The Second Annual Olivia de Havilland + Errol Flynn Blogathon: Dodge City (1939)

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Hi, everybody! I honestly had my doubts that I would be able to write up any blogathon entries while participating in TCM Presents The Master of Suspense: 50 Years of Hitchcock from June 26th until August 7th, but despite the heavy workload I found time to watch Dodge City (1939) once again and write my review! I’d like to thank Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood for orchestrating another fun weekend honoring one of the most iconic women in cinema history on her 101st birthday, as well as one of my personal favorite iconic men. I can’t wait to read all of the other amazing entries and participate in this wonderful blogathon next year!

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Theatrical poster for Dodge City (1939).

The film takes place in Dodge City, a small town built at the Western end of a newly established railroad named after the railroad’s constructor and the town’s founder Colonel Dodge (Henry O’Neill). A dear friend of Colonel Dodge is Texan and cattle agent Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn), who soon makes his way to Dodge City with a herd of steer and a wagon trail in tow. Among the settlers in the trail are Abbie Irving (portrayed by our birthday girl Olivia de Havilland) and her brother Lee (William Lundigan). Wade takes an immediate liking to Abbie, but Lee causes trouble by drunkenly firing his gun and causing the steer to stampede, leaving a trail of devastation in their wake. When Lee begins to shoot at Wade he draws his own pistol in order to defend himself, which result’s in Lee’s death when he is unable to escape the stampede that he caused.

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Olivia de Havilland and William Lundigan in a scene from Dodge City (1939).

Wade’s interest in Abbie doesn’t fade despite her loss of interest in her brother’s killer, and when the trail arrives to Dodge City Abbie moves in with her uncle, the town’s resident doctor. And does the town certainly need a doctor as lawlessness and anarchy run rampant as the city grows in population. Shootings are more commonplace than anything else, and Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) and his men serve as the ringleaders of chaos and crime. Wade seems to be the only man in town with enough courage to stand up to the league of bandits, and after stepping in to save his adorable friend Rusty (Alan Hale) from Surrett’s noose, the town rallies for him to become Dodge City’s resident sherriff. At first he turns down the job out of fear of commitment and settling down, but once a young boy in the town is killed by Surrett and his cronies, Wade takes the position and vows to make the streets safe. Will Wade succeed in his task, or will Surrett run him out of town just as he did to the sherriffs before him? Will Wade be able to convince Abbie of his honorable intentions?

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Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn sharing a romantic scene from Dodge City (1939).

Dodge City (1939) was the fifth of nine movies made by Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn, Warner Brothers’ resident romantic pair at the time. Flynn shines in his first ever Western, though he later wrote in his autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1959), that he felt miscast in the genre due to his English accent. He would later go on to excel in Westerns anyway, and scriptwriters found unique and creative ways to write his accent into the story, just as they did with this film. Olivia de Havilland had misgivings about her part in Dodge City (1939) as well, feeling that the project as a letdown in her career. She had grown frustrated with the lack of depth in her roles as an ingenue, and her pleading to Warner Brothers to cast her as saloon girl Ruby Gilman was ignored by the studio (the role would eventually go to Ann Sheridan).

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Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn in a publicity still from Dodge City (1939).

In all honesty, I must admit that I don’t understand Olivia’s point of view. While I can agree that the role of Abbie Irving is rather two-dimensional, it gave Olivia ample time onscreen (as much as her leading man Errol Flynn, if not more), and the character was quite motivational and feminist for the time as Abbie maintained a steady job as an instrumental reporter for the Dodge City Star. Even more confusing was the fact that Ann Sheridan’s time onscreen was practically a cameo, and an unmemorable one at that despite my love for her as an actress. Nevertheless, for her own reasons the filming of Dodge City (1939) remained an unhappy time for Olivia as she fell victim to the Hollywood studio system. “It was a period in which she was given to constant fits of crying and long days spent at home in bed,” wrote author Tony Thomas in his book, The Films of Olivia de Havilland (1983). “She was bored with her work and while making Dodge City (1939) she claims that she even had trouble remembering her lines.”

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Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland on the set of Dodge City (1939).

Flynn and de Havilland’s distaste with their roles just goes to show that sometimes great films come out of the misery of the artists who made them, because while I’m not often a fan of Westerns I find Dodge City (1939) to be among my favorites, and the picture will always go down as one of the quality films from one of the best onscreen couples. While their acting in the film was excellent as usual, the Technicolor by Natalie Kalmus and Morgan Padelford and cinematography by Sol Polito undoubtedly impressed me the most, and I don’t exaggerate when I say that it’s the most beautiful looking Western ever made (the only one that even comes close for me is Red Canyon (1949), which looks strikingly similar). All in all, if you’re looking for a unique and excellent Western to watch on Olivia de Havilland’s birthday, this is obviously the movie for you!

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Olivia de Havilland Centenary Blogathon: My Analysis of The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

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I would like to begin by thanking the two gracious hosts of this wonderful blogathon, Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Phyllis of Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the birthday of such an iconic actress, and it’s easy to see that both of you worked very hard to make this possible! I’m incredibly honored to participate in this blogathon, I wish Olivia an incredibly happy hundredth birthday, and without further ado, on with the post!

After the resounding success of Gone With the Wind, our birthday girl Olivia de Havilland had hoped that Warner Brothers head Jack Warner would recognize her star potential and offer her more prominent and challenging roles. However, realizing that he could have a diva in the making he decided to try putting her in her place and giving her the thankless role of Penelope Gray, Queen Elizabeth’s lady-in-waiting in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, presenting her with a measly third billing below the title and the names of stars Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. Despite the fact that Olivia was hardly present during the entirety of the film, it allowed her to be paired with some of her most frequent costars and collaborators. It marked her sixth of nine films with love interest Errol Flynn, her second of four films with Bette Davis, and her eighth of eleven films with director Michael Curtiz.

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Theatrical poster for The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). Notice de Havilland’s paltry billing below the title.

Interestingly, the artists involved with the film faced off almost as much as the characters did. This was Flynn’s sixth collaboration with Curtiz, and it appeared that his dislike for the director grew more intense with each passing film that they made together. To make matters worse, Bette Davis had initially campaigned for Laurence Olivier to be cast opposite her, and felt that Flynn was unfit to speak the blank verse of period pieces like The Private Lives. Her distaste for him climaxed when they were rehearsing a scene in which Elizabeth slaps Essex hard across the face, and Davis decided to slap him for real. Errol took the blow but vowed to retaliate if Bette chose to slap him again once the cameras started rolling. Luckily the take that was used in the film was an artificial slap, but it wasn’t until decades later that her opinion changed of his performance. While watching the film with costar Olivia, she exclaimed, “I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Flynn was brilliant!”. Just like Errol Flynn, it took decades for Bette Davis to change her opinion of Olivia de Havilland as well. Olivia had been a fan of Bette’s long before she first starred with her in It’s Love I’m After, but she was later quoted saying, “We had to make three pictures together for her to warm up to me.” while Bette replied, “I was probably jealous of you, you were so damn good looking.”. The two remained close friends until Davis’ death in 1981.

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Our birthday girl Olivia de Havilland looking as lovely and regal as ever as Lady Penelope Gray in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).

The first thing that I noticed as I watched the film was how astoundingly beautiful both the cinematography and Technicolor were. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex truly looks like a storybook in every sense of the word from the ornate costumes designed by Orry-Kelly to the obviously artifical foliage seen in the sets. De Havilland looks more like a Disney princess than a lady-in-waiting, while Davis looks surprisingly accurate as Queen Elizabeth II, and it is said that Davis herself took drastic steps to make the look possible, including shaving her eyebrows and two inches off of her hairline in order to achieve the illusion of baldness underneath her lavish wigs. She later mentioned that her eyebrows never grew back correctly, and that she had to use an eyebrow pencil to fill them in afterwards.

The story itself, based on the 1930 play Elizabeth the Queen by Maxwell Anderson, was obviously a poor depiction of Elizabeth’s reign. In fact, Flynn’s character was a cousin to Queen Elizabeth in reality, and many other aspects of the film appear to be fabricated. The film is entertaining in parts nonetheless, yet incredibly frustrating as both of the main characters are intensely opinionated and fight like cats and dogs the entire time, which leads to their relationship’s ultimate demise. Both Flynn and Davis seemed to portray themselves in the picture, which unfortunately only added to its inaccuracies. The only actor in the film who gave a truly unique performance was Olivia de Havilland, portraying a madly jealous and infatuated Penelope Gray who had the audacity to butt heads with and sabotage her queen at every turn.

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Frequent costars Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).

Despite how obviously immature her character seemed to be in her love for Essex, I still rooted for de Havilland to end up with Flynn in the end (but don’t we all?). I found myself on the edge of my seat waiting for her character to appear only to be let down as I sat through what seemed to be an hour and forty minutes of the Bette Davis show. Still, there were a couple of other supporting performances worthy of a mention, like Vincent Price and Nanette Fabray, both of whom I was delighted to see in practically cameo appearances. All in all, the film is a magnificent spectacle visually with a borderline fictional story that somehow managed to keep my attention, but if you’re looking to watch an Olivia de Havilland film on her hundredth birthday, I would recommend that you look elsewhere as she is practically nowhere to be seen.