THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD dispatched whizzing arrows of skill, excitement and charm that won Oscars for Music Score, Art Direction and Film Editing and a nomination for Best Picture of 1938. It gleams with timeless spirit, puck, pluck and the staying power of Robin, his lady fair and Merry Men and their wonderfully hiss-worthy adversaries. “You’ve come to Nottingham once too often!” *
England, circa 1191. Treacherous Prince John (Claude Rains) schemes to usurp the throne, with help from cruel ‘Sir Guy of Gisbourne’ (Basil Rathbone) and the toadying ‘Sheriff of Nottingham’ (Melville Cooper). Foxing their plot is cheerful bandit and archer-extraordinaire ‘Robin of Locksley’ (Errol Flynn), who not only poaches “the King’s deer“, and picks off John’s soldiers, he also wins the batted eyes of ‘Lady Marian Fitzwalter’ (Olivia de Havilland). Lending a hand are lusty oakhearts ‘John Little’ (Alan Hale), ‘Friar Tuck’ (Eugene Pallette) and ‘Will Scarlet’ (Patric Knowles). Challenges will be issued, scoffs will resound, arrows will fly. Ever thus.
“ZEST!” permeates this most-famous version of folklore legends who’ve been duking it out in the trees and castles of not-really-so-merry Olde England for a good 650 years and counting. Tellings of the tales adapt to suit the times of the tellers: in the canny script and production embellishments Warner’s laid on, Robin and Co. blend elements from different periods so well that they not only roused contemporary audiences but hold their own eight hope-challenging decades later.
First proposed as a vehicle for James Cagney—who would doubtless have provided energy galore—and having to live up to and surpass the smash 1922 version with Douglas Fairbanks, the studio and producer Hal Wallis lucked out by a having a 28-year-old Tasmanian devil tailor-made for the part. Naturally athletic, engagingly impudent, killer handsome without being pretty, as appealing to men as he was swain for women to swoon over, sin-candy to a fault, Flynn is Robin Hood as if sprung from an Andrew Wyeth painting. Later, grittier interpretations from the not-exactly lightweight Sean Connery and Russell Crowe carry elemental masculine gravitas to spare, but Sir Errol has all that spiked with a disarming smile.
Playing Maid Marian as a fairy-tale heroine who banks fetching beauty with spirit and smarts, 21-year-old Olivia de Havilland wins the non-sword fencing with her teasing co-star in the 3rd of their eight teamings. Alan Hale, 45, works the hearty angle as Little John. This was not just his 2nd of 14 appearances with Flynn (contesting the Ward Bond/John Wayne buddyship which logged 23 between 1929 and 1959), but the second of three times he played the character. He’d first done so 15 years back with Fairbanks, then pulled duty 12 years on in 1950, with John Derek in Rogues Of Sherwood Forest. That was his last movie–he died that year, aged 57. That Hale and fellow Yankee blusterer Eugene Pallette don’t fuss with Brit accents—well, Saxon— likely made for merry snipes across the Atlantic, but hey, who’s providing the Technicolor, anyway?
Claude Rains later told his daughter that along with being made up with bangs and beard, it was getting besmirched with brocade, ermine and henna that gave him the idea to play John as tacitly homosexual. Roddy McDowall was convinced Claude based his mannerisms and voice styling on a genuine queen, Bette Davis. Whatever the inspiration, he’s a delight, especially when he poots out surprise over Robin being a “saucy fellow“.
Basil Rathbone delivers full-on sneer as casually cruel Gisbourne, his vigorous interpretation of Sir Guy as an intelligent, physically challenging opponent complemented by his renowned skill handling a sword: the one-time British Army Fencing Champion was the most able blade wielder in Hollywood.
Bidwell Park in Chico, California subbed for Sherwood Forest, other portions of the production were done closer to L.A., around Calabasas, in Pasadena, and in elaborate sets on the Warner’s backlot. Originally budgeted at $1,600,000, such care went into the final product that it became the studios then-most-costly picture, eventually gambling $2,033,000 that it would deliver. A good deal was directed by William Keighley, then hard-driving Michael Curtiz was called in to spice things up, action-wise: they shared credit. Everyone was happy: besides critical raves and Oscar wins, the $10,000,000 gross put it 4th place among moneymakers for the year. Hitler can wait a while: we’ve got Normans to deal with first.
Tony Gaudio and Sol Polito were the cinematographers: the eye-popping Technicolor in this movie rates as one of the most stunning uses of the process, and the costume design is ravishing. Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s lush operatic score adds to the glory.
The screenplay was written by Norman Reilly Raine (The Life Of Emile Zola, The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex) and Seton I. Miller (G-Men, The Sea Hawk). With Herbert Mundin (loyal ‘Much’), Una O’Connor (fluttering up a storm), Ian Hunter (the Lion Heart) and Montagu Love (swinish Bishop). 102 minutes.
* MARIAN: “Why, you speak treason.” ROBIN: “Fluently.” Critics usually pick Jean Renoir’s great Grand Illusion as the year’s finest achievement, while Punch & Judy Average side with Robin’s adventures. The Oscar went to the popular Frank Capra comedy You Can’t Take It With You. Today that ‘zany misfit’ array is considered one of the weaker among that year’s slate of 10 nominees. It’s an amusing flick, but among the lineup its whimsy is also bested by Jezebel and Alexander’s Ragtime Band, as well as un-nominated favorites like Holiday, Three Comrades, Angels With Dirty Faces and In Old Chicago. The Academy’s other Best Picture nominees were Boys Town, Four Daughters, Test Pilot, Pygmalion and The Citadel. The golden boys for Costume Design didn’t turn up until 1949, otherwise ‘Robin’ would surely spin a win in that realm. Of course the industry snubbed Flynn—who’s perfect, iconic—like Connery in Goldfinger, because How Can It Really Be Good If It Looks Easy And Is Not ‘Serious’?
** Bracketed by 1935’s The Crusades and 1952’s Ivanhoe, the clever have-cake-&-chomp-it script, along with providing immortal morsels for the cast to chew into, also contributed the not-inconsiderable feat of making Richard the Lion Heart (Richard I, 1157-1199) seem like a great guy. Still, cross-jabbering of chroniclers to the side, he went down in history as a foe-vanquishing English hero (though the Muslims he slaughtered for Jesus might argue), and with the darkening clouds from Europe indicating it wasn’t yet done being a battlefield, Warner’s and the ex-pat British Colony in Hollywood strove to prop up the Mother Country every chance they got. Along with rollicking revolt, ‘TAORH’ deftly celebrates both royalty and robbery. Q: quelle est la différence?