Author Archive

Crushing on Olivia

12 Aug

My mother spent 60 years in love with Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler, but never cared for the Olivia de Havilland rendition of Melanie Hamilton Wilkes. In fact, Mom called Melanie a “simp.” So this anti-Melanie bias in a home that otherwise revered the motion picture Gone With the Wind was my only exposure to Olivia de Havilland for years. Then as a freshman in college I saw The Adventures of Robin Hood for the first time, and zing went my heartstrings. I had seen widow’s peaked Melanie often enough, but the girl in the Maid Marian frocks was a different creature entirely, and in that scene where she literally lets her hair down—zowie!
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I’m sorry to disappoint you, Mom, but you just didn’t get Olivia de Havilland, because I’ll agree that in the early going earnest Melanie can come off as somewhere between bland and syrupy, but as GWTW unspools, her character is revealed to be one of utter strength and an ability to overlook human failings to see the truth in people and situations. Thanks in part to three great directors and to her own abilities, Olivia brought all that to her characterization in what was for a long time the most famous picture in Hollywood history.
I guess I’ve been writing a book about Olivia de Havilland in my head since that first time I looked up at her beautiful 30-foot-high face in the theater, with that flawless skin and those liquid brown eyes. It was a mad crush and it has never abated. We have corresponded on and off and I very much wanted her to participate in the creation of the manuscript that became the soon-to-be-released Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood, but I never got her on board. She has always been old-school polite with me, and interested, and as earnest as Melanie, but there was an aspect where she knew she was tantalizing me with hints of a collaboration. I felt like she was trying to be enticing and even coy, but I’m a guy with a years-long crush, so there’s something grand in such enticement.  I sent her a copy of Errol Flynn Slept Here to demonstrate that I’m not kidding around here; I am writing a book about Errol and Olivia. I sent her a detailed list of questions about Errol and their work together and their relationship offscreen. Questions about his scene stealing and insecurity and their date at the coronation ball and did he ever take her to Mulholland Farm?
When I realized after more than a year and a half that she wasn’t going to help me, as I recount in Errol & Olivia, it hit me hard, and like a jilted suitor, I let the disappointment color my writing to such an extent that when I showed the manuscript to colleagues, one of them wanted to know why I had written such a harsh book about Miss de Havilland. “After all,” said my colleague, “if at her age she doesn’t want to tell her story, that’s her right.” It was a simple fact that had eluded me, and I stepped back and realized that there was a chip on my shoulder, and I didn’t even know it. I believed I was telling a story that pulled no punches about either her or Errol (because I try to be a serious journalist, etc.), but when I went back and re-read it, I could see that I had gone astray.
So I fixed the problem. I think that, except for a few key passages, I wrote a book that Olivia can’t argue with, because the scholarship is rigorous and much of what’s there comes out of her own mouth. I’ve drawn a conclusion or two that I’m afraid she’s not going to like, but I admire her deeply. I admire her superficially for being the dish who won my heart as a freshman in college. I admire her deeply for being the fighter, and loner, and winner, and uncompromising survivor whom I discovered through the course of my research. This woman made a big stink for better roles in a studio run completely by men. This woman took major chances with her career and could have been banished from the picture business. This woman beat that great bully Jack Warner in court. This woman won two Best Actress Academy Awards in four years. This woman survived some very hard personal times and just celebrated her 94th birthday.
Yes, Mom had it wrong, but I think I ended up getting it right, and the crush endures. 

— Robert Matzen


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Birthday Sandwich

28 Jun

The world rolled by Errol Flynn’s 101st birthday on June 20, and Olivia de Havilland’s 94th birthday is coming up on July 1. Personally, I hate birthdays and believe in my mother’s adage about her own—when someone would ask her what she wanted for her birthday she would reply, “Let’s just cut that date out of the calendar.” I honestly believe that this practice helped to extend her life, and if Olivia feels similarly, then I would understand. However, when one gets to be 94, there ought to be a fair amount of pride in the number, considering that she was born during World War I, grew up in the Great Depression, dated Howard Hughes, appeared in the most celebrated motion picture of all time, worked with future U.S. President Ronald Reagan, entertained the troops in World War II, and turned young Navy man John F. Kennedy down for a date—all by age 30! In the decade after that she won two Best Actress Academy Awards, married, had a child, divorced, married again, and left the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />United States for a life in France. In her 40s she had another child and wrote a highly entertaining book, and over these decades turned out an outstanding body of film work—including eight pictures with Errol Flynn, including several classics—and appeared in many plays on and off Broadway.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


That Olivia will turn 94 in a few days is surprising considering that she was frail and sickly in her youth, almost died of an appendicitis attack in 1940 and then of pneumonia in 1944, smoked a good bit, drank her fair share, and on occasion suffered bouts of depression, sometimes severe. With this track record, how on earth did she get to be a strong 94 and counting? After two years of research, my answer is that she is now displaying the same traits that helped her become a celebrated performer, a victor in the courts, and the survivor of trauma and tragedy. Olivia de Havilland is equal parts brains, determination, and stubbornness. She best described herself in 1958 as “a man in a woman’s body,” meaning that in a man’s world she could use the means at her disposal to prosper. And into 2010 she continues to live a rich and yes, an historic life, which is chronicled in the forthcoming hardcover, Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood, coming October 1 from GoodKnight Books.


May I say directly: Happy Birthday, Miss de Havilland, and, Cheers!

— Robert Matzen


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What Errol Told Olivia

27 Apr



In the 2005 Turner documentary, The Adventures of Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland recorded a series of reminiscences about Flynn, including the recounting of an episode that took place soon after they first met: “He sat down, and he said to me, 'What do you want out of life? And so I said, 'Well, I want respect for difficult work well done.' And then I said to him, 'What do you want out of life?' And he said, 'I want success.' And by that he meant fame and riches.  And I thought, 'That’s not enough.'”<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
In Olivia’s mind, Errol wanted one thing, and she wanted another. By implication his desires were material and hers were artistic; his were wrong, and hers were right. His were “not enough.” What she doesn’t account for is that Errol Flynn had by 1935 at age 26 already graduated from the school of hard knocks, getting by on equal parts charm, looks, and guile. Despite her harsh upbringing in stepfather G.M. Fontaine’s home, she had not spent much time out in the world. As has been well documented, particularly in John Hammond Moore’s excellent The Young Errol, Flynn had kicked around Australia and New Guinea working at various jobs for years—dozens of jobs, in fact. His failure in these jobs might have had less to do with character deficiencies than always assumed by his biographers, and more to do with a condition that might today be diagnosed as ADHD. Sometimes, just maybe, this disability set him up to fail. Flynn was always getting fired, although on one occasion when he managed a copra plantation, it may have been a conspiracy by area farmers against the “new kid in town” that led to his failure. These experiences gave Flynn a hard, cynical veneer that prepared him for what was, in his mind, the inevitability of losing this gig as an actor just like he had lost all the others. Proof of this can be found in his early, constant griping to the press that he might just chuck it all and return to the South Seas. He figured he ought to quit the business before the business quit him. 
Olivia, on the other hand, had survived a militaristic existence at home in Saratoga, California, as described by Olivia's sister Joan Fontaine in the memoir, No Bed of Roses. Olivia, the older sister, had been forced to become the poised, well-read, and well-spoken young lady who hit the screen at age 18. In response to her harsh home environment, she had by necessity become an intense loner and a person who sought the control as an adult that she had been denied as a child and adolescent. But she had not, and would not ever, wait tables like the typical struggling actor and have to cope with a variety of bosses with different work styles and temperaments. In other words, she didn’t know what she didn’t know, and when Flynn made his statement about wanting fame and fortune, it struck de Havilland as capricious when it was in fact the product of many ego blows that accompanied each pronouncement, “Flynn, you’re fired!”
I discovered a thousand and one things about Errol and Olivia that I didn’t know. Learn about all of them in Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood, coming in October 2010 from GoodKnight Books.

— Robert Matzen


Beverly Aadland in Perspective

19 Mar

Beverly Aadland passed on recently. Today, few know her name, but a little more than 50 years ago, she existed amidst a scandal that would have made for a downbeat last chapter to Errol Flynn’s life, except that his Cuban adventure was even worse! Flynn set eyes on shapely, leggy, natural-blonde dancer Aadland on the Warner Brothers lot while he was making Too Much, Too Soon. He was 48 at the time; he figured she was 18 or 20, but her driver’s license said otherwise. Or it would have if she had have been old enough to obtain a driver’s license.
Flynn had always liked younger women, which wasn’t such a problem when he was 25 and a girl, say, Olivia de Havilland, was 19. But when he passed 30 and then 40 and continued to like ‘em 18 or so, it started to get creepy. The funny thing with Flynn was that in the beginning, he found older women attractive, like the society dame he squired in Australia, and like Lili Damita, who claimed to have been born in 1905 but was probably older when Flynn hooked up with her in Paris in 1934—when he was 24 and she was at least 30. Lili became Mrs. Errol Flynn number one. Flynn also went in a big way for the boss’s wife, Dorothy Lamour look-alike Ann Warner, wife of Jack L. Warner. In fact, on his climb up the Hollywood ladder, there were lots of older women who Flynn used, and who used Flynn.
It seems to have been the cunning, manipulative actions of Damita as she steered toward divorce that caused Flynn to make a conscious decision to stick to younger, less sophisticated types. After all, control was the thing with Flynn—control and conquest. Younger girls fit the bill in both cases. Added to that, he liked to love ‘em and leave ‘em, and, on the way out the door, he was less likely to have a shoe or a flower pot thrown at him by a younger girl than an older one.
He was 15 years older than second wife Nora Eddington, whom he married in 1944, and almost 20 years older than his third wife Patrice Wymore, whom he married in 1950. It wasn’t a tremendous surprise, then, when at age 48 he would score with an 18 year old, with the complicating factor being that she was really 16, and an extra complicating factor being that they quickly formed a close emotional attachment. Oh, and one more problem: years of debauchery had left him a bloated wreck who appeared to be far older than 48, meaning that his paramour looked like his granddaughter.
Even today, historians and journalists sneer at the association between Errol Flynn and Beverly Aadland, which went against the social grain of the 1950s in all respects. Flynn himself wrote transcripts of the byplay between the older man and the young girl that was infantile on both sides and tinged with cruelty on his part, but there can be no doubt that Beverly adored Errol and became his caretaker in the last year of his life when he had driven everyone else away.  By now he was a brittle man who had survived many broken bones and a bad back. He had had a cancerous tumor removed from his mouth and perhaps a melanoma from his face. His lungs were shot from smoking and TB, and his liver from drinking. He had no money, was taking every TV appearance he could land, could no longer remember his lines on screen or on the stage, and couldn’t write when he used to be able to make a buck selling words. What a catch!
It was to Beverly’s credit that she stuck with him through the thick and thin of all that, and that she formed relationships with Flynn’s ex Nora and daughters Deirdre and Rory. Flynn’s October 1959 death was a nightmare for Beverly, played out on the world stage and what do you know; she reacted like an 18 year old and threw a tantrum and collapsed. But in subsequent days she pulled herself together and was sturdy through the funeral and aftermath.
Despite the notoriety of her association with Flynn, which led to a Mercury Records contract, TV appearances, and some discreet pictorials in men's magazines (see photo), Beverly Aadland had a hard life marked by diabetes and other ailments. Her passing at age 68 may go unnoticed, which signifies how much the world is changing and how far the flamboyant Errol Flynn, number-one Hollywood bad boy, has himself receded into the pages of history. But back in the day, the Flynn-Aadland scandal matched anything that today’s stars can offer, and at a time when America was far less shock-proof and, in fact, ready to send them both packing.

— Robert Matzen


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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