Monday, March 10, 2008

GENTLEMAN JIM (Warner Bros. 1942) Warner Home Video

By 1940 Errol Flynn was the undisputed star of the Warner Brothers swashbuckler. It is a rare actor who can make tights and a flying mane of long bobbing hair appeal as the height of virile masculinity. Moreover, a good deal of Flynn's heroes spoke in soliloquy or with an eloquence that, in lesser hands, would have translated into effeminacy. And although Flynn proved that a man in cod piece could stir the honorable intentions of a good many women in his audience, he was equally revered by the men who came to see his pictures and strove to emulate his smooth and satisfying charisma.

Still, by 1942 the actor was growing tired of period pictures. Perhaps it was the strange similarity that had begun to creep into all of them that worried Flynn most; the formula foreshortening the longevity of his own career aspirations. So too did the studio aim to keep Flynn for as long as they could, and gradually began to market him as more than just a rogue romantic hero. But Flynn could never entirely escape one tangible aspect of his on screen persona - that of the virile he-man whose outwardly dashing good looks suggested an inward strength that Flynn utterly lacked in reality. 

A bout with malaria - contracted during Flynn's early years in Tasmania - and several venereal diseases acquired along the way did much to weaken Flynn's overall health. Chronic back pain and lingering tuberculosis also left their mark. By the time Errol Flynn was eligible for the draft he was classified 4-F for failing to meet the army's minimum health requirements. Fans occasionally wondered why Flynn had never enlisted, but Warner Brothers kept tight wraps on the real reasons, even as they continued to cast the actor as their all-American in some timely WWII propaganda movies.

But in 1942 Errol Flynn got to play a part that fit him like a glove...or rather two, of the boxing variety. Raoul Walsh’s Gentleman Jim cast Flynn as James J. Corbett, the first heavyweight boxing champion to win the world title under Queensberry rules. In years to come Flynn would often remark that this was the favorite of all his movies. Endowed with striking similarities in temperament and fighting styles, Flynn worked diligently with a boxing trainer to do justice to that noble titan of the ring and, on the whole succeeded admirably.

During filming of the climactic boxing tournament, Flynn suffered a mild heart attack. Studio leaks to the press downplayed the attack as 'physical exhaustion' brought on by Flynn's breakneck film schedule (the actor had made 4 movies in 18 months). Yet, in hindsight it had already become apparent that Flynn's health was failing him. It didn't help matters that Flynn's private life was a shambles of rough partying. Coupled with the actor's increasing dependency on morphine and later heroin for his chronic back pain, Errol Flynn would die bloated and barely recognizable of a massive heart attack only seventeen years later, at the age of 50.

Gentleman Jim's screenplay by Vincent Lawrence and Horace McCoy charts Jim Corbett’s rise to prominence in the arena at a time when boxing was considered a nasty and unsanitary backroom brawl. We first meet Corbett as a mouthy bank teller. He's unhappy and bored and out of touch with his superiors. Yet, how to break into the world of fisticuffs?

At first, Corbett does his boxing for the wealthy – a sort of staged amusement not unlike those indulged in by pleasure-seeking Romans attending the Coliseum. Eventually, Corbett gains the respect of his peers and is pitted against his boyhood hero - the undefeated James L. Sullivan (Ward Bond). Corbett’s skill and stealth in the ring narrowly defeat the one time champion. However, it is Flynn’s utterly poignant delivery of the final exchange in words – not body blows - with Sullivan that mark the moment and the movie with its meaningfulness.

In between the melodrama, Flynn did some exceptional ‘play’ sparring that, if fake, nevertheless looked good for the camera. Far more problematic and damaging to the overall narrative is director Walsh’s mishandling of the contrived romance between Corbett and snooty, Victoria Ware (the leaden Alexis Smith) who – no kidding – warms to Corbett’s inimitable brand of masculinity faster than you can say ‘knock out.’

The forced bits of humor between Jack Carson (Walter Lowrey) and Alan Hale (Pat Corbett) don't really fit the bill and occasionally seem out of place entirely. Still, there remain less of these obvious misfires and much more of the adventuresome spirit to admire throughout, particularly during the film’s exhilarating and escalating fight sequences.

Gentlemen Jim is also blessed with exemplary production values; its marvelous recreation of San Francisco circa the gay 1890’s providing a sumptuous backdrop of evocative pleasures for the audience to peruse when the melodrama becomes a little ‘less than’ extraordinary.  In the end, Gentleman Jim provides us with more than just the opportunity to see Errol Flynn in more contemporary clothes and settings. It gives the the chance to see one of 20th century's truly inspired talents deftly immortalized by another.

Warner Home Video’s DVD exhibits exemplary quality. The grayscale has been beautifully rendered with deep solid blacks and very clean whites. The image is crisp with a good showing of fine details. Age related artifacts are infrequent. A slight hint of edge enhancement is detected though not distracting. The audio is mono but more than adequate for this presentation. Extras include Warner Night at the Movies, short subjects and cartoons and an audio only adaptation starring Flynn, Smith and Bond. Recommended.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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