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Errol Flynn had not yet set his image as the screen's premier swashbuckler when he made the inspirational 1937 drama Green Light. Despite the phenomenal success of Captain Blood (1935), the management at Warner Bros. had not yet realized that his forte was athletic rebels whose bravado was their means of fighting oppression. Instead, they tried him out in noble self-sacrificing roles like the vengeful cavalry officer in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and the noble physician in Green Light.
Self-sacrifice was big box office at the time, particularly in Universal's 1935 adaptation of Lloyd C. Douglas' Magnificent Obsession, the film that made Robert Taylor a star. It was only logical for Warner Bros. to option the rights to another of his books, a 1935 best-seller with a similar setting in the world of medicine. This time out, a young surgeon puts his career and love life at risk by taking the blame for an older surgeon's mistake, then tries to redeem himself through medical research. Through it all, a sympathetic Episcopal dean underlines the story's moral implications to anybody within earshot. A Lutheran minister, Douglas specialized in such uplifting tales, culminating with The Robe (1953), which would become one of 20th Century-Fox's top-grossing films.
Initially Warner Bros. had grandiose plans for the film adaptation. Leslie Howard and Robert Montgomery were both considered for the lead in Green Light. Instead, it became a change of pace for Flynn, only recently risen to stardom and in need of something to do between his more lavish adventure films. The studio proudly announced Green Light as "his first modern role." Flynn's most popular co-star, Olivia de Havilland, was initially suggested as his love interest, the daughter of the woman killed in surgery, but instead the part went to Anita Louise. Although one of Warner's' most beautiful female stars and a fixture in costume films like A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) and Anthony Adverse (1936), Louise was not as dramatically adept as de Havilland. Ironically, she had been the first choice to co-star with Flynn in Captain Blood. The studio also considered Technicolor sequences but eventually dropped the idea.
In adapting the novel to the screen, writer Milton Krims necessarily had to shorten the most effective parts of the original novel, such as the long conversations between the dean and his many visitors that established the title, which was a reference to the green light at traffic intersections, a metaphor for the signs the universe gives to encourage the perfection of humanity. Instead, Krims played up the romantic plot, always the weakest part of Douglas' writing, and even upped the melodrama by having the young doctor test his research by inoculating himself with a deadly disease. The shift in focus was reflected in the advertising campaign, which pushed the romance angle, referring to the film as "an x-ray of unquestioning love" and "the story that made the world believe in love again."
In keeping with the film's romantic focus, Warner's hired one of Hollywood's most romantic directors, Frank Borzage. He had already scored a success at the studio, briefly revitalizing the team of Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler with the military musicals Flirtation Walk (1934) and Shipmates Forever (1935). They gave him the typical sterling supporting cast for a major studio production, with Sir Cedric Hardwicke enlivening the dean's sermons with a welcome touch of humor, Broadway veteran Walter Abel as Flynn's research assistant, Margaret Lindsay as a surgical nurse in love with Flynn and Spring Byington as Louise's doomed mother.
Most reviewers were quick to point out Green Light's structural problems and the uneven performances. Though the supporting cast won strong notices, the leads were less favorably received. Writing in the New York Times, Frank S. Nugent noted that "Errol Flynn is too much the swashbuckler to represent the brooding, sensitive, introspective Dr. Paige, and Anita Louise is both immature and pallid...."
Green Light did well at the box office, with audiences drawn in by Flynn's popularity. It turned up in a one-hour radio version on Lux Radio Theater in 1938 with Flynn and de Havilland. Warner's also considered a Technicolor remake in the '50s, but never got further than assigning the screenplay.
Producer-Director: Frank Borzage
Screenplay: Milton Krims
Based on the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas
Cinematography: Byron Haskin
Art Director: Max Parker
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Errol Flynn (Dr. Newell Paige), Anita Louise (Phyllis Dexter), Margaret Lindsay (Frances Ogilvie), Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Dean Harcourt), Walter Abel (Dr. John Stafford), Henry O'Neill (Dr. Endicott), Spring Byington (Mrs. Dexter), Erin O'Brien-Moore (Pat Arlen), Henry Kolker (Dr. Lane), Granville Bates (Sheriff), Milton Kibbee (Other Man), Bess Flowers (Mrs. Dexter's Nurse), Jim Thorpe (Indian).
BW-86m. Closed Captioning.
by Frank Miller