Wherefore art thou Robin Hood?

Pictured: Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1938).  The opening credits ambiguously state that the film is “based upon ancient Robin Hood legends” (though it most closely draws on the interpretation of those legends by the nineteenth-century writer Howard Pyle); in classic Hollywood fashion, the film also cribs indiscriminately from various other sources, such as Romeo and Juliet, with Flynn and de Havilland doing their own variation on that play’s famous balcony scene.  There’s also a strong Juliet/Nurse dynamic to De Havilland’s scenes with Una O’Connor, the latter playing Bess, Maid Marian’s sharp-tongued but coquettish lady-in-waiting, a comic relief figure with shades of the Wife of Bath (below). 

It’s typical of Hollywood cinema from this period to raid British literature’s back catalog, as it were, for character types and plot devices, inflecting them with a Victorian-era sentimentality and then running them through the wringer of mass culture—to absolutely delightful effect.  Is there a 1930s adventure film more fun than Robin Hood?  Between Flynn’s lascivious eyebrow-waggling and Basil Rathbone’s moustache-twirling and O’Connor’s simpering, mischievous smile the thing is 101 minutes of sheer pleasure.  It sports a veritable feast of character actors: in addition to O’Connor you have Claude Rains as Prince John, Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck, and Melville Cooper as the Sheriff of Nottingham.  But what’s most appealing about the film is its zippy pacing, sprightly tone and rakish humor.  “He speaks treason!” cries de Havilland, to which Flynn replies, in a voice dripping with insinuation, “Fluently.”  We, and she, are immediately made to think about what other things that artful tongue can do.  (At the time of the film’s release Flynn’s reputation as a notorious womanizer, booze-hound and sex fiend would have been well known to any lucid moviegoer over the age of twelve.)  Pauline Kael once wrote that Jack Nicholson could suggest oral sex just by cocking an eyebrow; watching Errol Flynn in Robin Hood I think I know what she means.


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