The Time John Huston Threw Down with Errol Flynn
The fistfight was such a sensation that some papers pushed news of Mussolini’s death back to page two.
Errol Flynn playing a boxer in Gentleman Jim
It was April 29, 1945. Allied troops were invading Germany, Benito Mussolini had just been assassinated, and in Los Angeles, the Tinseltown elite were partying at David O. Selznick's house. The producer of Oscar-winning films like Gone with the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940), Selznick was one of the biggest players in Hollywood. So if you were invited to his home, you showed up dressed to the nines.
According to newspapers of the day, Selznick's party was quite the affair, "attended by scores of the famous and near famous." It was a Who's Who of Hollywood, a menagerie of beautiful bodies and oversized egos, and it would all end with a spectacularly bloody fistfight. The combatants were two of the biggest names in cinematic history, but they had more in common than just their career choices. Both were obsessed with the same A-list actress, and both were well known for their pugilistic prowess.
In the blue corner was John Huston, the hard-drinking director behind classics like The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1951). But in 1945, Huston was still an up-and-comer with just three features to his name. He'd made a splash with his debut film, The Maltese Falcon (1941). However, his Hollywood career was interrupted when he signed up to fight the Nazis.
As a member of the Army Signal Corps, Huston made propaganda films for the US government. But in 1945, he was in between assignments and back in California. Only he wasn't particularly happy to be home. According to historian Mark Harris, Huston was disappointed with his latest documentary, The Battle of San Pietro (1945), and longed to return to civilian life. He was also in the middle of divorcing his second wife, Lesley Black, and he wasn't in the mood to chitchat with movie stars. As Huston explained in his autobiography, "Having just returned from working with authentic heroes, I was in no mood to put up with the screen variety."
In other words, Major Huston was possibly the worst person to invite to a swinging party, other than perhaps his Australian-born opponent.
In the red corner was Errol Flynn, the swashbuckling star of Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Flynn was one of Hollywood's biggest box-office draws, but when the war rolled around, the actor was turned down from military service after failing his physical. Despite his silver screen image of invincible masculinity, Flynn's body had been ravaged by a whole host of health issues, including malaria, tuberculosis, and countless STDs.
Instead of heading overseas, Flynn played soldiers in films like Dive Bomber (1941) and Objective, Burma! (1945). But while he was a hero onscreen, Flynn was gaining plenty of notoriety in real life. In 1942, the Australian heartthrob was accused of raping two underage girls, though he made it through the legal system largely unscathed. That same year, he celebrated his birthday by nearly beating a butler to death. And the year before, Flynn had slapped a gossip columnist across the face. It didn't help matters that the actor was struggling with alcoholism.
Basically, Errol Flynn loved looking for trouble, so when he saw Huston at Selznick's party, he decided it might be fun to pick a fight. And then, of course, there was the whole messy love triangle.
While Huston and Flynn had never met, they were separated by one degree of Olivia de Havilland. One of Warner Brothers' biggest stars, de Havilland had scored an Oscar nomination for her role in Gone with the Wind, but her biggest claim to fame was her relationship with Errol Flynn. The two starred in eight films together and were widely considered one of cinema's greatest onscreen couples. Moviegoers have long suspected Flynn and de Havilland were an off-screen item, but the actress denied ever "consummating" a relationship.
"Chemistry was there though," de Havilland later said. "It was there."
Perhaps Flynn honed in on Huston because the director had gotten a lot further with the leading lady. The two had met on the set of Huston's second film, In This Our Life (1942) and were instantly smitten with each other. But when it came to women (and booze, adventure, and everything else for that matter), Huston was a man of large appetites. He was working through his second marriage when he met de Havilland, and he kept himself busy with numerous affairs. And while she later claimed Huston was possibly the love of her life, Olivia got tired of John's womanizing ways and dumped the director for an Army airman.
But Huston never stopped thinking about de Havilland, and she'd gotten under Flynn's skin too. So when the movie star saw the major heading his way, he said something about Olivia that didn't pass for pleasantries. There's debate over what Flynn actually said, but whatever came out of his mouth, it didn't sit well with the director. Infuriated, Huston fired back, saying, "That's a lie, and even if it weren't a lie, only a son of a bitch would repeat it." The prey had taken the bait, and Flynn asked if Huston wanted "to make anything out of it."
The director was only too happy to oblige.
Drunk, angry, and ready to fight, the two made their way to Selznick's garden. Soon fists were flying and bones were breaking, but these guys weren't goons blindly throwing haymakers. Both Flynn and Huston had quite a bit of boxing experience, dating back to their teenage years.
As a kid who stood nearly six feet tall, Huston had become the lightweight champion of his high school before dropping out at fifteen. Trading biology and chemistry for the sweet science, Huston slugged his way up and down California, often fighting under fake names and weights. By the time a broken nose ended his career, Huston had earned a record of 23-2 and the title of Amateur Lightweight Boxing Champion.
Despite an unsuccessful comeback a few years later (where he once again broke his nose), Huston never lost his love for the sport. In addition to writing two short stories about boxers, he would later direct a pugilistic picture called Fat City (1972). Starring Jeff Bridges and Stacy Keach, the movie was shot in Stockton, California, where Huston had competed as a kid.
As for Flynn, he was allegedly quite the brawler at his Sydney grammar school. "I was bigger than most," the actor wrote in his autobiography. "I was an athlete, quite good at tennis, swimming, boxing, and ready to fight if picked on."
In 1927, Flynn entered the world of amateur boxing, duking it out with heavyweights and earning praise for his "elusiveness" and straight left. According to biographer Thomas McNulty, Flynn was infamous for his "deceptive dance." As he circled around his rival, Flynn would quickly look down at his feet. His opponent would instinctively follow his glance, and that's when the actor would send his foe tumbling to the mat.
When Flynn finally went to work for Warner Bros., he was placed under the tutelage of Mushy Callahan. A former Junior Welterweight Champion, Callahan taught boxing to some of the biggest stars in the business, including Frank Sinatra, Paul Newman, and Elvis Presley. And when Flynn was cast as the legendary Jim Corbett in Gentleman Jim (1942), Mushy was the man who helped Errol improve his game.
Callahan was actually quite impressed with Flynn's talents and claimed, "Next to [James] Cagney, Errol Flynn is the best fighter on the Warner lot...He can take punishment and isn't afraid to wade in." In fact, according to The Sydney Morning Herald, Flynn was such a natural boxer that the Warner Bros. publicity team cooked up a crazy story claiming he'd competed for Great Britain in the 1928 Olympics and had "whaled the stuffing out of assorted lads of various nationalities."
However, Flynn wasn't in great shape during Gentleman Jim. Due to his wild lifestyle and various health issues, Flynn had trouble breathing during the boxing scenes and even suffered a mild heart attack. So when he squared off against Huston, Flynn wasn't in peak condition, although he did have twenty-five pounds on the director. Plus, Flynn was a lot soberer than his lanky opponent. The odds were in the actor's favor, but at the very least, Huston was fueled by righteous fury.
Not that it did him a lot of good.
After the two removed their coats, Flynn sent the director sprawling onto Selznick's gravel drive. Huston landed hard on his elbows, but instead of calling it quits, he hopped back to his feet...only to end on up on the ground again seconds later. Huston went down at least ten times during their hour-long slugfest, and all that damage took a toll on the director's arms. Over the next few years, Huston would pull several bone fragments out of his right elbow, but right then, at David O. Selznick's house, his head was clearing and his blood was boiling.
"Have you had enough, John?" Flynn asked, standing over the director. "Do you want to quit?"
"What's the matter, Errol?" Huston responded. "Are you yellow?"
Although he was taking a beating, Huston was impressed with Flynn's fight etiquette. Whenever Huston hit the ground, Flynn backed off, allowing him to stand back up. "The fight was conducted strictly according to Queensberry, for which I take my hat off to Errol Flynn," the director later wrote. "Neither of us committed any fouls, and there was nothing we could complain about afterward."
Only that wasn't exactly true, as Errol was wearing a ring throughout the entire fight. Flynn used his jewelry to great effect, smashing Huston's lip and leaving a gash over his eye. The director was becoming a bloody mess, but as the battle wore on, Huston began finding his mark. Using his long limbs, he pounded away at the actor's midsection, breaking two of Flynn's ribs. In response, Errol reared back and shattered Huston's nose.
Changing tactics, Flynn tried a few wrestling moves, hoping to use his weight to his advantage. Knowing he didn't have a chance against the bigger man, Huston did his best to break free from the clinches and keep the actor on the outside. And as the two went at it, they were drawing a star-studded crowd. The biggest names in Hollywood were stepping outside to watch Huston and Flynn spill blood all over David O. Selznick's garden.
Understandably, Selznick wasn't too happy when he saw the tussle going on in his yard. Assuming Flynn was the instigator, the producer ripped into Robin Hood, even challenging Errol to a fight right then and there. But the actor was bruised and battered, with a massive black eye and a couple of busted ribs. Huston and his bloody face weren't faring any better, and the two men ended up in separate hospitals, hoping to avoid unwanted publicity.
Of course, reporters quickly caught wind of the showdown. According to film historian Karina Longworth, the fistfight was such a sensation that some papers pushed news of Mussolini's death back to page two. When asked about the incident, Major Huston initially denied the fight ever took place—he was a military man, after all—but it was hard to ignore his stitched-up face.
But despite the heated words and broken bones, the men couldn't hold a grudge for long. The morning after the fight, Flynn phoned his foe to check on his condition. During their brief conversation, Huston said he greatly enjoyed the fight and was looking forward to the rematch. John's father, character actor Walter Huston, even proposed holding part two at the Hollywood Bowl and selling tickets for charity.
Unfortunately for fight fans, Flynn vs. Huston II never happened. To the contrary, the men developed something of a friendship. A year before his death, Flynn starred in Huston's African adventure film, The Roots of Heaven (1958), and when they weren't shooting scenes, they were out in the brush, hunting for game. Instead of trading punches, they were sharing booze and swapping stories. It seems after that hour-long war, Huston and Flynn had come out smiling through blood-stained teeth. They'd tested each other's courage and found common ground by battering each other into oblivion.
That, or maybe they'd just agreed not to mention Olivia de Havilland anymore.