The Sunday Intertitle: Fictionized

Errol Flynn movies are highly intertitular. After enjoying THE DAWN PATROL so much, and particularly the Flynn-Niven byplay in biplanes, we ran THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (Fiona wasn’t sure she’d ever seen the whole thing, shock horror), THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON and THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE. Nothing came up to the satisfaction of Goulding’s flying saga, but ROBIN HOOD is of course huge fun.

Scattered impressions: Eugene Pallette really can’t swordfight. He just waves his longsword about, but struggles to do that at anything like an impressive speed. I think his problem is he’s trying to mimic the anachronistic rapier-work displayed by Flynn et al. The film is full of undercranking but he’s the one who needs it. Also: Flynn and Rathbone had a fight arranger for their fantastic duel. Pallette just seems to have been shovelled into a cassock and left to fend for himself.

The music! The sets! The film is only half Curtiz (William Keighley had it taken away from him for being too slow and not dramatic enough — Curtiz came on and was even slower but much more dramatic). The closeup of Rathbone dead! The Curtiz sadism always finds an outlet.

CHARGE is described in an opening title as “fictionized” and the same curious word is used by Hal Wallis in memos (Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951), Rudy Behlmer) so I guess maybe he coined it. It actual makes more sense than “fictionalised” maybe. Anyway what he means is it’s a ludicrous farrago, but Curtiz is still prowl-tracking through sets with lots of intervening props and characters that glide past between us and the action, a 3D filmmaker avant la lettre.

The “British fort” is wonderfully hilarious. Utter phallocracy. It was clearly felt that a British fort in India should have an Indian aspect, a sense of minaret to it, despite the fact that colonialism is rendered visual in the way the coloniser builds in his own style structures in the land of the colonised. So this Flash Gordon fairytale palace is based on nothing, it’s as unreal as the light sources from below designed only to cast dramatic shadows on walls, a real Curtiz trope visible in both these Flynn movies he directed.

The fictionized end battle is unbelievably massive. Lots of horses, both full and empty. In some wide shots they seem to be tripping the horses with pits (the Italian method, more humane) but mostly they’re using the crueller Running W tripwire approach and lots of horses were maimed and killed. Niven and other cast members complained. It’s all right up there on the screen. The BBFC has a history of censoring such scenes but if they started on this one I don’t know what’d be left, the Valley of Death as a shredded string of blipverts and ellisions.

Incredible decision to cast Flynn and De Havilland and have her in love with his brother, the nonexistent Patric Knowles. And with Niven standing around with nothing to do! There’s a memo about casting proper posh Brits in the posh roles, and beware because naturally Curtiz can’t tell cockney from Received Pronunciation, and then we have E.E. Clive (“‘E’s invisibule, that’s wot’s the matter with ‘im!”) as a diplomat. He’s talking respectably, but diplomats are about nine shades posher than mere respectable, they’re so posh you can barely understand them.

I wish I’d seen this and BOOTS when I was younger and more into silly fun. But BOOTS would probably still have outraged me because its mangling of history is more pernicious (though one wonders at Hollywood’s man-crush on the British Empire. I guess we were an important market). Yet, despite its glorifying Custer, not a good man, the movie is quite sympathetic to the Indians for a work of that time.

Anthony Quinn as Crazy Horse!

Plenty of forthright rambunctiousness for director Raoul Walsh to get his teeth into. The crazy disregard for fact resolves into a much more coherent story than CHARGE, even though they’re stringing things out across Custer’s entire career from West Point to Little Bighorn. As with CHARGE, the trick is to disguise a strategic blunder as a cunning plan, and remould horrific defeat as stunning victory. Using Tennyson but altering the entire significance of the battle is a striking bit of Hollywood chicanery, besides which BOOTS’ repurposing of Custer’s Last Stand as a diversionary move to save another unit pales, seems almost respectable.

This one has a proper and really good romantic relationship (marriage!) for Errol and Olivia. And really good use of Arthur Kennedy, the Anti-Flynn.

Flynn’s historical, or historized, films, are crowded with intertitles. It’s as if Warners felt the use of this old-timey narrative technique would bestow a suitably archaic feeling to the action.

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD stars George Armstrong Custer; Melanie Hamilton – Their Cousin; Sherlock Holmes; Dr. Jack Griffin; Dr. Frank Mannering; Alexander Bullock; Mr. Pike; Gerald; Theseus – Duke of Athens; Minnie; Albert Miggles; Colonel Weed; Mr. LeBrand; Greystoke’s Nephew; King Charles II; Man in 1780 Sequence (uncredited); The Burgomaster; Crunch; Dr. John Lanyon; Loana; Old Tramp; Louise Finch; and Trigger.

THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE stars Robin Hood; Maid Marian; Will Scarlett; Lord Willoughby; Dr. Watson; Battling Burrows; Sir Charles Lytton the notorious Phantom; Dr. Cream; Lt. ‘Queen’s Own’ Butler; Chingachgook; Bertha Van Cleve; Constable Jaffers; Chief Sitting Bull; Princess Baba; Monsieur Taffy; and Dr. John Lanyon.

THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON stars Robin Hood; Maid Marian; Jackson Bentley; Grandpa Joad; Sheriff Hartwell; Paul Gauguin; Professor Siletsky; Carson Drew; Oliver Larrabee; Kasper Gurman; Arvide Abernathy; Queenie; Augustus Brandon; Alan Winters in Photo (uncredited); Babe Dooley; Wolf Larsen; Mrs Stark – Jim’s Grandmother; Mr. Cope in Fantasy Sequence; Porthos; Detective Dickens; Inez Laranetta; Duffy; and Cueball.

6 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Fictionized”

  1. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    My favorite Errol Flynn films with Raoul Walsh are “Uncertain Glory” (which is kind of Les Miserables translated to Nazi Occupied France, and a really good Casablanca followup) and above all “Gentleman Jim” (which was also a favorite of Max Ophuls).

    Basil Rathbone was a legit fencing expert unlike Flynn, so in that fight they had to fake things around to make Flynn look like he knows something and in the process they invented movie swordfighting aka “Flynning” which is the dramatic looking swordfighting that passes for the rubes even if it’s got nothing to do with legit dueling. Curtiz’ film inspired knock-offs for over a decade, my favorite is Jacques Tourneur’s The Flame and the Arrow, which also has my favorite movie duel in classic Hollywood.

  2. I always remembered that late scene in BOOTS with Flynn lit from below, talking about glory. Not something out of the heroic-biopic playbook.

  3. bensondonald Says:

    Intertitle from a Dudley Do-Right cartoon:
    “At the close of the 19th century CANADA was overrun by Canadians and SMUGGLERS …”

  4. The Walsh has a number of felicitous photogenic touches – Crazy Horse also gets to stand over a fire so her can be lit from below.

    I like both of Burt Lancaster’s swashbuckler with Nick Cravat, I’m just sorry they didn’t come up with a third, after the pirate and the bandit… surely some kind of musketeering thing could have been concocted?

    Lester’s musketeers films introduced period-authentic swordplay for the first time. All the Hollywood movies before that had the fencers leading with the wrong foot.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    And leave us not forget Cuban Rebel Girls”

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