The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 24 December (1.50 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

Channel 5 dominate their Christmas Eve schedules with three stonewall classics. they start at 9.30 am with the epic Gone with the Wind, a stretch at more than four hours long but well worth the sofa creasing investment for a genuine slice of Golden Age cinema. Later in the afternoon, there’s the 1951 adaptation of Scrooge, routinely considered the best amidst a sea of Christmas Carol flicks with the always fantastic Alistair Sim at its crotchety centre. But if there’s one film in which to invest the time, for me it’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, a box office smash from 1938 that redefined the matinee swashbuckler, it’s nothing less than an absolute treat.

Even as early as the thirties, the legends surrounding Robin Hood had already been committed to celluloid several times, the earliest entry dating from 1906 whilst the 1922 version starring Douglas Fairbanks had set the standard for all to follow. By the mid-1930s, Warner Brothers’ track record of scoring ticket selling gold with gritty crime dramas started to fall foul of the Hays Code, which imposed censorship standards upon studios based on moral acceptability. Searching for material that would meet the criteria, Warners opted for a new version of Robin Hood, tapping into the Boys Own potential of a pure-hearted, good versus evil action movie whilst chopping away the excesses that had made the Fairbanks film a bit of a trawl at times. Lopping off the lengthy introduction to the tale that involved Robin returning from the Crusades to focus on his adventures in Sherwood Forest, the studio went on to create a smash hit that would also gain approval at the Academy Awards. Three key elements would go on to set it apart – sound, colour and Errol Flynn.

The Adventures of Robin Hood was of course made at a time when sound came as standard, the ‘Talkies’ now fully ingrained a mere decade after they had began consigning silent cinema to a thing of the past. However, the production made the most of the technology. Professional archer Howard Hill was drafted in to play a small role (he features in the film’s archery contest), but also lent his shooting to the noise made by the arrows as they left bows and found the mark, thanks to the meaty sound produced by the thicker type of wood he favoured. It’s this attention to detail that helped make the film a hit. The arrows suddenly sounded like they had real impact, one felt no doubt by the extras who were paid $150 dollars each to take one in the chest from Hill’s bow. Further gold came from Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score. Born in Vienna, Korngold moved to America to compose the score and narrowly avoided becoming a Jewish victim of Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria, which made him claim that Robin Hood saved the lives of himself and his family. In return, he produced a suite that captured the heraldry completely befitting a tale of legend. The main theme is memorable enough, but his music adds real dramatic heft to the scenes involving Norman oppression over England’s Anglo-Saxon population, whilst there’s delight to be had from the film’s romantic moments, Korngold accompanying the growing love between Flynn and Olivia de Havilland with motifs that suggest the development of her understanding for his cause in fighting the good fight. It seems incredible to learn that Korngold initially begged to be released from his contract as he saw his work as utterly inappropriate to the style of film being made; the pair fit together perfectly.

Technicolor was still something of a novelty in the 1930s, yet it was a process that could make films look fresh and modern. Some, like The Wizard of Oz, used to it brilliant dramatic effect, juxtaposing the black and white of the Kansas based scenes to the bursts of colour when Dorothy has her adventures in the land of Oz. The three-strip process was expensive, and as costs on Robin Hood escalated it was agreed that colour would add to the film’s storybook feel, all those pennants, flags and crests showing up fantastically well. During the location shooting in Chico, California, which stood in for Sherwood Forest, the crew would spray-paint the foliage to make it look ‘greener’. The aim was to replicate the atmosphere evoked from those evocative, watercolour images in the books about the legend, and there’s little doubt it worked perfectly, leading to the film’s Oscar for its production design.

Initially, Warners turned to their marquee star, James Cagney, to play Robin Hood, and the very prospect of this short, angry, wholly American tough guy as England’s medieval outlaw hints at a very different film from the one that emerged. Industry differences ruled Cagney out, however (he walked out on Warners for breach of contract), and had them searching for a new Robin, a trail that led to Errol Flynn. Still an emerging force, the Tasmanian had impressed in 1935’s Captain Blood, a swashbuckler that pitted him against Basil Rathbone (Sir Guy in Robin Hood) and had him demonstrate sizzling chemistry with Olivia de Havilland. All three were contracted for the major starring roles in The Adventures of Robin Hood, de Havilland doing well as a principled and memorable Marion, but it’s Flynn who owns the film with his cheerful and physical performance. Handsome and carefree, he makes every scene he’s in look natural and easy, setting the tone for future Robin Hood portrayals whilst his ‘light as air’ style makes him instantly likeable as the outlaws’ leader. Rathbone is excellent as the brooding Sir Guy, leading a great triumvirate of villains alongside Claude Rains’s camp Prince John and the doltish Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper). Of the merry men, Eugene Pallette almost steals the show as a wisecracking Friar Tuck, forever fending off jokes about his size, and Alan Hale Snr reprises his role from the Fairbanks Hood film as Little John.

The production was originally offered to William Keighley as director, but as the footage was reviewed the lack of urgency and excitement in the action scenes led to his dismissal and replacement with Michael Curtiz, the reliable Hungarian responsible for Captain Blood and who would go on to helm the peerless Casablanca. Curtiz understood that Robin Hood was to be made as a fantasy, with little attention paid to the realities of medieval life and struggles, and instead placing the emphasis on action and fun, the result emerging as a tightly focused effort that ran little over 100 minutes. It must have dazzled contemporary audiences, with its opulent Technicolor palette and sheer joie de vivre. Thanks to the ‘no expenses spared’ approach, the rarely bettered action scenes and Flynn’s ability to fill the lead role so spiffingly, it’s barely dated at all. Comparisons with the many revisions that came later still leave it on top. As far as this writer is concerned, it’s up there with North by Northwest and Raiders of the Lost Ark as near perfect, good-time cinema.

The Adventures of Robin Hood: *****

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

When it’s on: Monday, 25 June (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

An acting masterclass from Bette Davis or the archetypal boring mess of a film, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (or Elizabeth and Essex, or as Errol Flynn would have had it, The Knight and the Lady) has divided opinion since its 1939 release. Made as a prestige picture showcasing Davis’s talents, hoovering up a significant portion of Warner Bros’s money and gunning for Oscar glory, it was utterly eclipsed at the Academy Awards by a certain, obscure little film centred on the American Civil War.

Much interest in the film has since revolved around a difficult production period. Davis pretty much arranged the green light with her Oscar for Jezebel fresh in the bag and her personal prestige at its height. For the role of Essex, she wanted Laurence Olivier, but the up and coming British actor was otherwise engaged on Wuthering Heights and not considered to be big time enough to star opposite Davis. Ultimately, Errol Flynn was hired, a decision based entirely on his star power. Davis was outraged, sensing Flynn simply didn’t have the actorly range for the production. There was also a mutual dislike between Flynn and the film’s director, Michael Curtiz. Despite the pair producing such winning results on the screen, off it was a seething discord based on Flynn’s hedonistic lifestyle and unwillingness to master some of the basics, such as learning his lines.

The loathing between Flynn and Davis expressed itself in a famous scene that made the final cut of the film. Required to slap him before the entire court, Davis went for a real wallop rather than the usual ‘screen blow,’ prompting a furious reaction from Flynn that obviously wasn’t faked. The moment was remembered by Flynn in his autobiography – ‘My jaw went out. I felt a click behind my ear and I saw all these comets and shooting stars, all in one flash. It didn’t knock me to the ground. She had given me that little dainty hand, laden with a pound of costume jewelry, right across the ear. I felt as if I were deaf.’

Whether she clocked Flynn to make the moment as authentic as possible, to reprimand him for his cavalier lack of professionalism or out of sheer spite, Davis kind of got lucky. Had she been given her own way, Elizabeth and Essex might have been an extremely worthy yet dull affair. Her performance as the Queen was technically spot on, sucking all the glamour out of the character (Elizabeth was in her mid-sixties when the events recorded in the film took place) to present an austere, distant regent who nevertheless retained a degree of magnetism. She even shaved part of her head to make the wig-wearing queen that little bit more authentic. But her heavy handedness needed Flynn’s light touch to give the piece some balance. It’s all reflected in the sets, designed by Anton Grot. Inspired by German expressionism, Grot delivered undecorated high walls and vast chambers for Elizabeth’s palace, where she spends the entirety of the film. The imagery was gloriously clear – here’s the unreadable queen, tender one moment and fuelled with rage the next, capable of beguiling men much younger than her and discarding them with a moment’s thought.

The work that went into it finds its finest expression in the film’s closing scenes, as Essex awaits execution in the Tower. Elizabeth is staying in a room above the prison, another chamber devoid of anything other than a throne and painted as white as the queen’s own face. The only time colour enters is from the steps that open at its floor, from which yellow light seeps in. When Essex emerges, the light floods in with him. When he goes, it disappears, a perfect comparison of the two characters and of the tension between the actors that breathed life into their chemistry together. A raft of fine actors – Olivia de Havilland, Vincent Price, Henry Stephenson, Henry Daniell – turn up as scheming courtiers, attempting to influence the queen as much as they owe their very existence to her whim, but the focus remains on the leads and their perpetual dance of love and death.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex: ***