skip navigation
Errol Flynn 8/19
Remind Me

Errol Flynn Profile
* Films in Bold Type Will Air on 8/7

The personification of the swashbuckling romantic hero, Errol Flynn is one of the most beloved cinematic icons, despite having been embroiled in a number of off-screen controversies. A heavy drinker, an unapologetic womanizer, the target of legal prosecution, and allegedly a fascist sympathizer, Flynn's easy demeanor and irresistible charm were so captivating that he seemed impervious to criticism (which ranged from tabloid gossip to high-profile character assassination).

Born June 20, 1909, in the seaport town of Hobart, Tasmania, Errol Leslie Thomson Flynn was acquainted with the sea from childhood, as his father, Theodore Thomas Flynn, was a marine biologist. But as the years passed, his interests tended toward the more adventurous. In his early manhood, he traveled to Australia, purchased a yacht, The Sirocco, and became the overseer of a tobacco plantation in New Guinea. He also published accounts of his exotic travels in The Sydney Bulletin.

A literate, handsome, seafaring entrepreneur, the twenty-three-year-old Flynn cut a dashing figure, and was offered the role of Fletcher Christian in Charles Chauvel's In the Wake of the Bounty (1933). The film was not a straightforward adaptation of Charles Nordhoff and James Hall's account of the 1789 mutiny. It was instead a documentary on the people and Geography of the Pitcairn Islands, with occasional reenactments.

Flynn is believed to have been a descendent of one of the mutineers of the H.M.S. Bounty, Midshipman Edward "Ned" Young. If true, this fact poses a strong argument for genetics since, according to one source, Young was "the most popular man with the Tahitian women...The strongest supporter among the mutineers of the Tahitian polygamous lifestyle."

Because his business ventures (including a copper mine) hadn't been particularly successful, Flynn decided to pursue acting. He found a position in the Northampton Repertory Company, and was quickly signed by a Warner Bros. talent scout. In 1935, just two years after his first screen appearance, he landed the lead in Michael Curtiz's Captain Blood, the first of his great adventurer roles. The titular role was intended for Robert Donat (The 39 Steps [1935]), but when Donat walked away from the project, the studio decided to take a chance on the newcomer. The film's resounding success secured Flynn's future as an A-level star.

Primarily remembered as a sword-wielding sea-farer in Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk (1940), he was equally popular in a wide variety of roles: a WWI pilot (The Dawn Patrol [1938]), a Westerner (Dodge City [1939]), and championship boxer (Gentleman Jim [1942]).

While he did appear opposite a strong actress (Bette Davis) in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), he was most often paired with someone with a more calm, cool demeanor: Olivia de Havilland. They starred in eight films together, and the roles of aggressive hero and passive maiden were always clearly delineated.

The silver screen had had its share of swashbucklers, the most famous of which was Douglas Fairbanks, who trademarked the persona of charming, plucky hero in such films as The Black Pirate (1926) and The Three Musketeers (1921). The main difference between the two is that Fairbanks was boyish and asexual. He was a proponent of healthy living and vigorous exercise and his films were especially appealing to a juvenile male fan base. Flynn was not quite as robust and cheerful. Though he wore similar costumes, and sometimes the same pencil-thin moustache, he was more cocksure than congenial, possessing a devious charm almost on par with the palpable sensuality of Clark Gable.

The actor's ease with women -- and ability to smoothly avoid entanglements -- inspired the slang phrase "in like Flynn." The expression is commonly used today, though often misquoted as "in like Flint," after the 1967 spoof starring James Coburn. Flynn was not dismayed by the expression, but was apparently rather proud of it. He claimed that he originally wanted to entitle his 1959 autobiography In Like Me, but the publisher insisted on the more tasteful (but equally unrepentant) My Wicked, Wicked Ways.

It was no secret that Flynn was a ladies' man. He is credited with the comment, "I like my whisky old and my women young." But his womanizing ways threatened to capsize his career when, in November, 1942, he was charged with two counts of statutory rape. Peggy Satterlee stated that the incident occurred on board Flynn's yacht, The Sirocco, during a trip to Catalina Island, and that he nicknamed her "J.B." (for "jail bait"). Seventeen-year-old Betty Hansen asserted her nickname was "S.Q.Q." ("San Quentin quail"). She had attended a Hollywood party in September 1942, drank too much and vomited. Flynn supposedly seduced her while helping her clean up.

In the scandal-relishing, but often unreliable, book Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger asserts that the statutory rape charges were trumped up by L.A. politicos as a warning to the studio heads, who "were not, it seemed to [the government officials] coming across with juicy enough 'kickbacks.' These pay-offs had been habitually turned over to the 'bosses'... They, in turn, protected the studios, by dropping charges in case stars got into any trouble."

If Flynn's persecution was intended to rattle the foundations of Hollywood, it failed miserably. Warner Bros. hired high-powered Hollywood attorney Jerry Geisler to defend Flynn, and Geisler innovated an approach to jurisprudence still employed in the City of Angels. Geisler dragged out the trial and dredged up every grain of dirt he could find in Hansen and Satterlee's pasts (previous sexual encounters, extramarital relations, an abortion). When Satterlee testified that he took her below deck to look at the moon, the defense brought in an astronomer as an expert witness, to prove that the view was impossible through the porthole in Flynn's cabin. Geisler aggressively questioned the victims and punched holes in their versions of the story. He carefully loaded the jury with nine women who just might be intoxicated enough by Flynn's charms to acquit the screen idol of all charges, which is exactly what they did. After the "not guilty" verdict was announced, jury foreperson Ruby Anderson stated, "Frankly, the cards were on the table and we couldn't believe the girls' stories."

When Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was acquitted of rape/manslaughter charges in 1921, the jury insisted that the court issue him a public apology for the "injustice" done to him. Nevertheless, he was unofficially banned from the screen, and his career as an actor was ruined. Two decades later, Flynn endured a similar legal ordeal, yet the trial seemed to hardly break his stride. He appeared in two to three starring vehicles films per year during the trial and immediately thereafter, some of which were patriotic wartime thrillers, such as Lewis Milestone's Edge of Darkness (1943) and Raoul Walsh's Objective, Burma! (1945).

Accounts vary about how the viewing public viewed Flynn after the trial. Some claim he was derided, and his popularity waned, while others assert that his offenses were written off as peccadilloes and, if anything, his reputation benefited from the scandal. Most likely, he had to wrestle with a vastly divided public, comprised of ardent admirers and virulent critics.

In one of the more bizarre twists of the statutory rape case, Flynn spent his court recesses flirting with an 18-year-old woman, Nora Eddington, who worked at the snack bar inside the courthouse where the case was being tried, and whose father was Captain Jack Eddington of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. A romance blossomed, and Flynn married her in August, 1943 (when she was age 19 to his 34). The marriage lasted five years, and Eddington later wrote an account of their relationship: Errol and Me. Previously, Flynn had been married to actress Lili Damita (from 1935 to 1942).

Though he was known for his playful manner, Flynn could be quite combative with his collaborators. "You know Flynn," studio head Jack Warner is said to have remarked, "he's either got to be fighting or f+cking."

Director Vincent Sherman (Adventures of Don Juan [1948]) had a good working relationship with Flynn, but was cautious because the actor had already burned bridges with the two directors most responsible for shaping his swashbuckling image: Michael Curtiz (The Adventures of Robin Hood [1938]) and Walsh (They Died with Their Boots On [1941]). "Be careful," Walsh warned Sherman, "that sonofabitch will drive you out of your mind. He's dirty and he'll trick you."

"I found him a delightful guy," Sherman said, "although he drove me out of my mind." One of the primary problems was Flynn's drinking. By the time they worked together in 1948, Flynn was frustrated by the lack of serious roles being offered him, and chafing from reviews that dismissed him as a two-dimensional matinee idol. "He'd come in at 9:00, but he wouldn't come out of his dressing room until 11:00. He had some phony doctor who was always coming in and giving him shots, you see."

One bit of Hollywood lore has it that Flynn would sneak alcohol onto the sets by injecting oranges with vodka, then enjoy the spiked citrus without raising suspicion.

At the time he was making Don Juan, Flynn was nearing the age of 40 and, by one account, having trouble sustaining his sexual reputation. "I always felt that Errol was like the Don Juan character himself," Sherman recalled, "trying to prove himself constantly... I know that once a girl came out of his dressing room, a youngster that he had, and she said: 'He stinks.'"

"And then he designed his own costumes in that movie, and the cameraman said to me once, 'I can't photograph that thing.' The character didn't have a codpiece -- this thing was sticking out to here, you know, in profile...So Nora, his wife, was in the dressing room that day...and she said to him in front of me, 'What did you do? Stuff a towel in it?' And he turned red in the face."

Eddington divorced Flynn shortly after the film's completion. Two years later, he wed Patrice Wymore, who was 17 years his junior. They remained married until Flynn's death.

Two decades after Flynn's death, he became embroiled in another controversy, upon the publication of Charles Higham's 1980 book Errol Flynn: The Untold Story. Higham, whose biographies are frequently designed to create sensation, claimed that Flynn supported fascist causes and acted as a spy for Nazi Germany at the same time he was appearing in flag-waving wartime films for Warner Bros. Flynn had become a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1942, but because of his foreign accent, the flag he waved was not always American. In Northern Pursuit (1943) he plays a Canadian Mountie who pursues a German spy, while in Uncertain Glory (1944) he portrays a French freedom fighter.

Higham's assertions have since been generally debunked, specifically in Tony Thomas's Errol Flynn: The Spy Who Never Was (1990). Flynn's most un-American crime was being friends with Vienna-born Dr. Herman Erben who was in fact under investigation for labor organizing and spreading Communist propaganda, and was deported in 1941 because he had not satisfied citizenship requirements. Flynn's political leanings were unpredictable. He supported the leftist Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War. In the 1950s, he supported the oppressive Batista regime in Cuba. He was co-owner of a movie theatre in Havana when the revolution broke out, and sought out Castro for an interview, for a documentary that would later become Cuban Story (1959). For a while a professed admirer of Castro's, Flynn then performed an about-face and made an anti-Castro exploitation film entitled Cuban Rebel Girls (1959), starring his fifteen-year-old "secretary" Beverly Aadland.

Lore has it that Flynn had to flee Cuba to avoid being executed by an angry Castro, and the pro-rebel documentary was completed by producer Victor Pahlen. Cuban Story premiered at the Moscow Film Festival, then disappeared until it was resurrected by Pahlen's daughter Kyra Pahlen, and released on DVD by AllDay Entertainment in 2002.

Flynn died of heart failure on October 14, 1959, shortly after leaving Cuba for Vancouver. His last words are said to have been, "I've had a hell of a lot of fun and I've enjoyed every minute of it."

by Bret Wood

Also Playing on TCM

Also playing
Scorsese Screens for February
An exclusive monthly column

In partnership with The Film Foundation, Turner Classic Movies is proud to bring you this exclusive monthly column by iconic film...more

TCM Shopping
  • Another Dawn
  • Errol Flynn, Kay Francis, Ian Hunter.... more info
  • $17.56
  • Regularly $21.99
  • Add to cart
  • They Died With Their Boots On
  • Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland star in... more info
  • $15.79
  • Regularly $19.98
  • Add to cart
  • San Antonio
  • Errol Flynn, Alexis Smith. Elaborate Western... more info
  • $14.95
  • Regularly $17.99
  • Add to cart