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June 01st 2009 print

Mark McGinness

The Swashbuckler from Hobart

Australia’s most celebrated swordsman, Errol Flynn, would have been 100 on June 20 this year. This year also marks half a century since his death, in the wake of which Sir Robert Megarry, the English jurist, tasked with clarifying his will, observed:

In his career, in his three marriages, in his friendships, in his quarrels, and in bed with the many women he took there, he lived with zest and irregularity. The lives of film stars are not cast in the ordinary mould; and in some respects Errol Flynn’s was more stellar than most. When he died, he posed the only question that I have to decide: Where was he domiciled at the date of his death?

It is difficult to imagine that the restless Flynn was ever domiciled. The restlessness may have been preordained. His given name apparently means wanderer. He was born in Hobart on June 20, 1909. It has been suggested he put Tasmania on the map. (Sir Les Patterson would maintain that Flynn would be forever fascinated by the map of Tasmania.)

His father, Theodore, was born in Coraki, New South Wales, the son of Irish immigrants. When Errol was two, Theodore became the Ralston Professor of Biology in at the University of Tasmania. According to the ADB “he pursued a vigorous study of the marsupials of Tasmania and also did original work on megapodes”. It is a neat irony that, given one of his son’s many soubriquets, Professor Flynn also took particular interest in the Tasmanian devil. Errol’s mother Lily (Marelle) nee Young, was a spirited beauty from Manly, a descendant of Midshipman Edward Young, one of the Bounty mutineers. He said of his parents:

All my life I have tried to find my mother and have never found her. My father has not been Theodore Flynn, exactly, but a will-o’-the wisp just beyond, whom I have chased and hunted to see him smile upon me, and I shall never find my true father, for the father I wanted to find was what I might become …

Expelled from Hobart High School at sixteen, he was sent by his father to Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore). He shared a dormitory with John Gorton and played tennis and cricket but within six months he was expelled from there too. Flynn maintains in his memoir that it was due to a brawl with a bully over the affections of a girl called Lindsay; another account suggests he was caught in flagrante with the laundress’s daughter on the school coal heap; a third account that he was found to have stolen money from a guest at a party given by a member of the school tennis team. In September 1926 he found a job as mail clerk with Dalgety but he was dismissed for using stamp money to buy a bicycle.

By 1927, he was in New Guinea as a trainee district officer but then, in swift succession, a copra plantation overseer, a partner in a charter schooner business and a gold prospector. In 1930, having returned to Sydney, he purchased the cutter Sirocco, sailing it with friends back to New Guinea. At Laloki he managed a tobacco plantation.

Escaping debts, he returned to Sydney where in 1932 the director Charles Chauvel, preparing to film In the Wake of the Bounty, cast him as Fletcher Christian, who had led Flynn’s ancestor, Young, in the famous mutiny. Flynn claimed “he stank” as an actor but the Sydney Telegraph praised his performance. It seems he would rather have been a writer than an actor. He had contributed articles to the Bulletin from Laloki but buoyed by his first role he set off for Britain and joined the Northampton Repertory Company, appearing in twenty-two plays over six months.

Already his publicity was claiming he had featured in six films, that he was an Olympic swimmer and an Australian boxing champion. He caught the attention of a Warner Brothers producer with a reference from Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, son of the original swashbuckler, and was offered a contract. He appeared in Murder at Monte Carlo, filmed at Teddington studio.

He sailed to the United States, wooing the beautiful, passionate Lili Damita, one of Hollywood’s lustrous stars, on board. They would wed in 1935. His first Hollywood film for Warner Brothers was The Case of the Curious Bride; he played a corpse. Every actor must begin somewhere but it was odd that the priapic Flynn should begin his Hollywood career as a stiff.

Stardom came to him in 1935 with the release of Captain Blood. Although still a little awkward before a camera, his energy, good looks and charm captivated the critics and public. So did his co-star, Olivia de Havilland. This was the beginning of a winning double-act. Jack Warner observed, “Together these two amateurs set the screen on fire.”

The other ingredient was the inspired direction of the Hungarian Michael Curtiz, with whom Flynn had as combative a relationship as he did with Warner. Captain Blood was followed by another heroic action film, Charge of the Light Brigade, with the same two stars and director. David Niven also starred and recalled in the second of his memoirs Curtiz’s memorable line, “Bring on the empty horses”, which, Niven said, sounded like “Bring on the empty whores”.

It was not enough that he be a heroic adventurer on the screen. Flynn despised the Hollywood phonies but mined the publicity machine. He did nothing to discourage claims that he had battled tribes of head hunters in the New Guinea jungle, plunged through crocodile-infested waters in search of gold, and fought off cannibals.

But soon Flynn was fighting off his own demons; or rather, not fighting, but yielding to them. His pursuit of women (despite his marriage) was rapacious, while his thirst for alcohol was unquenchable. And yet his next big film The Adventures of Robin Hood was a masterpiece. In what was to become his screen kit—doublet, tunic, feathered hat and a quiverful of arrows—Flynn cut a magnificent figure, whether duelling with Guy of Gisborne (Basil Rathbone) or wooing Maid Marian (de Havilland at her most winning). This film also exploited Flynn’s penchant for the double entendre. Leaving Nottingham Castle to swelling music and Maid Marian in his arms, with the King’s permission to wed her, the hero quips, “May I obey all Your Majesty’s commands with equal pleasure!”

In the wake of the Anschluss in far-off Austria, Warner Brothers tried to appeal to peace and US isolationism with Dawn Patrol and Flynn as a squadron commander in the Great War. When the US did decide to enter the war, Flynn, who became a US citizen in 1942, was ruled unfit. He had tuberculosis and recurring malaria, but this was kept from the public, who believed their hero was as he seemed—a supremely fit Adonis. Flynn wrote to the Office of Strategic Services offering to play a diplomatic role, such as Ambassador to Ireland (Warner had at first promoted him as Irish, thinking an Australian star was too obscure). He received no reply.

He remained with Warners, who were intent on using their leading man to distract, inspire and entertain. He starred in a series of westerns, beginning with Dodge City. The long-suffering de Havilland co-starred in this and in Santa Fe Trail, where they were joined by a young Ronald Reagan, who made the perfect foil. Reagan got to know Flynn quite well, describing him as “a strange person, terribly unsure of himself and needlessly so. He was a beautiful piece of machinery, likable, with great charm, and yet convinced he lacked ability as an actor.” Reagan was invited to cocktails and dinner at Flynn’s home, Mulholland Farm, overlooking the San Fernando Valley. Expecting a swashbuckler’s eyrie, he was amazed to find books on philosophy, literary fiction, a classical music library; “everywhere the evidence of taste and thoughtful living … Here was a man with a capacity—and a need—for friendship.”

Flynn again donned doublet and hose to co-star with Bette Davis in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Davis had wanted Laurence Olivier as Essex, which may have made Flynn determined to get it right as her handsome romantic suitor, but her determination to be a realistic Elizabeth—white-faced, ageing and bloated—only served to highlight the distance between them.

He was by then also estranged from Lili and although she gave birth to his son, Sean, in 1941, the marriage ended in divorce soon after.

In 1942 he scored a hit with Gentleman Jim, the story of the boxer turned matinee idol from the turn of the century, James Barrett. His performance was one of Flynn’s personal favourites. Brash, boyish, enthusiastic, he acquitted himself well inside the ring and out. It came at a cost; after he collapsed during filming, his heart and lungs were found to be in bad shape. In fact 1942 marked the beginning of Flynn’s decline on other fronts. The District Attorney’s Office began investigating allegations that Flynn was having sexual relations with under-age women; one of them, a fifteen-year-old, complained of being violated on his yacht, the Sirocco, renamed in honour of his first boat. The other girl, a seventeen-year-old with hopes of a movie career, gave evidence that Flynn ravaged her with his shoes on. This created a ripple, given that the accused had just starred as General George Custer, in the western, They Died with Their Boots On, about the defeat at Little Big Horn.

Although Flynn was acquitted at trial, he was forever tainted. His vigour, magnetism and masculine appeal had taken on a louche and sinister edge. Yet he would never become box office poison. He played a French thief in Uncertain Glory, a paratrooper in Objective, Burma! and a western hero taking on cattle rustlers in San Antonio. In the films that followed—Never Say Goodbye, Cry Wolf, Escape Me Never—Flynn had a chance to step out of the hero mould of old. Of Silver River, another western, he quipped, “I play a cross between a rogue and a heel. Sort of a self-portrait you might say.”

But what followed was an even closer match—the title role of the rakish lothario in Adventures of Don Juan, where, once more he stepped into breeches, with (both) his lances at the ready. Flynn seemed resigned to this fate: “I’ll be in costume from then on—waving so many swords, I’ll look like an asparagus patch on a windy day.”

By the late 1940s, his second marriage, to Nora Eddington (with whom he had two daughters), had foundered and he married another actress, Patrice Wymore, in 1950. He had sold the Sirocco and in 1946 bought a schooner, the Zaca. He rediscovered Jamaica and eventually settled there. He had won Navy Island in a poker game and bought a hotel. He had tired of Hollywood, where he was seen as a libertine, and lamented not being able to enjoy restaurants: “the waitresses all expect me to pinch their ass”.

In 1956 Patrice bore him a daughter but separated from him the following year. In 1957 he took up with a fifteen-year-old, Beverly Aadland.

He had grown more and more like John Barrymore, whom he had admired as a boy from the seats of the Strand Theatre, Hobart, and later came to know in Hollywood. So there was an inevitability that he would play Barrymore. Jack Warner said of Flynn in Too Much, Too Soon:

He was playing the part of a drunken actor, and he didn’t need any method system to get them in the mood. He was drunk. Too much too soon. The words should have been carved on a tombstone at the time, for he was one of the living dead.

He still had a few more films in him but his heavy drinking and drug habit made it difficult for him to remember his lines, and when he did they were slurred. One producer had Flynn under surveillance and could not account for his condition—he appeared to be eating nothing but oranges—until a spy hiding in Flynn’s dressing room saw one of his assistants injecting the oranges with syringes full of vodka.

On October 14, 1959, while in Vancouver negotiating with a friend to sell the Zaca, he complained of back pain. He visited a physician and cocktails appeared. A cocktail party from an adjoining apartment soon joined them and for two hours, propped up against the door jamb to alleviate his painful back, Flynn regaled his guests with stories of W.C. Fields and Barrymore—“a magnificent performance”. He left them with a flourish—“I shall return”—and collapsed and died soon after. An autopsy revealed coronary thrombosis. His liver had all but disintegrated. As his ex-wives, children, benefactors, friends and enemies fought over his dwindling assets, he was buried at Forest Lawn cemetery near his pals W.C. Fields and later Nat King Cole, with a view of Warner Brothers studio.

Apart from Thomas McNulty’s sober, meticulous, fair-minded work in 2004, Flynn has been unlucky with his biographers. Charles Higham’s (a former literary editor at the Bulletin) incredible Errol Flynn: The Untold Story (1980) made some astonishing claims; among them that Flynn was a Nazi spy and bisexual. Evidence of the first is flimsy. Of the second he cites the notoriously unreliable Truman Capote, who says that as a faun of eighteen he spent an amorous evening with Flynn in his Gramercy Park walk-up. “Years later, Marilyn Monroe asked Truman whether he enjoyed it. He shrugged. ‘If it hadn’t been Errol Flynn, I wouldn’t even have remembered it.’” For her part, Marilyn claimed Flynn played “You Are My Sunshine” to her on a piano using his celebrated appendage.

Flynn’s own memoir, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, ghosted by Earl Conrad, was published posthumously. He had rejected the obvious title In Like Flynn—“In like me? Who’s in? Me? Who, when, where?” What surprised fans about the memoir were Flynn’s intellectual depth and philosophical studies, but what it revealed most was the complexity of the man.

Australia has seen a galaxy of its leading men stride the world stage but none has matched the celebrity of Errol Flynn or his reputation; and one suspects, none of them would want it.

Mark McGinness currently lives in the Middle East, where he is Director of International Relations for the Dubai Financial Services Authority.