Errol Flynn has aways interested me. He's such a fascinating, contradictory and almost mythical character and a far better actor than he is ever given credit for, though you get the feeling with him that acting was just one of many sidelines he dived into in the pursuit of adventure. Still, it's always good to see him cast against type and working for his money, and comedy is something well out of his normal range and a genre he rarely got the opportunity to try. Only three of his films could be classed as comedies (and no, that's not counting Cuban Rebel Girls, that's a whole different type of comedy) and apart from the occasional television appearance (I've only seen him on the Colgate Comedy Hour with Abbott and Costello and his appearance was a bit odd to say the least but he looked to be having fun), Errol Flynn the comedian was rarely seen.
Footsteps in the Dark is the last of Errol Flynn's comedies and although in terms of comedic value it's the least of them, it still has some points of interest. Whereas The Perfect Specimen and Four's a Crowd veered into the more traditional vein of screwball and relationship comedy, Footsteps in the Dark was an attempt to put Flynn into the comic murder mystery, the sort of part played so effortlessly by the likes of William Powell or Warner Baxter. It's not quite The Thin Man, as Errol doesn't partner up with his wife (not until the end at any rate) instead it's the more traditional detective story, to the point that he even gets Allen Jenkins as his put upon sidekick. The result is not entirely successful, mainly due to a pedestrian script and workmanlike direction, but what is really interesting is the hints that Flynn gives of having a real talent for that almost lost art - light comedy.
Flynn plays Francis Warren, a rich socialite who lives a dull live with his wife and mother-in-law but who, in secret is a crime novelist and writer of the scandalous book "Footsteps in the Dark" that satirises the spoilt society of which he tires. He also uses his alter ego to hang around with the police and stumbles upon a real murder. Warren has to balance this double life all the while making sure that his family don't find out, by way of more and more elaborate lies while trying to solve the murder. This plot lends itself to some interesting situation which unfortunately frequently lack any real sparkle. If not for the sterling work of the cast, wringing the comedy out of the script by way of gesture and delivery, it would really fall flat.
Luckily there is an excellent cast, including the ever dependable Allen Jenkins, who sadly doesn't get much to do other than perpetually look exasperated, Flynn crony Alan Hale as the chief inspector and the excellent William Frawley as a dim witted detective. Added to the cast are the familiar faces of Roscoe Karns (again under used), Grant Mitchell and Jack La Rue. As Flynn's wife, Brenda Marshall gives a good performance in an under written part. She's particularly good when she starts to become suspicious of her husband's late nights and tries to catch him out. However, for me the scene stealer was Lucile Watson as Flynn's interfering mother-in-law. From her disapproving reactions to her son in law's behaviour to her comic embarrassment upon going to a burlesque show, her antics are hilarious. There is a particularly funny moment when mother and daughter confront Flynn with some difficult questions. Errol starts to stutter as the tirade of accusations start then he suddenly compliments her on her hair. Without missing a beat Watson changes immediately into a pussy cat, flattered at the comment, before a nudge from Brenda Marshall brings her back to the point and the nagging resumes. It's beautifully played and one of the many highlights in the performances of the leads.
However, it's Errol Flynn that gives the most illuminating performance. A large percentage of his time is spent doing one of his most used acting techniques, grinning nervously. however here he has a good reason for doing so an he grins for Tasmania, all the time with eyes that don't match the confidence of his smile. His jittery fumbling coupled with over the top bravado is quite brilliant and really very unexpected. He frequently milks all the laughs out of the domestic circumstances, whether it be creeping into bed late at night or, in one very funny scene, bounding down for breakfast, all smiles, only for his voice to go all high when he tries to speak. He consistently shows great timing with his ticks, mannerisms and frequently raised eyebrows. Added to that he shows ability in physical comedy too, especially in a nightclub scene where he madly dances, spinning round the floor in a ridiculous attempt at a hoe down straight out the Cary Grant book of dignified silliness.
There is also a sub plot involving a burlesque girl who Flynn tries to woo in order to extract some information about the murder. To do this he pretends to be a rich Texas oil baron and employs one of the most half-assed Texas accents this side of Northampton rep. You would think with all his experience in Westerns that he would have picked up the ability to do a better accent but then again, perhaps it's a sly nod to the fact that most of his cowboy parts had to have a line written into the script to explain his cultured Anglo-Australian accent. Despite this there is another interesting scene where Blondie, the showgirl (played by Lee Patrick) tries to kiss him. The look of momentary confusion as she lurches towards him is priceless, as is the increasingly uncomfortable expression as she tries to get closer. Errol Flynn recoiling from a beautiful woman in abject terror? Now, that is acting...
As mentioned before, the film isn't really anything particularly special and sadly it isn't quite the sum of it's parts. What makes it fascinating is that it marks the last time Errol Flynn would be given the opportunity to try comedy. While he lack the lightness of touch of a William Powell, the feeling I get is that he had a real gift for comic timing and with a bit of studio vision could have really excelled in those sorts of roles. I always got the feeling with Errol Flynn that, in many ways like Elvis Presley's film career, he constantly felt short-changed by the sort of roles he was given but despite the private frustration was happy to coast in the typecast parts as they brought him the fame, money and lifestyle he enjoyed. Looking at Footsteps in the Dark in the context of Flynn's filmography, we see it placed right in the middle of his peak years as a War and Western hero, coming after the likes of Santa Fe Trail and Virginia City and before such blockbusters as Dive Bomber and They Died with Their Boots On. Faced with the onset of war, Warner Brothers naturally would have wanted their bankable action hero to be even more typecast to boost morale on the home front.
It's just a real shame, both for Flynn and for the viewer that this sort of film didn't come his way again. He shows real skill in terms of his reactions and mannerisms and quite a flair for the comedy of embarrassment. This subtle form of comedy really played to his strengths and in this viewing at least gave some new insight into his acting abilities as well as the inevitable lost potential. Would Flynn the light comedian have gone down well with his public? Obviously not since it never happened again. Maybe he really was as frustrated with his typecasting as he often admitted to his ghost writer Earl Conrad in his autobiography. Or maybe he didn't really care, did his day in the studio when went out for a drink. With Flynn, who ever knows the truth? I'm not sure even he did.