James Cagney as Robin Hood!

Above is an extremely rare, undated picture of the Hollywood movie star James Cagney taken at an Archery Competition, staged to promote what would later become the movie, The Adventures of Robin Hood, released in1938. Incredibly it was James Cagney who was considered for the role of Robin Hood before Errol Flynn!

Also in the picture, awarding the winner, is Basil Rathbone (later Sir Guy of Gisborne) and the famous archer Howard Hill, who became Errol Flynn’s instructor on the use of the longbow. Hill also made all of the stunt body shots, the splitting of the arrow shot at the Archery Tournament, and he played the Captain of the Archers in the movie. This photo was one of several photos given by Howard Hill to his niece, Lorain Hill.

So why did James Cagney get chosen to play Robin Hood by Warner Brothers?

In Hollywood during the mid 1930’s, the ‘Motion Picture Production Code of Ethics’ was being enforced a lot stronger than before. Like many film studios of that time, Warner Brothers had to improve their image and output. So they decided to expand their horizons and move away from the steady stream of violent gangster movies that they had become renown for, and explore more prestigious areas.

Warner Brothers decided upon producing Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ using their stock company of actors and actresses, which included Olivia de Havilland, Ian Hunter, Anita Louise and James Cagney.

Dwight Franklin (1888-1971) at the time was Warmer’s historical advisor and costume designer on ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ It was he who sent a memo to Jack Warner suggesting making a movie about Robin Hood, with James Cagney as the outlaw, Anita Louise as Maid Marian and Hugh Herbert as Friar Tuck. He also had the idea of using the usual Warner Brothers ‘gangster cronies,’ Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins, Hugh Herbert and Ross Alexander as the ‘Merry Men!’

Jack Warner was quite keen on the idea and went ahead with pre-production plans. James Cagney, who had been asking for ‘non-gangster roles’ was drafted in and producer Hal B Wallis hired English screenwriter Rowland Leigh to prepare a script for Cagney as Robin.

But Cagney, who was then a vice-president of the newly formed Screen Actors Guild, had made five movies in 1934, against his contract terms, which forced him to bring legal proceedings against Jack Warner. He had also complained about his ‘journeyman salary’ and the factory like conditions.

During his career, Cagney had walked out on several occasions before, but three months into the making of Robin Hood he walked off the lot in a tremendous rage, placed himself under suspension and never returned.

Meanwhile ‘Captain Blood’ had been released with huge success making a new and up and coming star out of 27year old Errol Flynn who had replaced Robert Donat in the role. Cagney was forgotten about and the rest is part of Hollywood’s golden history!


Clement of the Glen said...

James Cagney as ROBIN HOOD!

Melisende said...

Clement - I honestly cannot picture Cagney as Robin Hood. His vocals are certainly more conducive to his previous "gangster" roles and his role in "Mister Roberts" but Robin ..... tough interesting to see how he would have come up in tunic and tights!

Mike Giddens said...

Gagney was very agile and would have been good in the part i think, trouble is he was such a good tough guy that type casting was a problem.

Clement of the Glen said...

Errol has become such an iconic image of Robin Hood, it is almost impossible to imagine James Cagney in that role. If Cagney hadn't walked off set, it would have been him cuddling Olivia de Havilland on the balcony, its a strange thought!

Errol Flynn made such an impact in that role. Almost every story book and comic illustration of Robin Hood since the late thirties owes something to Errol's image in the Warner Brothers movie.

Neil said...

I often think that really good actors as James Cagney was, can give a good performance in almost anything however as you say it is difficult to see anyone but Errol Flynn in the role at that time.I wonder if any fans had a doubt about Richard Todd and he was exellent as we all know. I did think that Kevin Costners performance was so low key and underplayed that it was almost a bore.

Allen W. Wright said...

I used to think it was such a strange thought, but the more I see of Cagney, the more I think it would have worked. He'd have more a pushy, firecracker energy to him than Flynn's confident portrayal. It might not have been as iconic as Flynn, but it would be very interesting. Less interesting would have been Nelson Eddy in the film MGM wanted to do -- very wooden compared to Flynn or Cagney.

Clement Glen said...

Thank you for your comments Allen. Errol's portrayal is now so ingrained into the imagery of the legend that it is hard to imagine the impact Cagney would have had. I suppose a comparison would be Westerns without John Wayne or the Wizard of Oz without Judy Garland.