Rixflix A to Z: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Director: Michael Curtiz // Warner Bros.; 1:42; Color
Crew Notables: Erich Wolfgang Korngold (score - AAW), Ralph Dawson (editor - AAW), Carl Jules Weyl (art direction - AAW)
Cast Notables: Errol Flynn (Robin of Locksley), Basil Rathbone (Sir Guy of Gisbourne), Olivia de Havilland (Maid Marian), Claude Rains (Prince John), Alan Hale (Little John), Patric Knowles (Will Scarlett), Eugene Pallette (Friar Tuck), Melville Cooper (High Sheriff of Nottingham), Ian Hunter (King Richard the Lionheart) Una O'Connor (Bess), Herbert Mundin (Much the Miller's Son), Montagu Love (Bishop of the Black Canons), Michael Hordern (Norman thug - uncr.), Trigger (Maid Marian's horse - uncr.)
Cinema 4 Rating: 9

You mean they're not animals? Surprised I was to discover this after seeing the Disney version of Robin Hood as an impressionable young child. My mother had told me of this fellow Errol Flynn who was the greatest swashbuckler in the world, who battled the evil "Bahhhh-sil Rahhtth-bonnne", as she put it, to the death with his incredible swordplay and derring-do. Saturday morning teased me with Daffy Duck's swashbuckler parodies like Robin Hood Daffy (where the exasperated duck tries unsuccessfully to convince Porky Pig's Friar Tuck that he is Robin Hood) and The Scarlet Pumpernickel, where Daffy name-checks Errol Flynn for good measure. I would get the jokes, because my mother would explain the references to me, but I didn't really get the jokes.

Then, on a Christmas Eve in 1975, the night that I received a Hot Wheels Thundershift 500 set, as my brother Mark and I battled over who get the highest number of laps on the racetrack, my mother turned on the television around 10pm, and there was Captain Blood. My first Errol Flynn film, and even though I battled with my drive to win on the oval plastic track, I eventually succumbed to the exciting life of a buccaneer and joined Doctor Peter Blood's crew late into the evening. I was hooked. (And it was an eventful Christmas: the next morning, I saw my first two Buster Keaton films, Seven Chances and Cops; I saw Pinocchio in Outer Space, an animated feature that I have never seen again (I'm questioning whether I should look into it); and had my first loving crack at Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Before cable, Christmas morning programming was pretty much for kids, a very captive audience in those days. I consider myself very lucky...)

In short order, mainly due to sheer luck of matinee TV programming, I saw The Adventures of Don Juan. And then, a couple of years after that Christmas, a rainy Saturday afternoon brought hot popcorn and a showing of The Adventures of Robin Hood. I still remember my impatience with the commercial interruptions (it wasn't like the annual CBS showing of The Wizard of Oz, where Dolly Madison ads were an accepted part of the program, and where I now can't watch the regular film without just knowing exactly where the commercial breaks are supposed to go, but getting a buzzing feeling in my head that screams at me that the ads... SHOULD... BE... THERE! -- They should have released that version on DVD as a bonus...), but my impatience was tempered by my brother Mark and I as we battled it out with Hot Wheel tracks for swords (also good for smacking the crap out of anyone, but were good as swords in a pinch). I, naturally, played the villain.

Flynn's Robin Hood feels like history; not history the way it actually happened, but history the way it would have happened if Flynn had really been there and lived it. This feeling extends to most of his pictures, even in the ones where his "heroic" character is composed of a dubious, politically incorrect nature (at least, by today's standards) such as in Santa Fe Trail or They Died With Their Boots On. Because, to put it simply, Flynn was one charming motherfucker. If he had played Hitler at the height of his infamy, he would have turned Der Fuehrer into a twinkly-eyed smoothie and, instead of splatting his malformed brains against a bunker wall, Hitler would have charged into battle swinging from a chandelier at the Allies with rapier in hand. And then, of course, the evil Nazis would have won, and only because Flynn was playing him.

Robin Hood, on the other hand, is and always has been meant to be a charmer. Flynn clearly relishes this role, because as folk hero (read: superhero) who fights the grand fight and can do no wrong, neither can Flynn, because he takes to this type of part in the manner born. Even if you watch the film with the jaded, prematurely cynical eyes of an aught-notter, and decide that the action is a little cheesy, the costumes are silly and the dialogue is just little too, too purple, you still have to admit that Flynn is a whirling dervish of charisma, both personally and physically. He doesn't just "make an entrance". He charges into scenes full-bore and it sometimes seems as if the rest of the cast have been caught by surprise and are trying to keep up with him.

This is merely an illusion, of course, for Flynn is surrounded by an aces cast, and even the smallest supporting part is filled perfectly from the Warners' roster. For this is the true secret of the film's success: this film is the apex of the studio system up to that point, one of the truest examples of what a studio could do when it spilled most of its top resources into one film. Every piece of the filmmaking puzzle yields remarkably vivid results, from the score (with one of the best themes ever with which to charge at your childhood buddies) to the cinematography to the bright, memorable set decor... and on it go for quite a while. The main surprise here is that the film didn't win more Oscars than just three. And that it didn't win Best Picture, but it's hard to argue with the winner, Capra's You Can't Take It With You, and there is the traffic jam problem with ten nominees for that award, including Renoir's La Grande Illusion, which also possibly should have gotten the win.

Of course, with someone else in the lead, Robin Hood might not be Robin Hood. Flynn gives so much of himself to this film, that it is hard to imagine anyone else in this particular production, and he so consumes its every frame (though apparently he was not thrilled with the part or the production) that it becomes a shock to discover that the production was originally planned with James Cagney in the lead. Cagney was one of the greatest, of course, and a personal favorite of mine, and was himself a little fireball of energy. But Sir Robin of Locksley?

It's too bad no one asked this same question when Costner rolled into town...

1939 Oscars: 3 Wins (score, editing, art direction) and 1 other Nomination (Best Picture)


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