Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Welcome to Sherwood!: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

When we see a really famous movie from the golden age, it is hard to see it through the prism of the time in which it was produced.  Stars earned iconic status when they became associated with a certain role.  William Powell did it as Nick Charles in the Thin Man series, Clark Gable will forever be known as the only Rhett Butler, and his Gone with the Wind costar Vivien Leigh is firmly established as Scarlett O’Hara.  In 1938, Warner Brothers released The Adventures of Robin Hood and its leading action star, Errol Flynn became the most famous incantation of that fabled legend.  In the classic age of Hollywood, no film was more colorful (both literally and figuratively) and fun than Warner Brothers’ The Adventures of Robin Hood, and though Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. could buckle the best swash during the silent era, Errol Flynn was the master of such films in the ‘30s and ‘40s.  The legendary nobleman, who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, has been portrayed by many actors for many decades but above them all, Flynn is the definitive Robin Hood (Although Daffy Duck gave a great animated rendition in the 1958 cartoon short, Robin Hood Daffy).

The Robin Hood legend has been oft-told, but never so colorfully full of pomp and pageantry.  Flynn plays Robin, Earl of Locksley, a Saxon noble in 12th century England, and protector of the poor Saxons from the villainous and utterly corrupt Norman nobles, who have taken power in the nation during the absence of the king, Richard the Lionhearted (Ian Hunter).  Worst of these is Richard's brother, the treacherous Prince John (Claude Rains), who plans to take over England’s throne with the help of the equally despicable Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), while King Richard is away fighting in the Crusades. The film is a great romantic adventure with the romance provided by Lady Marian Fitzwater, aka Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland), Norman noblewoman and orphaned ward of King Richard.  At first disdainful to the pompous yet charismatic Robin, she falls in love with him when he reveals his true intentions of helping his suffering countrymen and becomes his own personal “Norman conquest.”

In all, Flynn and de Havilland made nine films together with their romp in Sherwood Forest being their third and most famous.  But even as these iconic images are ingrained into the national psyche for this film, alas, like so many other infamous roles in Hollywood, they were not the original choices.  On July 19, 1935, period authority Dwight Franklin, who at the time was working as special visual consultant on Warner Brothers’ Captain Blood, sent a memo to the studio’s head Jack Warner suggesting that [James] Cagney “would make a swell Robin Hood.”  His memo found its way to Warner’s desk as Franklin’s idea for a follow-up to the studio’s big prestige picture of 1935, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which starred Cagney in Shakespearean costume as the whimsical Nick Bottom.  Along with the resident tough-guy gangster, Franklin suggested the same Warners’ roster of contract players who appeared in Dream would be cast as Robin’s Merry Men, including Guy Kibbee as Friar Tuck.  Jack Warner agreed and the following month English screenwriter Rowland Leigh was assigned the task of developing a film treatment of the Robin Hood legend.  However, when Cagney and Warner butted heads in a contract dispute, the project was postponed until a later date.

Newcomer Flynn proved himself a magnetic adventure lead in Captain Blood (1935) and The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and the Robin Hood project was put back into production.  Beautiful blond Anita Louise, also a veteran of A Midsummer Night's Dream (as Titania), was first considered for the role of Lady Marian but with so much riding on the picture financially (it was Warner Brothers’ most expensive and elaborate production to that date and the final cost was $2 million), the studio wanted to ensure a proven film team with Flynn and de Havilland.  Other parts were recast for one reason or another.  First choice for Friar Tuck, Guy Kibee was replaced by the gravel-voiced and corpulent Eugene Pallette and Robin's sidekick, Will Scarlett, though originally slated for David Niven, eventually went to handsome contract player, Patric Knowles.

Chosen by the movie’s director William Keighley to serve as Sherwood Forest, Bidwell Park in Chico, California, was a twenty-four hundred acre tract, lush with giant oak and sycamore trees.  Due to local fire codes, Bidwell was cleared of grass and brush so that artificial grass, as well as numerous ferns, flowers and various bushes could to be transplanted to create the magical English woodland.  For the production, tents were set up near the park’s entrance for makeup and hairdressing.

Filming began at Bidwell Park in September of 1937, and the first scene to be shot was the meeting of Robin and Little John, played by Warners’ veteran Alan Hale (the actor had the distinction of playing the same part in the earlier Fairbanks version and would play it again in the 1950s).  Shooting was well underway by the time Olivia de Havilland was able to start work on it.  The actress was finishing up a role in Gold is Where You Find It with George Brent, and after making wardrobe tests on the studio lot, de Havilland travelled north to Bidwell Park.  Although she was thrilled to be working with the handsome and virile Flynn for a third time, her attitude was somewhat soured by the presence of his wife, French-born actress Lili Damita, who was there, hawkishly watching her husband and de Havilland.  The days were long and began at 5 a.m. when Olivia would arrive at Bidwell from the local inn where she stayed during the film’s shooting.

Producer Hal Wallis was not happy with the slow pace that director Keighley was taking on the picture, as well as the lack of machismo that the scenes required for the lusty, action film he wanted to create.  When production reached a period of over two weeks behind schedule and more than a hundred thousand dollars over budget, Keighley was out.  Michael Curtiz, Warners’ top action director was brought in to replace Keighley, who had been popular with both Flynn and de Havilland.  With the new director’s tight command of the picture, the final product was superb, from the archery tournament to the final duel between Robin and Sir Guy, the one-two punch of excitement never lets up.

As the evil duo of Prince John and Sir Guy, Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone cannot be beat, with Rains, sly and cunning and Rathbone vicious and sadistic in his attack of the hero, both verbally and physically.  An excellent swordsman off-screen, Rathbone is marvelous fencing against a very agile and able Flynn.  Equally magnificent is the film's opulent musical score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.  The talented Korngold did not want to undertake the task, claiming he was “not a musical illustrator for a 90% action picture,” but was persuaded by the studio brass to take on the challenge and his brilliant score won an Academy Award.  Also winning Oscars for the film were Best Art Direction and Best Film Editing.

The movie, shot in the richest Technicolor, cemented Errol Flynn's status as an action superstar.  What he began with Captain Blood, three years earlier, he extended with Robin Hood.  Both Curtiz and William Keighley were given screen credit for their directing contributions.  More successful than the popular Fairbanks’ version, The Adventures of Robin Hood was Warner Brothers’ biggest moneymaker of the year and would continue to be one of its most remembered classics.

Higham, Charles.  Errol Flynn:  The Untold Story.  Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1980
Higham, Charles.  Sisters:  The Story of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine.  Dell Publishing Company, 1986


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