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‘Variety Confidential’ Revisits the Errol Flynn Trial That Became a Media Circus

After starring in the 1935 film “Captain Blood,” actor Errol Flynn became the big screen’s foremost swashbuckler. Seven years later, two underage girls accused the golden age movie star of statutory rape. In “When You’re A Star,” the sixth episode of Variety and iHeart Podcasts’ true crime podcastVariety Confidential,” host Tracy Pattin and co-host Matt Donnelly, Variety’s senior entertainment and media writer, look back at Flynn’s 1943 rape trial.

Fame, male privilege and hero worship all played a part in the outcome. Describing the relevance the Flynn trial has today, Donnelly explains that it’s a “really good example of how superstardom can impact a case.”

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In 1942, the handsome native of Australia was at the peak of his fame at age 33. “Flynn was probably best known for starring in ‘The Adventures of Robinhood’ in 1938. That same year, Life magazine named him the most famous man in America,” Pattin recalls.

As one of the most well-known actors at the time, Flynn was often invited to parties where he mingled with the industry’s elite and was introduced to aspiring actresses. At a party in September 1942, he met 17-year-old Betty Hansen.

“She had come to Hollywood in search of movie stardom,” Pattin explains. “Betty told her married sister about meeting the famous Errol Flynn. She said that he gave her cocktails and then took her upstairs, and as she put it, seduced her. Betty had just turned 17, six days earlier on September 21. The age of consent was 18. Outraged, her sister contacted the district attorney’s office to file a complaint against Flynn.”

The DA had recalled a similar complaint by Peggy Satterlee who claimed that in August 1941, when she was 15 years old, Flynn invited her to his boat, spiked her drink with liquor and raped her. The DA charged Flynn with three counts of statutory rape, one charge for assaulting Hansen and two for Satterlee.

“When Hollywood’s biggest movie star was arrested, who did he call? Hollywood’s most successful fix-it attorney Jerry Giesler,” Pattin details. “Giesler was the attorney in our first ‘Variety Confidential’ episode about the rape trial of Alexander Pantages. Pantages was a millionaire theater mogul who was accused of statutory rape. In the Pantages trial, Giesler set a legal precedent for weaponizing rape victim’s sexual histories. Thanks to Giesler, Pantages was acquitted after the case was retried. Giesler credited that trial with making him a successful lawyer. He was known for getting Hollywood stars out of just about any kind of jam.”

Flynn’s trial took place in January and February 1943, grabbing national attention. Flynn’s fans turned out in swarms, filling the courtroom and lining up in the hallway hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Understanding his client’s star power, Giesler planned to seat as many female jurors as possible. “In the end, Giesler succeeded with his jury selection plan. There were nine women and three men in the jury box when testimony started,” Pattin says.

Flynn was acquitted on all counts after the defense lawyer attacked Hansen and Satterlee’s sexual histories, morals and characters. “It’s not lost on me that many of the women Flynn was involved with were aspiring actresses,” Donnelly says while discussing the idea of fantasy and hero worship.

Shortly after he was found not guilty, Flynn’s career continued. “He was in more than 50 A-list films and almost always played the lead. He was under contract at Warner Bros. for 20 years and made millions for them,” Pattin says.

Variety Confidential,” a six-episode series, explores stories of sex, money and murder in the entertainment industry. The podcast dives deep into the Variety Archives, the publication’s research tool utilizing 118 years of Variety articles and reporting. Season 1, titled “The Secret History of the Casting Couch,” will detail the notorious Hollywood casting couch through the decades and draw parallels between recent sex scandals and those of the past, illustrating that sexual predation in the industry is as old as the Hollywood Hills.

“Variety Confidential,” distributed by iHeart Podcasts, is available on the iHeartRadio app, Variety.com, as well as other major podcast platforms. “Variety Confidential,” was created by Jon Ponder, Tracy Pattin, Dea Lawrence, Variety’s COO and CMO, and Steve Gaydos, Variety’s EVP of content and executive editor. Sydney Kramer, managing director and senior executive producer for the Variety Content Studio, is a producer along with Ponder and Pattin.


Sources and Citations

Books

Aadland, Florence and Thomey, Tedd, The Big Love, Spurl Editions, 1961

Matzen, Robert; Mazzone, Michael, Errol Flynn Slept Here, GoodKnight Books. Kindle Edition, 2009

Variety

Trial begins, Variety Archives, January 11, 1943

Flynn Faces Jury, Variety, Jan. 12, 1943

Prosecution called for a mistrial, Variety Archives, January 15, 1943

Flynn Trial Starts, Variety, March 19 1943

Flynn took the stand and denied all charges,Variety Archives, January 28, 1943

Trial ends after a month, Flynn acquitted of all rape charges, Variety Archives, February 6, 1943

Flynn Back to Work in ‘Stars,’ Variety, Feb. 8, 1943

Under terms of his contract given by the [Warner] studio shortly before his indictment, actor was to make at least three pictures annually, Variety Archives, February-March 1943

Flynn died of heart attack, Variety Archives, October 1959

Additional Resources

Cinema: Cinemess, Time, 19421026 https://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,850174,00.html

Errol Flynn Held for Attacking Girl 17, Associated Press, Oct. 17, 1942

Flynn Arrested Morals Charge, United Press, Oct. 17, 1942

Betty Hansen Takes the Stand in Flynn Trial, Associated Press, Nov. 13, 1943

Flynn Jury Many Include Nine Women, United Press, Jan. 13, 1943

Actor’s Girl Accuser Tells Party Details, United Press, Jan. 14, 1943

Betty Hansen Admits Accepting Money from a Man She Met on Street, Associated Press, Jan. 15, 1943

Recounts Rape Details at Bel Air Home, Long Beach (CA) Independent, Jan. 15, 1943

Flynn Confident That Name Will Be Cleared, Associated Press Australia, Jan. 16, 1943

Flynn Nervous When Confronted with Rape Story, Associated Press, Jan. 19, 1943

Flynn’s Moon-Beam Love Told by Miss Satterlee, United Press, Jan. 19, 1943

Resisted Flynn, Girl Declares, International News Service, Jan. 20, 1943

Flynn Is Charged with Another Rape, Associated Press, Oct. 22, 1942

Cocksure Errol Flynn Surrenders on Second Assault Charge, United Press, Oct. 22, 1942

Errol Flynn Faces Second Assault Case, Associated Press, Oct. 22, 1942

Errol Flynn Case May Prove Costly to Film Company, United Press, Oct. 24, 1942

Girls’ Stories Attacked by Flynn Witnesses, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 26, 1943

Flynn to Take Witness Stand, Associated Press, Jan. 27, 1943

Flynn Trial Nearing Close, United Press, Jan. 29, 1943

Errol Flynn: Hero or Villain, Los Angeles Times, Sept. 11, 1995, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1995-09-11-me-44628-story.html

Throwback Thursday – Errol Flynn Stood for Trial in 1944, Hollywood Reporter, May 1, 2014, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/general-news/throwback-thursday-errol-flynn-stood-699299/

Niven, David, The day Robin Hood left me all aquiver at the Garden of Allah, Daily Mail, May 21, 2020, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8346303/The-day-Robin-Hood-left-aquiver.html

Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: The Mythical Life of Errol Flynn, VANITY FAIR, April 2021 https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2021/04/errol-flynn-autobiography-wicked-wicked-ways

Errol Flynn Trial: 1943 law.jrank.org https://law.jrank.org/pages/2974/Errol-Flynn-Trial-1943.html

Amante, Chase, girlschase.com, Charisma Breakdown: Errol Flynn https://www.girlschase.com/article/charisma-breakdown-errol-flynn

Hollywood And It’s Long History Of Sexual Abuse – Errol Flynn, silverscreenclassicblog, Nov. 12, 2017, https://silverscreenclassicsblog.wordpress.com/2017/11/12/hollywood-and-its-long-history-of-sexual-abuse/

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