When Errol Flynn died suddenly in October of 1959, Louella Parsons had this to say about the man who was: “A world of living was crowded into the 50 years allotted to handsome, tumultuous, devil-may-care, exciting and adventurous Errol Flynn.”
For once, Parsons was not exaggerating. Matter of fact, the only true way to describe te essence of Errol Flynn is to describe him as … well … Errol Flynn. A Tasmanian devil of excess and passion—outrageous, charismatic, gregarious, and an unabashed womanizer who was “happy to note that even at an early age” he was observant of the ladies.
And yet what endears him so to us is that Flynn got his own joke.
He held no delusions about Hollywood (“They’ve great respect for the dead in Hollywood, but none for the living”) his work (“I felt like an impostor, taking all that money for reciting ten or twelve lines of nonsense a day”) his own talents (“I really can’t fence worth a damn, I just know how to make it look good”) or his character (“I like my whiskey old and my women young”). To Errol, said his last wife Patricia Flynn, everything was an adventure.
Born Errol Leslie Thomson Flynn in Tasmania to a marine biologist, Theodore Flynn, and a beautiful ball of fire, Marelle Young. Errol’s life, from the start, was a series of adventures and, most often, misadventures. As an occasional runaway and perpetual troublemaker, he found himself expelled from most of the schools he attended. His mother, a severe woman of little affection had made the idea of a conventional family life unattractive to Errol’s boldly adventerous nature and he set his sights on everywhere and everywhere except home. By his early 20s, Flynn had embarked upon a remarkable swirl of adventerous undertakings, including tobacco plantations and copper mines, and had traveled as far away as New Guinea– unfortunately, none of said enterprises resulted in much success.
Although his mother’s side of the family had some connection with theatrics, it was by no means in his blood and it was far from a life ambition. Instead, Flynn fell into acting. In 1933, an Australian film producer saw a picture of Errol and offered him the starring role in his picture In the Wake of the Bounty.
The ever opportunistic Flynn knew perfectly well that a career in acting couldn’t be properly nurished in Australia and he set sail for the UK where he joined a reperatory company in Northampton. In 1934, when he appeared in the Warner Brothers-Teddington Studios production of Murder at Monte Carlo , Hollywood lore was born: a Warner Brothers exec signed Flynn to a contract, shipped him to America where and he began work on his first major feature, 1935’s Captain Blood with Olivia de Havilland (their first of eight such pairings).
Captain Blood happened to be a damn good film, one of the year’s top grossers, was nominated for an Oscar and the rest, as they say, is history.
Flynn’s natural athleticism, inherit sense of adventure, deep-rooted passion of the sea and terrific good looks made him an absolute natural to step into Douglas Fairbanks shoes as Hollywood’s new seafaring, swashbuckling, death-defying adventurer. Fairbanks will always be the creator of the swashbuckler, but when Flynn took a turn as the Prince of Thieves in 1937’s techincolor extravaganza, The Adventueres of Robin Hood, Flynn certainly showed he was capable of bearing Fairbanks’ torch.
For the next several years, right through the outbreak of the second World War, Flynn made an impressive string of successful good films: The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Dawn Patrol, The Sea Hawk, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, They Died With Their Boots On and Gentleman Jim, all benefited from Errol’s freewheeling, contagiously energetic presence. By that time, his reputation as Hollywood’s premiere adventure hero was just as unquestionable as his reputation as one of its most scandalous citizens. A live wire with a band of boozing buddies (including David Niven), Flynn butted heads with the likes of Bette Davis, flouted convention, and was widely loved and admired. He was, as Arthur Hiller once said, “impossible to dislike.”
Upon becoming a naturalized US citizen in 1942, Flynn was keen to join the war effort and enlisted. A weak heart, however, kept him out of the service which led him to touring with the USO through Europe. (And no, Flynn was not an English spy. We will not even approach that rumor here, so look elswhere, sorry.)
1942 was also the year that Flynn’s very public escapades caught up with him in the form of a lawsuit filed against him: two teenage girls, Betty Hansen and Peggy Satterlee accused him of Statutory Rape. But Errol was aquitted (a band of his guy pals rallied to his defense), the scandal only added fuel to his fiery film success and he was forevermore coined with the now age-old adage: “In Like Flynn.”
Three times married, twice divorced and dating a 15 year old at the time of his death, it can be honestly said of Flynn that his on-screen escapades paled in comparison to his real life.
Throughout the 1950s, both his career and his health slowed down, but his lifestyle certainly didn’t. A bad heart didn’t keep him away from the bottle, and his appearance suffered visibly from it. The films he made were of decidedly lesser quality, however his dramatic turns were surprising and promising–particularly Too Much Too Soon and The Sun Also Rises.
Death came to Flynn much the same fashion of his life: fast and unpredictable. Flynn had traveled from his home in Jamaica to Canada to lease his yacht to a millionaire. Feeling ill, he was taken a friend’s apartment to rest. During a party being held at the apartment, Flynn was his normal, gregarious self, until he excused himself to rest, bidding the group “I shall return.” He never did, suffering a massive heart attack alone in the bedroom.
He left the world a legend, yes, but more than that, Flynn remains an enigma. Fabulous, flamboyant, fast. Generous, thoughtful, intelligent, articulate. Amarous, troubled, enchanting. Destructive, mischievous, camaflouged. Flynn is a Hollywood original because there was never anyone quite like him–nor has there ever been anyone quite like him since.
Flynn once said, “I allow myself to be known as a colorful fragment in a drab world.”
And the rest of us remain grateful for that colorful fragment.
For a comprehensive look into Flynn’s life, visit David De Witt’s impressive Errol Flynn Blog.