Today as part of Biography Week(I) The Baz is talking to Robert Matzen, author of Errol & Olivia: Ego and Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood. As regular readers will know, Robert’s book came up for discussion in the comments when someone suggested he was claiming there had been a rivalry between Flynn and Rathbone for the favors of Olivia De Havilland. In a bid to set this matter straight, and also to explore something more of his thoughts on Flynn and the Baz, we asked Robert to spare a little time to talk to us. He was incredibly patient and obliging, and below you can all read the result.
TB: I’m gonna kick it off by asking you to sum up in a single para what your book Errol & Olivia is about
TB: Your book uses a very racy, almost novelistic style in describing the mindsets of its protagonists. Obviously a lot of this is inference. How did you arrive at this synthesis?
Matzen: I wanted to try a different approach to writing about Old Hollywood that would suit a modern audience. I wanted the pace of the narrative to be almost breathless because that’s the kind of life these people led, working six days a week and playing hard at night. Some writers that I respect really took offense that I made the leap and attempted to capture the thoughts of the main characters, but I wanted Flynn, de Havilland, Warner, and the others to come across as living, breathing human beings with dynamic personalities.
TB: Is there a lot of material out there to work with? Letters, diaries etc? or was it a tricky thing to put together?
Matzen: There is a lot of material out there to work with.There is all the material on their pictures in the Warner Bros. Archives in L.A.; there are files and files at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library; there is Flynn’s memoir My Wicked, Wicked Ways and there are eight decades of de Havilland interviews, some of them revelatory and some unpublished. But yes it’s tricky for two reasons: 1) Neither of them was one to dish dirt on a co-worker, and 2) de Havilland is a closed book who can’t help but control every interview she’s done, certainly in the past 30 years. So with Olivia there is always a great deal of “spin” in everything she says and every story she records. And since each of them had a lot to say on the surface about the other, but neither dished the dirt, it becomes a matter of looking at the breadth of information about the two of them, individually and together, to tell their story as a collaborative team and as a couple.
TB: I understand that. You could say in any really good biography there’s always – finally – a kind of intuitive process or leap of faith, where the author dares to tell you not just what he can literally prove but what he “knows” or has come to know through his exposure, not just to what the subject says or does but to what they are. But it’s also dangerous isn’t it. In that a fine line separates the insight into what a person (or two people) may have been, and the imposition of our own belief about that? How do you safeguard against the latter?
Matzen: My bottom line is always the research and the documentation. Way back before the internet I wrote a Bantam Book on how to conduct research, back when you had to rely on a library and when data bases were brand new. It was my first book, and grew out of my love of history and digging into the past to understand great events and the people who experienced them. My practice is that I have to climb into people’s skin and look at their world in their times through their eyes to write about them. I never write a word until I understand my subject from the inside out, and that can only be accomplished through research.
Errol & Olivia was controversial in a way because I drew the conclusion that Flynn and de Havilland had strayed into a physical relationship in the 1940-41 timeframe, but I did that based on research and evidence. The facts are that they went from fine, professional co-workers up through Elizabeth and Essex and then had blowups on location on Santa Fe Trail and a very public confrontation on the main street of the Warner Bros. lot. Something rubbed the nerves of these two raw, and they vowed never to work with each other again. But a year later they were back together at Warner Bros. after he had asked for her to be offered the part of Libby Custer in They Died with Their Boots On. By this time Lili Damita had filed for divorce from Flynn and Jimmy Stewart had ended his relationship with de Havilland, making Flynn a bachelor and de Havilland a bachelorette.
Of course any writer is going to overlay his or her own experiences onto the subject of a biography, but he or she safeguards against drawing biased or tainted conclusions by relying on the research. All those footnotes aren’t cluttering Errol & Olivia for fun. As I said right in the front matter, I went into the book thinking that nothing physical happened between them, and I also said, and still believe, that sex is the least interesting aspect of their stories, individually and as a team. I merely reported what the research showed, and part of that was answering the question that so many ask: Did they or didn’t they?
TB: I understand you corresponded with de Havilland for some time. What was her reaction to the finished book?
Matzen: Olivia has not commented on my book that I’m aware of. There is a lot for her to love about Errol & Olivia. In it she is presented as a tough, talented scrapper of great accomplishment. And I was careful to show as many previously unpublished photos as possible, so it must have brought back some memories.
TB: Ok, so as this blog is about the Baz, let me ask you about his part, as you see it, in the Flynn/de Havilland imbroglio (if that’s the right word).
Matzen: Yikes, that’s a word and a half, but not a bad descriptor in some respects. Rathbone’s another fascinating character in this story, a freelance talent who commanded a very nice sum to come in and imprint a picture with his unique and always memorable interpretations. He was a charming guy and a consummate professional, and I think he had a crush on Livvie. It was a very courtly thing, I believe. I’ve seen it speculated here on this site that Rathbone was gay or bi or whatever, but I’ve never stumbled upon any of that in my research. He seemed to be hot for his wife and he seemed to be attracted to de Havilland.
Now, Flynn was a very insecure male, no question of that. He was way more insecure than you’d expect him to be, and he always had a thing for Livvie. Errol says so and Olivia says so. You put his insecurity together with Rathbone’s fondness for her, and Flynn would have been annoyed; no doubt of that. The little mention in Rathbone’s memoirs where Flynn calls him “dear old Bazzz” is pretty funny, because right there you see a glimpse of the charm and the hostility that Errol Flynn always brought to bear. But he was also a chameleon, an “actor,” and I don’t mean to imply there were fireworks on the Robin Hood set because these people had their hands full with the pressure of a Technicolor ‘A’ picture and then the change of directors in mid-production. There were bigger fish to fry than worrying about Rathbone with his arm around de Havilland. But absolutely, Flynn would have been annoyed by Rathbone’s attentions.
In an all-guy production like The Dawn Patrol, the energy would have been different and evidence shows a very happy set. Flynn could only relax around guys–women were mysterious and required work. The chemistry between Flynn and Rathbone on that picture was just outstanding, and the result of some trust and some respect between the players.
TB: Your book actually describes Flynn resenting Rathbone “pawing” Olivia de Havilland and seeing Rathbone’s “masculine charm” as “competition”. Is there a source for this beyond the home movies that do indeed show Rathbone and Olivia in close proximity?
Matzen: A written source? No. We have the home movies, and also candid photos from the Coronation Ball and the Robin Hood set that show Rathbone’s attentiveness to de Havilland. Candids are an important source for any writer. As for Flynn’s insecurity and seeing other male actors as competition, there is evidence, including de Havilland’s descriptions of a very similar circumstance when Reagan got chummy with her on the Santa Fe Trail set, and Reagan’s stories about Flynn’s frail ego and insecurities.
TB: I’m interested that you describe Flynn as insecure, not only because it goes against the very popular image of him that people seem to like to have, but also because it ties in with that wonderful candid photo of Flynn and the Baz during the preparations for Robin Hood, where Errol’s face seems unguarded and both vulnerable and insecure. I always assumed it was largely a photographic accident, but maybe it’s one of those photos that captures a little of a person’s essence?
Matzen: Great pic; this was the day they looked at sketches and costumes for the jousting tournament, right before that entire sequence was hacked out of the beginning of the script. Think about the two very different positions these guys were in. Flynn is Warner Bros. property and about to begin the biggest picture of his career. Enormous pressure. Rathbone is an independent. Flynn was due to begin intense training with bow, quarterstaff, and sword. Rathbone wasn’t even due to begin the picture for seven more weeks. The weight of the world is on Flynn’s shoulders, and you can see it in this photo. It’s no photographic accident.
TB: Rathbone was somewhat disparaging of Flynn the swordsman, comparing him unfavorably to Tyrone Power, even though Power was nothing like as good an athlete and had to be doubled throughout much of the action in Zorro. There is an implication of a personal issue there. How much of that do you ascribe to the de Havilland situation that you perceive in your book?
Matzen:Flynn was a sad, insecure, lonely soul, far from the carefree creature that women around the world fell in love with and men were intimidated by or wanted to be. He had a cruel upbringing similar to that of de Havilland, and this gave them something important in common.
More than one actor complained about Flynn’s recklessness with a sword. Flynn was coordinated and athletic, but a terrible detail man. He had trouble memorizing dialogue and that translated into also having trouble with choreographed fencing.
I marvel at Rathbone’s skill with a sword in Robin Hood and in The Mark of Zorro. Here he was, what, 18 years Flynn’s senior and not missing a beat in the rehearsals that have been preserved. That’s real athleticism. Some actors are a natural with the sword and Rathbone was one of those.
I honestly don’t think any of that resentment in the Rathbone memoir is because of de Havilland. It was because everyone praised Flynn’s prowess with a sword when Rathbone, who yes, did have an ego, was habitually overlooked when he shouldn’t have been. Basil Rathbone was no Errol Flynn, but then Flynn was no Rathbone either. Flynn owes a lot of his success in Robin Hood to what Rathbone gave him in an antagonist, and in a dangerous physical opponent.
TB: You don’t think Rathbone was rather unfair to Flynn’s fencing skills? There’s very little doubling in the RH fight and the home movie shows a Flynn who seems pretty firmly rehearsed. It seems perverse of Basil to praise Power so highly in comparison, even given Flynn’s recklessness, when Power was so much the inferior as a swordsman and an athlete. Whatever the source of the potential resentment it does seem to be skewing Rathbone’s judgment don’t you think?
Matzen: Flynn was an inaccessible person. All the stars worked hard at that time, six days a week, long hours, but Flynn wasn’t an actor’s actor and in some regards didn’t know how to (or was unwilling to) give generously to another actor and set him up for success. Power was a good guy from all accounts and the son of an actor. I can see Rathbone remembering Ty Power much more fondly in all aspects than Errol Flynn, and it’s clear that the swordsmanship issue was important to Rathbone and had a symbolic meaning that went deeper than just who could run through who in a theoretical bout.
Sure Flynn was firmly rehearsed. They rehearsed literally for weeks prior to production on everything physical that the men were going to be taking on. That doesn’t mean that from moment to moment Flynn was as mindful of where that sword was going as he should have been. I also think there was another element that Rathbone resented with Flynn: Errol made it look easy. It wasn’t easy, but Errol make it look easy in the final print. He made a lot of things look easy and when you add everything up, it made him someone that Rathbone, an accomplished, serious actor, could resent.
I don’t mean to slam Flynn here. He was a fascinating guy with many positive attributes. He was good at stuff. He was a philosopher, a writer, a thinker, a sailor. He was unafraid of many of the things that run other people aground. When sober he was charming as hell and he spent the 1930s entirely sober when it counted. But he wasn’t what you’d call a warm guy or someone you’d ever want to count on as a friend.
TB: Would you say there was any mutual respect? Would they each have respected the other’s athleticism as an opponent? The chemistry you talk about is it exclusively hostile?
Matzen: There’s no doubt that Flynn respected Rathbone’s talent, which would have triggered Errol’s insecurity as well. I think they have great chemistry onscreen because of their differences in style–raw Flynn and measured Rathbone. This is true in Robin Hood for sure and to a lesser extent in The Dawn Patrol because the story called for a stiff-upper-lip vibe from all parties. I credit Eddie Goulding for forging DP into an ensemble classic. As I’ve said before, Flynn needed the right director, a strong director, and he had that in Curtiz, Goulding, and some others. Rathbone was much more a hired gun who would come in for two or three weeks or four weeks and adapt to the circumstances. He wasn’t a member of the Warner Bros. family, which some forget today because he made so many key pictures there. The studio players worked together all day and went on junkets and attended premieres, but the freelancers came in, did their work, and went on to another studio and another job. So yeah, of course Flynn respected Rathbone, and “dear old Bazzz” was in part his way of dealing with someone he knew was a better actor, by adopting that cynical attitude.
TB: Obviously there is a very powerful Flynn legend. The hard drinking, hard-living reckless devil, adored by women, admired by men, who just didn’t give a damn and went through life with a swagger and a smile, immune to all normal human insecurities. It’s very simplistic and not really the image of a human being, more of a Jungian archetype, but people seem to need to believe this was the “real Flynn” and it’s the image most often sold in books and documentaries. But you, almost uniquely, have dared to challenge this image and to present a far more human and frail version of Flynn as insecure, over-compensating, distrustful of women, edgy around men he thought of as in any sense better than him. How was this interpretation received?
Matzen: With silence. I can’t recall any Flynn fans coming up to me and saying, “Thank you for revealing this very flawed person,” although many understand that he had flaws like all of us. You don’t die at 50 looking 75 and in the company of your lover, an underage girl, without a flaw or two. Case in point: I knew Tony Thomas, who did books and articles on Flynn and was the first to interpret his life and career. Tony was a wonderful, reserved, thoughtful, articulate and quiet person and he idolized Flynn as a kid. He finally met him near the end of Flynn’s life–meetings captured in recordings that Thomas released on LP. It’s late at night, Flynn’s bombed, and there’s a hint of that cruel streak of his, that bitterness, and I think it disillusioned Tony, and the disillusionment comes through in later writings. Tony sought to understand what he had experienced, but because he was a reserved, self-disciplined person, he couldn’t help but sort of scold Errol Flynn posthumously in his biographical work for being so very human when they met. I think Flynn fans in general have to come to grips, consciously or unconsciously, with the dichotomy he embodied–the hero who entertained millions, and the flawed, depressed, self-destructive loner. Then again, the bad boy is attractive to both sexes, and the lost soul in need of rescue still appeals to many of his women fans. “If only I had been there for Errol.
What perplexes admirers of both sexes is, what the hell did this guy have to be insecure about? He had it all! Any male who looks at Flynn and his success with women is going to wish he looked like Flynn and had the Flynn charm. But in Errol’s own mind, he didn’t have it all. He said that he believed he was a fake, and inadequate. He just didn’t like himself. A couple of his highly credible ex-lovers said he was nothing special in the bedroom, which goes along with the whole tortured-soul package that was Errol Flynn. His first biographer was a reporter named Tedd Thomey and in 1962 he wrote one of the most beautiful sentences I ever saw, which I borrowed (with credit) in my own work: “The way he lived his life, it was inevitable he would be clobbered.” God what a sentence, and from someone who knew Flynn. So, yeah, it is probably hard for males to understand that Flynn was insecure, but then look at any man with a giant pickup truck or a high-performance sports coup, and you might be looking at insecurity. Hell, we’re all insecure.
TB: Do you think, like Cool Hand Luke, he kind of knew his human weakness was unacceptable? He was allowed to be selfish and raucous and greedy of course. But was he allowed to be afraid? Or small? Or sad? He must have been those thing sometimes because he was a human being, but people didn’t want to see him that way, and there must have been a huge pressure on him to pretend he wasn’t – ever – afraid or lonely or embarrassed or whatever. And that could be very alienating and intimidating. Is that what he meant by feeling a fake maybe?
Matzen: He believed that his weaknesses were unacceptable. He’s been called fearless and in some ways, he was. He soloed in a private plane without having any real idea what he was doing. He stepped onto a lit soundstage with 200 cast, crew, and extras and walked up to Bette Davis playing a queen and recited lines when he had a learning disability–to me these are definitions of fearlessness. And yet he had a fear of being inadequate. He was extremely vulnerable to criticism and that’s what would set him over the edge–somebody in the media criticizing him. Pans of his acting as with Escape Me Never. Negative reviews of his writing–especially devastating to him.
TB: And what do you think Rathbone meant by saying “I don’t agree with Flynn’s view of himself?” He knew Flynn pretty well but didn’t recognize the self-portrait Errol painted.
Matzen: Flynn’s memoir, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, shows him to be “more sinned against than sinning,” which is phrasing that Tony Thomas put to Flynn for confirmation: Errol the carefree, two-fisted adventurer brought down by The Man. I can only speculate that Rathbone saw Flynn as much deeper than this, a better actor than he gave himself credit for (Flynn was quite self-deprecating about his talent in his book), an introvert, and that sad, lost loner who found it much easier to hide behind a facade of perpetual adolescence. I really do think that Rathbone saw Flynn as a lot of fun. Baz did not suffer fools gladly, and Flynn was no fool. He was a handful, but especially in the 1930s, Flynn was mentally engaged.
TB: I think this is a very good answer. I like the idea of Flynn almost trying to be less than he was and Rathbone finding that annoying or incomprehensible. Did you suggest earlier that this was part of the chemistry between them? You almost sense Rathbone disapproves of Flynn’s hiding behind his facade don’t you. As if he knew the man had more to offer and ought to have the courage to stand by that fact. Do you think Rathbone was correct?
Matzen: Flynn did take the easy way out in hiding behind that façade, and somebody as sharp as Rathbone would have seen it.
One other thing at this point: I read here [on The Baz] that I portrayed Flynn and Rathbone as romantic rivals for Olivia de Havilland. I hate being misquoted and I never wrote anything of the kind. Rathbone had a crush on de Havilland, but I don’t believe he ever made a play for her. It makes no sense for a freelance talent to take that kind of risk, and shows a lack of understanding of the business of filmmaking at the time. Flynn would have considered Rathbone’s attentions toward de Havilland to have been an annoyance, yes, something to get under his thin skin, but it was truly nothing compared to the titanic undertaking of making Robin Hood.
TB: And of course, Flynn was a professional in those days wasn’t he. That tends to be forgotten in the legend too. It’s good to be reminded of it.
Matzen: That’s a great point and easy to lose sight of: Errol Flynn thrived doing a very difficult thing, and was proud of what he accomplished. There are production notes where the unit manager criticizes Flynn for burning film stock and not getting a buy until take six. But it’s doing a paragraph or two of dialogue! An entire scene! Today we have digital video and you don’t burn anything but zeroes and ones, and how many of today’s acting crop could hit the buy any sooner? He was a professional, especially at the time he worked with Rathbone.
TB: I have just been sent (by my intrepid colleague Anna) another quote from Rathbone on Flynn that maybe you’d like to comment on:
“God gave him the most beautiful body. He’s intelligent. He can act. He arrived very fast. He arrived almost overnight. And he simply wasn’t ready, he wasn’t sufficiently well disciplined in life to know that he had to conform. Now he has made non-conformity a sort-of idiosyncrasy. It’s now almost a big bluff, because he’s thrown a very wonderful career out of the window.”
Matzen:This is a fantastic summary of 1935-36 Errol Flynn, right up there with the Thomey quote as a perfect description, and shows just how much wisdom and perspective Rathbone had. He was one smart guy, which explains why he stayed out of trouble and why there isn’t dirt to dig up. Comments like this should put to bed some notions about womanizing and other nonsense. Basil Rathbone was a professional actor who did work his way up through the ranks, unlike Flynn, and shared the stage with Le Galliene and others and learned his craft and appreciated the place he ended up in Hollywood.
If you go take a peek at that magnificent chateau in Bel Air where the Rathbones threw their parties of legend, you see elegance, sheer elegance, and that was Basil Rathbone. He didn’t get there by being some reckless fool who screwed anything that moved. You don’t see any hideous scandal like the one that brought down Lionel Atwill. Rathbone came in, played his part, and moved on to the next job. He was appreciated at the big studios and kept getting invited back because of his remarkable intuitive gifts. He was a pro. That’s not what some people want to hear, but it’s the truth. I admire Basil Rathbone very much for being just who he was, in life and on the screen.
TB: Finally – it’s true that both Flynn and Rathbone are the two parts of that now almost mythic screen duel, People talk about their “legendary” partnership as if they fought each other in dozens of films over dozens of years. In fact it was just two films and a span of three years. A fraction of both their careers, yet that image of them both is iconic in a way beyond almost anything either did separately on film. Do you think they would have been happy to know that these brief moments have become such a large part of their movie legend? Happy to share this curious immortality with one another?
Matzen: This is the easiest question you’ve asked. A resounding yes for both parties. In his later years Rathbone didn’t want to talk about the crap he was forced to appear in, but he’d warm up right away if you wanted to talk about his work in the Golden Era. You can tell from his quotes that he was proud of his association with Flynn because of what Errol represented in the evolution of cinema, a big screen presence in big productions marshaled by a renowned director–including the triple-Academy-Award-winner, The Adventures of Robin Hood, with an all-star cast, known from then until now as a benchmark adventure film.
I’m certain that Flynn never allowed himself to understand how many people he touched, entertained, and presented with two hours of happiness or escape or catharsis. But even when he was shot to hell, near death, he spooled up his projector and watched his glory pictures, especially Robin Hood. He would be–happy isn’t the right word–he would be interested, keenly interested, to hear that his work was remembered 75 years later and had reached iconic proportions. And above all, the imagery representing classic adventure cinema shows two men with swords on a spiral staircase. Flynn and Rathbone.
TB: I can’t think of a better image to end on. Thank you, Robert.