BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Mar 27th, 2007 •

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Warner Bros Home Entertainment

There was a Volume One of Flynn hits, featuring CAPTAIN BLOOD, THE SEA HAWK, THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, DODGE CITY, and a Flynn documentary, THE ADVENTURES OF ERROL FLYNN. Oddly enough, and certainly unexpectedly, this collection is as good as that one. It spans more years in the actor’s career, giving you a chance to see the physical arc he went through (which one can complete with WB’s THE SUN ALSO RISES, Flynn’s last fine performance, in another of their boxed sets, THE HEMINGWAY COLLECTION.) I’m not convinced that anything in the first collection is as good as THE DAWN PATROL, or as warm and personal as ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN. Also, as in the first collection, you see Flynn working with his two most important directors, Michael Curtiz and Raoul Walsh.

CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, released and pulled from release in ’36, has Curtiz’s staunch physicality, but the romantic triangle thread was probably dramatically dated even at the time of release. Nonetheless it is a ‘must have’ for film history buffs, as its wanton destruction of over 200 horses – using the inhumane ‘flying W’ which guaranteed, in frame, a spectacular, leg-breaking fall – created such public protest that animal protection laws were passed as a result. The third act is jaw-dropping in this regard. Compare it to the ‘biggest multiple horse fall stunt ever recorded’ in John Wayne’s THE ALAMO where, though spectacular as promised, it looks like the horses are lying down gently on padded mattresses by comparison.

LIGHT BRIGADE’s DVD image, breathtakingly preserved from a 35mm source that must have been very close to the original negative, is reason enough to relish the film. Some of the first act art direction is worthy of William Cameron Menzies, and these interior scenes capture the full, extravagant gray tone range of the early nitrate film stock. Max Steiner’s score is also memorable.

And this disc has some interesting supplementals as well. GIVE ME LIBERTY is an Academy Award winning 1936 Technicolor short about the pivotal moments in Patrick Henry’s career, and John Litel gives the big speech his all, reminding me in not only his delivery, but in his looks, of Frederic March in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. He also reminds me, in that speech, a bit of Hitler in the climax of TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, searching for more flamboyant ways to match the tone of the speech with body language. The Technicolor looks particularly good in the flower arrangements and on the women’s hats. It was amusing to see one extra wearing a coonskin hat, symbolizing the presence of the citizens of Tennessee.

A Bob Hope short is only fair, though it’s interesting to note that his character is called ‘Robert Hope Jr.’ And an early B& W Porky Pig cartoon, set in a war zone, is more reminiscent in its abstract stylization of the Fleischer Bros work than the later Warner Bros Technicolor animation.

THE DAWN PATROL, by Edmund Goulding – not one of the big three that Flynn gravitated towards as ‘men’s action directors’ – steals the day with this great remake of an earlier Hawks flick, even borrowing footage from the original, which fits in seamlessly. Basil Rathbone, a great Sherlock Holmes and a great villain opposite Flynn, Power, and others, had a third character type – hysterical-under-pressure (not humorous hysterical; borderline-psychotic hysterical). He does it brilliantly in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (’39 – Universal Home Entertainment), and he does it equally well here. He strikes a perfect balance with Flynn’s devil-may-care WWI fighter pilot in the film’s first half…until Flynn ends up getting Rathbone’s job, and all Flynn’s carefree antics fade into somber reality. Flynn is at his best in this film, essaying the kind of nuanced acting arc that he somehow thought he never was given the opportunity to do. And David Niven is also perfectly cast as his fun-loving buddy. The editorial department keeps the pacing up while allowing strategic scenes to linger a while if characterization is more important than forward momentum, and the script deals us some wicked twists to keep our imaginations fired up. I think it’s one of the better Hollywood films of the era (although I might not want to put it up against the onslaught of ’39), and I always wished it had been remade by a trio of latter-day action stars (THE BLUE MAX really doesn’t do the job). It may not be on a level with CASABLANCA, but then what is?

DIVE BOMBER, despite having Curtiz at the helm, eye-candy Technicolor, and some truly magnificent aerial photography, is the stodgy, nearly unwatchable item in this collection. The conflict between combat surgeons and the air force fliers who take all the risks proceeds at an even, boring keel, and neither high altitude diving ‘black-outs’, nor the presence of an extraneous female to keep audience members on alert, does a thing for the passive viewer. Maybe it had an added level of interest in ’41, when the war was raging and Hollywood was actively promoting our future interest in it. Flynn goes for a ‘serious’ approach, but comes off as sedate. But…it does have that aerial footage!

Curtiz and Flynn parted ways after DIVE BOMBER, and Raoul Walsh moved in for the kill. His films with Flynn may be less classic in form, but they are warm and lush. And they are practically the last of Flynn’s best work. In the fifties he moved on to a third ‘men’s director’ – former wunderkind Technicolor cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who also did some great work with another physical male lead, Rod Taylor (DARK OF THE SUN…where are you!?)

Walsh did THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON from the first Flynn package, and he directed GENTLEMAN JIM in this collection. Based, occasionally loosely, on the career of heavyweight champion boxer Jim Corbett, Walsh gets all the details right. The best thing about the film is its period feel, and that’s not just the art department feeling its oats, or the screenplay, but Walsh’s own experience and quest for authenticity. Within this mise-en-scene, Flynn portrays a characterization both sympathetically naïve and boorishly self-centered. The fight scenes are a big surprise; they’re realistic, long, and quite effective, particularly when you see that Corbet introduced elements to boxing like Mohammud Ali’s floating footwork. The weakness is a lightweight dramatic core, with family sequences that we impatiently sit through, but it’s a pleasant half-of-an- evening’s double bill, to be paired with, say, RAGING BULL?

Flynn did most of his fight scenes, and during the climactic staging of the bout with John L. Sullivan (Ward Bond) he suffered a mild heart attack. It sidelined him for a few weeks, but he returned and finished the picture. It wasn’t in his nature to let his body’s condition stand in the way of his fun.

Walsh was scheduled to direct ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN, but due to studio strikes, etc., the production date was pushed ahead almost two years, and the director ended up being the uninspired, though certainly adequate, Vincent Sherman (1906-2006 – THE RETURN OF DR. X, ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT, MR. SKEFFINGTON, THE YOUNG PHILADELPHIANS, ‘BARETTA’ TV SERIES). Directorial flair is the weak link in this otherwise delightful, reflexively cinematic experience. Flynn was just starting to decompose from his many excesses, in addition to which he was plagued by court cases accusing him of rape (the film’s release capitalized on his off-screen exploits, much to his mortification apparently, as did the earlier GENTLEMAN JIM, which came out shortly after one of the female defendants in one of the trials stated that “he was no gentleman”, and also THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, around which time a female defendant claimed that he wore his socks to bed), and this, his last big budget actioner, was accorded the Hollywood dream factory treatment. The script for much of its first two acts was tongue-in-cheek, referencing Flynn’s life as much as its fictional protagonist’s. The Technicolor gave as much life to the myriad costumes and sets as the director gave to the cast. Max Steiner’s score (an inheritance from Erich Wolfgang Korngold, again due to the vicissitudes of time delays) is rousing and memorable. And despite the alcohol-consumption Flynn brought to the table, it’s not apparent in his performance, which appears effortlessly stellar: he is appropriately gallant, seductive, patriotic, self-deprecating, and melancholy. If a viewer were introduced to Flynn here, not having experienced his glory days, they’d still get it.
Vincent Sherman appears on the commentary track, in his 90s, alternating with historian Rudy Behlmer. Sherman points out one scene where the film’s antagonist was supposed to be seated, and Flynn was to have walked around the set, but the star’s physical condition, following a night of debauchery was too debilitated to allow it, so Flynn sat in the chair and the villain moved about. It works even better, I suspect, considering the flow of the scene, but what a fascinating insight into the process – what to do when faced with a lead actor who was practically comatose by the afternoon.

Viveca Lindfors was imported from Sweden for this film, her first English language venture, and she’s good, though no Ingrid Bergman, which is what Warner Bros was hoping for. She went on to a varied and serious acting career, and ended up teaching at The School of Visual Arts, where I had many pleasant encounters with her. She threw a faculty party each year in her large upper-East-Side apartment, and was dedicated to her acting courses at the school. She died suddenly while on tour in Sweden, and I was sorry I hadn’t spent more time talking with her about her Hollywood career. She’d become a reliable third lead in those last years (EXORCIST THREE, STARGATE, etc) and told me how much she had loved working with George Romero on CREEPSHOW (soon to be a Warner Bros special edition, I’m told). But I wish I’d pressed her to tell a few tales about Errol Flynn.

Midget actor Jerry Austin is a worrisome presence in DON JUAN. Though the courts of the world did have midgets as jesters, putting him in the film threatened silly hi-jinks in the third act, which would interrupt the action. Fortunately, during the action-filled finale, he only jabs one guy in the ass with a miniature sword and walks away. It could have been much worse. But there is a scene a few minutes earlier where he’s walking down a corridor to ask some guards a question, and Steiner’s otherwise mature score devolves into ‘mickey mousing’ his every step. Dreadful. Foolish indulgences like that were standard studio practice in the Golden Age. John Ford’s idiotic fight scenes still give me the willies.

The condition of these films on DVD is exemplary. GENTLEMAN JIM looks like it was filmed within the decade. ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN appears to genuinely reproduce the Technicolor hues of yesteryear, with only an occasional shot or two (less than a minute in total) that seems degraded – perhaps damaged and replaced with Eastman protection negative.

Directed by Michael Curtiz. Score by Max Steiner.
With: Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Patric Knowles, Nigel Bruce, David Niven.
Supplements: Vintage newsreel. Short ‘Give Me Liberty’. Comedy short ‘Shop Talk’ with Bob Hope. Cartoon ‘Boom Boom’. Trailers.

THE DAWN PATROL – 1938. 103 mins.
Directed by Edmund Goulding. Screenplay by Seton I. Miller and Dan Totheroh.
With: Flynn, Basil Rathbone, David Niven, Donald Crisp, Barry Fitzgerald.
Supplements: Newsreel. Musical shorts ‘The Prisoner of Swing’ and ‘Romance Road.’ Cartoon ‘What Price Porky?’ Trailers.

DIVE BOMBER – 1941 – 132 mins – Technicolor
Directed by Michael Curtiz. Screenplay by Frank Wead & Robert Buckner. Music by Max Steiner.
With: Flynn, Fred MacMurray, Ralph Bellamy, Alexis Smith, Robert Armstrong.
Supplements: Featurette ‘Dive Bomber: Keep ‘Em in the Air’.

GENTLEMAN JIM – 1942. 104 mins.
Directed by Raoul Walsh. Screenplay by Vincent Lawrence and Horace McCoy.
With: Flynn, Alexis Smith, Jack Carson, Alan Hale, Ward Bond.
Supplements: Newsreel. Sports shorts ‘Shoot Yourself, ‘Same Golf’ (With Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman) and ‘The Right Timing.’ Cartoon ‘Foney Fables’. Trailers. Audio only radio-show adaptation with Flynn, Smith, and Ward Bond.

ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN – 1948. 110 mins. – Technicolor
Directed by Vincent Sherman. Screenplay by George Oppenheimer and Harry Kurnitz. Produced by Jerry Wald.
Music by Max Steiner.
With: Flynn, Viveca Lindfors, Alan Hale, Ann Rutherford.
Supplements: Commentary track by Vincent Sherman and Rudy Behlmer. Comedy short ‘So You Want to Be on the Radio.’ Travel short ‘Calgary Stampede.’ Cartoon ‘Hare Splitter.’ Trailers.

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