Flynn's Turning Point: Footsteps in the Dark

06 Jan

Last Sunday morning I stumbled upon Footsteps in the Dark playing on <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />TCM and hadn’t seen it in decades. The production files reveal how into this concept Flynn was, and he shows it onscreen too. He’s having a heck of a time, playing it for all he’s worth, because he wanted to break out of the action stereotype and become a younger, better-looking William Powell. In Footsteps in the Dark, Flynn portrays Francis Warren, an investment counselor by day and the mysterious, best-selling mystery writer F.X. Pettyjohn by night. Pettyjohn becomes involved in a murder case that the cops can’t solve. His poor wife Rita has no notion what her husband is up to, and begins to suspect the worst—that he’s fooling around. Rita’s mother is certain that’s what’s going on because of past indiscretions by her late husband. This leads to a good deal of sly adult humor that manages to slide by the Hays Office. All this comes off as great fun in the Thin Man vein, with Flynn unencumbered by the tights and the sword and the horses and just seeming to enjoy himself. It was no coincidence that his health broke down on the more strenuous action pictures, but he sailed through this one; this was a walk in the park following one tough production after another, every one pressure-packed for a star who had no love of hard work and was forced to produce six days a week, and through long hours at that.

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As Rita Warren, Brenda Marshall doesn’t have a lot more to do than react to the proceedings, which suits her much better than playing a heroine, as she had done in The Sea Hawk a year earlier. She just wasn’t soft or skillful enough to pull off the heroine role. There was a hardness to Marshall, and some on the soundstage would say a bitchiness to her, that couldn’t work in a romantic period piece but was in sync with a modern, harried society housewife.


The A-production values gave Flynn lots of support from a remarkable, veteran group of character performers, including Ralph Bellamy, Alan Hale, Lucille Watson, Allen Jenkins, William Frawley, Roscoe Karns, and Lee Patrick, all of them seeming to have as much fun as the star. Why was this agreeable little picture a turning point for Flynn? Because it went nowhere. At fade out Rita has caught on to the fact that her husband is about to join the cops to work on another murder case, and there is dialogue to the effect that they are embarking on a grand adventure together, but there wasn’t enough return to justify coming back for a sequel. Jack Warner was a pragmatic man, and Flynn only worked in costume, whether it was a Western getup or a 16th century rig or a Navy uniform. The numbers were always iffy on his modern titles. Case in point: Four’s a Crowd, which paired Flynn with Olivia de Havilland, netted only $15,000, even though it was quite a modest production in terms of cost. It tanked overseas and became the lowest-grossing picture starring Flynn and de Havilland of the eight they made together because the public identified with Flynn the hero, not Flynn the fellow in the fedora and bow tie.


Being forced into action pictures after Footsteps in the Dark doomed Flynn. It deepened his cynicism and endangered his health—as proven by his hospitalization during summer 1941 production of the Manassas scenes in They Died with Their Boots On, and the in-the-ring collapse during Gentleman Jim the next year. Oh, it’s probably true that if there had been a Footsteps series, he would have continued to display his self-destructive, wicked tendencies, and he probably still would have gotten fingered for statutory rape. Or would he? Maybe he would have taken his career more seriously if he had felt a personal investment in his pictures and not merely shown up for work to draw his paychecks to pay for his Mulholland mansion and his yachts. That became his M.O.—not caring about the parts he was given and just looking for the paycheck. And in some cases drawing paychecks for pictures not yet made. He loved to do that. Maybe he would have taken another path if his mystery series had panned out, but we’ll never know now. Which is where I came in, looking at Footsteps in the Dark on a Sunday morning and seeing a tidy little Warner Brothers mystery that could have been the start of something big but ended up as nothing more than a pre-war one-off that would never be re-released; a curio collecting dust on the shelves of the vault; and a source of personal pain for its star, discontented and disillusioned Errol Flynn.

— Robert Matzen


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  1. Anonymous

    January 6, 2010 at 8:17 am

    Very thought provoking, Robert! Would Errol have been the Errol Flynn as we know today if there had been more acceptance of him outside the costume films (for lack of a better term) – or more like a Cary Grant? He was certainly capable of that in the long term, I think.
    If he had survived his “wicked ways,” would he be remembered for more serious films he might have made in his later years, or would he have had more comedic roles, perhaps a long running tv series?
    I always thought he might have become a hugely popular outdoor adventure series star of some sort – doing documentaries, for example. Or were his personal flaws going to limit him no matter what he did?
    He just didn't have enough time to overcome his demons. But you know, what he did with his time artistically in his films has proven to mean something to film history, and to millions of people who never saw an original Errol Flynn film debut and for an actor there can be no better realization than this…

  2. Anonymous

    January 6, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    Nice post Robert! I caught this movie the other day as well. It is plain to see from viewing that movie how much EF enjoyed it. It is unfortunate that the audience of the time was not more receptive to EF in roles such as this.
    Dave, I daresay had he been more accepted in roles such as Never say Goodbye and Fours a Crowd he might have ended up more like a Cary Grant. I am sure you boys have caught his skit in Thank your Lucky Stars where he is just wonderful (especailly in light of the fact that he was in the midst of the trial). I have to agree with you that he didn't have the time to “overcome his demons” because some of his last roles demonstrated to all what a fine “character actor” he could be (e.g., Sun also Rises). Dave you are quite right — what he gave us in his swashbucklers remains unequaled.

  3. Anonymous

    January 8, 2010 at 6:44 am

    Hi Robert;
    How nice of you to make this write-up about “Footsteps in the Dark” with such a good analysis. Funny that you should say it would have made a great series. My sentiments entirely! I have the movie for many years, as soon as I saw it for the fist time I said, that would be a great series – better than “The Thin Man” any day. It definitely looked Errol had a good time staring in the movie. I agree Brenda Marshall did not have the chemistry with Errol. But, then who could have ever replaced Olivia, they two had a superb unparalleled magnetism. It is such a pity that Errol's talent for comedy was not exploited to the fullest. I love his act in “Thank your Lucky Stars” he was superb as the Cockney Sailor and even his Cockney accent was dead on.
    He would have been great in roles Cary Grant was given – but?
    When we can see all this way couldn't Jack Warner see it?
    Even in “They Died With Their Boots On” he showed his talent for comedy at the beginning of the movie. I love that movie, Errol was superb!

  4. Anonymous

    January 10, 2010 at 12:16 am

    I have this on VHS and watch it now and then. First saw it when I was about 10 and loved it then. I think he has some scenes in Uncertain Glory that he pulls off quite well that were meant to be funny even though this is a serious movie. Enjoyed your post.