In 1935, as Warner Bros. was gearing up to make an epic version of "The Adventures of Robin Hood," a consultant had an inspiration. Why not cast James Cagney as the roguish young nobleman who stole from the rich and gave to the poor? Warners loved the idea and nixed it only after Cagney stalked out of the studio in a contract dispute.
By the time the movie went into production in 1937, the man who was born to play Robin--Errol Flynn--had revealed himself as the screen's greatest swashbuckler in "Captain Blood" (1936). As a result, film history was saved from a casting blunder almost as profound as that other notorious near-miss--Warners' serious consideration of Ronald Reagan to play Rick in "Casablanca."
The 1938 version of "The Adventures of Robin Hood," the one that puts every other version to shame, will be screened today and Saturday at Glendale's restored Alex Theatre. Tonight's gala program, beginning at 8, will feature a sword fight staged by Victor Paul, who crossed sabers with Flynn in "Against All Flags," doubled for Robert Shaw in "Swashbuckler" and is now a stunt coordinator and second-unit director.
The Alex Film Society is sponsoring the event. According to its president and co-founder Brian Ellis, the nonprofit organization was founded last year by a group of Glendale-area movie buffs "to preserve, protect and promote classic films at the Alex." The group currently has some 250 members, many of them TV and film professionals, including actress Annie Potts. Dues are $25 a year for individuals, $40 for families.
Ellis, first assistant director of the TV series "Frasier," says the Alex began life in 1925 as a movie palace and that it was once a popular place for previewing films. He adds that it is still a fine venue for enjoying them--this, despite the theater's recent troubles establishing itself as a performing arts center. One of the society's first projects was to raise funds for a proper movie screen for the theater and to rehabilitate its projection and sound systems, Ellis says.
The society launched its film series last fall with "Gone With the Wind," followed by "The Wizard of Oz" in January. Turner Entertainment has supplied the society with first-rate prints for the screenings, Ellis says. The series has also benefited from the fact that "we're into showmanship," he says. Each of the programs has included something extra--appearances by cast members at "Gone With the Wind," a presentation by one of the surviving Munchkins of "The Wizard of Oz."
In addition to tonight's sword fight, each of this weekend's screenings will be introduced by film historian Rudy Behlmer. A Studio City resident whose books include "Memo From David O. Selznick," Behlmer fell in love with "Robin Hood" the first time he saw it in his hometown of San Francisco. "For a little boy," he recalls, "it had everything: color, pageantry, action--nonstop action--and the music, that wonderful (Erich Wolfgang) Korngold score."
Unlike so many action pictures, Behlmer observes, "The Adventures of Robin Hood" is suffused with charm--both the impudent charm of its male star and the playful but genuine chemistry between Flynn and Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian. (Rumors persist that the pair became lovers during the making of the film, a rumor she denies.)
In Behlmer's view, "The Adventures of Robin Hood" remains a classic because of a convergence of elements: villains the audience loves to hate in Basil Rathbone's Sir Guy of Gisbourne and Claude Rains' Prince John, comic relief, effective use of the then-new Technicolor process, writing that avoids the foolishness of so much historical drama, a lush Oscar-winning score by composer Korngold and a cast that looks perfectly comfortable wearing tights. But others would argue that the key to the film's success is as simple (or as complex) as the appeal of Flynn, the Australian actor who triggered more fantasies in his day than Brad Pitt does now.
Flynn was only 29 when the movie came out, a superb athlete with enormous panache whose beauty had yet to be eroded by time and vodka. But Flynn's bosses were taking no chances with their star, a man already famous for his prodigious appetites. As Behlmer reports in his book "Behind the Scenes," Warners' production manager T. C. Wright sent a memo to studio head Jack L. Warner requesting: "Kindly have a talk with Mr. Flynn and tell him to be on time for his call. . . . Also, he is not to be dissipating around and come in to the studio with bags under his eyes, as this is a very expensive picture."
Flynn was not so busy getting bags under his eyes that he forgot about the picture and how he looked in it. It was originally ordained that his hair (actually a wig) would feature a center part and a fringe of bangs across his brow, not unlike those Audrey Hepburn sported decades later.
"I loathe the bloody thing," Flynn wrote of the wig to executive producer Hal Wallis. "I would like an almost unnoticeable part on either side so that one side or the other could sweep back like this (he included a rough sketch) off the forehead." Wallis agreed to the new 'do and took the opportunity to ask Flynn to stop joy-riding in local airplanes--at least until the picture was finished.
The film, which Behlmer describes as "a fairy tale for all ages," ultimately cost almost $2 million and was, by far, the most expensive picture Warners had made at that time. The cost included $150 paid to stuntmen and bit players for every arrow that was shot into their well-padded chests and backs by the film's master bowman, Howard Hill. But, Behlmer notes, Warners didn't make the mistake so many creators of epics do: protracting the finished film in direct proportion to its cost. The movie runs an hour and 42 minutes. "For an epic," he says, "that's rather brisk."
William Keighley was the original director of the film, but as the budget escalated, the project was handed over to Michael Curtiz. As Behlmer points out, the Hungarian director was almost as famous for his butchered English as for his filmmaking. Among Behlmer's favorite Curtiz-isms: "The next time I want some dumb son of a bitch to do something, I'll do it myself."
The society hopes to show about eight films a year. Coming soon to the Alex--"Doctor Zhivago." The film, with newly restored negative and soundtrack, will premiere April 7. No Munchkins or swordplay, but the gala first night is expected to feature star Omar Sharif and composer Maurice Jarre.
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WHERE AND WHEN
What: Screening of the 1938 classic film "The Adventures of Robin Hood" at the Alex Theatre.
Location: 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale.
Hours: 8 tonight and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.
Price: $7.50 evenings, $5 matinee.
Call: (818) 243-2539.