.

‘By instinct I’m an adventurer; by choice I’d like to be a writer; by pure, unadulterated luck, I’m an actor.’

Flynn the cowboy: Dodge City (1939)

Flynn was very unsuited to being a cowboy. He was far too clean and sophisticated for a man supposedly living life on horseback. His accent was all wrong and his moustache was what villains had, not heroes.

And yet he made eight westerns during his career beginning with Dodge City in 1939. With him is Olivia De Havilland and Alan Hale, two of his most consistent co-stars, and it is the only one of his westerns where they try to explain away his Tasmanian accent by claiming he was a well-travelled Irish soldier.

In typical Flynn fashion, he begins the film as a man looking to avoid responsibility, wanting a free and easy life, but the death of a boy changes his outlook. The Flynn that now appears is stern, determined and driven. He will not stop until he ends the violence and although he remains charming, he is now a man to be reckoned with. There is no swashbuckling here.

Despite his obvious drawbacks, the film and Flynn were a success, but his subsequent westerns were a slow decline in quality. As with many movies of the era, some of the attitudes towards First Nation tribes, people of colour and slavery are difficult to watch with modern eyes and mar the entertainment factor. But the scene where the young Harry Cole (played by nine-year-old Bobs Watson) is killed after being dragged down the street by wild horses is still one of the most powerful and harrowing depictions of the death of a child in cinema history.

Flynn the historical figure: Gentleman Jim (1942)

Flynn played several historical characters during his career, many of whom had actually existed. In The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex he was Robert Devereux; in They Died With Their Boots On he was General Custer; and, of course, Robin Hood.

In Gentle Jim he is the boxer Jim Corbett. Like most biopics, it is highly fictionalised in its telling of the story of the son of an Irish livery driver who works his way from being a bank clerk to a professional boxer. His character is a brash social climber, yet he is charming and stylish and instantly likeable, much like Flynn himself. This is why the film works so well. Flynn is playing Flynn. He is able to make the audience like him and he is a natural contrast to his brutish competitor, John L Sullivan.

But the film also makes sure that he is depicted as a man of honour as when he shows his compassion to his defeated foe at the end of the film. Flynn may be a rogue, but he is a decent one.

Flynn the anti-hero: The Sisters (1938)

The Sisters is one of Flynn’s lesser known movies but it shows a side of him that conflicted with his usual easy-going, heroic character.

The film follows the story of the three Elliott sisters at the turn of the twentieth-century. Flynn plays Frank, a journalist with aspirations of being a novelist, who sweeps Louise, played by Bette Davis, off her feet and away from her fiancé. The marriage runs into trouble due to Frank’s drinking and feelings of being trapped; Flynn is beset by demons, failure and anger which he takes out on his strong and determined wife.

flynn

The Sisters was primarily a vehicle for Davis although she had to fight to get her name alongside Flynn’s at top billing. She had already won an Oscar, yet she was only paid $2250 a week compared to his $4500, something that even Flynn acknowledged as ridiculous.

She had been keen to work with Flynn but she found their differing ways of working hard to deal with. Davis was an actress always looking to improve her craft, whilst Flynn was too interested in partying for her liking. Davis said of Flynn:

‘For this particular role of a restless, confused newspaperman, he was well suited. Handsome, arrogant and utterly enchanting, Errol was something to watch.’

In turn, Flynn understood Davis’ star quality and admitted that ‘she was a far better actress than I could ever hope to be an actor.’

What makes the film work is the fact that they are the right actors playing the right characters. He is an arrogant, charming rogue to her powerful, driven woman, exactly as they were in real life.

Flynn the doomed hero: Dawn Patrol (1938)

Flynn and Rathbone were reunited in Dawn Patrol where they were joined by David Niven. The film centres around three members of the Royal Flying Corp during the Great War, with Flynn and Niven playing pilots who live for today, knowing that their chances of surviving each mission is getting slimmer.  Rathbone is the commander forced to send his men to certain death, labelled as a butcher and heading for a breakdown.

This is one of Flynn’s best films. With an anti-war message at its heart, he begins as a devil-may-care, charismatic joker, and the fact that he was acting the scenes of drunken revelry with his real-life best friend brings a natural comradery to the film. But when the responsibility of command is suddenly thrust on him, he changes. He begins to understand the weight that Rathbone had carried and when he is forced to send someone on a suicide mission he can’t do it. He goes himself and pays the price.

Flynn and Niven
CategoriesHollywood

Robert Donat: an actor worth remembering

In the 1930s and 40s, Robert Donat was one of the biggest stars in British cinema and a household name, but for the actor himself, it was always a tussle between film and stage.

The 1939 Oscar for best actor was expected to go to Clarke Gable for Gone with the Wind unless James Stewart pipped him to it for Mr Smith Goes to Washington. In fact it would go to neither. In front of an astounded audience, the British actor Robert Donat was named the winner for his portrayal of an aging headmaster in the sentimental classic, Goodbye, Mr Chips.

Any other year and the award may not have been such a shock. Afterall, Donat had been nominated the year before for his role in The Citadel, and he was already a major star both in Hollywood and Britain with hugely successful films under his belt, such as The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Count of Monte Cristo and The 39 Steps.

But, in truth, his career as a cinema legend had come about more by chance than design.

Robert Donat

'The foundation of my whole creative life'

By the time Donat was 12 in 1918, cinema was still a fledgling industry and the young boy’s passion had already been caught by the theatre. His first headmaster had noticed and encouraged it, and at home he would stage productions in the garden shed with his elder brother John. Yet, the dream of a life on the stage was overshadowed by Donat’s circumstances. As a working class boy from the outskirts of Manchester, he not only had a strong Lancashire accent punctured by a severe stammer, but he came from a family without any connection to vaudeville or the theatre and whose future lay as farmers in Canada.

A visit that year to see James Barnard’s recital of A Christmas Carol in nearby Rusholme changed everything for Donat. Having watched the concert, he now knew what he wanted to be and he persuaded his ever-supportive parents to send him for elocution lessons with Bernard, a professor at the Leeds College of Music.

James Bernard
James Bernard

But Bernard was far more than an elocution teacher. As a once aspiring actor himself, he incorporated stage craft, projection and articulation into his approach to cure the boy of his stammer. Donat himself later reflected that the lessons had set ‘the foundation of my whole creative life and the irremovable and irreplacable [sic] rock on which my career was built’. Recitals and poetry performances formed a big part of Bernard’s methodology, developing Donat’s already present love of acting. But it was an old-school form of acting, born from theatre and Shakespeare rather than Chaplin and Keaton. ‘My elocution teacher in Manchester,’ Donat recalled ‘was always reminding me to “remember the bloke at the back who had paid his tanner,” and I have never forgotten it’.

It was a slow process. Donat was still in need of lessons three years later when he left school, and despite his brothers having all emigrated to Canada (his parents would follow them in 1928), he stayed in the UK, taking a job as Bernard’s secretary to pay for them. He gradually perfected his delivery, lost both his stammer and accent, learnt projection and annunciation and developed the voice that would become his trademark. Bernard’s connections with the theatre also gave Donat the route he needed in to that world. Years later, he would honour his teacher and mentor, recalling that ‘whatever success I may have gained has been entirely due to James Bernard, my elocution teacher in Manchester, who taught me all I know. He pushed me into my first stage job, and has always given me every possible help a man could give’.

'The most graceful actor of our time'

Donat was now on the road to becoming a professional actor but it was the theatre rather than films that had captured his attention. In 1921, at the age of sixteen, he debuted on the British stage at Birmingham’s Prince of Wales Theatre as Lucius in Julius Caesar, and three years later he joined Sir Frank Benson’s prominent Shakespearean company. For the next four years he perfected his skills, graduating from roles such as ‘a lord’ in As You Like It, to the Earl of Gloucester in King Lear and both Sebastian and Ferdinand in The Tempest.

Whilst his experience grew, Donat now made one of the most important decisions of his career. Rather than just settling for working with Benson’s company, he used the breaks in his nationwide tours to keep in touch with provincial repertory theatre to expand his range of work. This brought him into contact with the great actor-managers of the age, such as Alfred Wareing at the Theatre Royal in Huddersfield, whose repertoire was known to be ambitious and challenging. 

Royal Theatre
Royal Theatre Huddersfield

Donat learnt all that he could, and in August 1928 he told his brother that he had decided that this was what he wanted to do, although he was still thinking about auditioning in America for talking pictures.

By the end of the month, however, thoughts of films were put aside when he began a contract at the Liverpool Playhouse followed by a move to Cambridge with his new wife, Ella Annesley Voysey a year later. He now had access to leading roles such as in Bernard Shaw’s The Admirable Bashville and Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, and in 1931 he had his first successful appearance on the London stage in Precious Bane followed by an acclaimed run at the Malvern Festival.

Robert Donat
The Count of Monte Cristo

Donat’s foray into films in 1931 came as a means to supplement his stage income. His initial screen tests, as he himself later acknowledged, were poor: ‘In the old days when I was trying to break into films, I used to under-act for my film tests to such an extent that the result on the screen was entirely negative. In other words something that might have been lively and real and full size on the stage became inhibited and frustrated and frozen on the screen.’

 Ironically, for a man who had once had a speech impediment, it was his voice, and particularly his laugh, which the director Alexander Korda liked, so-much-so that he gave him a three year contract in 1932 on the basis of it.

At this time, he also began to suffer from asthma, the illness that would dog him for the rest of his life. It often flared up when he was particular stressed and it could sometimes become so bad that he was unable to work.

Theatre roles remained at the forefront of his work and he was appearing on stage in The Sleeping Clergyman when his breakthrough on screen came in 1933 with his fourth film, The Private Life of Henry VIII alongside Charles Laughton who described him as ‘the most graceful actor of our time’. Hollywood offers were to follow, but, disliking the American lifestyle, he returned to Britain after only making one, the highly successful The Count of Monte Cristo in 1934. Behind the protestations that Hollywood was ‘Bungalows, boulevards — the whole place is just an Ideal Home Exhibition’ lay a more important reason for his return: Donat was not prepared to give up his theatre work which the move to Hollywood would have forced on him.

The 39 Steps

It is natural that we automatically rue the films that cinema audiences lost out on because of this decision. Most famously is Captain Blood, the swashbuckling adventure that would have seen him fight Basil Rathbone and woo Olivia De Havilland. But if we lost him as Peter Blood we gained him as Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps, the film he made instead. 

Arguably, this is the better outcome for us. Whilst both films deals with an innocent man caught up in something far bigger, Hitchcock’s masterpiece plays to Donat’s physical and acting strengths. Donat blends humour with high intensity and sexual chemistry and displays a sophisticated understanding of how to bring Hitchcock’s vison to life. 

Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll
Robert Dpnat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps

He showed this when he reflected in 1938 that an actor ‘…must gauge his movements so that at the moment of the close-up, his head will be momentarily still and his eyes — almost imperceptibly — will flash their story’.

The film raised Donat’s profile even further: the contempory film critic Caroline Lejeune, noted that ‘Mr Donat who has never been very well served in the cinema until now, suddenly blossoms out into a romantic comedian of no mean order’. Others agreed and Korda put him in his next film, the same year that Donat finally achieved his dream of becoming an actor-manager in a London theatre.

The 39 steps

The finest actor

For the next twenty years Donat would work on both the screen and stage. Whilst Goodbye, Mr Chips in 1939 remains his cinematic highpoint, contractual difficulties, ill health, a lack of confidence and an inability to compromise on scripts would prevent us from seeing him in many more films. Although Hitchcock wanted him for three more of his movies (including as the mysterious and secretive anti-hero Max De Winter in Rebecca) Korda would not lend him again.

1953 saw one of his greatest performances, not on screen but on stage, in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral playing the doomed Archbishop Beckett. It was also his last appearance on stage.

Robert Donat
Robert in 1940

As his asthma became more debilitating, a hunt for a cure cost him most of his fortune, and oxygen had to be kept close by in case of a severe attack. He took some solace in radio and in recording poetry, using the voice and the skills that he had perfected with Bernard to continue to perform during his final years of illness, when acting had become almost impossible.

He died on 9 June 1958 at the age of 53. The cause of death was not asthma, but a stroke brought on by a brain tumour. He managed to complete his final scenes for The Inn of Sixth Happiness but he didn’t live to see it released five months later.

Between 1932 and 1958 Donat only made twenty films yet the legacy that he left marks him out as one of the most gifted and natural actors Britain has ever produced. He was also very much an actor’s actor: Peter Sellers said, ‘I think he is God’, whilst he was one of Judy Garland’s favourite actors. The American film director King Vidor, who led him to an Oscar nomination for The Citadel, declared: 

‘Bob Donat was the most helpful and co-operative star with whom I ever worked, as well as one of the finest actors.’

Further reading

For more information on Robert Donat take a look at

‘Performing Hitchcock’: Robert Donat, Film Acting and The 39 Steps (1935) by Victoria Lowe

The biography written for The Robert Donat family letters

Robert Donat by Jenny the Nipper and Gill Fraser Lee

CategoriesHollywood

The Golden Age of Cinema: Charles Laughton

Charles Laughton
Charles Laughton

I’ve known about the actor Charles Laughton for most of my life for films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Private Life of Henry VIII, but what I didn’t see until recently was just what a genius of an actor he was. When I was a teenage fan of classic Hollywood, I was too smitten with Errol Flynn and David Niven to give much thought to the slightly rotund and older Laughton, but now that I’ve matured, I’m far more appreciative of actors who were less traditionally handsome.

So I have revisited three of his key movies with fresh eyes.

Hobson's Choice (1954)

This was my first real encounter with Laughton. He plays Henry Hobson, owner of a Salford boot shop, alongside Brenda De Banzie as his eldest daughter and John Mills as his skilled bootmaker. My teenage-self loved the film, but Laughton was too old and cantankerous to ever rival Flynn. I enjoyed his part but simply saw him as the foil to his intelligent, enterprising daughter Maggie, who captured my imagination far more than her drunken father.

Charles Laughton
Charles Laughton and Brenda De Banzie in Hobson's Choice

Rewatching the film recently, courtesy of Amazon Prime, was like an awakening. Laughton is an utter joy to watch; his performance is as large and pompous as his character, but woven through with clever, understated subtlety that makes Henry Hobson more than just a caricature. He lauds it over his children with a false bravado that is both preposterously laughable and yet somehow effective. When he tells Maggie that she is too old to marry he is cruel, repulsive and so very, very watchable.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

When this was recently shown on the BBC I thought I’d give it a watch. I’d seen it long ago, but had never really registered the glory of the performances in the twisting plot. Yet this is the film that has really changed my opinion of Laughton. He plays barrister Sir Wilfred Robarts, who takes on the seemingly unwinnable task of defending Leonard Vole (played by Tyrone Power in his final film) at his murder trial. When Vole’s wife (played by Marlene Dietrich in one of her greatest performances) becomes the witness named in the title, he sets about dismantling her testimony.

Laughton was third billing in this film behind the more charismatic Power and Dietrich, but he drives the film with his sublime performance. I found myself memorized by him.

Charles with his wife Elsa Lanchester

With complete ease, he demonstrates both his comic timing and his masterful acting, switching from cantankerous patient tormenting his long-suffering nurse (played by his real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester) to cunning barrister cross-examining his visitors with the glare from his monocle. His performance earned him a third Oscar nomination and it is more-the-pity that he did not win (it went to Sir Alec Guinness for The Bridge on the River Kwai).

Charles Laughton, John Williams and Marlene Dietrich in Witness for the Prosecution

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)

It had been many years since I had seen this particular version of the (romanticised) life story of the poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, and seeing it again brought back a lot of memories of being a teenager watching classic movies on BBC2 on a Saturday afternoon. Though only three years older than Norma Shearer who played Elizabeth, Laughton stars as her father, the tyrannical and really rather creepy Edward Moulton-Barrett, who keeps his children oppressed through fear and guilt, refusing to let them marry or have a life of their own.

At the centre of the film is Laughton’s portrayal of a man incestuously in love with his daughter. Even for pre-code Hollywood it was risqué, but Laughton was able to portray Edward in his full obnoxious  glory through his majestic acting. He gives hints of what lies beneath Edward’s fatherly affections, using movement and body language to covertly display what could not be overtly said – as he himself said: ‘They can’t censor the gleam in my eye’. We are repulsed by Edward, willing Elizabeth’s escape, and yet he remains intriguingly hypnotic.  

Laughton with Norma Shearer and Maureen O'Sullivan in The Barretts of Wimpole Street

Although I still swoon over Flynn and Niven and forever will, Charles Laughton is now established as one of my favourite actors despite the fact that he felt that he had ‘a face like the behind of an elephant’. He is magnetic, powerful and absorbing. I could watch him all day and never get tired of the tiny, effortless nuances of his performances. Yet he doubted himself his whole life, considering himself a failure and pre-empting any upcoming performance with a surety that he would fail. Aged only 44 he described himself as a ‘tired old ham’, but you only have to watch a few of his films to know how untrue that was.