Too Much, Too Soon


A Great Profile

Too Much Too Soon  is one of the earliest examples of Hollywood eating its own. Lurid and sleazy, it’s like those cheap 50’s paperbacks that trashed famous people’s lives in the most obvious ways. Yet it remains fascinating, in a heartbreaking and horrifying way, because of its star: Errol Flynn.

Flynn had just come back from years in the wilderness — making one lousy European movie after another while drinking and drug addiction ate away at his self-confidence, his focus, and his looks. At the 11th hour, Darryl Zanuck rescued him by handing him the part of Mike Campbell, the dissipated wastrel in The Sun Also Rises. That excellent performance reawakened Hollywood’s interest in Flynn, and he was offered the part of his old drinking buddy John Barrymore in this bio of Barrymore’s daughter Diana (based on her own cheap paperback, also called Too Much Too Soon).

A soberer man might have rejected this exploitative little production, but at this stage of Flynn’s career, it was like being offered “Hamlet.” He even swallowed his actor’s vanity, allowing himself at age 49 to be cast as a man ten years older, and looking it (at one point in the film, he states his age, but only after a beautiful, telling little pause).

In fact, he wasn’t well cast. Barrymore was a hard, sharp, tough actor — a little guy who went for “big” stylized flourishes in his performances. As copious amounts of liquor gradually coarsened his skills, he descended into grotesque self-parody: waggling his eyebrows and bulging his eyes lasciviously at nothing, rolling his Rs and exaggerating his own cultured diction. Flynn evokes him, but not by behaving anything like him. Despite his swashbuckling reputation, Flynn was a sensitive, gentle performer with a gift of wry humor and rakish charm. His own alcoholism seemed to soften and diffuse his acting while at the same time giving him some inner freedom to finally externalize his rage, shame, bitterness and impotent longing. All of which he puts to effective use in this film, essentially creating a self-portrait with slight Barrymore echoes (the tilt of a hat brim, for example, or standing with body facing the camera but head held in profile).

Unfortunately, he does most of this without much help from the script. It’s a sort of dull soap-opera version of Sunset Boulevard, with the has-been Barrymore rattling around his mansion and his yacht longing for love, or something. In fact the best line in the movie was spoken by Flynn on the set, responding to instruction from the fourth rate, no-name director… drawing himself up, Flynn replied “Are you, Art Napoleon, telling me how to play a drunk?” There’s an unfair perception that Flynn played his final three roles, all of them alcoholics, the exact same way… that he was in fact not acting, but only playing himself. Not true. In The Sun Also Rises, his Mike Campbell is a superficially charming drifter continually being stung to anger by the evidence of his own impotence and irrelevance (and in acting terms, he holds several scenes together single-handedly). In The Roots of Heaven, he’s a cowardly military man tortured by guilt about his own weakness. In this movie, he plays Barrymore as he no doubt had observed him himself: as a broken man occasionally able to pull himself together and show his former stature, but crumbling slowly from the inside and painfully aware of it. Flynn’s uncompromising portrait of greatness in ruins is finally quite haunting, as he intended.

Halfway through the movie, Barrymore dies, and we’re supposed to remain interested in Dorothy Malone’s cartoonish, by-the-numbers Diana. But the movie dies along with Flynn, and there’s nothing left to watch but Ray Danton’s comically phallic tennis bum. Each successive scene is less interesting than the previous one, and Diana’s last-minute pullout from the tailspin of her life is the least convincing of all. In fact, Diana died a couple of years later, from an overdose of booze and pills, at 38.

As for Flynn, in real life he exercised his usual gift for snatching disaster from the jaws of success, using the filming as an opportunity to begin an affair with a girl on a neighboring set. She was Beverly Aadland, a 15 year old extra. Flynn had been tried for statutory rape in the 40s, an event which precipitated his downward spiral, but by this time he was living down to his reputation. After his death a year later, the girl’s mother Florence Aadland wrote (or rather, dictated) yet another sleazy paperback: The Big Love, the story of Errol and Beverly’s “romance,” and one of the craziest and most disturbing of all Hollywood memoirs.

In The Big Love, Flo describes the three of them attending a screening of Too Much Too Soon. Flynn was embarrassed to have revealed so much of himself, but also quietly proud of his work. As he should have been. Despite the fact that it’s a bad movie by any formal measure, it gets way under your skin thanks to his courageous and devastatingly sad performance. Despite everything around that performance being hollow — script, direction, acting — it still rings true.

They Died With Their Boots On


They Died With Their Boots On is the eighth and final pairing of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. It’s not as famous as some of the others — for example, the pirate swashbuckler Captain Blood or the bejeweled Technicolor storybook Adventures of Robin Hood — but it deserves to be. Those are happy, exuberant movies; this is a tragedy of slowly unfolding power that leaves you unsettled and upset. It’s the rare adventure movie that gets under your skin; it achieves its epic qualities through emotion rather than action. The movie is based on the story of George Armstrong Custer, the general whose command of 500 cavalrymen was overwhelmed by ten times as many Native Americans in 1876. Never were the words “based on” more of a euphemism. As history, Boots On bears only a passing resemblance to actual events — in fact the more you know about Custer, the more outrageous the film’s portrait becomes. Virtually every event is twisted almost 180 degrees in order to turn a vainglorious and highly flawed man into a noble figure.

Yet even as the film moves toward its barroom-painting view of Custer and his men staging their heroic last stand surrounded by savages, it has to explain how he got there. It does so by setting him up as vain, callow, physically daring but reckless and prone to troublemaking. Cleverly, the filmmakers play the first half of the movie as a light comedy, in which Custer gets himself into one mess after another and strikes ludicrous poses trying to act like a bigger man than he is. We see him making mistakes and extricating himself through charm and luck; instinctively we know it’s only a matter of time before that luck runs out.

The fact that the same thing was true of Flynn in real life gives the movie an unusual resonance. He was at least as vain as Custer, and easily as reckless; his road to fame and success was just as fast and fortunate, and left him just as unprepared to deal with real challenges. During the making of this movie, Flynn had a couple of underage girls on his yacht, an escapade that led to a long and embarrassing trial for statutory rape that turned him into a public joke after the premiere — particularly after it was revealed in court that Flynn made love with his socks on. His pre-movie life of adventure had left him with an assortment of chronic maladies that resulted in his being declared 4-F and ineligible for the draft. Because Warner Bros. hushed this up, the public thought him a slacker for not serving in World War II as other stars did. Personal and professional disasters came faster and faster, and his drinking and drug use kept pace. Eventually booze, narcotics, dissipation, and some deeper despair they couldn’t anesthetize, killed him at the age of 50.

Some presentiment of this terrible fate seems to hang over Flynn throughout Boots On. He gives one of his most sensitive and aware performances. His eyes often look wide with fright and he seems more attuned to other actors than usual. Often he pauses and hesitates before taking action, as if genuinely unsure of himself, and when he does act, it’s always a shade too swiftly. He’s as dashing as ever, but often he dashes right into a brick wall. Some of the credit for this must go to the great Raoul Walsh, here directing Flynn for the first time, after the actor had quarreled with his usual director, Michael Curtiz. For the previous seven years, Curtiz had directed Flynn like a toy action figure, throwing him into the middle of clanging swords and galloping horses and trusting him to sail above it all. Walsh’s action scenes were rougher than Curtiz’s, less choreographed and clever, and always suggestive of real threat — as you might expect of a man who had lost an eye in an accident.

At this point in her career, de Havilland had developed some serious ambitions and no longer wanted to be the clinging heroine of Flynn’s boys-own-adventure movies. She only made the film at Flynn’s express request, after they had cleared the air of several years of misunderstanding. By all accounts, including hers, they were seriously in love, but their relationship was undermined continually by his immaturity and instability. Boots On is the only one of their films in which their characters have a real arc, moving from youthful high spirits into a serious relationship, into marriage and ultimately the tragedy of his death. To sweeten the deal for de Havilland, the producer Hal Wallis brought in the fine screenwriter Lenore Coffee for rewrites that rounded out the character of Libby Custer and made her a flesh-and-blood woman rather than a cardboard cutout. De Havilland responds with one of her best and most consistent performances.

In their final scene, she helps him prepare for the battle of Little Big Horn. Both know he’s not coming back, and they can barely look at each other while mouthing cheery sentiments they clearly don’t believe for a second. They’re almost getting away with it when he finds her diary and begins reading it aloud. In it, she confesses her terror over unshakable premonitions of his death. I must have written that every time you left for battle, she says. “Of course,” he murmurs softly. They say their goodbyes and he leaves; she’s rigid against a wall for support. The camera pulls away suddenly from her and she faints from the accumulated tension. Fainting in movies usually is phony as hell, but this time we’ve been holding our breaths too, and it feels like a natural reaction. In real life, de Havilland knew she’d never work with Flynn again, and she felt that he knew it as well. The scene is almost unbearable in its poignancy, for both the characters and the actors. Such is its enduring power that at a screening 40 years later, de Havilland, then about 65, walked out in the middle of it. She went to the lobby, sat down and began to cry.

Flynn at Sea

Probably no actor ever got luckier with a first starring role in the movies than Errol Flynn. At the age of 25, he was given the lead in Captain Blood on the basis of his looks, intense lobbying by some well-connected lady friends, and the fact that the film had no leading man and an imminent start date. At the time, Flynn’s experience amounted to a year of repertory theater in England and minuscule roles in about four B-movies. Raw-boned and gauche, he acquired authority and panache as filming went on, so much so that the first sections of the movie were re-done at the end of the shoot.

But what made Flynn lucky wasn’t just the opportunity. Captain Blood is still the greatest pirate movie ever made — thanks to clever, dynamic direction by Michael Curtiz, a stirring score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and a strong cast including villainous brigand Basil Rathbone and 19-year old leading lady Olivia de Havilland. De Havilland had as little experience as Flynn, but as Rathbone wrote almost 30 years later, “a more enchantingly beautiful young girl it would be impossible to imagine.”

A big hit, the movie was nominated for the best picture Oscar (it was beaten by the far inferior sea epic Mutiny on the Bounty) and made Flynn a huge star overnight. More than that, it established a template that Warner Bros. followed, more or less, for the next couple of decades. Flynn made 12 movies with Curtiz, seven with Korngold, three with Rathbone, and eight with De Havilland. But as fate would have it, he made only one more swashbuckling pirate movie for Warners: The Sea Hawk, which debuted 70 years ago today.

Among movie buffs and Flynn fans, The Sea Hawk is highly regarded. There’s a lot to like about it: Flynn, here at the peak of his career, has far more acting authority than he’d had in Captain Blood; Curtiz and Korngold are back with their typically first-rate work; and Warners poured almost $2 million into the production at a time when a movie could gross half that amount and be a hit. In fact, the studio built a huge new soundstage and tank just for this film, as well as two full-scale sailing ships that were moved by hydraulics. The movie also re-purposed huge, vaulting sets and beautiful costumes from the previous year’s Flynn vehicle, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.

But as good as it is, The Sea Hawk doesn’t quite make it onto the list of truly magical movies. The cast and crew are in there pitching, and everyone does a professional, workmanlike job. Swords clash, sea shanties are sung, hordes of sailors swarm over the riggings, dark deeds are plotted in castles, galley slaves mount an escape…and yet you don’t particularly care about any of it. The reasons, I suppose, lie in the script and a couple of crucial casting mistakes.

Captain Blood was based on a novel by Rafael Sabatini and had a literary and beautifully structured screenplay by Casey Robinson. The Sea Hawk was ostensibly based on another Sabatini novel, but in fact used only the title. The original screenplay was by Seton I. Miller and in fact had a different title — Sabatini’s was used as audience bait (his name still meant something in 1940) and because, well, it’s a great title.

Miller’s screenplay was rewritten and sharpened by Howard Koch, a fine writer who had an instinct for how to punch up scenes with intelligent, ironic dialogue. Koch had the idea to make the story more timely by turning it into a metaphor for real-life events — England was already at war with Nazi Germany, and in the two years before the U.S. joined them, there was a widespread effort at solidarity and support in Hollywood. Koch’s angle was to turn Phillip of Spain into a Hitler intent on conquering the world, and Queen Elizabeth into a Chamberlain who attempts appeasement and then a Churchill who fights back openly.

Flynn’s character, Geoffrey Thorpe, is a gentlemanly sea captain who turns pirate in order to covertly serve the Queen and her political needs. Thorpe isn’t a great character like Peter Blood, a foppish doctor sold into slavery who becomes a pirate out of outrage and a desire for revenge — Thorpe is more like one of the anonymous G-men from innumerable Warners pictures of the era. While that may have satisfied the politics and censorship demands of 1940, it robs the movie of some fun…these are the cleanest and most morally upright pirates you’ve ever seen. Flynn, who wanted to be a serious actor and resented swashbuckling roles, plays the role in a restrained and almost dignified way, and you wonder why the inevitable haughty wench on board (the Spanish ambassador’s niece) doesn’t see what a great guy he is right away.

The haughty wench is a problem, too. Maureen O’Hara perfected this part in the 40s; it’s too bad she didn’t meet up with Flynn until 1952, when his lifestyle had begun to seriously erode his enthusiasm. Here, the wench is played by Brenda Marshall. Who? Exactly. This movie was Marshall’s big chance, and it must be said that she muffs it. Her acting is wooden and totally conventional, her face a mask of pouting unhappiness that seems more related to her own personality than to the role. Marshall can’t even make you smile at a line like “Uncle, my jewels!” as her bedchamber is invaded by pirates.

Where’s Olivia de Havilland? At the time, she was fighting Warners for respect and better roles, and wanted something more than to be Flynn’s leading lady. She only played with him a couple more times before going on to prestige movies and a couple of Academy Awards. In her old age she seems to have realized, like Ginger Rogers and Myrna Loy, that her romantic partnership onscreen is her greatest claim to immortality. De Havilland and Flynn had a beautiful rapport as actors — his rashness and boldness seem to excite and offend her at the same time, which is quite funny; her gentle sweetness brings out a sensitivity in Flynn that almost seems to surprise him. “I really believe that he was deeply in love with her,” commented their co-star Bette Davis, and the feeling was very evidently mutual.

Marshall and Flynn, in contrast, have zero chemistry. And so you’re left to ponder the rote quality of so many old movie romances: hidden attraction, conflict, cleared-up misunderstandings and declarations of love, separation, longing and heartbreak, reconciliation, kiss, fade-out. The situation isn’t lost on Curtiz, who resorts to director’s tricks to make this non-romance come alive. When the two are parted, he alternates shots of them looking longingly into the distance as Flynn sails away — the movie seems to be shouting “LOOK, THEY’RE IN LOVE WITH EACH OTHER!!!”

The villains aren’t much better. Claude Rains returns from Flynn’s Adventures of Robin Hood, but he has no memorable lines and lets his evil haircut and facial hair do his acting for him. In Captain Blood, Lionel Atwill played basically the same role and gave it dark hints of sexual obsession and sadism (OK, maybe it wasn’t too much of a stretch for him). Rains just coasts here. In Robin Hood, he was beautifully paired with Rathbone, who played the fiery man of action to his sly rascal. Here, the Rathbone role is filled by Henry Daniell, and that’s a pale carbon copy. Flynn’s chemistry with Rathbone was as magical as his rapport with de Havilland — they had the same energy level, and when they hurled challenges and insults at each other, you felt an underlying respect and affection. At some very elevated level, they were playacting, and every scene they shared crackles with exuberant antagonism.

Daniell, on the other hand, apparently was the cold fish he always played, and as an actor he had only one note of sneering superiority. And in fatal contrast to Rathbone, the best fencer in the business, he couldn’t handle a sword. A studio memo from the middle of production reported that “Mr. Daniell is absolutely helpless and his closeup in the duel will be mostly from the elbows up.” As in all Flynn swashbucklers, the climax is supposed to be the big duel to the death, but Daniell seems to barely be in the scene. As with the romance, Curtiz is forced to use director’s tricks to make it come off. Longshots, doubles, heavy shadows, furious cutting. Workmanlike, but unmagical.

Many commentators on The Sea Hawk have also noted the absence of Technicolor, but the movie does have strong black and white photography. This was an economic decision which allowed Warners to re-use battle shots from Captain Blood and a couple of other older epics…It also allows for a nice effect during the movie’s best sequence: a trap laid for Flynn and his men in the jungles of Panama. Sepia gives this sequence a real feeling for the heat of the swamps and the misery that our heroes endure, and it helps break up the movie as well — at more than two hours, it’s rather a long journey. Finally, England is once again purged of treason; the lovers are reunited, the trumpets flare, and the Warners’ shield announces The End. You’re left admiring the craftsmanship that went into mounting this sea epic on a soundstage, but you haven’t ever really sailed away.


Originally published on Edward Copeland on Film.