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Four’s A Fun Crowd

What happens when you cast Errol Flynn in a movie tailor-made for Cary Grant? Rather pleasant things, it turns out!

Flynn Week, thus far, has brought you Flynn in period costume, army uniform, and cowboy outfit. In Four’s A Crowd (1938) he breaks out the tuxedo and top hat, giving the world a glimpse of a career that could have been.

The movie begins with Jean Christy (Rosalind Russell), fast-talking, fact-gathering, breezy reporter who sails into her workplace one day to find her newspaper about to down shutters thanks to the incompetence of young Pat Buckley (Patric Knowles), who inherited the company from his father without having the least idea how to run it other than hope to stay in business by printing what amounts to glowing PR releases for important men.

Jean knows what, or rather who, will fix their woes – Bob Lansford (Errol Flynn), the managing editor Pat fired for humiliating him by saving him from a disastrous marriage with a girl who just happened to be a full-blooded Native American. Ah, the olden days.

Anyway, Pat doesn’t have the time to think about silly things like a newspaper getting dismantled and reporters being thrown out of work – he’s madly in love with Lori Dillingwell (Olivia de Havilland), a slightly dim socialite he adoringly calls “Cootchie-cootchie-cootchie”.

Of course, this is not acceptable to Jean – his cavalier attitude towards the sacred press or his terms of endearment – and so she proceeds to con Lansford into helping the paper survive by dangling Lori in front of him. Lori, you see, is the granddaughter of The J. P. Dillingwell – the richest man in America. And also the one rich man severely disinterested in entrusting his reputation (and a couple of million of his money) to the greedy hands of Lansford who now makes a comfortable living polishing up the public images of men too rich to be well-liked through the judicious use of philanthropy.

“I should think you’d want to clean yourself up, if only for the sake of Posterity!” says Lansford.
“Posterity?” sneers Dillingwell. “What did Posterity ever do for me? Why should I do anything for Posterity?”
Right on, Grandpa!

A nasty newspaper campaign, orchestrated scenes reminiscent of the French Revolution, 21 baying hounds, assorted bits of animal abuse (seriously, what the hell is up with that in these movies? I guess I’m just not conditioned to the sensibilities of an era wherein children were treated better than animals), and a well-buttered railroad later, Lansford has landed his prized deal and convinced the two dimwits that he and Jean are in love with them. His troubles, of course, have just begun.

In the hands of Cary Grant, Lansford would be a charming rogue. Flynn is almost every bit as charming, but he is also a bit more slimy, a bit more of a stone-cold cad, a bit less believable as a man flustered by his complicated romantic life, and not in the least bit comforting the way Grant could be. The difference is most marked when you see the two men kiss their costars. When Flynn takes a woman in his arms, no matter how tightly they keep their mouths closed and how distorted the camera angle, you can’t help but suspect he’s slipping her a little tongue. With Grant, you know he’s being a gentleman – no matter how long Alfred Hitchcock kept him plastered to Eva Marie Saint.

If Flynn’s is an excellent performance, Four’s A Crowd belongs just as much to Rosalind Russell, who would go on to movie immortality and refine her ace reporter act opposite Grant in His Girl Friday. “You play hop-scotch from one double-cross to another,” says Jean, every bit as clever as him but much more principled. Jean is nobody’s fool, the only person wily enough to track and lay Lansford low through his many complicated machinations, single-handedly saves her newspaper as well as her boss’ dumb butt, and even gets her man in the end. My kinda hero.

In direct comparison, Olivia de Havilland is just annoyingly studied as the flibbertigibbet Lori. Her best scene is her introduction to Lansford but there are enough moments like the impromptu dance she puts on in the middle of the night to hoodwink her grandpa that hint at the lost potential of this role in the hands of an accomplished comedienne.

Patric Knowles, at the end of this rectangle, is the other pleasant surprise. Unlike his other roles with Flynn, he actually gets to do a fair bit here and he’s pretty good as the rich idiot who just wants to fall in love with a pretty girl and bring Lansford down a notch.

Unfortunately for Flynn’s possible career as a leading man in comedy, Four’s A Crowd is simply not in the same league as the other, more famous screwball comedies from the era. But I’d say that has a great deal more to do with director Michael Curtiz, who simply doesn’t have the magical touch of his contemporaries Howard Hawks or Preston Sturges even if he’s pretty good at injecting humor into his adventure movies, than Flynn. Still better than 90% of the trash you’ll see these days though.

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2010 in Celebrity, Entertainment, Movies, Review

 

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Getting the Hell Into Dodge

“The only native of Kansas,” Wade Hatton informs Abby Irving, “is the buffalo. He’s got a very hard head, a very uncertain temper and a very lonely future. Apart from that there is hardly any comparison between you.”

Today in Flynn Week, we take a trip to Dodge City (1939), the heart of the Wild West, a “town that knew no ethics but cash and killing.”

The movie starts evocatively with an impromptu race between a stagecoach driven by a grumpy oldtimer and a steamengine pulling a carriage full of rich old assholes. America, in the wake of the Civil War, is changing forever and the railroad is only a sign of the things to come. If you’re looking for a comment on how America was settled, however, Dodge City is not your movie.

On board the train, you see, is Colonel Dodge, who hopes the little settlement he founded would one day become an important economic hub inviting settlers from all over the country. Six years later, “Dodge” is indeed a bustling town central to the cattle business that settled the American West. Unfortunately, with shootouts in the streets and whoring and gambling in the buildings, it’s also a byword for lawlessness.

Enter Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn), a restless adventurer his friend Rusty (Alan Hale) describes as a “moving man”. An Irishman who served the British army in India before fighting for the South in the War, he helped build the railroad but left for Texas rather than help settle Dodge the way the Colonel hoped. Back on business for the first time in six years, he has little interest in playing sheriff the way the townspeople want him to even if he has a personal animosity towards Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot), the man responsible for everything that’s wrong with Dodge. That only reinforces Abby Irving’s (Olivia de Havilland) poor opinion of him. She hasn’t felt too friendly towards him since he shot her brother, which contributed to his death in a stampede.

One tragedy later, everything is different. Hatton, with his friends Rusty and Tex (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams who looks eerily like President Bush), clean up the town by banning guns in the main streets and taxing the hell out of everything. Soon, families are moving in and people are going to church on Sunday, which gives Hatton plenty of time to support the freedom of press and act upon some investigative reporting. I guess the lesson there is, in the Wild West, Jesus votes Democrat.

I must say one of the things that’s always interesting about watching these movies is to wonder how they’d hold up in public opinion if they were made today. And while there is a default assumption that these movies must only be offensive to politically correct lefties, the truth is, these are the product of another era entirely and it shows. Pretty much every argument and norm of today stands on its head in these. I spent a few minutes, for example, wondering why the saloon girls (including Ann Sheridan as Ruby, the main draw) wouldn’t raise their skirts above the knee until I realized, “duh! 1930s!”

The most charming bits of the movie, predictably, are the ones which feature Flynn and de Havilland together. But the rest isn’t bad at all, even if Dodge City is not the kind of western we’re used to today.

 
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Posted by on August 28, 2010 in Celebrity, Entertainment, Movies, Review, Video

 

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C’est de la Folie

C’est de la Folie

The Charge of the Light Brigade is one of the best movies ever made about war. It is about class and the thin line that separates foolishness from bravery on the battlefield; the aloof decisions of powerful men who choose between life and death for other human beings. Extensively researched, it tells the story of one particular battle in the Crimean War, the Battle of Balaclava, later made famous by Lord Tennyson in his poem of the same title.

That movie, of course, was directed by Tony Richardson in 1968 and starred John Gielgud, Trevor Howard and Vanessa Redgrave. But this is Flynn Week, so we shall discuss the version made thirty-odd years before that, starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and Patric Knowles.

If you’re the kind of person who finds Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom offensive then The Charge of the Light Brigade is definitely not for you. In fact, eating monkey brains at a dinner hosted by a manic Amrish Puri playing the head of a cracktastic Kali temple is probably the kinder depiction of the two.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, The Charge of the Light Brigade begins on the Northwest frontier of British India. A clearly know-nothing envoy of the crown is in “Suristan” to meet the cagey new ruler Osama bin Laden Surat Khan (C. Henry Gordon) and somehow convince him to remain friendly to British interests while cutting off the annual allowance with which the British government bought the cooperation of his predecessor and the tribesmen he ruled.

Captain Geoffrey Vickers (Errol Flynn), a veteran of this treacherous terrain, doesn’t really think much of the mission, the envoy or the supposedly “gentlemanly” Surat Khan who lives in an amazingly chic mausoleum with some truly fashion forward pillars in the midst of which he naps on his throne and breeds vultures that he keeps in giant birdcages right smack in the middle of his audience chamber. Coz he’s a savage, see, fancy British education or not.

With England firmly embroiled in The Great Game, rulers in sensitive and potentially hostile areas like Suristan are vitally important. Vickers isn’t all that keen on the idea but ends up saving his hide anyway when a gorgeous spotted kitty is about to make him her dinner while they’re out on safari. Surat Khan immediately pledges friendship and eternal debt to Vickers.

Meanwhile in Calcutta, Vickers’ fiancee Elsa (Olivia de Havilland) is reconsidering quite another pledge. Love being blind, she has fallen for Vickers all right – Perry Vickers (Patric Knowles), Geoffrey’s dorky little brother. Elsa’s father, predictably, doesn’t think much of a man who would make out with his brother’s fiancee, even if he thinks his elder brother is the jolliest of good fellows who’d be willing to hand the love of his life over to his younger brother, all neatly tied up in a bow. He’s much kinder to his daughter as he points out that Geoffrey is Errol freakin’ Flynn, dummy!

Turns out Elsa’s dad was on to something as Geoffrey chews his brother out when he comes clean about Elsa and him falling in love with each other. This creates a misunderstanding between the brothers, especially since weepy Miss Elsa is “a respectable lady” who can’t bring herself to hurt wee Geoffrey’s feelings even though she managed to fall in love with his brother in his absence. Oh, boo fucking hoo. Not even Olivia de Havilland can sell this selfish little drama queen to me.

Now I know what you’re thinking because I was thinking the same thing by this point – why are we spending all this time in India when the movie is about a battle fought in Ukraine?

Well… here’s the thing: when your popcorn movie is based on a poem, no matter how stirring its lines, you need to jazz it up a little. All that stuff about office politics and incompetent aristocrats running the army is all well and good, but when you’re making a movie about Errol Flynn leading a suicide charge against an enemy many times the size of his force, there better be a honking great reason for it.

The filmmakers chose the massacre of the surrendered British, including their women, children, and servants, at Kanpur (or Cawnpore as they spelled it in those days) during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 (or The First War of Independence as we learned to call it in India) as the motivational event. Except the Battle of Balaclava took place before that so they relocated the events to a fictional outpost and made savage, vulture breeding, Russki-loving Surat Khan the aggressor.

Although Vickers is sadly mistaken about how low Surat Khan’s willing to go, even the blackest of villains has their limit. He spares Vickers his life (and that of Elsa) for having once saved his own. Just as Vickers lived to regret his good deed, Surat Khan will presently repent his momentary lapse into honor when the two come face to face in the Crimea.

Apparently, when the Russians saw the incredibly outnumbered British charge the guns at Balaclava, they thought the Brit soldiers must be drunk. A French Marshal said: “It is magnificent but it is not war. It is madness.”

Curtiz takes this sentiment and runs with it. When Vickers comes to know that Surat Khan is present behind enemy lines in The Charge of the Light Brigade, he unilaterally takes the decision to change the more sensible orders handed him by his superior to avenge the deaths of the women and children Surat Khan murdered. Naturally, a spot of insubordination and horrific carnage is incidental to the whole process as befits an officer as bold, principled and courageous as Vickers.

It’s almost genius. At one stroke the movie reclaims an act of such foolhardiness that it actually worked; and sanitizes the very real revenge the British exacted for Kanpur by way of the extremely bloody suppression of the revolt, all of which took place in India instead of some faraway country and was visited on the heads of all sorts of Indians instead of just one villainous one.

It’s a little difficult to find a copy of The Charge of the Light Brigade as Warner Brothers never re-released it, owing to the production’s practice of using trip wires to bring down the horses during the battle scenes, which led to hundreds of the animals getting either killed or having to be put down. Yeah. Um. But another way of looking at it, to follow in the movie’s silver lining example, is to remember that the American government was so horrified, Congress passed the law about harming animals during shoots. Yay?

If you can look past the fact that The Charge of the Light Brigade is stolidly a product of its times, it’s a great blast from the thankfully past and includes a performance by a young David Niven, who went on to use one of Curtiz’s phrases from this movie as the title of his memoir Bring on the Empty Horses. Always worth it.

 
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Posted by on August 27, 2010 in Celebrity, Entertainment, Movies, Review, Video

 

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Rob(b)in My Heart

Rob(b)in My Heart

In The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Errol Flynn runs around a forest in green tights with his BFF who looks like he’d like nothing better than a cuddle from his comrade in arms, and falls for a girl dressed in medieval Europe’s version of the hijab. Directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley, it is an enduring classic. And watching it again for the purposes of my self-declared Flynn Week made me remember why.

If you speak English, you know the story. In fact, it’s been made and remade so often, for television and film, that I was pretty sure I had Robin-fatigue. Part of the reason for this feeling, quite apart from the individual merits of the films or television shows made after the 1938 version, I realized, is because when you’re remaking an old classic, the burden is on you to find “something new” to justify the remake.

Better sets and better costumes that introduced moody lighting and did away with the famous tights. New interpretations of old characters that gave them a bit more to do than be candles to Robin’s star. Realistic styles of warfare involving a great deal of blood and screaming. A hook that announces to the audience that this is not the same old stuff that you saw in your childhood.

By that same token, however, the charm of The Adventures of Robin Hood is that it is precisely that movie you saw in your childhood… and loved very much. The sets seem made out of play dough; the costumes are hilarious; the fighting is choreographed like a slightly less graceful ballet; the story is a wafer thin concoction of action scenes culled from lore; and any true unpleasantness like blood and death are presented in a way calculated to preserve the innocence and sensibilities of the infants of an era past wherein incredible amounts of mindless, desensitizing violence wasn’t the cultural norm. And yet, it is a benchmark because, quite simply, it is fun.

I’ve lost count of how often I saw this movie as a child, or even as an adult because I never missed it if it was on TV, but it has been a few years now and this is the first time I’m writing about it. That brings the realization that my idea of what it means to be A Hero has been indelibly shaped by Flynn’s portrayal of Robin Hood.

“He’s brave and he’s reckless,” gushes Maid Marian (the very lovely Olivia de Havilland) to her nurse (the very funny Una O’Connor). “And yet, he’s gentle and kind, not brutal…”

Flynn’s Robin is indeed all these things and more besides. In fact, my deeply held belief that true heroes are wonderful men who must be a phenomenal pain to know in person stems from his portrayal of Robin in this movie. Childish me thought him exceedingly romantic – grown up, stodgy me doesn’t grudge poor Marian a lifetime of following in the wake of the fires he’s bound to start because he thought the night called for some warmth and by building the biggest bonfire he could, he’d have some fun and something pretty to look at besides. But the magic of Flynn’s Robin is that despite knowing all this, you still either want him or want to be him.

His hot-headed nobility would be insufferable if it weren’t for his humor and obvious intelligence. Of course, it helps that Flynn is also the personification of male beauty at his very prime, with a truly excellent pair of legs he puts to good use during intensely acrobatic fights that require him to run, jump, and swing around like a monkey. And then there is that cocky little grin doing a lot more damage than any of the arrows he lets loose in the movie.

Helping him along is his chemistry with co-star de Havilland. Unlike the majority of versions, in The Adventures of Robin Hood, Maid Marian is not the childhood sweetheart of Robin of Locksley. She is instead a snooty Norman ward of the King of England, very much a partisan in the on-going ethnic strife between Saxons and Normans, and doesn’t care all that much for Robin at first sight, pretty face or not.

You can’t really blame her: Robin has a taste for mouthing off to royalty in the guise of the villainous Prince John (Claude Rains), appears at parties with the carcasses of forbidden game that he dumps on the main table, a habit of jumping up on tables where food is being served, his friends are a ragtag bunch of extremely common commoners, and his main occupation is running around shooting or robbing her friends, especially her would-be beau Guy of Gisborne (Basil Rathbone). Hardly endearing behavior.

Once she adopts his cause, however, Marian is anything but a wilting flower. She gently nudges him back to the path of duty when he starts dreaming of a countryside idyll with her by his side, and plots his escape when he inevitably gets into trouble through his reckless actions. She is also the one who puts her life in danger to send him word of King Richard the Lion-Heart (Ian Hunter), who has returned to England after escaping his captors.

And in the midst of all the things that are going on – kings to be restored to thrones, villains to be defeated, fair maidens to be rescued, a kingdom to be freed from the greed of a racist tyrant – The Adventures of Robin Hood even takes a moment to comment on current affairs circa 1938. The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest, you’ll be happy to know, were decidedly non-interventionist. Oh, irony.

The Adventures of Robin Hood is one of those rare movies that delivers exactly what it says in the title: Adventure with a capital A. If you somehow passed your childhood without access to its magic, you need to rectify it today!

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2010 in Celebrity, Entertainment, Movies, Review, Video

 

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