|Errol Flynn, Reviews Round-Up #55 and New Announcements
For those who patiently waited for the long stretch between the last two editions of this column, I'm glad to be able to return quickly with what I hope you will find to be an enjoyable grab-bag of information.
I begin with a short profile on one of my favourite actors, Errol Flynn, with a summary of the status of his films on DVD including a hint at future Warner plans.
Then I have five reviews for you - of VCI's Serious Charge and Universal's latest Backlot Series releases (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Beau Geste, Lonely Are the Brave, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine).
Finally, the new announcements have been updated as usual, along with the new announcements database.
This year marks an anniversary in several respects for Errol Flynn, one of the screen's finest performers. It marks the 100th year since his birth in Hobart, Tasmania on June 20th, 1909 and the 50th anniversary of his death on October 14th, 1959. It's also the 40th year since the publication of one of the best of The Citadel Press's late lamented "Films of…" series of books - "The Films of Errol Flynn", by Tony Thomas, Rudy Behlmer, and Clifford McCarty.
Flynn spent half his life in films, making the bulk of his almost 60 screen appearances at Warner Bros. During his life, few people including Flynn himself, gave him the high degree of recognition his talent truly deserved. But as we view his films into the 21st century, it's clear that many of them are among the classic films that best stand the test of time. He had a natural and forthright acting style, free of acting mannerisms and artifice, but with an appealing air of sincerity and hint of impudence that audiences continue to be attracted to and connect with. No one looked better or more natural in period costume and though swashbuckling films have waxed and waned in popularity over the past 50 years, Flynn's excellence in them and in action films in general is increasingly unquestioned. Two of Flynn's leading ladies, Bette Davis and Olivia De Havilland, have both stated their regret not only at not recognizing his talents at the time of the original appearance of such films as The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and The Adventures of Robin Hood, but also not subsequently communicating that recognition to Flynn before he died.
Flynn's early years in Australia and New Guinea seemed to prepare him naturally for the sort of roles for which he would become known. Much of his time was spent on the ocean, which he professed to be the true love of his life. At school, his forte was sports not academics and he entered the workplace early, his travels taking him to jobs as a shipping clerk, a government service trainee, overseer on a copra plantation, a gold miner, a recruiter of native labour for the gold mines, manager of a tobacco plantation, and captain of his own boat. It was his involvement with the latter that led an Australian film producer to offer him the role of Fletcher Christian in the 1933 film In the Wake of the Bounty.
This kindled an interest in acting in Flynn that led him to England, where after a short stint in a repertory company in Northampton, he secured a leading role in Murder at Monte Carlo, a production of Warner Bros.' Teddington studio. The success of this picture resulted in a Warner contract and a ticket to the Burbank studio in Hollywood. There, he had small roles in two B pictures before his starring breakthrough in 1936's Captain Blood, a role that came his way fortuitously when contract negotiations with the intended star, Robert Donat, fell through and a replacement had to be quickly found.
Thus began Flynn's most productive period and the one that contains virtually all of his best films. During the next ten years, he excelled at swashbucklers (The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk), westerns (Dodge City, Virginia City, Santa Fe Trail, They Died with Their Boots On), and war films (The Dawn Patrol, Desperate Journey, Edge of Darkness, Objective Burma) as well as forays into comedy (Four's a Crowd) and biography (Gentlemen Jim).
In the early 1940s, Flynn had survived a highly publicized rape trial, but its representation of his amorous exploits and his tough-guy screen image both increasingly dogged him away from the screen. From 1945 on, Flynn's films began to slip too and there would be only isolated gems (Silver River, Adventures of Don Juan, Rocky Mountain, and his last really good swashbuckler, Against All Flags) among the dross. Thus whether at work or play, life was increasingly a struggle for the still-young Flynn. Money problems related to alimony payments and back taxes arose too in the early 1950s and eventually Flynn left Hollywood, spending much of his final seven years of life aboard his yacht, the "Zaca".
The films during Flynn's last years are mostly forgettable with the exception of a trio of films in 1957-58 - The Sun Also Rises, Too Much Too Soon, and The Roots of Heaven. Unfortunately, it was not these but 1959's inept Cuban Rebel Girls that one must count as his last screen appearance.
Although Flynn died shockingly young, it was little surprise to any who saw him in his last years, as his life of excess had taken a mighty toll on his body. At his passing, he was a very pale shadow of the virile, handsome film star who graced so many fine adventure films during Hollywood's Golden Age. His death, though due to different circumstances than the others, was but one of several passings of some of Hollywood's greatest stars all at relatively young ages (Humphrey Bogart, Tyrone Power, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable) during a grim five-year period from 1957-1961.
On DVD, Flynn's Warner Bros. career and the continued popularity of his films has meant that he has become well represented in Warners' extensive catalogue of classic releases. So far, three box sets of his films have been released. The Errol Flynn Signature Collection: Volume 1 contains Captain Blood, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Sea Hawk, They Died with Their Boots On, Dodge City, and an extensive film biography, The Adventures of Errol Flynn). The Errol Flynn Signature Collection: Volume 2 contains The Charge of the Light Brigade, Gentleman Jim, The Adventures of Don Juan, The Dawn Patrol, and Dive Bomber). The Errol Flynn Westerns Collection contains San Antonio, Virginia City, Montana, and Rocky Mountain). All these films were restored and remastered for their DVD release; all look impressive; and all are accompanied by an extensive package of supplements including a Warner Night at the Movies treatment. (Reviews of these sets can be found in the Bits' Reviews Archive.) Receiving an even more elaborate treatment and available as very highly recommended two-disc DVD SE and Blu-ray versions is Flynn's pinnacle film, The Adventures of Robin Hood. Warners has also accorded separate DVD releases to The Prince and the Pauper, Thank Your Lucky Stars, Objective Burma, It's a Great Feeling, and The Master of Ballantrae. Four's a Crowd is available as a Warner Archive release. Cruise of the Zaca (a 20-minute short detailing a 1946 cruise by Flynn on his boat down the west coast of Mexico, but not released until 1952) is included on The Adventures of Robin Hood DVD release.
The one portion of Flynn's Warner Bros. films that could be better represented on DVD is that of his wartime propaganda efforts. In that regard, Flynn enthusiasts will be glad to know that Desperate Journey and Edge of Darkness are two films that will definitely be included in a fourth set of restored and remastered Flynn films that Warner Bros. is currently working on bringing to retail DVD (not the Archive) in 2010 - welcome news courtesy of Warner Home Video's George Feltenstein, Senior VP for Theatrical Catalog Marketing.
Questions have been raised at times over the past few years about the status of Silver River and Santa Fe Trail. The latter has long been in the public domain and has been available on DVD in less than ideal transfers from a number of the PD specialists. Both are personal favorites of mine and both had originally been planned for restoration and remastering so they could be included in last summer's Errol Flynn Westerns Collection. Neither, of course, appeared. In the case of Silver River, when evaluating elements, Warners found that the film had been cut for reissue (from perhaps 114 to about 108 minutes, going by the AFI catalogue) and the original negative and fine grains did not reflect the original cut. Since Warners always tries to release the original cut, they are searching for appropriate elements in order to do right by Silver River. In the case of Santa Fe Trail, there were some problems with the available elements, which precluded release at the same time as the Flynn Westerns box. Warners has not said so, but given the studio's efforts at addressing these two films, I would guess that both will make their way to retail DVD eventually.
Of Flynn's non-Warner pictures, the following are available on DVD - Kim (1952, an MGM film available on DVD from Warner Bros.); Against All Flags (1952, available in Universal's Pirates of the Golden Age Movie Collection); The Sun Also Rises (1957, a Fox DVD release available separately or as part of the Hemingway Classics Collection); and Cuban Story (a 1959 film in which Flynn mainly provides bookend comments on a paean to the Cuban Revolution and which was released on DVD by All Day Entertainment but is now out of print).
Fans may also want to seek out the 1955 British production of Lilacs in the Spring (aka Let's Make Up), available on a region 2 DVD from Simply Media. A French Region 2 release of Silver River is also available for those who may be too impatient to wait for a definitive Region 1 release.
Beyond his feature films and the Cruise of the Zaca short mentioned above, inveterate Flynn watchers may like to try and find a glimpse of him in The Lady From Shanghai (1947, a Columbia release available on DVD from Sony) for which he rented out and skippered the Zaca. A 1935 short subject in which Flynn briefly appears (Pirate Party on Catalina Island) can be found in Warners' DVD of David Copperfield. The Warner annual blooper reels that can be found on various Warner classic releases also contain the occasional Flynn appearance if memory serves me correctly. There may be a few other short Flynn appearances on DVD that I've forgotten and I welcome any additions in that regard.
One of the most-welcome recent DVD releases has been that of Universal's Lonely Are the Brave, an entry in its new Backlot Series. The 1962 film is one of star Kirk Douglas's favorites and contains one of his best performances.
In it, he plays cowboy Jack Burns, trying to hang onto the traditional cowboy life in a modern world. When one of his friends is jailed for helping Mexicans enter the country illegally, Burns tries to bust him out but ends up on the lam by himself when his friend refuses to leave jail. Jack takes to the hills of New Mexico (with the law headed by Walter Matthau after him) hoping to get across the border to safety in Mexico. Lonely Are the Brave was a film that even 47 years ago struck a cord with anyone sympathetic to the spirit of the individual and the loss of traditional values, both threatened by the conformity and strictures of the modern world. In this respect, it is even more relevant today. Douglas got little award recognition for his efforts in the film, but most critics of the time applauded his work as well as his willingness to make a picture (he was the producer also) that clearly had little chance of being a major box office force. His portrayal (in a role in which he immerses himself as well as any in his career) has stood the test of time well. Excellent support is provided by Matthau and by Gena Rowlands who gives a short but memorable performance as Burns' jailed-friend's wife. Carroll O'Connor also scores well as a truck driver with an increasingly obvious rendezvous with fate. Director David Miller maintains suspense particularly well during the film's second half. Universal's 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is particularly good, displaying a superior grayscale. The image is very clean and with a touch of grain evident, delivers a nice film-like experience. The mono sound has been cleaned up well. Two good, new featurettes - running about 30 minutes in total - are also provided. One is a sort of making-of tribute with insightful comments by Steven Spielberg, Michael Douglas and most welcome, Kirk Douglas himself. The other highlights the music score by Jerry Goldsmith. Highly recommended.
It's a rather jarring experience to watch Baghdad in Generation Kill, the fine HBO dramatic miniseries about the Iraq war, one day and less than 24 hours later see Universal's version of the city in its new Backlot Series release of 1944's Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
Of course, one is modern reality and the other historic fantasy, but the contrast is striking nonetheless. The 1944 film has long been hailed for its vibrant Technicolor and its exuberant fairy-tale story, but colour and enthusiasm can only take you so far. Unfortunately, the tale of a prince who tries to retake his father's throne and gain the hand of his childhood sweetheart is saddled with Jon Hall and Maria Montez who both work from the hardwood-floor school of acting in the leading roles of Ali and his love, Amara. Their work makes the jaw-dropping appearance of Andy Devine and even Jimmy Conlin as two of the forty thieves almost palatable. The best thing you can do with this film is sit back and enjoy the costume and set design, and if you have to concentrate on the story at all, focus on the work of a string of familiar character actors such as Kurt Katch and Frank Puglia as the chief villains and Moroni Olsen and Fortunio Bonanova among the good guys. Jon Hall somehow managed to carve out a short career as a leading man, but as a true swashbuckler, he couldn't even carry the feather in Errol Flynn's Robin Hood cap. When you have to be bailed out of the climactic swordfight by Andy Devine, that about says it all. There's little to complain about in Universal's full frame transfer, however. The colours are striking and skin tones look good. There are a few minor instances of mis-registration and even the odd hint of edge effects, but those are quibbles compared to the overall appeal of the transfer. The mono sound is in good shape. There are no supplements. Fans of the film should be pleased with a purchase, but others should try a rental to see if you're satisfied with style over substance.
Serious Charge, a recent release from VCI, is a generally forgotten British film from 1959 that probably got made principally as a vehicle to introduce budding pop star Cliff Richard (the U.K.'s answer to Elvis Presley) to the screen.
In this regard it has much in common with many American films of the same era that served as a vehicle for the rock and roll stars of the time and focused on the rebellion of a teenage rock generation seemingly obsessed only with hanging around coffee houses, breaking into private property, or grooving to rock music. In Serious Charge, there is a framing story of a vicar (Anthony Quayle) who attempts to help many of the youth in his parish. When he accuses one of them of being responsible for the death of a teenage girl, the young thug (Anthony Ray) in turn accuses the vicar falsely of "interfering" with him, a charge backed up by a woman (Sarah Churchill) whose advances were rejected by the vicar. Cliff Richard's role is a supporting one as a teenager somewhat sympathetic to the vicar's efforts. In the course of the film's 95-minute running time, he manages a handful of songs including "Living Doll", No Turning Back', and "Mad About You". His work here gives little hint that his pop efforts would eventually lead to a knighthood. The framing story is interesting enough and benefits from Anthony Quayle's earnest efforts, but shaving 15 minutes off the running time would have been beneficial even if it meant fewer Cliff Richard songs. Better to be remembered for one good song and a strong compact film than a flabby effort with one or two too many mediocre songs. The full frame transfer offers a reasonably sharp image, but one that does suffer from being a bit too dark with attendent reduced shadow detail at times. The film may have been originally released at 1.66:1, but seems little compromised by the full frame image if that's actually the case. Speckling and some scratches are evident. The mono sound is quite workable. Certainly worth a look for Cliff Richard fans.