Thursday, April 24, 2008

Happy Birthday, Robin

Alan, Basil, Olivia and Errol

And welcome to Sherwood. ...

The Adventures of Robin Hood is 70 years old tomorrow. On April 25th, 1938, Warners-First National released its Technicolor epic to boffo box office and, a year later, multiple Academy Awards (Score, set decoration, editing; TAORH lost in the Best Picture category.)

Why remember a 70-year-old flick? Because it's the Hollywood film that most every action-adventure film ever after has followed: extravagant action set-pieces; a thundering score; an athletic, indestructible hero. Such is its influence that it has reached beyond live-action to (glancingly) impact animation.

I came across the TAORH in grade school. The film was famous then, it's iconic today. Why has it endured? Because every one of its components, from script to casting to sets, from direction to cinematography to acting, was at the peak of industry craft. The Adventures of Robin Hood, along with Gone With the Wind, represents the pinnacle of the studio-system, Hollywood film as it existed from the beginning of talking pictures to its demise in the late 1950s ...

Then as now, the quality began with story and script. Warners had to steer clear of story elements in the copyrighted Douglas Fairbanks epic from 1922, and so returned to earlier Robin Hood legends, many of which Fairbanks' film didn't touch. Even so, the film's producer Hal Wallis had trouble with Robin Hood's initial treatments until writers Norman Reilly Raine and Seton Miller were brought aboard to straighten out the earlier, lackluster drafts. Shortly thereafter, writer Raine had gripes with Robin's director William Keighley:

To: Hal Wallis:

Since I feel very strongly on the subject of Mr. Keighley's sincere but misguided attempts, further to bugger up Robin Hood, and having spent a considerable portion of last night analyzing his desires and how they would affect the facts, I would like to direct your attention to the following:


According to what Mr. Keighley replied to my question at the budget meeting last night, the reason he wants this in is ...: People remembering the Fairbanks picture... It puts over the life and pageantry of the period as well as telling the story ... It is necessary, because the balance of the script is so weak that we have to give the audience something at the beginning that will carry over ...

... The jousting tournament can never be anything but a prologue which, if done with the magnificence Mr. Keighley sees, will have the disastrous effect of putting the climax of the picture at the beginning -- and I'll be goddamned if that is good construction dramatically in fiction, stage or screen ... *

Mr. Raine ultimately got his way, and the jousting was excised. What we get instead is brisk, narrative clock-winding that quickly sets up the problem ("King Richard's being held hostage by Leopold of Austria" ...), the villains (Prince John and Sir Guy of Gisbourne), and the heroes (Robin of Locksley and Will Scarlett).

Leading man Errol Flynn is given three big entrances in the first ten minutes, and we are catapulted off into the idealized, romanticized world of 13th century England.

There might be only one character arc in the piece (it belongs to Maid Marian), but the dialogue sparkles and the characters are vividly delineated, the action brilliantly staged. What animator and story artist/supervisor Mark Kennedy says about action sequences in Indiana Jones applies in spades to The Adventures of Robin Hood:

... after a good action sequence, we know exactly how the scene has advanced the story and how the world of the story has been altered by the sequence: is the hero now clearer to his ultimate goal, or further away? In a poorly constructed movie, nothing is altered by the action sequence, and it was just there to add some noise and flash, to wake up the audience between the boring and/or confusing talky parts.

A fine example of this in the Warners picture is the castle banquet at the start of the film: Robin Hood breaks into the proceedings, verbally jousts with the Prince and Sir Guy, initiates his relationship with Maid Marian (it doesn't start on a high note), and lays out what he intends to do before Mr. Kennedy's "useen threat" propels him to an athletic escape from the castle.

(A less-than-great image, and the beginning and end of the segment are missing, but it gives an inkling ...)

There's nine pages here of dialogue-heavy script, yet the sequence sails by. Curtiz, shooting his first set-ups on the film after Keighley's exit, keeps his camera moving and the cross-cutting energetic, so we don't get weighed down by the thickets of exposition.

This expert intermingling of character and story advancement, exposition and action, is what makes The Adventures of Robin Hood so watchable today. Sure, the acting is solid, and yes, the sets, costumes and photography are vivid, but all these things would support a less than satisfying whole if the other elements weren't in place.

So there's multiple reasons the New York Times called the TAORH "A richly produced, bravely bedecked, romantic and colorful show ... [at] the forefront of this year's best [that] can be calculated to rejoice the eights, rejuvenate the eighties, and delight those in between ... " It simply fires on all cylinders in a way that few films, be they seventy years or three weeks old, are able to do.

* This and other memos of the time come from Inside Warner Bros. {1935-1950}, edited by Rudy Behlmer, the go-to guy on all things regarding Curtiz, Warners, and Flynn.


Larry Levine said...

Every element in this classic movie is perfect: The stars, direction, script, sets, costumes, 3-strip technicolor & rousing musical score.

Plus I'm a sucker for any movie with Una O'Connor.

Anonymous said...

This is all well and good but shouldn't you be focusing more on bringing us the latest updates on what's happening in the WGA for god's sake?!

Anonymous said...

Patric Verrone thinks this is the best movie Errol Flynn ever made.

There. Satisfied?

Anonymous said...

I shouldn't be a bit surprised.

Anonymous said...

I wrote this review of the movie.

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