Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Adventures of Robin Hood

A group of us recently watched “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) in Blu Ray in my friend’s home theater, and its countless viewings haven’t dimmed my enthusiasm one bit. I’ve probably seen it more times than any other film. At least 30 viewings of it and that may be a conservative number. It’s been almost a week now since I last saw it, and I can’t wait to see it again.

As long as I can remember it’s been my favorite movie and no other title has ever supplanted it. The Blu Ray transfer is absolutely gorgeous, but the film doesn’t demand optimum viewing conditions to work its magic.

My first exposure to the film was annual viewings on our black and white television on WGN-TV’s much loved Family Classics movie program, interrupted by commercials and edited to fit a two-hour time slot. Even with these restrictions, the film grabbed me and never let go.

Finally seeing it uncut, uninterrupted and in Technicolor at a revival screening at Chicago’s Biograph Theater in 1975 was a real treat. It didn’t improve the movie, but made a great movie even greater.

“The Adventures of Robin Hood” may be one of the best-loved films of all time and I’m not sure what I can add about it that hasn’t already been written. What I can do, though, is put down some oddball trivia and thoughts I’ve had about the film over the years. Believe me, this will not be a linear essay. I will assume most people reading this are familiar with the movie.

“The Adventures of Robin Hood” was one of those happy instances where the right people came together at the same time. Is it a perfect film? No, but it comes as close to perfection as any film I can think of. So, let me get a few miniscule negatives out of the way.

During the feast sequence after the Merry Men have ambushed Sir Guy’s men, Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) and Maid Marian (Olivia deHavilland) walk through the forest where a group of fugitive peasants are gathered. Why aren’t they at the feast? How come they haven’t joined the other revelers? Is it because they’re too broken and wounded? I always wondered about those folk.

During the archery tournament the archers shoot at the traditional multi-colored bulls eye targets. Were these bulls eye targets really available in medieval England? Maybe someone could fill me in, but those targets look a little too contemporary to me.

And that’s it. Those are my negatives about the film.

Oh, some smart alceks snigger about Robin’s costuming, what with green tights and a jaunty feather sticking out of a cap. Blasphemy, I say!

Robin Hood is a legend, and I want my Robin Hood to wear that green outfit and be a brave and courageous hero, robbing from the rich to give to the poor, risking all to protect the helpless and fighting tyranny with his band of Merry Men, as likeable a group of outlaws that ever existed.

Watching Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, one understands why the Robin Hood legend has endured for centuries, something you don’t get while watching the Kevin Costner or Russell Crowe versions.

Much like 1960s advertising which proclaimed Sean Connery IS James Bond, Errol Flynn IS Robin Hood. Early casting was not so fortuitous, as in 1935, Warner Bros. toyed with the idea of casting James Cagney as Robin Hood and Guy Kibbee as Friar Tuck.

Initial reaction tells me I can’t picture Cagney in the role. Still, its always fun seeing Cagney stick it to authority figures, which Robin Hood certainly does. He’s an amusing cowpoke in “The Oklahoma Kid” (1939) so maybe he would have been a good swashbuckler after all. His dancing background meant the choreographed duels would have been something to behold. Would lack of an English accent have hindered him?

Personally, I don’t care about such things. I don’t recall any serious criticism regarding the lack of an English accent from Clark Gable’s Fletcher Christian or Gregory Peck’s Horatio Hornblower.

Burt Lancaster plays a Robin Hood-type in medieval Italy in the wonderful “The Flame and the Arrow” (1950) without the slightest, tiniest attempt at an accent. The film doesn’t suffer a bit for it. (I won’t even go into one scene where Virginia Mayo dons a shorts outfit that looks like she just played a set of tennis at the Bel Air Country Club. Yowzah! If this was medieval Italy, I’m sorry the Renaissance ever took place).

Besides Cagney, “The Adventures of Robin Hood” is laden with what ifs. It was a long process between the initial idea to do a Robin Hood film and the final product. In some cases we have glimpses of other films to give us a good idea of what could have been.

Anita Louise was originally slated to play Maid Marian. We have an idea of what she might have been like when she essayed the role in “The Bandit of Sherwood Forest” (1946).

Early versions of the script wrestled with the climax, with several drafts featuring an elaborate siege of Nottingham Castle by Robin’s men and King Richard’s returning Crusaders. This was nixed due to cost considerations. (As it was, “The Adventures of Robin Hood” was Warner Bros. most expensive film to date, costing $1.4 million).

We have an idea of what the siege might have looked like thanks to M-G-M’s “Ivanhoe” (1952). “Ivanhoe” is pretty much the same story as Flynn’s Robin Hood; indeed Robin Hood and the Merry Men take part in the castle siege. It is a marvelous sequence and one almost as satisfying as Warners’ eventual solution. (In a further odd coincidence, Olivia deHavilland’s half sister Joan Fontaine plays the Saxon princess Rowena in “Ivanhoe.”)

A major part of Robin Hood’s success is the landmark and much loved score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. I personally know rock and roll fans who wouldn’t think of ever going to a symphonic concert or listen to classical music who have Korngold’s Robin Hood score in their CD collections.

It envelops the film in such a feeling of good fellowship, romance and adventure that it’s impossible to consider the film without it. Who was partly responsible for the score? Adolf Hitler.

Producers Hal Wallis and Henry Blanke begged and pleaded with Korngold to score the film, and with each call Korngold got more and more stubborn in his refusals. (Korngold enjoyed a very enviable contract with Warner Bros. He could refuse any assignment offered him and had first pick at the studio’s most prestigious films.)

Korngold wrote to Wallis, “Robin Hood is no picture for me. I have no relation to it, and therefore cannot produce any music for it. I am a musician of the heart, of passions and psychology. I am not a musical illustrator for a 90 percent action picture.”

Warner Bros. Music Director Leo Forbstein went to Korngold’s home to beg and promise him the moon to take the assignment. Korngold finally (partially) relented, saying he would work on it on a week by week basis, with the caveat he could quit at any time.

Korngold finally agreed to finish the film only after learning about the German invasion of Austria and learning his property had been confiscated by the Nazis. Korngold spent the next seven weeks composing the score, which would earn him his second Academy Award and become one of his best loved compositions. No doubt Korngold was inspired by the film’s message exhorting freedom and the struggle against tyranny and oppression.

This also means that if the Cagney version had been produced circa 1935 or 1936, it most likely would not have been scored by Korngold.

On a side note, I always wondered if anyone ever recorded Errol Flynn’s reactions to the musical scores in his movies. Along with Charlton Heston, Errol Flynn probably had more genuinely great film music written for him than any other actor or actress.

The only mention I can find comes from Brendan Carroll’s invaluable biography on Korngold “The Last Prodigy” (Amadeus Press, 1997). In the mid-1950s Flynn was producing a movie based on the William Tell legend, and Flynn contacted Korngold about composing the score. Korngold turned Flynn down, saying he had retired from film scoring. Still, Flynn must have thought well enough of him to approach him with the assignment.

“The Adventures of Robin Hood” earned almost unanimous critical raves, and Warner Bros. earned back its production costs many times over, not only in its initial release but as one of the most popular re-issue titles in the Warner Bros. library.

In “The Adventures of Robin Hood, Wisconsin/Warner Bros. Screenplay Series” (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1979), film historian Rudy Behlmer writes he read countless contemporary reviews of the film, and only found one dissenting opinion. In the London Observer, critic C.A. Lejeune wrote, “It must have been an almost superhuman task to make a dull film on the subject of Robin Hood, but the Warner Brothers, who have never flinched from major difficulties, have almost managed it. I don’t know when I have seen more money, more care and more important workmanship lavished on such a stupendous presentation of the obvious.”

I have one another dismissive comment and it shocked me to the core. Growing up, my favorite film historian was the late film historian William K. Everson. Anything he wrote was an automatic purchase.

In 1981, he made several visits to Chicago to the Film Center at the Art Institute to screen films from his private collection. My dad and I went on a Saturday afternoon to see Fritz Lang’s rarely screened (at the time) “House by the River” (1950). We met Mr. Everson in the lobby and enjoyed several minutes chatting with him and we got several of his books signed.

I was bold enough to ask him about one of his assertions in his book “Love in the Film” (Citadel Press, 1979) where he wrote regarding the Ronald Colman version of “The Prisoner of Zenda” (1937): “One can almost pin down The Prisoner of Zenda as being the last (and best) of the great romanticist adventure films.”

I asked him about the wonderful love story in “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and didn’t he consider it a great romanticist adventure film?

I can’t remember his exact words, but he said no, color was the main star of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and without it, it was a fairly ordinary adventure film.

My dad and I were both stunned into silence, but we resumed our conversation and it was a most pleasant one. We didn’t agree with him of course, but it was a good lesson to learn that even our critic idols can enjoy wildly different opinions. But I still think he was wrong. I have lots of black and white memories of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” that tell me otherwise.


R. D. Finch said...

Kevin, a very well-written post on a film that clearly holds wonderful memories for you and which you must love dearly to have watched so many times. I've never come anywhere near that number even for my most favorite movies! I've been following the review and 100+ comments on "The Wizard of Oz" in the musicals countdown at Wonders in the Dark, where you contributed such a great post on "Brigadoon," and your review here makes me think that people have very similar feelings about "Robin Hood." Both movies seem to have the same kind of universal appeal, often formed in childhood and carried over into adulthood with no loss of intensity. But in very different modes--the musical fantasy with a female role model at its center and the action fantasy with a male role model at its center. It's interesting to consider that the two were released one year apart. And both were early color films that strained the studio's technical and financial resources and involved its best talent. Your details about the alternative versions that might have been go to show how the right combination of people can result in the perfect convergence of talent that produces a classic. A most enjoyable read.

The Lady Eve said...

What a wonderful tribute to "The Adventures of Robin Hood," Kevin. Almost could be called "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About..." Completely interesting and entertaining and, as you probably know, I love back story and marginalia. Someone ought to (maybe someone already has...) blog about Flynn's ill-fated William Tell project. My impression is that it was nearly the end of him.

I'm posting a link to this piece in my sidebar with hopes of sending a reader or two your way - this is really too good to miss.

Caftan Woman said...

You don't even have to watch "The Adventures of Robin Hood" to enjoy it. The memories of the lines, the actors and, of course, the music can transport you from a dreary subway ride or a boring task.

"Bless my soul, a miracle!"
"I love no man better."

My little niece is getting the soundtrack for Christmas. Best Aunt Ever!

Kevin, I really enjoyed your memories and thoughts on "The Adventures of Robin Hood". Tell me, when you watched this on TV when you were a kid and Robin said "Kneel men of Sherwood" to take the oath, did you kneel and take the oath? When Caftan Woman was Pajama Girl, she certainly did.

Kevin Deany said...

R.D. thank you for your kind words. I used to think Robin Hood was one of those movies universally beloved, and always would be, but some younger viewers seem not to respond to it as I woudl like.

I used to be head of singles group at my church and one evening I had them over to my place to watch it. None of them had ever seen it and they were in their mid-to-late 30s at the time. None of them cared for it, they thought it was too artificial. Not only did I think about changing churches, I thought about changing religions.

Lady Eve, thank you so much for including the link on your site. I've already noticed quite a bit of traffic coming from your site. Your kindness and thoughtfulness is much appreciated.

About 15 or so years ago Filmfax magazine had a cover story on the aborted "William Tell" project. It made for fascinating reading. I can't remember where the half hour of footage currently resides. Last I heard it was either at an East Coast university - Boston College maybe? At one time I believe it was Roddy McDowall's personal collection. With Jack Cardiff directing, I bet the footage was beautiful to behold. Maybe one day we'll see it, but I'm not holding my breath.

C.W. HA! No, I didn't kneel down, butI have been known to say, even to this day, "Let's away." Thanks for taking the time from your rehabilitation to write. Hope you are recovering from your accident.

Page said...

Your Adventures of Robin Hood review was so entertaining! And thanks for including your conversation with William Everson and his view on the film. You know it's funny because whenever early 'action/adventure' films come up "The Prisoner of Zenda" is always the first film that comes to mind! I love that film and Ronald Coleman in his duel role.

Although I enjoyed Robin Hood and anything Errol has done good or bad. I would also name Doug Fairbanks Sr if anyone were to ask to name a famous swashbuckler.

But, going back to Robin Hood. A couple of years ago some young girl tweeted something to the affect that she saw Cary Elwes playing Robin Hood and she could remember THE original being Kevin Costner! I had to laugh while tweeting back and reminding her about Errol Flynn. I loved Errol and Olivia together, such a dynamic duo on screen but for some reason seeing them in this color extravaganza took some of their appeal away for me.

Thanks for sharing your memories of TAORH as well as your fun trivia and beautifully written review.
I hope you don't mind that I feature your article on my sidebar.
On a side-note, if Becky wasn't moving right now I know she would be over here camped out while staring at her boyfriend Errol. :)

Kevin Deany said...

Thanks, Page, for the sidebar mention. Very nice of you and it's never a problem.

That Costner tweet story is very funny.

I like Fairbanks Sr. too, but his Robin Hood, for me, takes too long to get going. But once it does, it's very entertaining and you can't beat those gorgeous sets. Still, in the end, I prefer his Zorro, Three Musketeeers and Black Pirate to his Robin Hood.

Also interesting to see how young Alan Hale looked as Little John in the Fairbanks, as compared to the same role in the Flynn. Ironically, his last performance was as Little John in "Rogue's of Sherwood Forest" (1950). John Derek played Robin Hood in that one.

Laura said...

What a wonderful tribute, to Kevin, to one of my very favorite films. I consider it to be a truly perfect movie, with perhaps the greatest film score ever composed.

I remember the first time I saw it on a big screen, at the Fine Arts Theater in the L.A. area, circa late '70s, I thought the "balcony scene" with Robin and Marian was the most romantic thing I'd ever seen. I still think so -- although I confess the shot where he talks straight to the camera always disconcerts me (maybe for me that's the one blemish on the film's perfection!). I was fortunate to see the film in a theater on at least three other occasions; adding in watching it at home, where it's a favorite of my children, the number is way up there, although I'm sure you're ahead of me at 30!!

Like you, I grew up admiring Everson, reading his books and his articles in back issues of Films in Review. What a fascinating anecdote about his lack of appreciation for this film. I'm truly surprised.

Thanks for a wonderful post!

Best wishes,

Kevin Deany said...

Laura: I know that shot you're talking about and I did consider mentioning in the my short section on the film's negatives, but when the actual writing occurred, it slipped my mind.

I know what you mean though, in the previous scene they're eyeball to eyeball and then that closeup of Flynn makes it look like he's a foot or two away. Oh well, like you said, nothing's perfect.

Growing up, "The Adventures of Robin Hood" showed up once a year on the Family Classics weekly movie program. I watched it every year but I do remember one year when some relatives were over and I missed it. That meant waiting a whole year to see it again. Yes, I actually do remember this incident. I had to be satisfied with my Super 8 10-minute highlight version of it on, I think, Ken Films.

My dad had a 16mm projector and for years I entertained the idea of owning my own print of it. At the time a nice Technicolor print ran about $500. That meant a lot of lawn mowing and paper routes in my future.

So when home video came around, Robin Hood was one of my first purchases. We had a (don't laugh) Betamax and the Beta copy cost me $89.99. It seemed a steal compared to $500. I have since purchased it in VHS and DVD. I have yet to spring for a Blu Ray player, but I can confirm from my friend's viewing, that the Blu Ray transfer is gorgeous beyond belief.

Laura said...

Oh, I won't laugh about the Betamax, Kevin -- when I was 17 I spent $500 I'd saved from babysitting, birthday money, and high school graduation gifts to get a Beta. I remember when blank 3-hour tapes cost around $25! LOL. I clung to Beta years after everyone else had given up on them and joke that in some ways I jumped straight from Beta to DVD! (Although I did eventually get VHS and still use it to record movies to watch.)

I have a very vivid memory of missing the annual showing of WHITE CHRISTMAS because we had to go to a family Christmas party. I was heartbroken. Before the advent of the Beta, in fact, I audiotaped the entire soundtrack of my favorite movie (SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS) and a couple scenes from ROBIN HOOD and MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS. At least that way I could relive them a little better when I couldn't watch them. I love that you had a Super 8 "highlights" film from ROBIN HOOD!

I keep trying to tell my children what it was like, that if you missed a movie (edited and filled with commercials, of course) on TV, you might not see it again for *years*! While my children take DVDs and videos for granted, I don't think I will ever lose a sense of wonder at being able to walk over to a shelf and pull down THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD or SEVEN BRIDES or MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS any time I want!

Best wishes,

Kevin Deany said...

Laura, I know what you mean, I have that sense of wonder all the time.

It really struck me one day, when I was buying, of things, "Shadows of Chinatown" a 1936 Poverty Row serial, from, I think Victory Pictures. The serial starred Bela Lugosi and in my well-thumbed edition of "The Films of Bela Lugosi" it said only one copy of the film was known to exist.

I can remember thinking that's one Lugosi title I'll never see.

I remembered that book as I stood in line at Fry's Electronics, holding in my hand two DVDs (from Alpha Video) of the entire serial in the palm of my hand, and a $10 bill in the other.

For some reason, the whole home video thing really struck me at that point, even though I already had quite a few DVDs in my collection.

Laura said...

Beautiful story on the Lugosi serial, Kevin. Love that!

Best wishes,

Dees Stribling said...

It is a grand movie, isn't it? But you forgot to mention your personal connection to Much the Miller's Son.

Kevin Deany said...

Not so much a personal collection, but what I think Dees is referring to is a former (now deceased) co-worker of ours who grew up outside Hollywood in the early 1930s.

I asked him once if he met any celebrities and he said his family was good friends with Herbert Mundin. He remembered Mundin as being very kind and sitting on Mundin's lap as a young boy when he was over for a visit.

I never doubted this. After all, if your're going to say you knew any celebrities from Hollywood's Golden Age, Herbert Mundin's name would be pretty far down the list.

Rick29 said...

Kevin, excellent tribute to my all-time favorite movie. As you said, it's one of those movies, like THE WIZARD OF OZ, where the stars aligned perfectly. Loved your comment, too, about the great music that accompanied Flynn films. Yes, it doesn't hurt when Korngold and Steiner do a large of chunk of your scores! What amazes me about Flynn's performance as Robin is that he makes it seem so effortless...and maybe it was for him. But the other actors you mentioned--Crowe, Costner, and we can add Richard Todd, Richard Greene, and many others--all failed to inhabit the character with the same combination of courage, hope, and romance. It's easy to see why Flynn's Robin appealed to men who wanted to be his friend, women who wanted to be his lover, and children who connected with his boyishness (e.g., refusing to give way on the log, eating the prince game in front of him).

ClassicBecky said...

Kevin, I've been dealing with selling my house and moving, so I've been offline. I'm now catching up with my favorite blogs. Oh my goodness, this subject is of course one of my very favorites! I love The Great Flynn, and this has to be the one he will always be remembered for. I am speechless at the content of your article -- how wonderful to give all these interesting side-notes and back-history anecdotes instead of just a synopsis of the movie.

How could anyone say that the star of the movie was really the color? He might have been a good critic otherwise, but in this one he was a real maroon. The music, the story, the acting -- all of it makes up a fabulous movie. And you are right -- who else could have been Robin Hood? I adore James Cagney, great actor, but he is too short and too New York. He would never have fit the part. Basil Rathbone, Alan Hale, Eugene Pallette -- perfect for their parts.

As a life-long Flynn movie lover, I'm really impressed and had great fun reading this, Kevin. Kudos!

Kevin Deany said...

Rick: Glad you enjoyed the piece. I agree with everything you said, especially about young people's reaction to the Robin Hood character.

Quite a few yeas ago, I loaned the VHS copy to a female co-worker who had never seen Errol Flynn before. She immediately became a fan, mainly due to the balcony scene at the beginning where he's gently teasing Olivia deHavilland and Una O'Connor about playing a game. She was struck by how masculine he was, yet stil very tender and romantic. She was struck by how playful the teasing was, with no trace of meanness or condescension.

Becky: Good luck with your move. I know what that's like. Despite what Everson thought about Robin Hood, he's still one of my favorite film historians. You're never going to 100 percent agree with a critic, but I still think he missed the boat on that one. I still bought his books and continue to enjoy them to this day.