August 4, 2006


When the Sword Was Still Mighty (HARRY HAUN, August 4, 2006, NY Sun)

"Walking through life with you, ma'am, has been a very gracious thing."
— George Armstrong Custer bidding goodbye to his wife as he leaves for what both know is his last tour of duty in "They Died With Their Boots On."

Olivia de Havilland, who turned nine decades old on July 1, still remembers that day 65 years ago when Errol Flynn uttered those parting words to her on a backlot soundstage in Burbank, Calif.

"I felt real sorrow when we filmed that,"she said, at a sold-out salute from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences earlier this year. "I felt the same way the next day and the day after that. I felt it for many days and couldn't understand why. Then, years later, I realized something inside me sensed this would be the last picture I'd ever make with Errol Flynn." [...]

The Flynn-de Havilland epics were bread-and-butter basics for the Brothers Warner, but somehow they didn't pack the prestige of, say, Paul Muni in a beard or Bette Davis in a snit. Which is why both stars wanted out of those constraining period costumes.

Ms. de Havilland earned her first Oscar nomination in 1940 for her portrayal of Melanie Hamilton in "Gone With the Wind" — in the supporting category (the award was won by the movie's Mammy, Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American so honored). That same year, Ms. de Havilland costarred with Flynn in the western, "Santa Fe Trail," starring Ronald Reagan. But as her star was rising, Flynn's was falling.

Flynn, the more typed and limited of the two, continued to flail about with standard-brand heroics, anesthetized by booze and debauchery. By 1950, he literally couldn't stand up for the finale clinch in "Montana," reclining on the ground while Alexis Smith stooped down to kiss him. In contrast, by then de Havilland had two Oscars (out of five nominations) and a plateau of respect — which she effortlessly abdicated in 1955 to marry Paris Match editor Pierre Galante and make France her home. [...]

One night in 1958, she was talking with friends in the foyer at the Beverly Hilton Hotel when she was surprised by a kiss on the neck from Flynn. To the shocked embarrassment of both, she didn't recognize him. "It wasn't just he was gaunt," she said. "It was his eyes. They were such merry eyes on screen. Now, there was something dead about them."

The following year, de Havilland caught a revival of "The Adventures of Robin Hood" in Paris. "I was absolutely enraptured by it — to such a degree I went home and wrote Errol a letter. Then I thought, "No. It's sentimental. I'd better not send it." And I didn't. Two weeks later, he died. It's a letter I very much wish I'd sent."

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 4, 2006 11:06 AM

Don't miss the late-but-fun Against All Flags (1952), in which Errol Flynn infiltrates the pirate republic of Libertatia(!). Cool detail: When the captains are preparing for a voyage, they put up recruiting posters that emphasize crewmembers will be paid on a pure commission basis: "No Prey, No Pay."

Posted by: PapayaSF at August 4, 2006 4:51 PM
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