Thursday, March 18, 2010

Into the West: Errol and Cuddles Tame a Town "full of men who look as if they'd step on baby chickens"

Errol Flynn was on the downside of his movie career when Warner Bros. put him back in the saddle again for 1945’s San Antonio. There was a time when scriptwriters tried to explain Flynn’s accent when he was cast in a Western. In Dodge City, he played an Irish soldier of fortune who journeyed to the American West. By 1945, though, he had already starred in four previous Westerns, so no explanation was required. It’s really a nod to Flynn’s versatility and charisma that he could attract audiences in swashbucklers, war films, Westerns, comedies, and even the occasional serious fare (e.g., That Forsyte Woman).

San Antonio is a mid-tier Warner Bros. effort that benefits from a solid cast, sturdy production values, and a splash of Technicolor. Still, it’s obvious that it was never intended to be a blockbuster Western in the mold of the studio’s earlier Dodge City and They Died With Their Boots On. In fact, the main theme is the same one composed by Max Steiner for Dodge. The screenplay, penned by Alan LeMay and W.R. Burnett, lacks originality and can’t supporting the film’s running time of 111 minutes.

Set in 1877, San Antonio opens with Charley Bates (John Litel) tracking his good friend, Clay Hardin (Flynn) to Mexico. Hardin left Texas after a gang of baddies burned his ranch, stole his cattle, shot him, and left him for dead. Rather than wallow in his misfortune, Hardin has sought out a tally book that links wealthy Roy Stuart (Paul Kelly) to the large-scale cattle rustling scheme. He returns to San Antonio to expose Stuart. Along the way, he meets a singer (Alexis Smith) and her entourage (Florence Bates and S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall).

Admittedly, there are some bright spots in San Antonio. Alexis gets to warble the Oscar-nominated “Some Sunday Morning” in a saloon musical number. Part of the climatic gunfight takes place at night, in the shadows of the Alamo (the film was shot at Warners’ Calabasas Ranch near Burbank). Indeed, the interior sets, which also earned an Oscar nomination, pop out in vibrant color. It’s interesting, too, to have two villains (Kelly and Victor Francen) who try to get the goods on each other while keeping an eye on Flynn.

However, the film’s overall entertainment value hinges on its cast and they prove most capable. Errol and Alexis don’t generate a lot of sparks, but they exhibit a natural rapport which probably accounts for why they were paired so often (their best film being Gentleman Jim). Cuddles Sakall and Florence Bates are in top form in supporting roles played mostly for laughs. In a stagecoach scene with Alex and Errol, they have the following exchange when Florence—anxious to get Alexis married—inquires about the marital status of Errol’s character.

Cuddles (to Florence): “You were very rude. He wouldn’t marry you anyway.”

Florence: “I wasn’t asking for myself.”

Cuddles: “Don’t ask him for me either.”

It’s the kind of silly exchange that only Cuddles Sakall could make genuinely funny with his unique way of delivering dialogue. He and Errol teamed again for the following year’s entertaining comedy Never Say Goodbye with Eleanor Parker.

After San Antonio, Errol Flynn made three more Westerns. Montana reteamed him with Alexis Smith and Cuddles Sakall, but was a low-key affair. His leading lady in Rocky Mountain, Patrice Wymore, became his third and final wife. The most interesting of the trio was Silver River, which provided Errol with a juicy role as an unlikable silver mine owner in an offbeat variation of David and Bathsheba.

(Both Cuddles and Florence Bates have been profiled as Underrated Performers of the Week at the Cafe. Click on their underlined names to read the tributes to them.)


  1. Rick: I kinda like this one too, while recognizing its limitations. For me, it seemed to Warner's answer to the very popular "B” westerns Roy Rogers was churning out at Republic Studios. Like a Roy Rogers western, most of the action in "San Antonio" takes place at the end while the beginning is loaded with musical numbers and comedy.

    I think the stress on music and comedy was the reason the film was assigned to director David Butler, rather than, say, a Raoul Walsh. He specialized in musicals and comedies at Warner Bros. No doubt that background gave him the assignment.

  2. Kevin, I think you're right on target with your comment about David Butler. Never thought of SAN ANTONIO as a Republic-type Western, but I can see the similarity (though the bigger budget gives Errol's film a nicer look).

  3. RICK, I have not seen this movie, but.. the handsome and debonair Errol Flynn, can not do anything wrong in my book. ;)

  4. Rick, this was a well written and fun review and I loved the photo of Errol entering the door with his gun drawn! Kevin, your observation about the directorial assignment made very good sense. Dawn, I enjoyed your description of Mr. Flynn as being both handsome and debonair!

  5. Warners never wasted the expensive Technicolor (actually their own system Warnercolor) on a B movie. Flynn was still at the top of their roster, and just look at the costumes! Please stop labeling this movie a "lesser" entry.