It’s Errol Flynn’s birthday today. Here’s an old post I wrote.
In 1950, Dean Stockwell appeared in Kim with Errol Flynn. Stockwell was 12 or 13 when they filmed it, and nearing the end of his run as a child-actor. In Kim, Stockwell is on the brink of adolescence. He has described how he, unlike other normal kids, YEARNED for acne and awkwardness, because that would then mean he wouldn’t have to be a “child actor” anymore. He didn’t particularly enjoy any of it.
Errol Flynn, naturally, was a huge star. The rapport between Stockwell and Flynn seems quite genuine in Kim, and you really believe that these two – one a kid, one a grown man – are buddies. (More on Dean Stockwell, and Kim, here, in a piece I am really proud of.)
Stockwell had enough talent, even as a young child, to go toe to toe with anybody. He practically steals Anchors Aweigh away from Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. He DOES steal Gentleman’s Agreement away from Gregory Peck (who is terrible in the picture), and, along with John Garfield, manages to make the sanctimonious-liberal storyline actually seem real. Peck, overcome with his own self-righteousness, barely seems to notice that the kid playing his son is walking away with the picture with one hand tied behind his back (or one finger cupped over his nose, as the case may be).
Stockwell had that THING that I always talk about: the natural gift that some actors have to listen/talk/react in the middle of an imaginary moment. Freely able to play make-believe. As a child actor, Stockwell never seems “precocious”, one of those show-pony show-biz kids. Stockwell always just seems like a little boy, alive on screen. Natural, unselfconscious, confident.
Some background that will be relevant for the Errol Flynn stories: Stockwell’s dad had never really been around when he was a kid, and his parents got divorced when he was quite little. He was raised by his mother, and he grew up on the MGM lot where he was under contract.
Child star Dick Moore (or “Dickie Moore”) wrote a book about what it was like for children actors of that era called Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (but don’t have sex or take the car). I’ve owned the book since I was a teenager myself because I always wished I had grown up in that era, in the heyday of child movie stars. Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Margaret O’Brien, etc. etc. I used to write short stories about a harassed child star, racing from tap class to voice lessons to rehearsals on giant sound stages. Dickie Moore tracks down all of his old child-star friends and asks about their experiences as child actors. Some (like Rooney) were like, “It was delightful!” and some, like Stockwell, were like, “Yeah, uhm, it was NOT so delightful.”
The book is honest about the pressures the kids were under, and yet it’s not a diatribe against employing children either. Everyone has a different story. Stockwell has been quite honest about how horrible his education was and how he had to teach himself how to read (and comprehend) when he was in his 20s, because his early education had been so spotty. He attended the famed Little Red Schoolhouse on the MGM lot. His classmates were, among others, Elizabeth Taylor, Roddy McDowall – who, ironically, coincidentally, appeared in a key episode of Quantum Leap years later, appearing as Stockwell’s counterpart).
Stockwell says, in an interview in Twinkle Twinkle Little Star:
When we graduated from MGM, we had to do a magazine layout of a graduation party: Rusty Tamblyn, me, Claude Jarman, Jr., Elizabeth Taylor, and Jane Powell. They wanted a photo with all of us outside in front of the schoolhouse. Elizabeth was so happy she threw her books in the air, and Miss McDonald [the principal] came running out, screaming at the photographers, “Don’t have her throw her books like that.”
Mary McDonald intimidated me. She didn’t have the most beautiful visage in the world. She didn’t teach me shit. But in retrospect, I love her because I feel she was intent upon educating us. In some way – a way she didn’t realize consciously – she sensed that she was dealing with kids that were out of place in time and ties and culture. I tend to revere her.
We are now returning to Errol Flynn and what he meant to Dean Stockwell. Stockwell was a little child, an alien from normal boyhood: he had adult responsibilities, he was carrying movies, he made tons of money, and spent most of his time wishing he was playing football and going to a regular school. He had no father figure in his life, and was, for the most part, surrounded by women at all times.
In walks swashbuckling Errol Flynn.
In a recent interview, Stockwell was asked, “So who taught you about sex?” He replied, “I did a movie with Errol Flynn when I was 13. I got quite an education.”
From Stockwell’s point of view, Errol Flynn was essential. People who employ children as actors do not often remember that these young show-ponies are, after all, children. (A good friend of mine is a casting agent here in New York and she tells stories of stage parents and little children auditioning. She said she was coaching one little boy, he was about 4 or 5, and he had to take a waffle out of the toaster oven, take a bite, and say “Yum”! My friend has two kids of her own, she loves kids and is very sympathetic to the young ones who come in and out of her office. This little boy sat down in the chair, legs dangling and she told him what she wanted him to do for the camera. He thought a little bit, and then said frankly, “I don’t want to.” He wasn’t being a brat, he was honestly sharing his preferences with her. They talked a bit more, and he said he “didn’t feel like it” that day. He was only 4 so he couldn’t give her any reasons, but DUH. He’s 4. He shouldn’t have to give a treatise about why he doesn’t want to audition for a Lego My Eggo commercial. My friend brought him back outside and said to the mother, “He’s not really in the mood for this today.” And the mother had NONE of it. “What? No! He has to go back in there and do what he’s supposed to do!” My friend was gentle and firm. “No, I really don’t think he wants to do it today. Okay?” Etc. The child is 4 years old and he said what he wanted as clearly as he could. It’s okay if a 4 year old doesn’t ‘feel like’ auditioning for something.)
Stockwell talks about Errol Flynn and what it meant to Stockwell to work with him and be in his presence at this particular adolescent moment in his life:
I’m not saying I’d recommend him for the rest of society. It just so happened that at that time of my life – I was twelve or something – he was what he was: a truly profound, nonsuperficial sex symbol. He was the fucking male.
Funny (and, to me, moving) stories below.
Flynn was a maniac practical joker. I had a horror looming up, one of those crying scenes – a real toughy – with Paul Lukas. He’s a dying lama. The scene is a master shot inside a tent in India and I’m there with the lama and Flynn comes through the tent flaps and gives me food for the lama in a rice bowl, and I’m supposed to be – as the character Kim – on the job and I can’t let the lama eat maggots. So I check the bowl. Flynn has a line and leaves. Then I have this big crying scene with the lama.
So we rehearse and do a take. I’m talking to the lama and in comes Flynn and hands me the bowl, piled high with fresh camel dung, still steaming. Now I’m supposed to look at it and say, “Is this okay for the lama to eat?” And he’s supposed to say, “Yes, of course. I promise it’s good.”
I looked at the mess and said my line and he backed out. I played the rest of the scene and it cost Flynn five hundred dollars. He had bet everyone on the crew that he would break me up.
Dean Stockwell again:
I had a hell of a good time shooting that picture [Kim].
Errol Flynn came onto the set one morning a little blurry-eyed, and told me about picking up a girl the night before, a waitress. He really liked waitresses and working girls – secretaries.
So he took this waitress to his place. Next morning, he said, “You know what she did? As I’m fucking her, she said, ‘Oh, fuck me, Errol Flynn! Fuck me, Errol Flynn!’ I mean, that really tells you where it’s at. ‘Fuck me, Errol Flynn.’ Not ‘Fuck me, Errol.’”
Can you imagine what poor Mrs. Stockwell’s reaction would have been if she had known that this was the kind of story Flynn was regaling her young son? But Stockwell ate it up.
Stockwell had grown up in the hothouse atmosphere of the studio which had a vested interest in keeping the kids innocent (sometimes to a fault: most of the girls interviewed in Dick Moore’s book – Jane Withers, Margaret O’Brien, many others – say that they hadn’t even been warned about menstruation. It was as though the studio thought they could stave off eventual adolescence by not letting the girls know about what was coming. Many of these young girls randomly began bleeding one day and had the appropriate response of: AHHHH, WHAT IS HAPPENING TO ME!). The studios were particularly intent on shielding their little child stars from the realities of adolescence.
Errol Flynn bonded with Stockwell as a colleague and friend and (perhaps unconsciously) helped Stockwell separate himself from the childhood-atmosphere of the Little Red Schoolhouse and look forward to being an adult.
Okay, so I’m going to play this little Indian kid in Rudyard Kipling’s tale of Kim and Errol Flynn is going to play the other guy. While they’re building the sets, I come onto the sound stage with my mother and the studio teacher, the perfect Norman Rockwell portrait of middle America – sixty-three years old, sweet, giving, a long-suffering spinster with the rimless glasses and high lace collar. She was terrific with her rosy cheeks. Didn’t even have to blue her hair; she had her own natural white hair. She and my mother were flanking me.
Errol Flynn came up to me. Somebody said, “This is Dean Stockwell.” Of course, he’s bigger than me, and with this gleam in his eye, he looked down at me. He stuck out his hand and said, “Hi. Have you had your first fuck yet?”
There was a moment, it lasted an eternity, where both my mother and the teacher were going “Brrrr,” like pigeons with a gnat up their ass, blushing and doing everything but bleeding on either side of me. Flynn is still staring at me, waiting for me to answer him, but I didn’t know what the word meant. I’m just looking at this guy, thinking, I finally found a friend, a father.
Obviously, he knew I hadn’t had my first fuck yet, or he figured that out right after he asked me. Still, he gave me one of the special lapel buttons he’d had made. It had beautiful hand-carved wings. In the center were three F’s, interlocked. It was “Flynn’s Flying Fucker” club, and the part that went into your lapel had a huge erect cock and balls to hold it in. I had it hidden in my top drawer for four years. My mother finally found it. She didn’t tell me until two years after she threw it out.
“There were uglies and there were beauties. For me, Errol Flynn was the best… He was the ultimate father figure for me.”