10 September 2018

Errol Flynn's letter from the set of "Virginia City"

Meant as a follow-up to the successful Dodge City (1939), Virginia City (1940) began production late October 1939. Cast and crew members (including director Michael Curtiz, Errol Flynn, Randolph Scott, Humphrey Bogart and Miriam Hopkins) all went to Flagstaff, Arizona for six weeks of location shooting. John Hilder, a journalist for Hollywood Magazine, accompanied the cast to the location and later reported that "tempers flared, and feuds raged. For one eventful weekend it appeared that the cast was about to choose sides—the blues and the grays—and re-fight the Civil War with bare hands, rocks or practical bullets." According to columnist Sidney Skolsky there were several feuds going on at the same time. "Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart are feuding," he said, "Flynn and Miriam Hopkins are feuding, and Mike Curtiz and Miriam Hopkins are feuding." 

In between the feuding, Errol Flynn was lucky enough to have a Sunday off while everybody else had to work. Enjoying his free time, Flynn wrote the following, interesting letter to a journalist friend (Ward Marsh at the Cleveland Plain Dealer) talking about life on the set, their daily program and the Navajo Indians on whose territory they were filming.

Source: reel art


November 19, 1939

Mr. W. Ward Marsh
The Plain Dealer
Cleveland, Ohio

Dear Mr. Marsh:

Sunday, a day of rest for most of the country, but not for the majority of us up here in Northern Arizona on location with Warner Bros.' "Virginia City" troupe. Location companies, you know, work Sundays and holidays. I'm more fortunate than Miriam Hopkins, Humphrey Bogart, Randolph Scott, Alan Hale, Frank McHugh, Big Boy Williams, Moroni Olsen, John Litel, Director Mike Curtiz and the rest of the troupe, for I got the day off. They didn't.

This letter is a sort of penance for the privilege of getting a holiday.  I thought I'd make good use of the time by writing an account of what has been happening to us in this little town whose population is numerically less than one half its 6900 feet altitude.

We've been here for three weeks and it will probably be another fortnight before our work is completed. The company of two hundred undoubtedly is spread out over more landscape than any other location company ever has been. "Hoppy"-- that's our pet name for Miriam Hopkins -- Randy Scott and "Bogey" -- that's Humphrey Bogart -- are living fifty five miles from the Flagstaff headquarters, at the Indian trading post of Cameron, which hangs on the canyon wall over the Little Colorado. It's in the heart of the Navajo country and a few mud hogans, looking like huge upside-down salad bowls squad right under their windows.

When the company is at work on the reservation, the Navajos appear shortly before lunch. They arrive on horseback, in trucks and afoot, but the squaws and the children always are afoot. They come to get the leftovers of the company's lunch. On the first day in the desert only a few Indians arrived. Shy, they remained at a distance and the lunches were carried to them by members of the cast and crew. Sandwiches were eaten without removing the paper wrappings. None knew how to open the bottles of milk, until one clever buck thrust his thumb through the top and received a milk shower bath. None of the Navajos admit they understand English until a camera is pointed at them. Then they demand "twenty-five cents".

Things happen once in a while that are not on the production schedule. Like two days ago when, returning to the trading post after a hard day in the saddle in front of the cameras, Randy and I found a disabled car on Highway 89 and discovered in it, of all things, seven of Billy Rose's Aquacade nymphs on the way to the coast. The girls had a flat tire, and we took it off and put on the spare, but did the diving girls proceed to the coast? They did not. They're still here, to see how movies are made.

Miriam voiced weariness of the seclusion forced upon her in the little hotel last night, so a group of the boys took her on a tour of the Mexican settlement here. It was a strange crowd, electricians, wardrobe girls and Miss Hopkins. In a little Mexican cafe she chose to have her dinner, and while the hot food was being prepared, she dropped nickels in the music box and lent a hand in the cooking in the kitchen.

Many Flagstaff children will appear in the picture. For their protection, Warner Brothers sent Lois Horn, teacher and welfare worker, on the location expedition. To hire the children, Miss Horn first goes to the grade school principal to inquire about the most needy families of Flagstaff. He selects the children from the classrooms, but only one child from each family. The children are tested, Director Michael Curtiz selects those he wants, and then Miss Horn confers with their teachers about their studies. On location Miss Horn continues to coach the children in their lessons, a studio bus serving as the classroom.

Navajo Indians and squaws used in the picture receive $7.40 a day, the most money they have ever earned. Papooses are paid $5.20 a day. One Navajo, his squaw, two children, papoose, wagon, horses and sheep were used for one day. At the end of the day he had ninety-six dollars coming to him and he demanded it in silver dollars. The ninety-six silver dollars were given to him and he tucked them in his pockets, shirt, pants and hat and waddled toward his horse to return to his mud hogan. But he was so weighted down with silver he could not get aboard his pony. Rather than exchange the silver for paper money, he was boosted to the top of a boulder, the horse was led alongside, and he was oozed into his saddle. Silver, squaw, papooses, horses and sheep and all, he jogged into the sunset of the Painted Desert.

Locations are not always the pleasant, romantic things they sound like. If you think this one is all beer and skittles, just listen to the program we all must follow:

We are routed out of bed at 5 A.M., bolt down breakfasts at 5:30 A.M., shiver in the cold, dark morn, and roll away in the buses at 6 A.M. Rolling equipment that moves the company includes 12 limousines, 6 thirty-five passenger buses, 3 ten-ton trucks, 17 eight-ton trucks, 2 sound units, 2 station wagons, 2 camera cars and 1 larger generator truck. The cost of keeping the company on location averages $15,000.00 daily. The weekly meal ticket is $4,000.00. Location sites change daily. Within a radius of sixty miles, scenes typical of Kansas, Colorado, Nevada and Arizona have been filmed. One day we are at Schnebley [sic] Hill, looking deep down into the depths of glorious Oak Creek Canyon, resembling Colorado. The next we are ninety miles away at Round Hills, starving in a wagon train as it staggers through a Nevada sand storm (produced in Arizona by Hollywood wind machines).

Ordinarily we stay on the job until sunset, which is about 5:30 P.M. By the time we get back to our respective places of lodging it's 7 or 7:30 P.M. A shower before dinner gets us to the hotel dining room or one of the town's three cafes about 8 P.M. And most of us are ready to turn at 9 or 9:30, with that 5 o'clock call staring us in the face next morning.

To house the invasion from Hollywood, three hotels and five auto camps are filled with actors, actresses, cameramen, stunt men and women, cowboys, grips, electricians, property men, wardrobe experts, makeup artists, truck drivers and stand-ins. And fifty-five miles away, up at Cameron is an overflow of twenty-five or thirty members of the company.

Most of us are traveling between fifty and one hundred and twenty miles each day going to and from the various location sites. All in all, it's quite a grind.

But don't misunderstand me. In spite of the long hours, the hard work and the endless traveling back and forth we've all enjoyed it. The magnificent scenery - the Painted Desert, the Grand Canyon -  in itself would be more than worth the trip.

So, trite though it may sound, I really mean it when I say we're having an exciting time and we wish you could be here.

Best wishes.


Errol Flynn


Some people believe that the letter was not written by Flynn himself but by Warner Bros.' Publicity Department (read here). However, Flynn biographer Thomas McNulty, author of Errol Flynn: The Life and Career (2004), didn't seem to question the letter's authenticity. He included excerpts from the letter in his book, saying it revealed Flynn's "anecdotal talent"

Above: Randolph Scott, Errol Flynn and Miriam Hopkins in a scene from Virginia City. Below: Flynn with Guinn "Big Boy" Williams and Humphrey Bogart, the latter clearly miscast as a Mexican bandit.

1 comment:

  1. McNulty was able to see and quote from many of Flynn's unpublished letters so I believe he was able to recognize his style. Flynn was a very bright guy, and he wrote a lot, so I don't see any reason to think he could not have written this.