Program Notes: Dodge City (1939)

Depending upon how you choose to view it, Dodge City is either a quintessential Western or a shameless collection of cowboy clichés.

It’s got a cattle drive, a stampede, fetching dance hall girls (the main one is played by Ann Sheridan), a wicked gambler (Bruce Cabot) who runs the town like a private fiefdom, a temperance meeting, a running gun battle on a steam-driven train, and a world-class barroom brawl ... all of it captured in glorious early Technicolor.

Most of all it features the cinematic three-way of director Michael Curtiz and stars Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.

Flynn and de Havilland had been successfully paired in Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (’36), and The Adventures of Robin Hood (’38). They would go on to share the screen in a total of eight features, including Dodge City (’39) and They Died with Their Boots On (’41).

Film Screening:
Dodge City (1939)
Saturday, Mar. 1 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

It was widely assumed that the actor and actress were an item. But that was all publicity. De Havilland was a fairly genteel sort, while the Australian Flynn was a notorious womanizer and drinker whose career barely survived a 1942 trial for statutory rape. His memoir was entitled My Wicked, Wicked Ways.

Still, de Havilland was not immune to her co-star’s bad-boy charisma. “He was a charming and magnetic man,” she wrote years later, “but so tormented. I had a crush on him, and later I found he did for me.”

In the films they made together Flynn and de Havilland invariably were directed by Curtiz, an Austrian immigrant who just a couple of years later would achieve screen immortality by giving us Bogie and Bergman in Casablanca.

Despite their many film collaborations (including The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Sea Hawk, Santa Fe Trail, Dive Bomber, and Virginia City), there was no love lost between Curtiz and Flynn. The director thought of his leading man as lazy, little more than an attractive puppet. Flynn saw Curtiz as a humorless slave driver who took all the joy out of the filmmaking process.

Somehow out of that barely tamped-down rancor they made terrific movies.

Getting a handle on the real Errol Flynn isn’t easy. His outward self-confidence and appeal masked some serious demons.

Sheridan, who appeared with Flynn in three films, said that “he was one of the wild characters of the world, but he also had a strange, quiet side. He camouflaged himself completely. In all the years I knew him, I never knew what really lay underneath, and I doubt if many people did.”


Olivia de Havilland & Errol Flynn in Dodge City

Others had a more charitable view of the actor. Patric Knowles, who played Will Scarlett in Robin Hood and thereafter was one of the star’s closest friends, described Flynn as “a puppy, an overgrown, healthy puppy...

“He hurriedly sniffed here, and then over there. Such a wide variety of things to do, wonderful and delightful things. He would run from pillar to post in a frenzy of eagerness, love, and laughter...”

Occasionally in his eagerness for new experiences, Flynn would find himself in hot water. But, according to Knowles, “Flynn never knowingly did anything vicious or hurtful to anyone in his life.”

Flynn seemed most determined to hurt himself. In the early 1950s, de Havilland recalled, she was attending a Hollywood party when she felt someone kiss the back of her neck.

“I whirled around in anger and said, ‘Do I know you?’ Then I realized it was Errol. He had changed so. His eyes were so sad. I had stared into them in enough movies to know that his spirit was gone.”

Flynn was dismissive of his hit movies (he called them “mediocre vehicles”) and yearned to show his acting chops in “serious” films. He got his chance late in his career with productions like The Sun Also Rises and The Roots of Heaven, where his real life downward spiral dovetailed perfectly with the dissipated characters he portrayed.

But ultimately it was those “mediocre vehicles” like Dodge City that we remember because they caught Flynn at his most virile and charming. Also, because they were period pictures they have a certain timelessness. Unlike their star, they have grown old gracefully.

Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: Westerns”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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