Thursday, December 02, 2004

Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan saddle up!

This was originally posted on my other blog. 8/18/03 (some changes have been made).

SANTA FE TRAIL (1940) was directed by Michael Curtiz who was a respected director prior to his coming to the U.S. from his native Hungary in the mid-1920s. Curtiz had already worked with Errol Flynn several times prior to this film (including THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD), so it's likely that they felt comfortable with each other. Than again, I'm not a Flynn scholar, so it could have been just as likely that both actor and director where forced to work together again and again by the studio heads. This film is not a high point in either's career and was probably thrown together to fill a double bill with a higher profile release. Still the movie is entertaining enough, if not exactly easy to follow.

Back in 'the old days' I had an acquaintance, whom we'll call The Dude. Now The Dude (TD, from here on) wasn't just a fan of Errol Flynn, she was infatuated with the man. Although, she'd have probably denied it, there was something obsessive about her interest in Flynn. It's probably just as well that the man died years before she was born, since I wouldn't have been surprised learn that she had been picked up for stalking, had he still been around. Not only did she collect everything she could get her hands on in the form of books, old articles, videos, photographs, TD (who was admittedly a fair artist) had sketchbooks filled with renditions of Flynn in and out of costume (the later making use of stills of the actor in bathing trunks, and a bit of imagination on her part).TD had not only all this Flynn material on her book shelves and in filing cabinets, but also a number of photos on her bedroom wall AND a large poster on the ceiling above her bed.

It really is probably best NOT to dwell on that last bit of info, but I tell it for a reason. (Besides letting you know that I do know some interesting folks. :-)It has become impossible for me, in the years since becoming involved with TD to watch any Flynn film objectively. I don't dislike Flynn, and in fact, enjoyed the man's films for years before TD and I ever crossed paths. Still the woman did have an effect, so bear that in mind while I try to review this sucker, okay?

Flynn stars as J.E.B. Stuart, opposite a very, young looking Ronald Reagan as his fellow West Pointer, George Armstrong Custer. Reagan looks fresh off the back lot and it's hard to believe that he would one day become more famous for his political skills than for his acting ability. I'd have to dig out my history books, but I have my doubts as to rather or not Custer and Stuart ever competed for a women, let alone a Kit Carson Halliday, played with wry, humor by Olivia de Havilland (whom also co-starred with Flynn in ROBIN HOOD, among others). Of course, I could be wrong!This love triangle acts as backdrop for the more dramatic tale of Custer and Stuart's hunt for the abolitionist John Brown (with Raymond Massey scaring the crap out of everybody and chewing up entire barn loads of scenery in the part).

As Leonard Maltin (or one of his reviewers) states in his indispensable guide, the movie makers seem unsure of what exactly they are trying to do here. The film throws in comedy, melodrama, action and even a song or two, apparently hoping that if one thing doesn't grab the audience, something else a few minutes later might.The script also seems unsure where it stands on the Civil War, since it does it's best to make the abolitionist side come out as the heavies and slavery seems an after thought to other economic and political motives. In fact, while he is the heavy Massey's Brown appears to be the only one who genuinely wants to help free the slaves from their bondage.

Not a great film by any means, and probably one that nobody listed first on their later acting resumes (aside from the brilliant Massey). I've got a fondness for this film since I was a kid and it certainly is a lot more fun and enjoyable than a number of major films that have become better known.
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