Another day, another birthday and this time the occasion is for Errol Flynn, born 101 years today. To me, Errol Flynn remains one of the most fascinating characters to populate Hollywood in its Golden Age not just because of his contribution to the cinema but due to his uncanny ability to live life to its fullest. Yet acting was just one of the many strings to his bow, and you only need to read a biography of the man to realize that there was a lot, lot more to him than the cinematic on and off screen Casanova of modern legend.
Two things happened to make me interested in Errol Flynn. Firstly I read his autobiography “My Wicked, Wicked Ways”. The second thing was that I found out it was ghost written and was mostly a pack of lies.The fact that I had been hoodwinked brought on a compulsive need to find out more. Since then, it seems that every new biography of Flynn that comes out has a new angle or opinion on his life. Was he a Nazi spy? Was he bisexual? Was he a drug addict? It shows that even today, Errol’s extraordinary story still continues to fascinate and confound and I could guarantee that wherever he is, Flynn is having a jolly good laugh at it all. (As an aside, Myrna Loy said of the Nazi allegations, “My God! He was never sober long enough” )
To me his appeal lies in the mass of contradictions that marked his personality and deeds. Writer Earl Conrad, who ghost wrote Flynn’s autobiography and who wrote a memoir of his time with the star sums up the different versions of Errol Flynn thus:
“the philosophically curious man, the frustrated writer, the congenial seeker after monogamy who could live only promiscuously, …a wanderer over seas and lands…, a seeker after elemental meanings that have eluded the whole of mankind as well as himself, a man tormented with the acquisition of the wrong image, a figure of human contradiction whose thoughts and acts were caricatures of caricature itself”
He paints Errol Flynn as a Quixotic figure, endlessly seeking and wandering, partly tortured by life but always railing against his creator. In the end he decides that the best word to describe Flynn is “elemental”. This is an appropriate description as there is something in his worldliness that is almost wild and untamed that sets him apart from this contemporaries in Hollywood, as if he knew that it wasn't really his home and that for him it was just a means to an end. Also there certainly seems a great deal of depth behind the man, and he did indeed grow to loathe the public image he had created for himself, preferring to be sailing on his boat and near to his beloved ocean. There is also a contradiction between his need to take something as far as he could, be it alcohol consumption, drug taking or womanising and a loneliness that could only be satiated by returning to the sea and its exploration, free from the trappings of hedonism.
However, the side of Flynn I find most interesting is his contrary sense of fun, his need to point out the absurdities of life, to upend the social order and to offend all that is good and self satisfied. Flynn seemed to have a compulsion to bend society’s rules, to laugh at life and death,not really to bring about any change but rather just for the hell of it, as if to stave off boredom. For most of his life he adopted the question mark as his personal symbol, a potent reminder to him not only of his mission to constantly reach out and ask more of life but also of the uncertainty of existence and the need to understand his own actions.
This brief sketch leaves out a lot of the fascinating minor moments of his life such as his two novels, his journalism, his lost plays, his time in repertory theater in Northampton, his sojourn to the Spanish Civil War which ended up with him fighting for both sides, his astonishing drug and alcohol intake, his real and imaginary links to the Nazis and his exploits as an amateur scientist and oceanographer. With all the colour of his life it’s amazing that he felt he had to embellish it with made up incidents. What’s even more amazing is that you don’t even have to talk about his career as an actor to find him compulsively interesting. Earl Conrad said of him “ the first half of the twentieth century was lived by him perhaps as wholly and completely as by anyone”. Well, in terms of enjoying yourself I think that’s true, and luckily when he died in 1959 Frank Sinatra was there to take on his mantle…
I think my favourite Flynn story is when he got involved in the Cuban revolution. He arrived there to lend a hand with Castro’s side not really due to any deep seated political leanings (though he did sympathize with the revolution and the people’s plight to a degree) but in a desperate race to find Fidel Castro and get his picture taken with him before fellow Cuban darling Ernest Hemingway (he managed it to his endless glee). This demonstrates Flynn's talent for finding the absurd in the ordinary, for playing the trickster, a person of no sides, or both sides depending on his whim. Due to his unique philosophy and his unique individuality he made the world a far, far more interesting place. Oh, and he made some movies too.