Errol Flynn is probably known for his swashbucklers, for his westerns and for his war films. But he isn’t known for his comedies, despite some quite funny turns in some of his adventure films. After watching “The Perfect Specimen” (1937) and “Four’s a Crowd” (1938), both directed by Michael Curtiz, I think that is unfair.
I really can’t think of any actor other than Errol Flynn who could, with a straight face, carry a film with such a title as “The Perfect Specimen”. This applies to both actors from today and yesterday. It is such a ridiculous title that the lead would probably be crash underneath it. Yet Flynn succeeds. He is perfectly credible as physical perfection, and his charm is enough to carry us and entice us with his naivety as he does to Joan Blondell.
Somewhere between a screwball and a romantic comedy, the hero is the heir of a great fortune being groomed by his eccentric grandmother to become “the perfect specimen”, a role model to all his future employees. That is until Joan Blondell comes along, all energy and sexual assurance, and like a knight in shining armour barges in, (literally) destroys the prison and rescues the princess. Only the gender roles are inverted here. Blondell takes control and shows Flynn the world that he has been missing.
Despite being funny, and very often very funny, something disappoints slightly. It just misses being a classic comedy, and because of the near miss it is a bit frustrating. There were some reasons for this. Edward Everett Horton is rather boring, making a pantomime of the pantomime that is his screen persona (the silly, asexual and absent-minded middle aged man, who just possibly is a sissy – and he usually does it well), and May Robson, as the grandmother has a thankless part, which is so obviously built for the laughs that isn’t funny. Plus something else that I will mention below. On the plus side, there is one of the funniest character actors ever (Allen Jenkins) as the truck-driver boxer that Flynn knocks down. There is also great chemistry from both leads. So it is hard not to recommend it.
“Four’s a Crowd” is a love square. It’s also a weaker film. It’s still funny, just not as much as it could/should be. To start Olivia de Havilland, who I think is a wonderful actress has a thankless part of the irritating girl, obviously the second female lead. Her leading man, Patrick Knowles looks pretty and sulky and indecisive. The real joy is watching Rosalind Russell (in a near dress rehearsal for “His Girl Friday”) and Errol Flynn fight and play each other and the other two to get what they want. Flynn is a delight when he plays the unscrupulous cad (again, think of Cary Grant in “His Girl Friday”) but becomes far less interesting when he gains a heart. Russell has her best performance of the 1930s among those I have seen, more interesting that the respectable and dull second fiddle of some of her MGM fare (“China Seas” comes to mind).
But there are two things (other than Flynn) that both films have in common. One is the annoying presence of Hugh Herbert who plays the poet in “The Perfect Specimen” and the justice of peace in “Four’s a Crowd”. If you ever seen a Daffy Duck cartoon from when he was a crazy duck, that’s pretty much the nonsensical material you have here. You may like it, I don’t. It tainted my enjoyment of both films to not a small degree. The second thing is Curtiz, the man for all jobs at Warner during the 1930s and 1940s. Despite having done films in nearly every genre, there are some stylist traits of his that are present in nearly all his films – camera angles and contrasting lighting with shadows and lights. None of it exists here. Is it because they are comedies? Because they are routine jobs and he didn’t have much interest in the material? I don’t know – but as one of my favourite studio directors I was hoping for more of him here.