Apr 8, 2008

The first summer blockbuster


He wore green tights and a little hat, swung from trees, tossed his head back for bellowing laughs, and made grand speeches, and did it all without looking silly or effeminate.

errol flynnStrictly speaking the summer blockbuster was born in 1975 with the release of Jaws. But The Adventures of Robin Hood which opened in May 1938--the beginning of the modern day summer movie season--fits the formula: It was the studio's first foray into "glorious technicolor" and at a cost of $2 million, was the most expensive movie in the history of Warner Brothers. Originally the part of Robin was supposed to go to Jimmy Cagney, but Cagney was in the middle of a contract dispute and walked off the set. Producer Hal Wallis decided the sets, scenery and story would draw audiences no matter who played the hero so he decided to cast newcomer Errol Flynn.

The original man in tights, Errol Flynn became the king of the swashbuckler and the prototype for the action hero of today. When Flynn had his first star turn, in the 1935 movie Captain Blood, the reviewer for the New York Times noted that the actor playing the hero was "criminally good-looking" and praised his audacious performance. Flynn's portrayal of Sir Robin of Locksley cemented his status as a superstar.

Handsome, athletic and charming, Flynn was beloved by men, women and children, which is really the prerequisite for a classic man of summer. Men want to hang out with him, women want to be with him and children want to be like him.

Roger Ebert nails down Flynn's appeal.

He was improbably handsome, but that wasn't really the point: What made him a star was his lighthearted exuberance, the good cheer with which he embodies a role like Robin Hood. When George C. Scott was asked what he looked for in an actor, he mentioned "joy of performance," and Flynn embodies that with a careless rapture. Watch his swagger as he enters John's banquet hall and throws a deer down before the prince, full knowing that the punishment for poaching a deer is death. Surrounded by his enemies, he fearlessly accuses John of treason against his brother Richard the Lionhearted, and then fights his way out of the castle again. Another actor might have wanted to project a sense of uncertainty, or resolve, or danger; Flynn shows us a Robin Hood so supremely alive that the whole adventure is a lark. Yes, his eyes shift to note that the exit is being barred and guards are readying their swords, but he observes not in fear but in anticipation.

Before car chases, computer animation or light sabers, the sword fight was the action hero's forte and Flynn performed some of the silver screen's finest duels. Although he occasionally used a stunt double, much of the swordplay was performed by Flynn, who studied fencing in earnest to prepare for the role. Here's Robin Hood dueling with Sir Guy of Guisbourne, played by Basil Rathbone. The scene was said to be the inspiration for the light saber duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back.

Rathbone and Flynn went on to face off against each other in a string of movies with similar plots. sort of like the sequels that are inevitable when a summer action flick becomes a true blockbuster.

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