Burbank's Tasmanian Devil
by Susie Hodgson
Born in Tasmania in 1909, you could call him “The Tasmanian Devil.” Certainly his studio would have –especially if it helped sell more tickets.
He was one of Warner Brothers’ original bad boys. A swashbuckler. You could call him mischievous, wild, charismatic and even Irish (and Irish he wasn’t). But you’d also call him great looking, magnetic and rich. By the early 1940s, he was pulling in $7,000 a week.
Jack Warner, the boss of Burbank’s own Warner Brothers Studios, described him as “all the heroes in one magnificent, sexy animal package.” And Jack didn’t even like men.
We know him as Errol Flynn.
As a kid he was expelled from school for theft… and (allegedly) fooling around with the school laundress. As a junior clerk in Australia, he was fired for stealing petty cash. In a dramatic job at the Northampton Repertory Company in the UK, he was dismissed for throwing a female stage manager down a stairwell.
But soon thereafter he was starring in Warner Brothers’ Captain Blood (1935) after Robert Donat turned down the role. He was famously paired with Olivia De Havilland in 1936’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, leading to a total of 12 movies that De Havilland and Flynn filmed together. Their chemistry was electric. De Havilland has always maintained they never consummated the relationship, while admitting there was something there. Flynn? Oh heck yeah, he’d claim, they consummated it all right! And then some.
The Adventures of Robin Hood followed -- a huge hit – and Errol Flynn was Warner Brothers’ top star.
But something else happened too. First of all, there was World War II. Now a U.S. citizen, Flynn tried to enlist in the military in 1942. He was rejected, though, due to recurring bouts of malaria, a heart murmur, pulmonary tuberculosis and – oh yes -- various venereal diseases. You read that right -- various. Not surprisingly, Flynn had a heart attack while making the hit film Gentleman Jim in 1942, but he recovered.
Still, there was more in store for the dashing movie star in 1942. Statutory rape charges.
Two underage girls, Betty Hansen and Peggy Satterlee, accused Flynn of the crimes which made BIG headlines world-wide. Fans actually protested and a club was even formed in support of Errol Flynn. William F. Buckley was a member!
Warner Brothers got famed Hollywood defense attorney extraordinaire Jerry Giesler to defend Flynn. Jerry Giesler was best known for representing the Hollywood elite in cases that ranged from divorce to murder and it was said that Giesler could “win the unwinnable.” The Hollywood mantra “Get me Giesler!” was exclaimed by many a star, including Charlie Chaplin, Alexander Pantages (three times!), Busby Berkeley, Robert Mitchum, Lana Turner’s daughter Cheryl Crane, Marilyn Monroe, Robert Mitchum and many, many more.
Giesler proceeded to tear into the two young girls’ reputations, and evidently he had plenty of material. To say this was a juicy case, more riveting than any soap opera, is to put it mildly. When the accusers confessed that Flynn liked to make whoopee in his stocking feet, the press had a field day with it. After all, he’d just starred in the movie They Died With Their Boots On – well, guess what he did with his socks on! The public roared in salacious delight.
Errol Flynn was eventually acquitted, but not without damaging his romantic leading man image. And if his health was already bad enough, it just got worse. He started spiraling downward. That is, even more.
Months later, two more underage girls showed up with their own statutory rape threats. This time, Warners just paid them off.
The unsuccessful movies came next. Flop after flop. Finances drained, Flynn finally had one good part in The Sun Also Rises, but this was after Warner Brothers already dumped him. Toward the end of the 1950s, Flynn travelled to Cuba in support of Fidel Castro. But he was not alone. In fact, Flynn was almost never alone.
Errol Flynn’s legacy is that of a hard-drinking, drug-using womanizer. Unsubstantiated rumors named him as a Nazi spy, but again these stories were never confirmed. Although he was married three times, these marriages never got in the way of his love life and Flynn himself bragged that the expression “In Like Flynn” was a reference to his active romantic proclivities. He was said to have peepholes in his home’s bathrooms and two-way mirrors in the bedrooms.
In the 1950s, Flynn – now a washed-up, bloated shell of his former self – made an appearance on Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows. If you’ve ever seen the movie My Favorite Year (1982) starring Peter O’Toole, it was based on Errol Flynn’s visit to the popular TV show.
Meanwhile, the real-life middle-aged Flynn took up with a fifteen-year-old “actress” named Beverly Aadland. He was with her when, in 1959, he died of a heart attack.
He looked 70 at least. He was no longer good looking or debonair or articulate. No woman thought of swooning, if she even recognized him.
He was only 50 years old. And he sure was no Tasmanian Devil.
Want to learn more about Burbank? Come visit us!
The Burbank Historical Society/Gordon R. Howard Museum
OPEN SATURDAYS & SUNDAYS, 1 TO 4 pm - FREE Admission!
Located in George Izay Park, right next to the Creative Arts Center
Phone: (818) 841-6333
Web site: www.burbankhistoricalsoc.org