ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN – Blade-flashing duels, devil-may-care bravado – a glorious Flynn swashbuckler. THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE – Flynn's British Lancers take the reins for one of film's greatest action sequences. THE DAWN PATROL – Dogfights above, challenges of command below: Flynn and David Niven team in a landmark tale of World War 1 flyboys. DIVE BOMER – They go first so that others may follow. A detailed and heroic tale of U.S. Navy fight research stars Flynn and Fred MacMurray. GENTLE JIM – Elegance in his style … thunder in his fists. James C. Corbett (Flynn) revolutionizes boxing.]]>
Let's take that last one first. Raoul Walsh's Gentleman Jim (1942) is a great, boisterous gift box of a movie, a high-spirited biopic of late-19th-century prizefighter James J. Corbett. The setting is San Francisco in the Gay '90s, with Flynn/Corbett starting out as a brash, egotistical bank teller fast with his mouth and light on his feet. Given a chance to crash high society, he becomes a pugilist for the amusement of the nabobs, then sets out on a boxing career that will bring him glove-to-glove with the Great John L. ... Sullivan, that is, and portrayed with Walshian gusto by Ward Bond. Gentleman Jim is fragrant with period atmosphere, exhilarating in its feeling for space and back-slapping human contact, and so big-hearted and exuberant that it finally invites the audience right into the film. Alexis Smith--as a socialite who ribs Corbett mercilessly--and Flynn conduct a strikingly egalitarian mating duel. The supporting cast includes Jack Carson, Alan Hale, and the epically grumpy William Frawley, and the whirlwind montages are by future director Don Siegel. This is great fun--and a masterpiece to boot.
The adventure movie is The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), Flynn's second star vehicle in Hollywood. A step up in scale and gloss from Captain Blood, this Michael Curtiz picture is historical poppycock but thrilling spectacle, with exotic doings in India and Asia Minor building to the horrendous siege of Chukoti, then a lateral move to the Crimea for the big Tennyson finish every perennial schoolboy in the audience has been waiting for. The Flynn of this swashbuckler-one-step-removed isn't the buoyant and boyish fellow we expect; he even comes in second to fellow Bengal Lancer (and dull brother) Patric Knowles for the heart of Olivia De Havilland. But he wears nobility well, and there's genuine tenderness in his performance. The camerawork and editing of the Charge will lift your heart rate, and the large supporting cast includes Donald Crisp, Nigel Bruce, Spring Byington, C. Henry Gordon, and Flynn pal David Niven.
Niven and Flynn are together again in The Dawn Patrol (1938), a memorable WWI tale of British airmen flying perilous missions in flimsy planes, and the flight commanders who have to send them out to do it. Basil Rathbone (in a rare departure from villainy in a Flynn movie) plays the tortured commandant whom hotshot Flynn will be obliged to succeed. Although this is the Dawn Patrol most people know, it's actually the remake of a 1930 Howard Hawks classic. The original has a starker feel (inseparable from its early-talkie creakiness), as if its airbase were at the edge of the known world. The more up-to-date Flynn version, directed by Edmund Goulding, is smoother entertainment, with a stronger supporting cast--but all the flying footage is from Hawks's movie.
The other aviation drama is Dive Bomber (1941), a big hit just before America's entry into WWII. Flynn plays it more sober than usual (no pun intended) as a Navy flight surgeon helping to lick the challenge of high-altitude sickness. There's no good reason for the movie to last 132 minutes, and both the macho griping of aviator Fred MacMurray and the garish treatment of the peripheral females (including Alexis Smith in her first featured role) get tiresome. But these are worth enduring for the breathtaking flight scenes in vivid Technicolor--which looks every bit as great as it must have in 1941. Director Michael Curtiz, in what would be his last film with Flynn, even sets up the ground scenes to include low-altitude flyovers.
The Adventures of Don Juan (1948), made near the end of Flynn's Warner years, is a footnote to the star's swashbuckling legacy and a not-very-inside joke on his reputation as real-life Don Juan; the picture is at least as interested in eliciting chuckles as serving up thrills. Director Vincent Sherman lacked the brio of Curtiz and the gusto of Walsh, but he ably steers the actor past self-parody to a reasonably graceful performance. Again, the real excitement is the ultra-radiant Technicolor--a perhaps inadvertent result of veteran film noir cameraman Woody Bredell lighting the movie as though he were still working that black-and-white territory. Viveca Lindfors supplies urbane love interest as the Queen of Spain, and Robert Douglas stands in for Basil Rathbone as villain-in-chief.
Consistent with previous Warner practice, all but one of the features in Volume 2 come packaged with a "Warner Night at the Movies" set of shorts: cartoons, comedy shorts, trailers for contemporaneous WB movies, and sometimes newsreels. The disc of Gentleman Jim also includes an audio-only bonus, a radio reenactment featuring Flynn and costars Alexis Smith and Ward Bond. Probably because of its two-hour-plus running time, Dive Bomber is accompanied only by its trailer and a brief documentary, in which historian Rudy Behlmer shares a choice anecdote about Mike Curtiz attempting to direct airplanes. Unfortunately, of Flynn and his various directors, only Vincent Sherman was still available to do a commentary track (on Adventures of Don Juan, which also includes Behlmer commentary); Sherman passed away in 2006 at the age of 99. --Richard T. Jameson