Friday, April 20, 2018

The Adventures of Robin Hood (Warner Bros., 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Adventures of Robin Hood, made by Warners in 1938 and starring Errol Flynn as Robin Hood — and often considered a benchmark for treatments of this story even though the reviewers of the time compared it invidiously to Douglas Fairbanks’ marvelous 1922 silent version (which led me to take it with a grain of salt when Kevin Costner’s film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves came out in 1991 and the reviewers of that time said he hadn’t played it as well as Flynn). Actually at this point the Fairbanks version seems to me to be the best of the three (at least the three major ones: there’ve been plenty of others as well, including a 1951 Disney production with Richard Todd as Robin Hood — one of the few times Robin has actually been played by a card-carrying Brit: Fairbanks and Costner were American and Flynn was Tasmanian!), though the Flynn scores by virtue of ravishing three-strip Technicolor (by this time they had all the bugs out of the process); vivid performances by the two main villains, Claude Rains’ usurping Prince John and Basil Rathbone’s Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Robin’s traditional nemesis, the Sheriff of Nottingham, is played by Melville Cooper and turned into a comic-relief character); dazzling action sequences (mostly directed by an uncredited second-unit man, B. Reeves “Breezy” Eason) and an overall air of cheeky insouciance in Flynn’s performance in the lead. Where the Fairbanks version wins out over this one is in a far deeper sense of the romanticism of the period and its chivalric ideals, and also in a stronger authorial point of view; Fairbanks not only starred in his version but also produced and (under the pseudonym “Elton Thomas”) wrote it. The Warners Robin Hood was a typical product of the studio system, with a platoon of writers — Norman Reilly Raine, Seton I. Miller and (uncredited) Rowland Leigh — as well as three directors (William Keighley, who started the film; Michael Curtiz, who replaced him when studio head Hal Wallis decided Keighley’s action scenes weren’t exciting enough; and Eason, who did most of the action scenes and stunt work) and two cinematographers (not counting the Technicolor advisor, W. Howard “Duke” Greene): Tony Gaudio, who started the film; and Sol Polito, whom Curtiz brought in when he took over as director.

According to a letter Ruby Behlmer published in the February 1971 Films in Review, Keighley and Eason directed the location scenes at Sherwood Forest (actually shot in Chico, California — with artificial grass and trees because the real ones had been removed as fire hazards!) and Curtiz directed the scenes in the town of Nottingham and inside Nottingham Castle, where the final confrontation and the great swordfight between Flynn and Rathbone occur. (Rathbone was a serious fencing student while Flynn just faked it, which made Rathbone all the more bitter that the scripts of their films together always called for Flynn to beat him!) Flynn’s performance as Robin Hood slights the alleged noble origins of the character and goes for the kind of macho bravado typical of James Cagney’s performances in sympathetic roles — which makes it unsurprising that Warners actually planned Robin Hood for the real Cagney, with Anita Louise as Maid Marian, Guy Kibbee as Friar Tuck, and Donald Crisp offered the part of the corrupt Bishop of the Black Canons (who gets ready to crown Prince John as king following the — erroneous — report that John’s brother, Richard the Lion-Hearted, has been killed). As things turned out Eugene Pallette played Tuck (probably grateful for the chance at a relatively sympathetic role); Montagu Love was the bishop; and Olivia de Havilland suffered through the role of Marian, here reduced to the stereotypical “prize” for the hero’s victory and given so little character definition a major actress like de Havilland was way overqualified for the role. (At Warners she was almost always cast either as Flynn’s empty-headed love interest or as the “good girl” to contrast with Bette Davis’s “bad girl” — reason enough why she rebelled, sued, broke her contract and went to Paramount, where she won Academy Awards for To Each His Own and The Heiress.) Patric Knowles got one of his rare good-guy roles as Will Scarlett and Alan Hale repeated his Little John from the Fairbanks version (and would play the part again in a 1950 Columbia “B,” Rogues of Sherwood Forest). This Robin Hood does suffer from the chronic flaw Thomas Schatz noted in Warners’ product in the 1930’s — the big action scenes have a relentless, hell-bent-for-leather excitement but the plot scenes have a ponderous quality, as if they’re only there to get us from one action highlight to another — but overall, though not quite the uninhibited fun-fest I remembered from the only previous time I’d seen it (an early-1970’s revival in San Francisco), it is a good, entertaining bit of Hollywood medievalism — though Charles joked that the dirt and mud of Monty Python and the Holy Grail probably better reflects what the period really looked like! — 11/29/03


Anyway, I just finished the reformatting and printing of the TCM schedule, and while I was doing that I played through some more of the “special features” on the DVD of The Adventures of Robin Hood. Last night Charles and I had played through some of them, including two Warners cartoons more-or-less spoofing the film, both directed by Chuck Jones in the glory days of Warners’ animation department, one featuring Daffy Duck as a predictably incompetent Robin Hood wanna-be (with Porky Pig as Friar Tuck resisting Daffy Hood’s entreaties to join his band) and one featuring Bugs Bunny as a thief who steals one of the carrots from the royal carrot patch (they’re even emblazoned with the royal seal on their peels!) and waits for Robin Hood to rescue him — and Robin Hood, in the final frames, turns out to be Errol Flynn himself, in a live-action clip from the film blatantly and audaciously spliced into what is otherwise a cartoon! We also watched a six-minute bit by Rudy Behlmer which purported to be a history of Robin Hood on film but focused mainly on the Douglas Fairbanks version from 1922 (with some ghastly-looking low-quality clips from it that hardly did justice to a film I think is even better than the Flynn version but at least did the job Behlmer set out to do, which was to parallel certain similar scenes in the two versions) and two shorts, one called Cavalcade of Archery from 1945, which featured Howard Hill (Flynn’s archery double and close friend) in a shrieking feast of Technicolor stunt-work as well as a few Robin Hood clips (including one scene of a long line of men in full armor that wasn’t used in the final cut); and the other the almost legendary Cruise of the “Zaca,” the documentary Warners made up from Flynn’s home movies of his yacht Zaca, his father (Professor Thomson Flynn), his friends from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography (and yes, it was a lot of fun for a San Diego resident to see what the Scripps Institute — already connected with the University of California even though there wasn’t yet a San Diego campus for it to be part of — and the La Jolla cliffs and pier looked like back in 1946!), stunt pilot Paul Mantz (who flew him over La Jolla bay in a helicopter and then had to rescue him when he fell out of the copter while photographing whales), Howard Hill, John Decker (the artist, friend of Flynn and fellow alcoholic who was also Edward G. Robinson’s painting double in Scarlet Street) and a woman identified in Flynn’s narration only as “Nora,” since when the film was made in 1946-47 he and Nora Eddington were still married but when it was finally released in 1952 he had divorced her and married Patrice Wymore. The people I expected to see but didn’t were Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, since much of this film was made while Welles was borrowing the Zaca to shoot The Lady from Shanghai and Flynn’s contract to loan the boat to Columbia for Welles’ film stipulated that he had to go with them and they had to hire his own crew at Columbia’s expense.

This morning I played through still more of the bonus material, this time two audio-only tracks that focused on Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s musical score for Robin Hood. One was an NBC broadcast from May 11, 1938, in which Korngold himself conducted the NBC Hollywood studio orchestra in about 25 minutes’ worth of excerpts from the score with Basil Rathbone (who of course was in the film as one of the principal villains, Sir Guy of Gisbourne) narrating and explaining where each excerpt fit in the film and what action it accompanied on screen. This is probably one of the most treasurable items of Korngoldiana since it gives an account of one of his most famous scores under the composer’s own baton — and not surprisingly he out-conducts not only Leo F. Forbstein (Warners’ house conductor, who recorded the actual soundtrack) but also the rather limp Varujian Kojian, who conducted the Salt Lake City Symphony in a late-1970’s recording of the entire score for Varèse Sarabande. Indeed Korngold’s music sounds better here than it does with the distraction of the film itself! (One option the DVD gives you is playing the entire film with the dialogue erased from the soundtrack and only Korngold’s music still heard — an option that’s been offered on a few other DVD’s of classic films especially well known for their scores, including North by Northwest.) The other item I played this morning was closely related: a 1947 home recording at a Hollywood party of Korngold playing some of his film music on piano, including two excerpts each from Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk and Kings’ Row as well as one each from Escape Me Never, The Sea Wolf, The Constant Nymph, Captain Blood, Elizabeth and Essex and Anthony Adverse — on the last of which he actually sings along with his playing, filling in the missing orchestral parts. Though tinnily recorded, dubbed at a low level and with the usual cocktail-glass clinking and other party noises competing with the music (Erich Wolfgang Korngold, cocktail-lounge pianist — who knew?), these are fascinating excerpts and well worth having. I dubbed these onto an audio cassette this morning so I could have them in more convenient form than in the middle of a “special features” bonus DVD, and on the other side of the cassette I dubbed the audio extras from the Casablanca DVD: the Screen Guild Theatre dramatization of the film from April 1943 (I’d expected the Robin Hood broadcast to be a similar dramatization but it wasn’t!) and the scoring-stage recordings of Dooley Wilson and two chunks of Max Steiner’s background underscoring (Rick’s reunion with Ilsa at the Café Americain and the Paris flashback). — 11/30/03


The film Charles and I watched last night was The Adventures of Robin Hood, the 1938 Warner Bros. spectacular with Errol Flynn in the title role, Olivia de Havilland as Lady Marian Fitzwalter, Basil Rathbone as the principal villain Sir Guy of Gisbourne, and Claude Rains as the usurping Prince John, who at the end of the 12th century saw his chance to grab the English throne when his brother Richard the Lion-Hearted (Ian Hunter) went off to fight in a Crusade and was kidnapped and held for ransom by Prince Leopold of Austria on his way back. Robin Hood had been filmed several times before but the best-known version to U.S. audiences then would have been the 1922 epic, produced by and starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and directed by Allan Dwan from a script by Tom Geraghty and “Elton Thomas” — the latter a pseudonym for Fairbanks himself. Indeed, when Kevin Costner starred as Robin Hood in the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves I was amused when the reviewers’ consensus was, “He’s not as good as Errol Flynn” — when a lot of the reviewers of this version had dismissed Flynn by saying, “He’s not as good as Douglas Fairbanks.” I picked this movie last night because after all the dire political news we’ve been experiencing lately, I felt we could use a piece of pure escapism — though the script for The Adventures of Robin Hood (by Norman Reilly Raine, one of Hollywood’s go-to guys just then for scripts depicting the Middle Ages, and Seton I. Miller) definitely has a streak of class-consciousness in that the heroes, the Saxons, are a discriminated-against minority taxed and oppressed by the ruling Normans, and in order to fill his own coffers and pay off the corrupt people around him Prince John ordered the taxes on the Saxons raised to virtually unsustainable levels. At the same time a certain Leftist orientation is almost bound to creep into a script about Robin Hood since the very premise of the story — an outlaw who steals from the rich to help a poor, oppressed minority — has a critique of the rich and powerful built in, so much so that Ayn Rand once described the Robin Hood legend as the most corrupt and evil story ever told. 

Charles and I not only watched the film but also listened to a couple of audio excerpts, including a May 11, 1938 NBC radio broadcast in which Basil Rathbone narrated a presentation of the first-rate (and ultimately Academy Award-winning) musical score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the first time a piece of film music was presented on the air not just as accompaniment for a story but as a masterpiece in its own right. The Adventures of Robin Hood had a convoluted production history — it was originally green-lighted in 1935 as a vehicle for James Cagney until Cagney had a dispute with Jack Warner and successfully sued to get out of his Warner Bros. contract. (Warners won him back on appeal in 1937 after Cagney made two films for an independent studio called Grand National — one of which, Something to Sing About, rated an entire chapter in Cagney’s autobiography since it was his only musical between Footlight Parade and Yankee Doodle Dandy and Cagney’s one career regret was that he hadn’t made more musicals.) The project got revived in 1937 as a vehicle for Errol Flynn, whom Warners had put in the 1935 film Captain Blood after their original star, Robert Donat, had withdrawn and the other “A”-listers they tried for were unavailable; suddenly they had a huge star in a genre they’d pretty much avoided — the historical swashbuckler — since John Barrymore had left the studio, and they looked for other vehicles in a similar vein. For Robin Hood they shot the works budget-wise — the film cost nearly $2 million — including three-strip Technicolor (one “Trivia” item says Warners used all 11 three-strip Technicolor cameras then in existence), grandiose sets, a location trip to Chico (though most of the outdoor footage in the final cut came from the Warner Bros. ranch at Calabasas, which they had bought for “B” Westerns and rarely used in a major film), a stunning score by Korngold (the love scene for Robin and Marian is a bit on the sappy side and the march for the Merry Men has an oddly Spanish-sounding rhythm, but as a whole the score is vivid, evocative, state-of-the-art concert music that not only works perfectly for the film but is great listening on its own and reflects the influence of Wagner and Richard Strauss on Korngold’s style) and, above all, an unrepeatable star cast. 

I remember thinking when I first watched the Douglas Fairbanks Robin Hood that it was an even better film than this one — that Fairbanks just seemed to capture the spirit of nobility and chivalry of the Middle Ages (the popular image of the Middle Ages, at least — the real one was probably a lot more brutal, and both literally and figuratively dirty, than the one we generally get in movies, and for all their quirky humor Terry Gilliam’s films have probably come closer than anyone else’s to “the way it really was”) a bit more than the makers of this version did — but The Adventures of Robin Hood is a great movie. It’s proof that you can tell an action story and also bring it warmth and heart, and Raine and Miller constructed the script well enough that the action scenes and the plot exposition flow into each other seamlessly instead of giving us the feeling all too common today that the story is coming to a dead stop to give us an action highlight. Errol Flynn’s performance as Robin Hood is one of the strongest of his career — probably his definitive one in a swashbuckler role — even though he plays Robin Hood as butch and doesn’t play some of the surprisingly androgynous games he did in some of his other period roles. He’s got everything a Robin Hood needs: great looks (he was 28 when he made the film, the youngest actor ever to play the character), infectious charm, the charisma to recruit others for what is essentially a band of terrorists seeking to upend the established order, and an overall strength — physical, mental and moral — that makes us believe in the character and his struggle. And he’s matched by the rest of the cast, particularly the two principal villains: Basil Rathbone brings to Sir Guy the same authority he’d later show on the right side of law and morality in his 14 films as Sherlock Holmes, and there’s a steely implacability in that ringing voice and erect posture of his and a sense that he, like the gangsters in the contemporary-set films Warners was making at the time, is simply bad as a conscious career choice: he’s not an anti-hero and he’s not a sadist or a psychopath, simply someone who has chosen a villainous course and pursues a career in evil with a steely efficiency. 

Claude Rains is also superb, playing Prince John much the way he would play the collabó police chief Captain Renault in Casablanca four years later (though without any hint of the moral regeneration he undergoes at the end of Casablanca); he even gets a similar line about how the wind is blowing in his character’s favor. (Indeed, at one point Warners was planning a sequel to The Adventures of Robin Hood that would have reunited Flynn, de Havilland and Rains; alas, World War II put a limit on expensive productions, especially period films, and by the time the war was over de Havilland had successfully sued to break her Warners’ contract and Rains had run his out. I suspect the sequel would have been about John’s reign as King after Richard’s death and would have included a plot point in which Robin, now restored to his noble title as Sir Robin of Locksley, was one of the barons who ganged up on King John and forced him to agree to the Magna Carta.) It’s a great film, vividly photographed — the exteriors take us back to the wonderful days when color films were actually colorful (and when, because it cost twice as much to make a film in color as it did in black-and-white, a studio making a color film obviously wanted to make the color as spectacular as possible to draw in enough audience members to pay back the investment), courtesy of cinematographer W. Howard Greene and Technicolor consultant Natalie Kalmus (who used her clout over the process to make sure Technicolor films were as bright and vivid as possible). The interiors are darker and closer to the past-is-brown orthodoxy of today, though that can be explained as an artistic choice; back when the only light sources, especially at night, were home fires and torches, rooms were just darker than they are now. The Adventures of Robin Hood had three different directors; the film was started by William Keighley (his last name is pronounced “Keeley”), whom Flynn got along with — perhaps because they were both of Irish descent (Flynn was born on the Australian island of Tasmania but his father, oceanography professor Thomson Flynn, was Irish), but Jack Warner and Hal Wallis fired him in mid-shoot because they didn’t think his scenes were exciting enough and replaced him with Michael Curtiz, whom Flynn couldn’t stand because he was a tough taskmaster (and also, one trivia poster suggested, because by the time The Adventures of Robin Hood was made Flynn’s first wife, Lili Damita, had divorced him and married Curtiz), while action specialist B. Reaves “Breezy” Eason directed the big action set-pieces. 

It’s also not taking away from Flynn’s performance that he was doubled through much of the film, by fencing coach Fred Cavens through much of the spectacular final duel scene with Rathbone (Rathbone was an accomplished fencer, while Flynn learned the rudiments from Cavens but otherwise faked it all, and Rathbone was understandably bitter that the scripts in their films together called for him to lose their duels; in 1939, in the Universal film Tower of London, Rathbone, as Richard III, would fight an on-screen duel with his brother George, played by Vincent Price, and win) and by archer Howard Hill, who not only played a small on-screen role in the movie but worked out the archery stunts and actually shot the famous scene in which Robin Hood wins an archery tournament by firing his arrow right through his competitor’s and splintering it. (A lot of people assumed that shot was faked; it wasn’t — Hill actually made the shot, though as Charles pointed out he was probably a good deal closer to the target than it looks in the movie.) Hill also worked out a system by which Robin Hood and his Merry Men (including Patric Knowles as Will Scarlett — Knowles had at least some of Flynn’s charisma but kept getting cast as his brother or his sidekick — Alan Hale as Little John and Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck) could be shown visibly to shoot evil Normans in the back: the arrows were real but the actors wore targets under the backs of their costumes and were heavily padded to make sure the arrows didn’t really hurt them. The Adventures of Robin Hood is a spectacular film in all senses of the word, a deserved classic and one that made a lot of money for Warner Bros., not only in its original release but in frequent reissues (since it was a period film they wouldn’t have to worry about it becoming dated the way a contemporary-set film from the 1930’s would have), and it’s still regarded as the touchstone for depictions of the Robin Hood legend on film. — 4/20/18