Sunday, January 17, 2010

Errol Flynn in Mexico

[editor’s note : Errol Flynn appeared in no films noirs [1], but his life and career have a noirish trajectory and a connection with Mexico which we’ll explore below]

The stealth intellectual

  Errol Flynn, the proverbial
touch of color in a gray world, is my favorite Hollywood personality. Yes, he was irresponsible, gullible, alcoholic, reckless, self-centered and immature, among other failings [2]. But for all his roguishness, Flynn was a man of surprising shadings and complexities. To wit, and contrary to his dissolute public persona, he was that rarest of rare birds in cinema’s Golden Age – an actor who was also an intellectual. 

  Flynn’s cerebral nature found expression in various ways : collecting fine art; writing professional-caliber novels and journalistic dispatches; studying marine biology; a keen interest in the world’s political events; a wispy, philosophical sensitivity that he seldom revealed publicly (though hinted at in his autobiography). Flynn’s loftier side could be a source of disappointment: his perpetual longing for substantial character roles which were not forthcoming until the twilight of his career. 

  The more thoughtful Flynn can probably be seen to best advantage in his colorful and highly literate autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways [3]. Also present in the book is Flynn's shadow side, i.e. his lifelong fondness for drugs and alcohol; single-minded Don Juanish pursuit of the opposite sex (including a penchant for underage girls); and frequent insensitivity - sometimes downright cruelty - to those closest to him. All these and more he recollects in Wicked Ways with almost too much relish. It followed of course that minor annoyances like marital fidelity, financial responsibility, and physical health be damned, and thus Flynn constantly found himself in the bad graces of his Hollywood masters, the press, wives and ex-wives, and on occasion even the law. Ultimately the restrictions and intrusiveness of American society in general and the Hollywood lifestyle in particular inspired Flynn, and other Hollywood luminaries, to seek refuge in the sunnier, more relaxed climes of Mexico [4]. 

Down Mexico way.

   A common theme in American films noirs is the illusory 
escape to Mexico [5]. South of the Border becomes a place to hide out from dark forces, or the law (or both), an El Dorado where a literally brighter future is possible. And it’s in this context – admittedly however tenuous – that Mexico, film noir, and Errol Flynn intersect.

  Flynn’s connections with Mexico were both numerous and diverting [6]. They included frequent sailing trips, including one in connection with the below-mentioned
Lady from Shanghai. It was on one such sailing voyage that he met future starlet and (for a time) companion Linda Christian, the eventual wife of Tyrone Power. And it was in Mexico, with Morelia filling in for Pamplona, that Flynn gave one his last – and best – performances in The Sun Also Rises. And then there was that curious (and somewhat fictionalized?) opium-laden soirée at Diego Rivera’s house which Flynn recalls with obvious affection in his autobiography.

  Much like the proverbial film noir protagonist, Flynn was plagued not only by his own inner demons but also by - real or imagined - external forces of darkness, as represented by creditors, divorce lawyers, tax collectors, bullying producers, paparazzi photographers, and heaven knows what else, with Mexico or Mexico-like places standing in as his retreat from the pressures of the world. With his frequent south of the border sojourns, Flynn could find solace in a real place of vibrant colors, spicy foods, pristine beaches, and, not least of all, beautiful women. It was much removed from the through-the-looking-glass world of Hollywood and even farther removed from the the fantasy version of Mexico, which beckoned, siren-like but ultimately deceptively, to the desperate characters in films noirs. 

  [1] Okay, Flynn technically appeared in at least one film noir, one of the best in fact, though hardly in a starring role. In The Lady from Shanghai, he can be glimpsed (look fast) outside a cantina in Acapulco. Perhaps this was Orson Welles’ way of rewarding Flynn for the use of his yacht the Zaca in the movie, though I’ve also read that the studios paid Flynn $1,500 per day plus expenses for the use of the boat. Some would also cite as an example the curious, late-career The Big Boodle, filmed in Cuba and with a decidedly noir-like look and feel. Flynnophiles are, perhaps rightly, divided on this film’s artistic merits and whether it’s genuine film noir. See also : Thomas Sanfilip, "Errol Flynn, Cuba, and Film Noir : Revisioning The Big Boodle," Journal of Popular Film and Television, v31 n3 (Fall 2003), pp. 141-144. 
  [2] If we are to believe imaginative biographers, these were among the milder of Flynn’s character flaws, almost minor virtues when considered alongside his true failings. To wit : wife beater; tax cheat; plagiarist; deadbeat; gun runner; pedophile; communist sympathizer; closet gay; Nazi agent and notorious anti-Semite; jewel thief and slave trader; and all-around out-of-control hedonist. (When did he ever have time for acting?). In any case, obscured in the sensationalist - and mostly unsubstantiated - haze were Flynn's good qualities, and it must be admitted that a prominent source of misinformation was Flynn himself, with his tendency to embellish and exaggerate the facts. 
  [3] Much has been made of Wicked Ways’ ghostwritten status. To be sure, author Earl Conrad spent three months in Jamaica in 1958-59, assisting Flynn on the book, but sources are vague as to Conrad’s actual role in the mechanics of writing Wicked Ways. Flynn was a born storyteller, and his writing credentials were well-established by this time, with a couple of books, numerous articles and journalistic dispatches, and various half-completed projects to his credit. Why in the world would he need someone to write his autobiography? Indeed, considering the book's quintessentially and uniquely Flynnian voice and attitude, it’s tempting to view the much-vaunted Conrad as little more than a glorified stenographer who occasionally applied some literary polish. His more likely, admittedly significant, contribution was in keeping the project on track and thus assuring the book’s completion, and for that alone he deserves much credit. Nonetheless, ultimately it seems that the ghosted meme has it backwards; it gives far to much credit to Conrad for his role in the book and shows far too little appreciation for Flynn’s genuine literary skills.
  [4] The other sunnier locales of refuge included Majorca, Cuba, Italy and of course his beloved Jamaica. 
  [5] The notion of refuge in Mexico also had a darker, real-life side in the film noir heyday years, which coincided with the Red Scare era. A number of refugees on the Hollywood Blacklist ‘escaped’ to Mexico and continued making a living, as it were, as screenwriters, actors, directors, etc., or worked in related fields, in any case under varying, usually greatly reduced circumstances (Bernard Gordon, Hollywood Exile, or, How I Learned to Love the Blacklist : a Memoir, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1999, p. 33). Curiously, considering his vaguely leftist political views, Flynn was never a target of the Blacklist.
  [6] In at least one case the idea of escape to Mexico may have been a literal one. According to Flynn’s account in his autobiography, he had an airplane at the ready to spirit him away to Mexico and beyond if the jury came back with a guilty verdict in the notorious statutory rape trial in 1942. True? Or another of Flynn’s tall tales? We can never be sure, but either way the issue was moot as the verdict was not guilty.

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