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14 March 2016

An Oscar-worthy Performance by Errol Flynn

Janet Leigh, Robert Young, Errol Flynn, Greer Garson

MGM's That Forsyte Woman was an ambitious project, seeking to somehow condense about four long novels into the length of one standard movie -- in 1949, no one had thought of ultralong blockbusters like Dances With Wolves. The part of the story Hollywood chose to include is basically a love -- well, not a triangle, a pentangle! -- a love situation between Soames Forsyte, a very successful businessman and art collector, the beautiful and unconventional woman he loves and is set on marrying, Irene (Greer Garson), his black-sheep artist cousin, Jolyon Forsyte (Walter Pidgeon); a young and talented architect, Philip Bosinney (Robert Young), and Jolyon's daughter, June (Janet Leigh), who was brought up by her grandfather after he was banished to France in disgrace.
Tea on the set
Having read all the original books and seen two much lengthier British productions, I have to say that Errol Flynn's performance as the "man of property," Soames Forsyte, cold-blooded and hard on the outside, but burning with unacknowledged pain and bitterness inside, is by far the best. In Flynn's hands Soames' hauteur and disdain are clearly the flip side of an inner desolation he will fiercely deny even to himself. He is always ready with an acerbic, denigrating remark.
I'm sure he was familiar with the original books. Flynn was an auto-didact. He escaped higher education (well, he was expelled, but he didn't really mind at that point) and made for a life of adventure at the age of sixteen. A few years later, however, he had some regrets, and wrote his professor father (with whom he always remained close) a lively and charming letter describing his course of self education (*see note at the end). He was a very bright guy, and one thing he dedicated himself to was reading -- and he read every classic play and every classic novel in the British canon, Dickens, the Brontes, George Eliot, Trollope -- I'm sure he wouldn't have neglected Galsworthy.
Irene and Soames
When he decided to become an actor, he actually applied himself to working at it; it's a little-known fact that he spent a few months with an English repertory company. An extremely quick study, as always, he learned how to think about the characters he played, and to communicate to the audience how they felt. He understood what an actor is supposed to do. Obviously, he still needed experience -- but not much. Soon he hit Hollywood, and was chosen as the lead in the big-budget adventure Captain Blood after playing minor parts in just five films. (I'll bet Jack Warner was thrilled when he saw that screen test!) The Warner brothers took a tremendous chance on him, and it paid off big-time.
Although he is remembered as the ultimate swashbuckler (because let's face it,  he was a swashbuckler!), he actually made a strong effort to play a variety of roles in a variety of types of film, from westerns to mysteries to some of the best war films Hollywood turned out. Despite his efforts, by the time MGM decided to produce John Galsworthy's saga, or at least a fraction of it, Errol Flynn was still thought of as an action hero, and he had to work to get the part.
Irene and Soames
I find his Soames completely convincing (and I read the books first!). Despite his deep love of art and beauty, Soames thinks of himself as a shrewd and practical man of business, completely lacking in sentimentality. But he has really fallen in love with Irene, the lovely but poor daughter of a noted scholar whose interests are artistic rather than mercenary; he knows she doesn't love him, but makes his proposal of marriage sound like a business proposition. She agrees out of loneliness and fear for her future. They live together with an uneasy formality; Soames is unable to discuss anything without judging its value in money, which Irene finds increasingly distasteful. After two years, disaster strikes; their young cousin June introduces them to Philip Bosinney, a progressive architect, and he and Irene fall disastrously in love.
Soames reacts with rage and pain, and Irene flees the house, ending up at Bosinney's studio, where she finds Jolyon, the artist, whom she has met before and found a sympathetic friend. But, shockingly, Bosinney is killed in an accident on the way to see Soames; Soames and Jolyon witness this event. Both Irene and June are devastated by this. Irene flees to France, with Jolyon's help, and refuses to see Soames again.
Garson looked gorgeous in the period costumes
Soames cannot blame himself, or admit that he was wrong to marry a woman who didn't love him. He always has an inner conversation going on, beneath the surface of his arrogance, but it's largely to convince himself; whenever he's confronted with something he can't understand, or have, like disinterested love, or beauty for its own sake, he always dismisses it as unreal or unimportant. He finds the idea that anyone could suspect him of unrequited feeling, or of any sense of need or loss, simply unbearable. Flynn's Soames is like that; you can see him moving to protect himself always. And you only need that kind of protection if there's some wound inside.
In the books, of course, the story goes on to another generation, and Soames does indeed find somebody to love unconditionally -- his daughter by a later marriage. But this film ends with the end of his relationship with Irene, when they meet by chance in a Parisian art gallery, and he walks off alone, stiff, proud, and still slightly resentful.
Soames alone at the end
Errol Flynn got some excellent reviews for his performance (although the New York Times' Bosley Crowther hated the whole film, having obviously been a big fan of the books), but he deserved more appreciation than he got. Than he ever got, really. Despite his truly swashbuckling lifestyle, he worked hard at his art (yes, art): even in his last years, when he was ill and in pain, he never walked through a part -- he was always wholly there, with intelligence and concentration. When Bette Davis, long after his death, took another look at the actor she had once dismissed as another pretty face, and told her friend, Olivia de Havilland, "Damn, he was good!" she was absolutely right.

*NOTE: Many of Errol Flynn's letters to his father, Professor T.T. Flynn, are quoted in the wonderful biography Errol Flynn: The Life and Career, by Thomas McNulty, which I cannot recommend too highly. It is available as an ebook for google books and kindle. Prof. Flynn was and is a highly regarded scientist and innovator, whose studies of what we now call the ecology of Australia and Tasmania were groundbreaking.

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