The name still has an aura about it – “Errol Flynn”, an unusual appellation, even in his lifetime. It evokes another time and place – not just the Golden Years of Hollywood but the worlds they created on the backlot: pirates in the Caribbean, lancers in Imperial India, merry men in Sherwood Forest. He remains one of the great classical movie stars, with an image and private life that has few rivals in terms of exotica. His personal narrative has a Grecian mythology aspect about it: the stunningly beautiful man who was worshiped like a God, only to disintegrate physically, morally, mentally and professionally through his own hubris. Brilliant, vain, insecure, anti-Semitic, ephebophilic, charming, alcoholic, Australian.
Errol Flynn, adventurer.
He was born in 1909 in Hobart, Tasmania, the southernmost city in Australia. You can do an “Errol Flynn Walking Tour” of Hobart – it’s an unofficial one, though, since the local tourism board has displayed a historical reluctance to promote its connection with one of the city’s most (in)famous sons.
One of the houses Flynn grew up in is by the sea – to the rear of it is Mt Wellington; in front is a view of the Southern Ocean, going all the way to Antarctica. Visiting it, you sense a little boy growing up there could go along one of two paths in life – someone who is insular and provincial, or a voyager yearning to explore beyond the horizon. Flynn, whose mother was descended from seafarers and whose father was a professor of biology fond of taking long scientific expeditions on boats, became the latter. No matter what else he packed into his life – which was his lot – first and foremost he was (and would always be) an adventurer.
Flynn lived in Hobart until he was fourteen; he attended boarding school in London for two years, after which he finished his education in Sydney. He was expelled from Sydney Church of England Grammar School for stealing (or having sex on campus, accounts differ, but I’m inclined to think it was stealing), then he got work as a shipping clerk at Dalgety’s before being fired (definitely for stealing).
When Flynn was eighteen, he headed to Papua New Guinea, then an Australian colony, to seek his fortune. He never made one, at least not there, but it wasn’t through lack of trying – he had three stints on the island over five years, doing a variety of jobs, not really succeeding in any of them, leaving a trail of debt and annoyance in his wake.
The New Guinea experiences were probably the most formative years of his life, although they have been much clouded in myth: Flynn fictionalised them himself in two novels, “Beam Ends” (1937) and “Showdown” (1946) as well as his unreliable memoir, “My Wicked Wicked Ways” (1959); and they were dramatised in the feature films Flynn (1996) and In Like Flynn (2018). The best account is in the book “The Young Errol: Flynn Before Hollywood” by John Hammond Moore (NB there’s no decent life-long biography about Flynn but several excellent works that focus on specific episodes in his life and this is one).
By the early 1930s, Flynn had grown into a handsome lad, skilled at sports and blessed with large doses of arrogance and charm, well-ish connected socially, and not a particularly hard worker: he was always – and would always – looking to take short cuts.
An encounter with actor John Warwick while in Sydney led to the young man being cast as Fletcher Christian in In the Wake of the Bounty (1933), Charles Chauvel’s recreation of the Mutiny on the Bounty story, which combines a dramatised documentary of present-day Pitcairn Island with a dramatic re-enactment of the mutiny. It was a rapid promotion – Flynn had paid little interest in acting until then – but Australian cinema of the 1930s was notoriously short of leading men who looked manly… and besides, Chauvel liked bestowing starring roles on people who had never played a speaking role in a film before (he would pull the same stunt with Mary Maguire, Chips Rafferty, Michael Pate and Robert Tudawali).
It’s never easy breaking into acting, but the people for whom it’s easiest are handsome young men who are believably virile – in part because there are always roles for them to play and comparatively less of them keen to do it. God had blessed Flynn with looks, charisma, decent speaking voice and a face that suited the camera – he was a sensational package; to be honest, if a 23-year-old Flynn appeared in a casting office today, he would probably get work.
In the Wake of the Bounty is an awkward hodge-podge, which manages the considerable feat of turning one of the great sagas of maritime history into a barely watchable slog. It’s worth seeing today for Flynn completists and stunning footage of Pitcairn Island. The documentary scenes are fascinating, although watching it now with all we know about Pitcairn you can’t help thinking “those girls probably started having sex when they were twelve”. The dramatic sequences are pure amateur hour, like watching a small town community theatre production; Flynn’s physicality is awkward, he is uncomfortable even standing around, and his acting is all over the shop… but you can see why he was cast – he’s already got the profile, the voice, and flashes of the charisma.
You can watch the film yourself: https://archive.org/details/1933InTheWakeOfTheBounty
The film did so-so at the box office, helped by publicity when the censor tried to get vision of bare-breasted islanders removed. It definitely wasn’t a flop, though, it made some money – and Chauvel later sold his footage to MGM to help promote their (much better written, directed and acted) version of the same story, Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). The experience was enough to encourage Flynn to try acting professionally – he hadn’t been able to make anything else stick and this seemed a more feasible source of adventure and riches than a fourth trip to New Guinea. Australia was a very small show business pond in 1933, however, so Flynn decided to try his luck in London.
He journeyed there with an Austrian who became his best friend, Dr Hans Erben, who in later years became a spy for the German government. Now, Flynn fans get defensive about biographer Charles Higham’s later allegations that Flynn himself was a Nazy spy – allegations which have, on the whole, been debunked… But it should be pointed out that Higham did bring to light Erben’s background, which no one denies. (Aside: for what it’s worth, my take on the Errol-is-a-Nazi saga is this: Flynn was a middle-class, white, private school educated Anglo-Saxon Protestant Australian and had the values common with that type of the era – which would include casual anti-Semitism, a strong sense of white superiority and dislike of socialism/trade unions… but that didn’t necessarily make you Team Hitler. I believe Flynn had plenty of flaws but was no spy; I think Higham made the discovery about Erben, got over-excited, put two and two together and got seven. It happens among biographers more than you think. End of aside.)
Flynn arrived in England in 1933. He worked as an actor with the Northampton Repertory Company for seven months, impressing audiences with his looks and presence and exasperating colleagues with his selfish ways. It would have been excellent training – regularly performing in front of audiences, doing a variety of roles, playing in everything from Jack and the Beanstalk to Othello. What Flynn didn’t develop – and never would develop, to his detriment – was a genuine passion for the craft of acting. Thespianism was always a means to an end for him, something for laughs, sex, fame, travel and cash. In the list of “Errol Flynn hobbies”, I doubt acting would even make the top ten – it would definitely rank after thrill-seeking, boats, travel, alcohol, underage girls, writing, reading, making money, practical jokes, and sex.
Flynn was eventually fired by Northampton Rep, supposedly for throwing a female colleague down the stairs, which sounds about right. He performed on stage at the Malvern Festival and in Glasgow before heading back to London. If you’re interested in this period, I strongly recommend the book “Errol Flynn in Northampton” (1998) by Gerry Connelly.
Warner Bros had a small filmmaking operation based in London, run by Irving Asher. He cast Flynn in the lead of a quota quickie, Murder at Monte Carlo (1934), as a reporter who investigates the murder of a man who figured out how to beat the roulette wheel in, you guessed it, Monte Carlo. No copy of the movie exists today but you can guess from the synopsis as to what sort of film it was – a mystery with some comedy, hijinks involving rival journalists, wacky character actors, foreign caricatures and all the suspects gathered around at the end for the denouement, etc etc.
It was pretty impressive of Flynn to have bagged another movie lead but it must be remembered this was the era of wet fish British leading men – Barry Barnes, Leslie Banks, etc – and Flynn would have stood out among the alternatives on offer; he had the smooth appearance and cultured voice so beloved by British producers of the time, but he also had an athletic, virile appearance… to put it crudely (and this is an expression genuinely used behind the scenes), he had “balls”. Also, it was a cheap movie – they weren’t taking that much of a risk giving him a chance.
Asher signed Flynn to a seven-year contract with Warners (well, a contract where Warners had their option on his services for seven years, anyway) and recommended him to the Los Angeles office, saying the young actor was a cross between George Brent and Charles Farrell, popular romantic leading men of the day. Such actors were always useful in Hollywood, even if just as a warm prop for leading ladies, and they asked Asher to send him over.
Travelling on the ship from England, Flynn met Lili Damita, an actress five years his senior who he would later marry and whose contacts proved useful when Flynn arrived in Los Angeles. Warner Bros publicity described the young man as an “Irish leading man of the London stage” – Flynn’s background in New Guinea was quite exotic and exciting but maybe too exotic… “Irish” was clearly easier to wrap around American heads.
Murder at Monte Carlo had been barely seen in Britain, let alone America, and Warners took a while to warm up to Flynn. His first role was in The Case of the Curious Bride (1935), one in a series of B movies they made based on the Perry Mason novels, which turned Mason into a boozing wise-cracker (played by Warren William) along the lines of The Thin Man (1934). Flynn isn’t bad – he appears in two scenes, one as a corpse, the other in flashback fight scene (no dialogue – he falls back and impales himself on a knife).
The film is mostly worth seeing for the novelty of his American debut and seeing the serious-in-the-books-and-the-TV-series Perry Mason transmorphed into a wacky screwball hero. Michael Curtiz directed, the first of what would be twelve collaborations between him and Flynn.
The actor’s second American picture was a screwball comedy, again starring William, Don’t Bet On Blondes (1935), directed by Robert Florey. Williams plays a Broadway bookie who moves into the insurance business and takes a policy from an eccentric Southerner (Guy Kibee) against said Southerner’s daughter (Claire Dodd) from being married – the sort of silly plot you’d find in movies at this time: there was a similar one in Abbott and Costello’s first film One Night in the Tropics (1940). But the writers stuff it – they don’t get Williams to romance Dodd until the film is half way over; Dodd finds out about it and romances Williams back – but she tells Kibee? How come? Who cares?
Flynn has a support role as one of Dodd’s suitors. He is seen in two scenes, one chatting with Dodd at a golf course, and another one out to dinner with William’s minions trying to stuff up his romance with Dodd. He’s handsome though moustache-less and is a lot more comfortable in front of the camera than he was during Bounty.
The main faults of Blondes are the wonky structure, William’s flat performance, and the lack of chemistry between William and Dodd. It’s kind of a shame that Flynn didn’t get the chance to play the lead, as he would have been a lot better, even at that stage of his career – but then, as we will see, he never had much luck with comedies.
However, he did do better with other genres. In particular, he was about to be the beneficiary of one of the biggest breaks any actor has ever received.