Bette and Errol.

"The most beautiful person we've ever had on the screen...He openly said he knew nothing about acting, and I admired his honesty because he was absolutely right."
Bette Davis on Errol Flynn

"Now Bette was a dynamic creature, the great big star of the lot, but not physically my type; dominating everybody around, and especially me, or trying to. This drove me off."
Errol Flynn

The relationship between Flynn and Davis was not an easy one. In the late 1930's, both stars saw their popularity rising to astronomical heights. After setting the screen on fire in 1935 with Captain Blood, Flynn became a swashbuckling icon with The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Dodge City, and The Dawn Patrol to name a few. Similarly, at this time, Davis gave some of her own career-defining performances in Jezebel and Dark Victory. During this period, Davis and Flynn made two films together: 1938's The Sisters and 1939's The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Interestingly enough, if Davis had had her way, audiences would have seen her and Flynn together sooner than 1938. In 1935, when Michael Curtiz was casting Captain Blood, he tested Davis. She wanted the part badly, but Olivia de Havilland was picked and one of history's most enduring cinematic couples was born.

While Olivia and Errol were gorgeously romantic sweethearts, Bette and Errol were fiery partners in a never-ending duel. A melodrama about a trio of sisters and their love lives, The Sisters has three plots, but it's obvious whose storyline is deemed the most important. Davis plays Louise, the practical sibling who is swept off her feet by Flynn's sportswriter Frank Medlin. They struggle with a miscarriage and Frank's alcoholism, but by film's end, they decide to give their marriage another chance.

Despite her hard work for Warner Brothers for almost a decade, Davis initially received second billing while Flynn got first. His name was actually going to be above the title while hers was below! Her seniority wasn't the only reason for her irritation; the movie revolves around her probably 85-90% of the time, so it made more sense for her to be the first name. Eventually, the studio agreed.

The animosity between Bette and Errol wasn't over billing, though. It was all about power and prestige. Bette was the Serious Actress, the woman who would do anything if she thought it deepened her character. Errol was considered the Pretty Action Hero, the man's man who loved booze, sex, and adventure more than filmmaking. Warner Brothers' makeup chief and Bette's confidante Perc Westmore told his nephew Frank that "It baffled Perc when Bette Davis, the queen supreme of the Warner Brothers
lot, raved about 'Errol's charm and enchanting ways' all during the filming of their first movie together, The Sisters, but Bette later explained that she adored working with Flynn 'because he never really worked. He was just there.'"

Davis wrote in The Lonely Life that during The Sisters, "I confused him utterly. One day he smiled that cocky smile and looked directly at me. 'I'd love to proposition you, Bette, but I'm afraid you'd laugh at me.' I never miss the rare opportunity to agree with a man. 'You're so right, Errol.' He bit his lip, raised his arm through the air and bowed in mock chivalry like Captain Blood. He was extremely graceful in retreat." Indeed, in his autobiography, Flynn said that out of all of his leading ladies, Davis was the only one he didn't remain friends with because she kept it that way.

Around the time of production on The Sisters, David O. Selznick launched his infamous search for the actress who would play Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. Of the many candidates for Scarlett, Davis was one of them. Jack Warner claimed that "before Selznick decided on Vivien Leigh, he came to me with a proposition to lend him Bette Davis and Errol Flynn as a co-starring package for the picture. Bette was fond of Errol...but she was also realistic about Errol's limited acting talent. She refused to have any part of the deal, and that was her last chance for the part." Selznick, however, said that Warner was the one who offered the deal in exchange for Selznick giving Warner Brothers the distribution rights instead of MGM. By this point in the process, though, Selznick knew that the public wanted Clark Gable as Rhett Butler so he wasn't too keen about the arrangement. On rejecting the deal, Davis said "The thought of Mr. Flynn as Rhett Butler appalled me. I refused."

Davis would release a 1939 film with Flynn, though, thanks to The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. For some reason, it's much easier to find material on this film than it is The Sisters. From what I've gathered, it would seem that the battle between our two stars didn't really begin until Elizabeth and Essex. Before production even began, there was a problem: the title. Adapted from a play by Maxwell Anderson, the original name was Elizabeth the Queen, but Flynn wanted to be acknowledged in the film's title.

This wasn't an unreasonable request. He was a major asset for Warners and Essex was just as important to the film as Elizabeth. The studio came up with The Knight and the Lady, which Davis hated. It downplayed the significance of her part (a queen, not a lady) and it made Flynn seem more prominent, despite the fact that the play had been purchased for Davis exclusively. Jack Warner received not one but two notes from the actress, who demanded that the title have Elizabeth's name and that it come before Essex.

Similar to her thoughts on Gone with the Wind, Flynn wasn't the leading man Davis had in mind -- that honor went to Laurence Olivier. Olivier's popularity and name recognition in America wasn't anywhere near Flynn's at this time, though, so he wasn't an option for Warners. Once again, Davis doubted Flynn's capabilities, citing his carefree attitude as the cause for his incompetence. She also might have been jealous that he was the highest-paid performer at Warners, regardless of her ability to consistently get Oscar nominations that helped build the studio's reputation. For his part, Flynn didn't like his co-star's strong personality and thought that his acting suffered when he was opposite her.

There were a few on-set incidents that didn't help matters. In the first scene between Essex and Elizabeth, they begin quarreling with each other in front of the court. Feeling slighted, Essex starts to leave without the queen's permission and receives a slap in the face for his insolence. On the first take, Errol said "I felt as if I had been hit by a railroad locomotive. She had lifted one of her hands, heavy with those Elizabethan rings, and Joe Louis himself couldn't give a right hook better than Bette hooked me with. My jaw went out. I felt a click behind my ear and I saw all these comets, shooting stars, all in one flash."

Errol went to Bette's dressing room to try to tell her to ease up, but he claimed that she advised him to basically get over it. He wrote that he was so nervous after their conversation, he threw up. He made another attempt to speak with her, only this time he was much more firm...and again he threw up afterwards. On the second take, Bette went through with the slap, but somehow she had figured out a way to do it without hurting Errol at all, much to his amazement.

In another scene (pictured above), Elizabeth is supposed to punch Essex's arm during a moment of playfulness. As a response, Essex smacks her bottom. When Errol first did it, he accidentally put too much force into it and Bette went flying. "It wasn't a very pleasant picture to make, for me, that is," Flynn admitted. No kidding -- during filming, he was involved in a car crash while intoxicated. He couldn't be in front of the camera for a week. According to studio memos, Flynn also had trouble remembering his lines.

Although their partnership was successful at the box office, Davis and Flynn would never make another film together. They did, however, make memorable appearances in 1943's Thank Your Lucky Stars. Made by Warner Brothers as a WWII fundraiser, the movie has a slim plot that allows for many incredible stars to pop up. Those stars, by the way, donated their salaries ($50,000 each!) to the Hollywood Canteen, which was founded by John Garfield and Bette. If you haven't seen Thank Your Lucky Stars yet, I definitely recommend it -- it's a lot of fun and the cameos are really clever and well-done. One of the most surprising scenes is Bette's, actually. After singing "They're Either Too Young or Too Old," she does a little dancing and gets absolutely tossed around by her partner. You can check it out above.

Flynn's scene, however, may be my favorite part of the film. The plot revolves around some producers and a show they're trying to put on, which allows for a revue-like atmosphere. For the number "That's What You Jolly Well Get," Flynn is an old-timey Cockney sailor who enters a bar and starts singing about his clearly-embellished adventures. (It kind of sounds like the real Flynn, doesn't it?) The actor is just pure perfection here.

For years, Bette Davis didn't appreciate Errol Flynn as an actor. To this day, I'm not sure many people do. Ed Sikov, whose biography on Bette provided me with some of my information, is absolutely terrible to Flynn. He paints the man as an inept fool who couldn't act to save his life because he was too busy being a debauched pretty boy. I can't lie -- this infuriates me. Errol Flynn loved to have a good time, goodness knows, but he also loved and appreciated acting. Throughout his autobiography, he talks about the frustration of being typecast:

"I don't know whether I can convey how deep the yearning is of an actor who has been stereotyped, who has the sword and horse wound around him, to prove to himself and to others that he is an actor."

"I wonder if you can imagine what it might mean to be one who believes that, given the chance at good and great roles, he might be able to act like, say, Barrymore -- but never to be given the chance. Only to be given those surefire box-office attractions -- entertainment pictures that often didn't even entertain -- action, action, action. ... If a stereotype makes money, keep the stereotype alive. Don't make a switch. Don't experiment, don't pander to an actor's whim that he might like to do something special, different."

Perhaps we should all take a lesson from Bette. When watching The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex many years later with her great friend Olivia de Havilland, Bette admitted she was wrong about Errol: "Damn it! The man could act!" Both actors had unmistakable magnetism. They've riveted audiences for decades and it's doubtful that they'll stop anytime soon. They charged the screen with their electricity -- liking each other wasn't a requirement, and in the end, it fueled their complicated onscreen relationships.

__________________

This is my contribution to the Second Annual Bette Davis Blogathon, a celebration of the formidable talent. Please check out the other great tributes here.

Comments

  1. Awesome post! I haven't yet seen Bette and Errol's movies together, but it is necessary viewing!

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    1. Thank you! I'm a huge fan of both of them, so it's fun seeing them together. They had such strong personalities too, so it's fascinating.

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  2. Great post! I'm a huge Errol Flynn fan (he's my favorite actor) and I love Bette Davis. She's probably my third favorite (after Lucille Ball and Judy Garland). I completely agree with your assessment that Flynn's acting talents were underappreciated. While Flynn didn't appear in serious dramas like Davis, he did have talent. Like what happened a lot in the studio era, he was mainly known as an action/adventure hero. Those are the films that made money for the studio, so those are the films he was cast in. However, he was much more than just a hot guy swinging a sword. I completely agree with Bette Davis, Flynn is probably the most beautiful person that's ever been on screen.

    To see a couple examples of Flynn's true acting talents, I recommend "Gentleman Jim" and "Uncertain Glory." He's also excellent playing against type in "That Forsyte Woman." At the end of his career, he excelled in roles that probably hit close to home for him, but he was very effective. "Too Much Too Soon" and "The Sun Also Rises" are two of his best roles in his entire career.

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    1. Flynn captivates me every time he's on the screen. His presence was enormous, but so was his talent. I haven't seen Uncertain Glory yet, but he is fantastic in Gentleman Jim and That Forsyte Woman (which has an A+ cast).

      Thanks for reading, Kayla!

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  3. Loved your post about these two! I agree - he really is underappreciated. It seems to happen sometimes when someone makes it look too easy. But I've always enjoyed their chemistry together - they seem to bring out something unique in each other in those two films.

    Wow, that would have been quite something to see Bette Davis in Captain Blood! Definitely a different dynamic. I have to admit, though, that it is difficult to imagine Errol Flynn as Rhett Butler. :)

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    1. Thanks! Funnily enough, I find it harder to imagine Bette as Scarlett than I do Errol as Rhett. But I think Gable was the best choice -- he did a magnificent job. It would have been interesting to see Bette in Captain Blood, though. I can't stand the character of Arabella, but maybe Bette would've changed that.

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  4. Great post!! I have yet to see The Sisters. Loved all the background info.

    I actually sang the same song as Bette Davis for a USO show at my church a few years back :)

    That's a great excerpt from Flynn's autobiography. It's still a problem today!!

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    1. Thanks, Phyl! I'd like to watch The Sisters again -- it's been a while.

      That's cool about you singing the same song!

      Indeed, it is! I know I shouldn't believe everything that is in Flynn's book, but I don't see why he would lie about wanting better parts. I think you can tell from some of his selections (like That Forsyte Woman) that he was trying to break the stereotype.

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  5. Great article, Michaela! It was a complicated relationship, but I'm glad to hear Bette acknowledged Flynn's talent in the end.

    I'm another one who hasn't seen "The Sisters", and I'll need to check it out. Thanks!

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    1. You have to give Bette credit for admitting she was wrong. She may have been a tough customer, but she always gave her honest opinion.

      From what I can remember, The Sisters is a good film. It takes place during the early 1900's, and there's a great sequence where Bette is involved in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

      Thanks for reading!

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  6. Nice post . I am not seen the combination of Bette and Errol's movies together. But i like it very much. Thanks for this amazing post. Upload this type of post on Latest Hollywood movies.

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    1. Thanks! They were an interesting duo, for sure!

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  7. Great post! I didn't realize they had made so many movies together. I would love for you to add it to the Classic Movie Marathon link party that launched last night. http://classicmovietreasures.com/classic-movie-marathon-link-party-premiere/

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    1. Thanks! I'll definitely look into it!

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  8. What a wonderful post!
    I think Bette wouldn't have worked in Captain Blood.
    However, I liked their partnership in Elizabeth and Essex. I also loved the backstage stories you shared.
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

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    1. Thank you! I just wish I could have found more about The Sisters. Considering it was their first pairing, you'd think there would be more readily available. Maybe I just didn't dig enough.

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