Thursday, March 14, 2013

Captain Blood (1935): Errol Flynn Becomes a Star!

Studio head Jack Warner said of magnetic Warner Brothers superstar Errol Flynn, "To the Walter Mittys of the world he was all the heroes in one magnificent, sexy, animal package." Flynn is famous (or more aptly infamous) for many things in his life, some admirable, some not so much. Cinematic swashbuckling is the one thing he is most associated with and what made him a star. As Captain Blood, the handsome actor cut his teeth on the genre and along with Olivia de Havilland began a run of adventure/romance films that made them both icons.

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, when one studio had a hit or even a potential hit in the works, another would jump in with their own version. Such was the case when MGM produced Mutiny on the Bounty in 1935 with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton. Warner Brothers began production of its seafaring saga later that year, a remake of the Rafael Sabatini 1922 adventure novel Captain Blood. Peter Blood is an Irish doctor in 17th century England. He inadvertently treats the wounds of a participant of the Monmouth Rebellion and is found guilty of treason and, though sentenced to death, is instead sent as a slave to the West Indies. There he is bought by the beautiful Arabella Bishop, who wants to save him from the worst kind of hard labor reserved for the majority of slaves brought to the region. She increases his survival rate even further by recommending him as doctor to the ailing governor of Port Royal, an advantage he wisely accepts.

A plan of escape by Blood and his compadres is foiled by an attack on the colony by the Spanish. Blood and his company of fellow slaves, in fact, do escape by way of the Spanish ship, with the Spaniards left on shore! Piracy on the high seas and a merger with a dangerous French pirate (Basil Rathbone) await the motley crew until Blood inadvertently meets up once again with the beautiful Arabella.

Pre-production of Captain Blood began mid-summer of 1935, with English actor Robert Donat slated to play the lead role. Donat had a hit the previous year with The Count of Monte Cristo and Warner Brothers was ready to cash in on this success. Several reasons have been given through different sources for the actor's refusal to take the role of Peter Blood, from contractual disputes, to asthema, to his lady love who wouldn't leave England, but reason aside, Donat was out and a replacement had to be found. Brian Aherne was discussed as was John Barrymore. The powers that be got wind of a handsome young Austrailian, born in Tasmania, named Errol Flynn, who had recently come under contract at Warners and appeared in two standard films, one as a corpse. Although studio contractee Jean Muir was scheduled to play the female lead, her A Midsummer Night's Dream co-star, 19 year-old Olivia de Havilland was cast as Arabella Bishop. She and Flynn were natural co-stars and continued a successful run as Warner's definitive romantic screen couple.   

Blood was directed by Hungarian born Michael Curtiz, who would become the studio's master in the adventure movie genre. This was his second film with Flynn, the first being The Case of the Curious Bride (the one where Flynn is a corpse) but it began a long string of successful action pictures for the duo. The newbie actor was so nervous at the beginning of the film's shooting, Curtiz had to reshoot some scenes in post production when Flynn felt more comfortable with the process. With an ever growing budget, no full-sized ships were used in the seafaring yarn. Instead, miniatures and existing nautical footage from the 1924 version of The Sea Hawk created the visuals of the high seas. Also adding to the rousing atmosphere of the classic was the superb musical score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Korngold had come to America just a year before to arrange Mendelssohn's music for Max Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream and became one of Warner's greatest assets winning an Oscar for his work in the Curtiz/Flynn version of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

The film received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing, and Best Sound Editing, some categories on the strength of write-in campaigns. Everyone involved played a very large part in the success of Captain Blood, but ultimately Errol Flynn, the new star in town, WAS Captain Blood......until he became Robin Hood.


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