The Golden Age of Hollywood

As I have professed on a number of occasions that the 1938 Warner Bros. Errol Flynn / Olivia de Havilland swashbuckler The Adventures of Robin Hood is my favourite film, it makes sense that my first review ought to be about this film.  I first saw the film in 1978, around the time of its 40th anniversary, and it left me open-mouthed with wonder.  It does to this day.  

Let's get some of the technical stuff out of the way.  The film broke all studio records of the time.  It cost around $2 million to make - probably around $30-35 million today.  It was thus the most expensive film WB had yet attempted.  You would have thought that Flynn and Robin Hood were born to be together, but this was not the case - James Cagney was originally considered for the part.  A piece of trivia suggests that Flynn only got the part after Cagney walked off the set.  This is not true because Cagney was never on the set.  Indeed, I found no evidence that Cagney was even tested for the part.  I think Cagney turned it down flat.  And not for the first time in his career at Warners, Flynn took on another actor's sloppy seconds.  He wasn't proud!  Rehearsals began on August 12, 1937, and continued right up until the first day of location shooting, which was in Chico, California, on September 27.  William Keighley was assigned to this prestigious project as its director, having recently completed Errol Flynn's previous swashbuckler The Prince & the Pauper (1937).  They finished their first day one day behind schedule - there was no sun so they could not shoot!  Shooting did finally get under way the following day, during which they filmed some of the scenes crossing the large stream - for example, where Friar Tuck takes on Robin and dumps him in the water.  Photography continued through many difficulties through November 8, by which time the production was 9 days behind schedule.  Producer Hal B. Wallis had expressed concern over Keighley's pacing - both in terms of the schedule and of the film's scenes.  Nevertheless, it was easier to keep with Keighley and try and speed him up.  

Errol Flynn

Back at the studio, the company began work on interiors with the Kent Road Tavern sequence on November 10.  This is the sequence in which King Richard returns, in disguise.  This sequence alone took Keighley four days to shoot.  By November 30, the company was now 15 days behind schedule.  It was costing the studio vast amounts of money per diem.  At that time, the only Technicolor cameras were owned by Technicolor themselves, and the cameras were hired out, so each day lost represented another hire charge - not to mention everyone's pay, lights sound, studio use, etc. etc.  Furthermore, there were still the issues that Wallis was having with Keighley's pacing of the film itself.  It was too slow for Wallis, and the time had come for something to be done.

Wallis fired Keighley, and the very next day - December 1, 1937 - replacement director Michael Curtiz began work.  His first scenes were at the Banqueting Hall of Nottingham Castle, where one of the film's iconic swordfight sequences breaks out, that spreads its way through the castle and outside.  You can tell it's Curtiz right away - the long shadows on the walls, the lighting, the angles at which Curtiz lets you see the fight (looking up the stairs, for example) - not to mention the much faster pacing of cutting and movement.  Basically, all of the scenes shot of Nottingham Castle, some of Robin's camp in the forest, and some retakes of the archery tournament sequence are all Curtiz.  The production was allowed two whole days off for Christmas, resuming December 27, the entire production wrapping on January 14, 1938. *There were some minor additional shots on January 22.

If Wallis was hopeful that Curtiz would keep to the schedule, or even improve it, he was mistaken; by the time production wrapped it was an eye-watering thirty-seven days behind schedule.  Curtiz had more than doubled the delay.  Still, the results were not hard to argue with.  The director had worked miracles with the fight sequences.  

Key among post-production duties was the scoring.  Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a 'concert' composer (i.e., a posh classical composer) who spent most of his time in Vienna until illness meant that his doctor advised him to get some sun, which meant he would travel to Hollywood and score a picture or two a year while he wasn't busy.  He was luckier than some of his contemporaries; Rachmaninoff and Schönberg both died in Beverly Hills without ever having scored a single picture between them.  

Early promotional material printed the name of Max Steiner as composer of the score; Korngold had written to Hal Walls in early 1938 from Vienna, telling him that Robin Hood was 'no picture for me.'  He claimed not to get it, to understand it, to connect with it.  In short, he refused to do it, and Steiner was held back as a reserve.  Steiner would have loved to have done it; he was far more amenable a composer than Korngold, much more ready to bend to the will of a producer than his great Viennese rival.  He was also a composer with a completely different approach to scoring; Steiner composed 'themes' for the main characters of a picture, as well as for emotions and some of its key ideas, and there is no doubt that Steiner would have done the same here.  But he never got the opportunity.  Somehow, Korngold was persuaded, and wrote a score that is so tightly associated with the film that it won him his second Best Original Score Academy Award.  (His first was for Anthony Adverse.)  Steiner had every reason to be bitter, however; all the studio's premier productions for each year - Captain Blood (1935), Anthony Adverse (1936), The Prince & the Pauper (1937) and later The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex (1939) and The Sea Hawk (1940) - had gone to Korngold.  

Finally, the picture was ready for release, which took place on May 14, 1938.  There was no question that this was to be the best picture that the studio had produced.  In addition to Korngold's Oscar, the film won two other production Oscars - Best Film Editing and Best Production Design.  The film was also up for Best Picture, but missed out to Frank Capra's You Can't Take it With You.  It is not surprising that there were no acting nominees, but we'll get on to that later. 

Not only was the film a hit upon its original release, but became a staple of the reissue circuit (even profiting on black & white reissues), and later television, video, DVD, Blu-Ray and now downloads.  The print on the current Blu-Ray edition is outstanding.  Would that all films of this vintage have as good a print as this.  The Technicolor definition is perfect; no other Technicolor movie either before or later (the technology was used up until around 1954) is as good.  Sound is even more difficult to preserve from this period or earlier, but the sound on this print is stunning.  Of course, compared to, say, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it is limited, but again stacked up against its contemporaries, The Adventures of Robin Hood sounds brilliant. Korngold never bothered with the Warner Bros. logo theme (possibly because it was by Steiner), so we go right into the opening riff of his own score and it is immediately recognisable, instantly hummable and a joy to listen to.  The dialogue is dubbed to perfection also.  Simply put, the film looks and sounds great.  The editors pieced it together marvellously, in particular since there were many problems with the pacing of William Keighley's direction.  Incidentally, both Curtiz and Keighley receive screen credit for their work.

Olivia de Havilland & Errol Flynn.

Now, to the acting, that discipline on which so many a film review hangs.  Robin Hood is Errol Flynn's career-defining role, there is no doubt about that.  But, his throw-head back, arms on hips forced laughs and his overacting on some of the film's more emotion-stirring lines leave one cringing a little.  But, sat in among the other brilliance on display here, you can say that Flynn's acting works in context.  It is a film made for entertainment, it ain't Citizen Kane.  There is an underlying theme here which was contemporary in post-depression America: the plot strikes me as an allegory of corporate America as it was then (and in some ways is now, especially under Trump), with the rich taking all the money and leaving the poor with nowt (that's Northern British for 'nothing.')  It's about love crossing boundaries, especially that of class and wealth.  Though Robin is high-born, he gives his wealth and himself to the poor and it is that which upsets the largely selfish ruling class, let by Prince John (Claude Rains), who tries to wrestle power from his absent brother Richard (Ian Hunter).  Of course, this was back in the day when the ruling British monarchy had power, so maybe this is a commentary on that, too; that everything will be all right once again when Richard returns.

Let's look at the key supporting cast: Olivia de Havilland is unutterably beautiful as Maid Marian.  She, too, was made for her role and, had she not acted as Melanie Hamilton in Gone With the Wind a year later, this could have been her career-defining role.  She is a thousand times the actor Flynn was, and Flynn knew it, but their on-screen chemistry is undeniable.  Robin Hood was their third pairing; they would eventually star in eight films together (not counting Thank Your Lucky Stars which they were both in but not together.)  Look at the tender love scenes between the two - intimate, passionate yet gentle.  Perfect.

On the other side of the coin, the boo-hiss side, there are some iconic bad guys to enjoy.  Basil Rathbone is Sir Guy of Gisbourne, servant to Claude Rains' ambitious Prince John.  Both play their roles with great fervour, and Melville Cooper comes across perfectly in the comedic role of the evil but frankly rather stupid Sheriff of Nottingham.  Boo!  Hiss!

Errol Flynn enjoyed a wonderful on-screen chemistry with another actor - this time a man, and it brought out the manly side of Flynn's nature that brought women to the cinema in their hundreds of thousands.  That actor was Alan Hale.  Here, he is the strong but gentle Little John, playing the character for the second time in his career (after Douglas Fairbanks' 1922 epic).  He would go on to play the character yet again, in his final film role.  Ian Hunter exudes a quiet dignity as King Richard, who returns from imprisonment during the Crusades to take the throne of England back from his scheming brother.  Eugene Pallette is another comedic figure in Friar Tuck, but he is balanced with some pretty handy work with a sword. And that legendary voice of his!  Check out Una O'Connor as Marian's nurse, Bess, who falls for Much the Miller's Son (played by Herbert Mundin).  Blink-and-you'll-miss it spotters will note Carole Landis as an extra in the banquet sequence, and Roy Rogers' legendary steed Trigger as Maid Marian's horse when she is captured and led to the forest to see poverty for herself. 

I'm not going into immense detail about this film because I know how difficult long blogs are to read, but The Adventures of Robin Hood is one of those pictures from the studio era where everything just worked.  That's about all you can say about it; it just worked.  But it worked in the sense that I loved it from the very moment it started until the very moment it faded to black for the final time.  It is pure entertainment on one level, a political allegory on another, technical achievement on yet another.  It is not simply one of the 1,000 films to see before you die, or even the top 100, it is one of the top five films to see before you die.  I'm not one of those Citizen Kane film types who study film at university in order to write doctorates on 'Rosebud,' I want to be entertained.  And Robin Hood does that on every level.  It is the cornerstone of the Hollywood Studio System in its Golden Age, in my view.  You could argue that case for Gone With the Wind, and that may be true, but for

Melville Cooper, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains.

different - or at least additional - reasons.  

My advice to you would be to watch this film with an open mind if you have not seen it before, or even if you have.  Like those amplifiers in This is Spinal Tap, I wish my review ratings could go up to 11 because that is what this film would get.  I hope this review is of some use; go easy on me, it is my first one! x

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Comment by Midge on July 31, 2017 at 3:38am

Thank you for the wonderful essay, Stephen. I discovered The Adventures of Robin Hood relatively late in life but was instantly seduced by its wonderful cast, the glorious Technicolor cinematography and the sweeping, heroic score. It's a delight from beginning to end, and I never get tired of it - or of reading about it! 

Comment by Bob Forsyth on July 15, 2017 at 12:58pm

Its one of my favourite movies also I have the DVD and extras is it not amazing that Olivia is still with us and we are talking about a film from the 30s incredible. 

Comment by Stephen Butler on July 15, 2017 at 2:44am

Thank you very much, Kevin!  This whole Korngold/Steiner debate is a tough one, because they were such different composers, despite being born in the same city at roundabout the same time (ish).  Steiner would have written themes for all the main characters - even Nottingham Castle would have had its own theme.  The score would have been radically different.  I've never seen any evidence that Steiner even sketched out any themes for Robin Hood, in case they were needed.  Korngold managed to achieve a sense of period but in a much different way.  He used a lot of harp and tambourine, percussion - look how he linked the timpani of the title sequence into the on-screen drums in the opening scene, as well as the brass.  

I agree very much that this is in many ways an ensemble movie, despite its having Errol Flynn in the 'title role.'  Olivia de Havilland, Claude Rains, Basil Rathbone, Alan Hale, Eugene Pallette, and the rest - all contribute to a film that would be much poorer without any one of them.  I know a couple of women who love the film, in the main because of Flynn's presence, but so what?  Whatever enticement brings them to the film is fine in my book.  This is my assertion; that this movie's greatness is centred around the fact that there is literally something for everybody in it.  Men, women, old, young, you name it. x

Comment by Ktrek on July 14, 2017 at 10:58am

Thanks for taking the time to write all this, Stephen. Robin Hood is also one of my favorite films and of many other men who love classic films. Perhaps it's action nature doesn't appeal to women as much as men? Rosie is not the first woman I have known that didn't understand its appeal. I would think that there's certainly enough romance for women to enjoy. The film is perfectly cast in every role. So, much of these kinds of roles depend upon the villain to be successful though. Would Star Wars be the same without Darth Vader? In the same way, Robin Hood would not have been the same without Rathbone playing the role. He's perfect and his fitting end gives the wrap of the film a sense of closure and of good triumphing over evil. So, many films today present moral concepts of right and wrong in too many shades of gray. I prefer films that clearly show that right is right and wrong is wrong.

The Korngold soundtrack, although not my favorite of his scores, is superb and sets the tone in the film that I don't think Steiner could have done quite as good a job.

Anyway, I look forward to reading more of your reviews.


Comment by Stephen Butler on July 13, 2017 at 7:18am

Wow!  Thank you so much, Rosie.  I'm glad you are going to give the film another chance.  It's definitely worth it, in my view.  It really is a 'feel-good' film. x

Comment by Rosie Sayer on July 11, 2017 at 2:51pm

Well, Stephen, that was amazing. I have seen (most of) Robin Hood and thought it was not my cup of tea. Maybe it's not, but you have persuaded me that I should give it another chance. Next time, I will watch for all those things you mentioned. I'm especially interested in hearing the score.

You should definitely do more blogging. Your account of the making of the film held me spellbound.

Comment by Stephen Butler on July 11, 2017 at 3:04am

Thank you so much, Rudy.  I've read it back and it's nowhere near perfect, occasionally repetitious, definitely verbose, but it's not a bad start, I suppose.  I agree about the splitting of the arrow sequence - that is indeed thrilling. I've been very lucky in the two blogs that I've written so far, in that they have triggered readers' own memories of the films I've mentioned (mostly Robin Hood), which is what it's all about.  Possibly I may tackle Gone With the Wind in my next review, but that would be a monster.  It may have to be in two or three parts.  Like Robin Hood, I was lucky enough to study GWTW's production materials, which are housed at the University of Texas in Austin, and also Max Steiner's score, which lives at Brigham Young University (its friends call it BYU) in Provo, Utah. x

Comment by Rodolfo (Rudy) Carreon on July 10, 2017 at 11:58pm

Well...seems you've said it all...and I agree.  My most exciting moment in the movie is when Robin SPLITS his opponent's arrow at end of the tournament.  Now, that was an eye-popping moment.  And, the roar from the crowd that followed.  It's all about moments that make favorite movies memorable.  Thanks.


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