- The Washington Times - Friday, April 1, 2005

A few years ago, I heard a prominent movie producer confide her crush on actor Jude Law during a press junket. “I think he’s the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen,” she revealed.

One can hear an almost identical sentiment expressed by actress Olivia de Havilland, now nearing 90, in “The Adventures of Errol Flynn,” a new documentary commissioned by Turner Classic Movies to anchor the Flynn retrospective that will monopolize TCM programming each Tuesday in April. (Curiously, Jude Law had an ornamental bit role in “The Aviator” as Errol Flynn.)

At one point in the chronicle, she recalls her frequent romantic co-star when they were paired for the first time by Warner Bros. in “Captain Blood” (1935): “I thought, ‘He is the handsomest, most charming, most magnetic, most virile young man in the entire world.’ ”

“Adventures” proves an exemplary introduction to what made Errol Flynn a star in the 1930s and 1940s. The co-producers, Joan Kramer and David Heeley, have considerable experience with documentary profiles of famous actors. This is one of the most satisfying and even stirring I have seen.

TCM’s 32 features, roughly two-thirds of the Flynn output, cover the period from 1935 to 1950. They include such distinctive vehicles as “Captain Blood,” “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “The Dawn Patrol,” “Dodge City,” “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,” “They Died With Their Boots On” and “Gentleman Jim.”

The prime of Errol Flynn is amply represented, but the documentary is diligent enough to retrieve some priceless clips from his decline. This material includes television gigs from the 1950s — the sort of thing that inspired the farce “My Favorite Year” in 1982, with Peter O’Toole as a fictionalized Flynn.

The documentary also recalls Mr. Flynn’s comeback surge as a character actor near the end of the decade, when Darryl F. Zanuck cast him in “The Sun Also Rises” and “The Roots of Heaven.”

Closer to home, he got a valedictory role as one of his idols, John Barrymore, in “Too Much, Too Soon.” Soon after, Mr. Flynn’s own dissipation led to his premature demise in 1959 at age 50.

The compilation retrieves Errol Flynn clowning with the Steve Allen troupe and Martha Raye. He also hosted his own half-hour anthology series, “The Errol Flynn Theatre,” for a lost season. The TV nostalgia archives are a long way from being explored and showcased adequately.

Joanne Woodward is one of four admirers (the others are Richard Dreyfuss, Burt Reynolds and Richard Schickel) who frame selected film clips with admirably evocative descriptions of Flynn in pivotal scenes. She sets up a haunting moment from “Too Much”: the actor simulating Barrymore as he extemporizes from “Henry V.” Each clip seems to justify a lasting fondness for Mr. Flynn.

The producers also are conscientious about summarizing the scandals and misadventures that tarnished Mr. Flynn’s reputation. These ranged from a statutory rape trial in 1942 (he was acquitted, but the fallout included an enduring lewd catchphrase, “in like Flynn”) to an infatuation with Fidel Castro’s regime in its early phase.

The subject himself could never quite reconcile blithe and melancholy notes in his 1959 autobiography, “My Wicked, Wicked Ways,” which proved a posthumous best-seller and anticipated scores of later “tell-all” memoirs.

“I have had my fun, my kicks, my vodka, my affairs and my fights and my pictures,” the author mused. “I rather suppose that not since Ulysses has anyone roamed more than I, waged more of a war with and against the sirens and the siren songs of our times.”

Arguably, this bravado is in character for a performer who charmed the public as a swashbuckler and infectious high spirit. The first star of this kind had been Douglas Fairbanks. Unlike Mr. Flynn, he migrated to Hollywood from a position of strength: 15 years of stage experience and Broadway stardom since 1910. He transposed a proven personality and set of skills to the movies while commanding his own production company. Errol Flynn was closer to an overnight sensation.

Born in Hobart, Tasmania, Mr. Flynn was the son of a marine biologist and remained a seafarer throughout his life. He landed an early role as Fletcher Christian in an Australian feature about the Bounty mutiny, but he made no immediate efforts to cure his amateurism. He preferred exploits in New Guinea as mariner, gold prospector, plantation overseer, perhaps even slave trader.

The Warners office in London signed Mr. Flynn during the second year of his apprenticeship with a repertory theater company in Northampton. Once in Hollywood, he was tapped for “Captain Blood” after Robert Donat, Leslie Howard and Fredric March had declined the role. In a similar respect, movie posterity can rejoice that he inherited Robin Hood from James Cagney in 1938.

Despite a wonderful ride on the Hollywood whirlwind, Mr. Flynn never felt confident or dedicated enough to challenge the studio system for control of his career with the conviction of a Bette Davis, James Cagney or Olivia de Havilland.

In a professional sense, the exquisite leading lady demonstrated far more courage than her robust leading man. Miss de Havilland risked three years of inactivity to break what she considered an unjust Warners contract.

By the time she won her case, it was the end of World War II, but she had enhanced the bargaining power of actors in general and positioned herself for a prestigious act two.

Stardom is often a mixed blessing.

Errol Flynn remains a haunting example of the trade-offs. At his best, he was an irresistible vision of heroic attributes who left a lasting impression of physical grace and nobility. No calling could seem happier than trusted comrade to Peter Blood or Robin Hood when Mr. Flynn got to sing out, “Alright, m’hearties, follow me!”

WHAT: Errol Flynn retrospective on Turner Classic Movies cable channel

WHEN: Tuesdays during April


Tuesday: “The Adventures of Errol Flynn,” 8 & 11:30 p.m; “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” 9:30 p.m.; “Captain Blood,” 1 a.m. Wednesday; “They Died With Their Boots On,” 3:30 a.m.

April 12: “That Forsyte Woman,” 10 a.m.; “Never Say Goodbye,” noon; “Escape Me Never,” 2 p.m.; “Desperate Journey,” 4 p.m.; “San Antonio,” 6 p.m.; “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” 8 p.m.; “The Dawn Patrol,” 10 p.m.; “Dodge City,” midnight; “Santa Fe Trail,” 2 a.m. April 13; “Virginia City,” 4 a.m.

April 19: “Cry Wolf,” 10 a.m.; “Edge of Darkness,” noon; “Northern Pursuit,” 2 p.m.; “Uncertain Glory,” 4 p.m.; “The Case of the Curious Bride,” 6 p.m.; “Adventures of Don Juan,” 8 p.m.; “The Adventures of Errol Flynn,” 10 p.m.; “Gentleman Jim,” 11:30 p.m.; “Objective Burma!” 1:30 a.m. April 20. “Kim,” 4 a.m.

April 26: “The Adventures of Errol Flynn,” 10 a.m.; “Silver River,” 11:30 a.m.; “Dive Bomber,” 1:30 p.m.; “Green Light,” 4 p.m.; “The Prince and the Pauper,” 6 p.m.; “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,” 8 p.m.; “The Sisters,” 10 p.m.; “Four’s a Crowd,” midnight; “Footsteps in the Dark,” 2 a.m. April 27; “Another Dawn,” 3:45 a.m.; “Don’t Bet on Blondes,” 5 a.m.

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