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.