The double feature was a motion picture industry phenomenon which began during the depression as a way to get audiences to come see films in the movie theatre. The double bill for the price of one as a movie marketing tool was so successful that it became standard across countries like the United States, United Kingdom and Australia from the 1930s into the early 1980s. With its decline the art of programming films linked by film genre, actor, director, character or even stylistically became scarce. In my home city of Melbourne, The Astor Theatre bucked the trend of the decline of the double feature. Since the early 1980s The Astor Theatre ensured that double features would endure at the centre of its programming philosopy. Interestingly it wasn’t uncommon to pair movies completely different in genre. This was often done to appease family audiences or simply because of the challenges of obtaining a desired film. But for real cinephiles the attraction of seeing two different films with a thread that holds them together was the ultimate way to study and critique films and the effect they have on culture and society.
My own experience with double features has been both weird and wonderful. From the perfect pairing to odd doubles I’ve almost seen them all. Well, that’s not quite true. But a good double bill from the comfort of your own home is an experience you can easily create. With that in mind I thought I would ease into it and play it safe with my first suggestion for this new series.
Captain Blood could easily play as an Errol Flynn double feature along side The Sea Hawk. I would see it in a heart beat. Both are Academy Award nominated films which made a tremendous amount of money at the box office for Warner Bros. Pictures. While one has more political undertones than the other, the glue that holds these two films together is the fact that they are swashbuckling adventure movies of the highest calibre.
Captain Blood (1935).
Can you imagine Errol Flynn ‘the king of swashbuckler movies’ wasn’t even first choice as lead actor in Michael Curtiz’s Captain Blood. After all Flynn had only just arrived in Hollywood as an unknown but charismatic young actor. According to Flynn it was studio chief Jack Warner who had the foresight to cast Flynn as Captain Blood along side with another unknown actress at the time, Olivia De Havilland. Based on the Rafael Sabatini 1922 novel of the same name, Captain Blood is a breath-taking, swashbuckling adventure film which tells the story of an enslaved Irish doctor (Flynn) who becomes a notorious pirate after being accused as a traitor during the Monmouth Rebellion. Highlights include the exciting naval engagements, the brewing romance between Captain Peter Blood and Arabella Bishop (De Havilland) and the film’s famous sword duel between Captain Blood and the pirate named Levassuer. Interestingly, the latter begins with a fiery address, “You do not take her while I live!” to which Flynn’s Blood replies, “Then I’ll take her when you’re dead.”
In short, Captain Blood was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The success of film made Errol Flynn a star and it wouldn’t be the last time we saw his action-packed sword-play. An acclaimed little film by the name of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) would earn him further accolades as a celebrated swashbuckler and romantic hero. As for Flynn and De Havilland, we would see them reunite eight times in total throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s. Of course, the Hollywood rumour mill would have a field day churning out stories of an affair between Flynn and De Havilland partly due to the incredible screen chemistry between them. Only after Flynn’s death in 1959 and in retirement did De Havilland finally admitted they had fallen in love.
The Sea Hawk (1940).
Movie buffs will point out The Sea Hawk was produced in the early years of WW2 to help rally support for the defense of Britain against Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Disguised as an Elizabethan drama and adventure film, there is no denying that for example Flora Robson’s speech as Elizabeth I at the end of the film was squarely aimed at the British public. “When the ruthless ambitions of a man threaten to engulf the world, it becomes the solemn obligation of all free men to affirm that the earth belongs not to any one man, but to all men, and that freedom is the deed and title to the soil on which we exist.”
The film is intriguingly the tenth joint effort between Flynn and director Michael Curtiz. They would go on to eventually make two more films together (12 in total) even though they completely despised each other. Interestingly, their contempt for each other stemmed from a furor where 25 horses were killed during the making of The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936). Despite that Curtiz and Flynn were professional enough to carry on. Under the watchful eye of Curtiz, we find our screen hero Errol Flynn playing Geoffrey Thorpe, a thinly veiled version of Sir Francis Drake, the man who dared go up against the might of the Spanish Armada. It a film that contains arguably Flynn’s best fencing sequence. He even manages to produce a wonderful acting performance which rivals his exploits as Robin Hood.