lNever Say Goodbye is a lesser known, but charming Christmas movie and I think what is most fun about it is seeing Errol Flynn in a non-typical screwball mode. He even gets to poke a little fun at his swashbuckling image.
Phillip Gayley (Errol Flynn) is an artist mostly known for his paintings of pin-up girls. But though his paintings have brought him fame, it has also lost him his wife, Ellen Gayley (Eleanor Parker). Now their daughter, Flip (Patti Brady), spends six months with each parent and when the film opens, she is about to go to her mother’s house for six months with her.
But Flip wants a baby brother to play with and reasons that the only way she can have one is to get her parents back together. And truly, her parents are more than willing to oblige. It’s clear that after a year of being divorced, they still only have eyes for each other. The only reason they divorced is because Ellen’s mother (Lucile Watson) talked her into it over the issue of Phillip’s pin-up models (and though he claims to be wrongly accused, he does seem to be a bit of a flirt).
Ellen still perks up at the mention of Phillip’s name, completely ignores the new suitor, Rex (Donald Woods), her mother has in mind for her and seems to be all-but encouraging Phillip to convince her that they should still be together. And Phillip does try awfully hard to convince her. Throughout the film he attempts wooing, cajoling, singing their song in her ear (Ellen asks, “You sang like that and I still married you?”), dancing, kissing, sneaking into her house dressed as Santa Claus, but something always comes along to break it up, usually in the shape of his current model, Nancy (Peggy Knudsen), who is trying just as hard to land Phillip.
The scene where Phillip accidentally ends up with two dates at the same restaurant is one of the film’s highlights. Luigi (S.Z. Sakall) – his real name is Schmidt, but when he bought a restaurant called Luigi’s he thought it was cheaper to change his name than buy a new sign – is a scene stealer as the friend who tries to get rid of Nancy so Phillip can devote his evening to Ellen and stop running between two different tables. Luigi tries everything from spilling soup on Nancy’s lap to an “accident” involving glass (“What are you trying to do to the girl? Kill her?” Phillip asks) to luring her away with a phone call, but it all ends in catastrophe (and the soup ends on him) with two very unhappy women. You almost feel sorry for poor Nancy, who seems to have some legitimate expectations from Phillip. As Luigi says, bemoaning with Philip that you “take a girl out two or three hundred times and right away she thinks that you are interested.”
Phillip also shows up at Ellen’s house on Christmas Eve dressed as Santa. It used to be a tradition every evening where he played Santa for Flip, but since Rex is also dressed as Santa, there is much confusion, best summarized at DVD Talk: “complete with Flynn running around the house and slamming doors, kissing an undressing Parker and slapping his ex-mother-in-law on the rump (much to their delight), as he pretends to be the stuffy Woods [Rex]. The scripters even drag up the old Marx Bros.’ “mirroring” bit (which Flynn performs flawlessly), before there’s a funny wrap-up as Flynn-as-Rex hands out gifts (none for the “old bag” Watson, he states) before smashing Woods over the head with a cocktail shaker (Woods does a hilarious crash into the Christmas tree).
Some actors work better with children than others, but Errol Flynn seems to be one of those who relates well. Phillip’s relationship with his daughter is actually just as central to the film as his relationship with his ex-wife and he and child actress Brady have genuinely sweet chemistry together as father and daughter. He plays a super indulgent father who does everything possible to make her life seem magical and she is a unique blend of worldly-wisdom who sees through it and children enthusiasm who embraces his fantasies fully. He likes to pretend to be Robin Hood or Sir Lancelot and calls her his Ziegfeld girl or Guinevere and talks a policeman into letting her ride his horse. He’s like a big kid and the two of them talking about how much they both want to be a family again is touching.
The film is very much Errol Flynn’s film, though it does have good performances from Eleanor Parker, Lucile Watson, S.Z. Sakall (Hattie MacDaniel is under-used) and the rest of the cast. Also in the film is Forrest Tucker as the marine, Fenwick Lonkowski. Flip has been writing to a marine because she heard on the radio that just because the war is over doesn’t mean there aren’t any lonely solders. With the help of Cozy (Hattie McDaniel), she has been penning romantic letters signed “Smoochie.” When she proposes including a pin-up picture of herself, her father argues that it could ruin a soldier’s moral by making him think that women in America are shrinking and instead swaps a picture of his wife in a bathing suit. Of course, when Fenwick comes back, he immediately thinks that Ellen is his “Smoochie” and she is happy to play along in revenge against Phillip.
Errol Flynn must have been a really good sport for this film, because he completely allows Forrest Tucker to show him up as physically wimpy (Fenwick does calisthenics in Ellen’s kitchen with his shirt off while Phillip wears Fenwick’s too-big pajamas and falls over and hits his head on the refrigerator – his jumping jacks are a hoot, too…so half-hearted and uncoordinated). Flynn also gets to do a pretty good imitation of Humphrey Bogart (the voice for that scene is really provided by Bogart) as he desperately tries to scare Fenwick away from Ellen.
It’s a pity Flynn didn’t get to make more comedies; he’s very effective in them. He has a sometimes goofy charm and yet he’s so handsome, no matter what he’s doing. But he wears his good looks lightly and never takes himself too seriously. The best swashbucklers do approach their work with a light touch, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he should be adept at comedy as well (Douglas Fairbanks did comedy before he started making his famous swashbucklers). It’s not going to replace Miracle on 34th Street as a Christmas classic, but it’s fun, especially if you are a fan of Errol Flynn.