I spent a very happy weekend with the new DVD of Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Don Juan, the definite highlight of the new Errol Flynn collection and the only one with a commentary track (by the director, the late Vincent Sherman, supplemented by facts n' figures from the ubiquitous Rudy Behlmer). Fortunately it's available separately.
Though I'm a fan of Flynn's big three swashbucklers, Captain Blood, Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk, I hadn't previously seen this 1948 picture, which was based on an idea that had been considered as early as 1939. (As Behlmer explains, Warners mostly stopped making period costume pictures during the war because they depended on the foreign market to turn a profit, and much of the foreign market wasn't available any more.) By the time the project finally got off the ground, under the studio's star producer Jerry Wald, Flynn was pushing 40 and Warners had not made this kind of movie in almost a decade.
This should have been a big disadvantage, but Wald actually made it work by approaching the film as a conscious pastiche of Flynn's earlier films, with a hint of self-parody. In 1948 nobody was making films with shout-outs for movie buffs, the way directors do now, but Don Juan comes close to being a film-geek picture, with tongue-in-cheek nods to the other swashbucklers (like a sideways reference to the plot of The Sea Hawk when the King of Spain mentions what happened to the Spanish Armada), and "hey, it's that guy!" casting, like bringing back Una O'Connor as yet another lady-in-waiting. There are also meta-references; when we hear about Don Juan's reputation as a lady's man and the question of how much of the gossip is true, we can't help thinking of Flynn himself, and giving Flynn's then-wife a cameo appearance just adds to the connections.
The way the plot is set up is also a satisfying way of dealing with an older, heavier Flynn: he starts the film as a wastrel interested only in living it up and chasing women (like Flynn himself, or his own public image). As the movie goes on, he's drawn into fighting for something more important, namely the stuff swashbucklers are always fighting for: doing his duty by the Queen and dispatching a treasonous schemer in a big climactic duel. On a meta-level, it's Errol Flynn being called back to do what he hasn't done for a while, namely be the costumed swordfighting hero that we all love.
The script, by two writers who specialized in comedy (George Oppenheimer and Harry Kurnitz) is very funny, with some great jokes in the three different set-pieces about Don Juan being interrupted by a young lady's husband and/or fiance. Sherman's direction is efficient, the costumes and Technicolor photography are outstanding, the fight choreography is exciting. The sets have that fun minimalist look we associate with Warners productions -- as the most cost-conscious of the big studios (they re-used stock shots from Robin Hood in this picture to save some money), even their big-budget productions used no more props or set areas than were absolutely necessary to film a scene, and the result is an entertainingly unreal look, where you know it's just a set -- maybe even a set you've seen used for something else -- but it's more fun to look at than a more elaborate set.
The weakness of the film is the love story of Juan and the one woman he can't have, the Queen, played by the beautiful Swedish actress Viveca Lindfors. She was a fine actress, and you can see why Warners was hoping she would be their answer to Garbo or Bergman, but she didn't have any real star quality, and so you don't really buy that Flynn would reform because of her. It's not her fault, though; it's an under-written part. Sherman mentions on the commentary track that he would have liked to emphasize the love story more, but in making a Flynn swashbuckler it was considered essential to play up the fights and the fun. But the result is that the character who should be a big part of the story -- the woman who finally wins Flynn's heart -- isn't much of a part. And because it's not much of a part, that meant it wasn't something that could be offered to a really big star like Bergman or (at that point in her career) De Havilland.
But the other stuff more than makes up for that weakness, and this is a highly recommended film and DVD. I have to admit, though, I don't quite share the enthusiasm for Max Steiner's score (Erich Korngold, who usualy scored this type of film, was no longer with the studio and had had a heart attack). His main theme is a good one, but he repeats it way too many times.