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Final Reel: Two Hollywood Legends Who Bowed Out with Bombs

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A great film career doesn’t always end with a great film. We remember Orson Welles for Citizen Kane (1941) and not Transformers: The Movie (1985) and Gene Kelly’s legacy encompasses more than Xanadu (1980) being the film that gave John J B Wilson the idea for The Golden Raspberry Awards. If you’re can’t leave on a high then, as the old saying goes, you can always leave them laughing, as these two Hollywood legends discovered.

Errol Flynn - Cuban Rebel Girls (1959)

Errol Flynn
Errol Flynn, the epitome of the hard-living Hollywood hellraiser during the Depression, found himself in poor shape by the 1950s, a bloated alcoholic racked with health problems caused by his playboy lifestyle. No longer able to perform in the swashbuckling films through which he’d found fame, Flynn took more sedate ‘character’ roles which he disliked, but had little choice as a bloated alcoholic with chronic back pain who looked older than a man in his mid-forties. Flynn had also embarked on a relationship with an underage teenage starlet, Beverly Aadland. Quite when Flynn and Aadland became romantically involved is uncertain, but in late 1958, aged 49 and 16, took a vacation together to Cuba, the island-sized personal nightclub of resident dictator General Fulgencio Batista, with the Cubans not so much missing from the guest list as guests on the ‘missing’ list. 

With the Cubans about to indulge in some regime change Flynn, who despite his ailments still considered himself a man of action, got in touch with rebel leader Fidel Castro. Once assured the full-figured gentleman with the suspiciously clingy teenage ‘friend’ was no less than Don Juan himself, Castro allowed Flynn to film his troops for a propaganda film which became Cuban Rebel Girls. In the ad-hoc screenplay, Aadland plays a bored Florida Keys hairdresser who helps a pal smuggle arms into Cuba. Billed as Flynn’s protégé, the best we can say about Aadland, who resembles Buddy from Charles in Charge crossed with a spoilt poodle, is she delivers her lines at such a pitch as to distinguish her from the rest of the cast, all non-professional actors who coagulate into one big buttery 1950s mush.  

Flynn plays ‘Errol Flynn, war journalist’ and also narrates the film, linking scenes of himself as Flynn arriving at the airport, taking a taxi, enjoying a manicure, talking to people, and then, ah, leaving a different airport. Later, in this shabbily put together film, we see canefields set alight, much running back and forth between sugar mills, and in one particularly thrilling scene, a jeep turning around, but not much of our hero. Aadland and Flynn share only two scenes, one in which Flynn helps a Aadland ride a donkey, and later where Flynn, one-time Captain Blood and General Custer, is treated by Aadland for a small cut to the knee.

The film concludes with remarkable footage of Castro’s troops arriving in liberated Havana, with Aadland hitching a ride atop a tank. Flynn, from his hotel room, addresses the camera to wish future freedom fighters good luck in deposing other CIA-backed military juntas up and down the Americas. With that, Flynn packs away his pomade, antibiotics and support girdle, and wraps up his film career, not living long enough to see Cuban Rebel Girls’ cinematic release on Christmas Day 1959, dying on October 9th of an embolism at the age of 50. Director Barry Mahon went on to helm many beloved bad film classics, such as Rocket Attack USA (1961) and Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1970), while Fidel Castro is kind of alive, if not very well, and living in Havana, hoping the CIA would hurry up their assassination plot and enable him to forget about the awful film he worked on as location manager. Whether Flynn knew of Castro’s intentions on taking control of Cuba is debatable, but one can image how the hero of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and films like it would sympathise with the people’s fight against a dictator.

Veronica Lake - Flesh Feast (1970)

Veronica Lake
It’s one of Hollywood’s oldest stories - glamorous wartime starlet becomes a maggot-rearing Nazi scientist; the sultry sex kitten turns into an alcoholic crazy cat lady. A star during World War Two while in her early twenties through hits such as I Wanted Wings (1941) and So Proudly We Hail (1943), Veronica Lake’s fame led to her much-imitated ‘peek-a-boo’ hairstyle being banned in American munitions factories for fear of women’s drooping fringes getting caught up in the machinery. As with Errol Flynn however, Lake fell from favour with film studios, thanks to a run of flop films and a reputation for being difficult. In 1952, Lake filed for bankruptcy, along with the second of her eventual four husbands. There followed spells of mental illness and alcohol abuse, with intermittent stage and TV work.

1967 saw Lake living in Miami, working as a waitress. Lake’s Bulgarian flatmate and fellow actress Yanka Mann (with whom Lake shared twenty-nine cats) befriended two men who ran an industrial film unit in the city and so began work on Lake’s comeback, funded by proceeds from her autobiography. Unreleased until 1970, Flesh Feast is a wretched piece of work, recorded on film stock apparently rejected from the early testing of Technicolor and left to marinade in milky tea for thirty years, with editing achieved by one of Lake’s cats clamping its teeth into the film and biting.

Lake plays German scientist Dr Elaine Frederick, the brains behind a new rejuvenation treatment. With fish pedicures still some years off, Dr Frederick’s technique is more Frankenstein’s laboratory than laboratoire garnier and involves trained maggots eating away old, dead skin, leaving the patient looking fresh and young, if somewhat grossed out. This attracts the custom of a band of Hispanic Nazis, who need the treatment for their mysterious ‘Commander’, spoken of in hushed tones by our tanned fascists, a man who rants about establishing a new world which will last a thousand – yes, it’s Hitler, well done for spotting the twist ending in this and a hundred other dismal horror films.

Unhappily for the Fuhrer, Dr Frederick’s mother died as a living guinea-pig in evil Nazi experiments (were there ever a good sort of Nazi experiment?) during the war. Adolf, quite the sneak, blames Eichmann and Goebbels for the past unpleasantness, but Dr Frederick will have none of it, scattering maggots over Adolf’s face like so many sprinkles. Judging by the way Lake scowls and screeches in this final scene, Lake modelled her performance on a particularly grumpy Siamese. A shambolic piece of hack work, Flesh Feast finished off Lake’s film career for good, although she received acclaim for her stage performances, especially in a 1969 English production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Returning to the US in 1973, the glamour girl of Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and The Blue Dahlia (1946) died of cirrhosis of the liver, also aged 50. 

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