Answer Man

Flynn, de Havilland were an item on screen and off

Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland as they appeared in the hit picture “Captain Blood.”
Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland as they appeared in the hit picture “Captain Blood.”

Q. Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland were in several movies together, including “Captain Blood” and ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood.” How many movies were the two paired together? They worked so well together. Was there there ever a real-life romance between them?

— Jeanne Eisele, of Belleville

A. If those are the only two movies of theirs you’ve seen, you’d better stock up on the popcorn and your favorite drinks because you are in for several more nights of great moviemaking.

From 1935 to 1941, these two superstars packed theaters with eight flicks in which they co-starred, all but one of which still draw strong reviews. That should come as no surprise. With all the sparks that were flying between them off the set, it’s easy to see why they were so convincing when they lit up the screen together. Even at 92, de Havilland, while adamantly denying the two ever consummated their dalliances, told the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2009, “Yes, we did fall in love, and I believe this was evident in the screen chemistry between us. But his circumstances at the time prevented the relationship from going further.”

Warner Brothers didn’t know what it was about to start when the studio started searching for a hit in the mid-1930s. It had heard that MGM had cast heartthrob Clark Gable for a production of “Mutiny on the Bounty.” Warner wanted to counter with “Captain Blood,” a story of an Irish doctor forced to become a pirate. Just one problem: Warner had mostly seedy gangster stars like James Cagney in its fold, not swashbuckling pirates. So the studio took a chance on an unknown named Errol Flynn, a Tasmanian native who until then had played only bit parts and B-movies. They paired him with de Havilland, a rising young starlet who had turned heads with her portrayal of Hermia in the 1935 version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Almost overnight, it became a match made in Hollywood heaven. Critics said he blunted some of her harsh edges while she drew out his softness. But whatever the reason, audiences immediately went gaga over what might have turned into a financial bomb. For the next six years, the daring Flynn and the beautiful de Havilland made music (and money) in seven follow-up films whether the setting was Elizabethan England, the Old West or 19th-century Crimea. In the historical dramas, fact often came out on the short end, but who cares when you’re watching these two heat up the screen?

Warner followed “Captain Blood” with “Charge of the Light Brigade” (1936) and “The Adventures of Robin Hood” in 1938, which some call Flynn’s greatest performance. After a stinker in “Four’s a Crowd” (also 1938), the two returned with gusto in 1939 with “Dodge City” and “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,” which also boasts Bette Davis as the virgin queen. Then, after riding down the “Santa Fe Trail” in 1940, the two appeared for the last time together in, ironically, “They Died With Their Boots On” (1941).

All the while, tongues wagged over their own private lives. Had de Havilland, who was just 19 when “Captain Blood” was released, given in to the wily charms of the dashing Flynn, seven years her senior? The betting was she had. Film historian Rudy Behlmer said the two were an item by the time Robin Hood began robbing from the rich. And in his autobiography, “My Wicked, Wicked Ways,” written just before his death in 1959, Flynn talked of his undying love for his early leading lady. Finally, in that rare 2009 interview, de Havilland told her side:

“I didn’t reject him,” said de Havilland, who will turn 100 next July 1. “You know, I was also very attracted to him. But I said that nothing could happen while he was still with Lili. (Flynn was married to Lili Damita, an actress five years his senior, when he met de Havilland.) She was away at the time, and he said that there was no longer anything much between them. I said that he had to resolve things with Lili first. But, you know, he never did. I think he was in deep thrall to her in some way. He did not leave her then, and he never approached me in that way again. So nothing did ever happen between us.”

By 1940, she had begun a two-year relationship with actor Jimmy Stewart. She wound up marrying author-screenwriter Marcus Goodrich in 1946 and divorced him six years later. A second marriage, in 1955, would end in divorce as well. Her first child, Benjamin, would die of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1991 at age 41; the only child from her second marriage, Gisele, now 59, survives. Flynn was married three times, the third lasting until his death in 1959 of a heart attack at age 50. Along with three daughters, he had one son, Sean, a war correspondent who disappeared in Cambodia in 1970 while working for Time magazine. He was declared dead in 1984.

Today’s trivia

You’ve probably heard of the Bering Strait and the Strait of Hormuz. But what is usually considered the longest strait in the world?

Answer to Tuesday’s trivia: Did you ever take such a big bite of peanut butter that you thought your mouth was going to stick together forever? Most of us quickly realize it’s a silly idea. We simply reach for the milk, take a sip and start chewing normally again. But there are some people who have developed such an irrational fear of choking that they begin to avoid peanut butter and similar foods. It’s called arachibutyrophobia. (Peanuts are in the genus “arachis.” To be “butyraceous” is to be of or like butter. Hence, fear of peanut butter.) Like most phobias, it varies in severity. Some people can consume small quantities, while others are so fearful that they may start to avoid peanut butter ice cream and peanut sauces.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, or call 618-239-2465.