Month: December 2014

The Many Stops of the Gables


Growing up in Pennsylvania, I would often see signs on old buildings that read, “George Washington slept here.” GW was so famous it mattered where he slept. Similarly, there are places all over the Southwest that claim Clark Gable and Carole Lombard slept there, even though there seems to be no documentation that they ever did.

Owners of the Oatman Hotel in Oatman, Arizona, claim that the Gables spent their honeymoon at the hotel following their March 29, 1939, elopement to nearby Kingman, Arizona. Further, it is claimed that the ghosts of the Gables haunt the hotel, even though evidence shows that Carole and Clark (on a rare day off from Gone With the Wind) were driven to Arizona, got married, and headed straight back to Hollywood in time for a next-morning press conference announcing their union at Carole’s St. Cloud Road home in Bel Air.

Big Barbee Lake in Indiana is another supposed honeymoon location for the movie star duo. Now there was a commute for a Rhett Butler on 24-hours’ leave.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Indeed, welcome to the many honeymoon spots of Gable and Lombard.

The Ingleside Inn in Palm Springs, California, has also put in a claim as the spot where the lovebirds honeymooned, even though this interlude would have required a desert detour of 240 miles in the wrong direction on a tight timeframe since Clark was using his day off to hitch his bride. I’m not saying that the Gables never stayed at the Ingleside Inn—in fact, I’d be interested to see their names on the register to confirm the stay. It would be great to add this fact to existing scholarship on the pair.

Palm Springs seems to have been quite popular with Mr. and Mrs. G for honeymooning as they are reported to have spent their wedding night at The Willows, an historic Palm Springs inn that was frequented by their close pal, Marion Davies. This one at least has Davies as a legitimate connection to the couple, and Davies was renowned for entertaining early and often. Maybe Carole and Clark went to see her at some point, although I’m not sold it was on their wedding night.

Then there’s the Palm Springs estate that Ma and Pa were supposed to have owned in the Old Las Palmas section that was recently offered for sale at more than $2M. Mind you, this is penny-pinching Clark and Encino ranch-owning Carole that supposedly motored on over to Palm Springs to this posh estate and lived there. Here’s why I’m not buying this one at all:

  • They already had a home and loved its seclusion. They didn’t need to buy an estate in Palm Springs—they already had one in Encino.
  • When they wanted to get away from it all, the Gs went as far away from civilization as possible into wilds so remote that there was no running water and no electricity. To Carole and Clark, the wilderness was escape. Palm Springs wasn’t escape.
  • No one that I’m aware of in their inner circle ever mentioned Palm Springs as being a destination for the Gables. Much later Clark and his last wife Kay would build down the road from Palm Springs in Bermuda Dunes, CA—a vacation home he would enjoy for less than a year before his death.
Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Here is the Pioneer Saloon back in the day. Judging by the auto and attire, this shot was taken in the era of Gable’s supposed visit.

I’m reminded of the Pioneer Saloon in Goodsprings, Nevada, where Clark Gable waited out the hours as search parties hunted for his wife’s downed plane. There are cigar burns on the top of the bar that go all the way back to Gable’s dark days at the Pioneer. Hour upon hour of waiting, of not knowing. Clark even fed coffee to rescuers and bought an old prospector false teeth.

There’s only one problem: No evidence supports the legend. None at all. Common sense doesn’t support it either. Gable flew to Las Vegas by Western Air charter in the dead of night and was sequestered by his MGM handlers at the El Rancho Las Vegas Motor Hotel a half hour from Goodsprings. The last place MGM would allow Gable to be was the Pioneer Saloon because that’s where the reporters hung out waiting for definitive word on the fate of Carole Lombard and the 21 others aboard TWA Flight 3. Gable was in shock and unable to interact with anyone, let alone reporters. Yes, Gable was near the Pioneer Saloon because he had to pass by on his way up 99 Mine Road to the base camp; he demanded to be taken to base camp and he was, so he did pass by the Pioneer Saloon, but he didn’t hole up there as much as your imagination tells you that he did. Hell, even I fell for the legend of the Pioneer Saloon when I stopped by. Even I could imagine Gable in here pacing the wood floor. The Pioneer reeks of history and one of its walls is covered with newspaper accounts of the crash and search. I haven’t come out against the Pioneer’s claims up to now for the simple reason that even though this legend isn’t true, it should be true. It’s an utterly tragic, heartbreaking moment in time, even if it never happened.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The Pioneer Saloon in dusty and historic Goodsprings, Nevada. Right before taking this shot, I raked my leg on a cactus and the next day, climbed Mt. Potosi.

There’s a bottom line here based in fact: After all these decades, the names Clark Gable and Carole Lombard still have drawing power. These two were what Loretta Young called “juicy people” and son of a gun, they’re still juicy today. Somebody on Facebook said this morning, this morning mind you, “They were more in love than any couple I know.” Well, if you can see that from a distance of 70 years, then OK. As the man once said, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Long ago they printed the legend at the Ingleside Inn, the Willows, the estate in Old Las Palmas, the Oatman Hotel, and the Pioneer Saloon. When I buy a hotel or B&B, the first thing I’m going to do is print the legend again. I don’t know yet which room Carole and Clark stayed in; I’m sure one will seem like them when the time comes.


Thanks to Marina Gray for info on the Palm Springs Gable-Lombard connections and for the lowdown on Big Barbee Lake. Thanks to Larry Selkow for information on the Ingleside Inn, which got me to thinking about the very busy honeymooners.

The Weaver

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Carole Lombard loved the secular side of Christmas, as demonstrated by the number of surviving letters, cards, and notes attached to or referencing various gifts presenting by Carole to friends and acquaintances over the years. Examples can be seen at the fine Carole & Co. web site. Much less is known about her religious beliefs, which was a topic she kept private. A glimpse into Carole’s belief system is found in the poem entitled The Weaver that she wished to have read at her funeral service. I am not a religious person by nature; I would label myself as spiritual, so this column is by no means meant as an endorsement of any religion. The poem, by Grant Colfax Tullar of Bolton, Massachusetts, was abridged in Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3. Many variations exist online and in religious tracts and emblazon many plaques hung on many walls, but this version of The Weaver seems to be the full original. It reads:

My life is but a weaving
Between my Lord and me;
I cannot choose the colors
He worketh steadily.

Oft times He weaveth sorrow
And I, in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper,
And I the under side.

Not til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly,
Shall God unroll the canvas
And explain the reason why.

The dark threads are as needful
In the Weaver’s skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned.

He knows, He loves, He cares,
Nothing this truth can dim.
He gives His very best to those
Who chose to walk with Him.

The mother of a friend of mine, upon reading Fireball last summer, was struck by Tullar’s verse to such an extent that she raved about The Weaver to her husband. When this woman passed on unexpectedly last week, her husband requested the full version of the poem so it could be read at her funeral service. At this sad time, I was struck by the fact that these words chosen by Carole Lombard and read over her casket would now, almost 73 years later, provide comfort to another grieving family.

Carole made no bones about the fact that she was a fatalist. She believed, as she told an interviewer in the 1930s, that, “When your number’s up, your number’s up.” She achieved fame at a time in U.S. history that was dominated by European Protestants—remember, not even a Catholic was elected president of the United States until John Kennedy in 1960. Interviewers of the 1930s expected Carole to deliver quotes reinforcing a Protestant belief in the New Testament, but the profane one would not oblige; she refused to make her religious beliefs public. She would acknowledge a belief in God and then brush aside any further probing. In fact Carole was, like her mother, Elizabeth Peters, of the Baha’i faith, becoming Baha’i in 1938. Confidential Baha’i documentation reveals a spiritual side to the earthy, madcap Lombard that would surprise many, yet her alignment with some of the teachings of Baha’i reflects her nature as a generous person who helped the little guy whether it was a friend down on his or her luck or someone just starting out in the business. She also gained a reputation for promoting freedom of expression as well as a tolerance for a variety of lifestyles—religious and otherwise.

Yes, Christmas was big to Carole Lombard. She took it seriously and spent liberally on presents each year. In the spirit of the fireball herself, I would like to pause on this Christmas Eve and wish every visitor to the site a Happy Holiday season, whatever that may entail for you and your family and friends.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

A naughtier Christmas celebration, this one at the Mack Sennett Studio in 1927 with leggy Lombard at right (back in the days when Mack ordered his actresses to have some meat on their bones).


A couple of anniversaries are worth mentioning amidst this joyous season that has left me bewildered and many around me anything but joyous. Did you know that George Washington died 215 years ago this past Sunday at age 67? Did you know that he died of a sore throat? Everybody has to die of something, but a sore throat is a nasty way to go when you are treated by doctors who have no earthly idea what they are doing.

George Washington was a massive human, six-foot-three and most of it muscle, even at 67. He had been a natural athlete all his life and a splendid horseman. He spent five hours on horseback riding his range the day he got sick, arrived home, went to bed, and the next day was so bad off, apparently from a strep infection, that his doctor “bled” him five pints. You know how when you give blood they take one pint and then tell you to rest and eat well to replenish what you just lost? Well they stole one pint times FIVE from the ill former president, and for good measure they gave him a mercury concoction to make him better. Mercury, as in the stuff that is poison. Among the prexy’s last words were, “I die hard,” which he murmured at the end of 1799 and which may be the understatement of the entire century, uttered just under the wire. So December 14, a couple days ago, marks 215 years since we lost the Greatest American of any generation.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Among George Washington’s last words in December 1799: “Please tell me Dr. House is on duty this evening.” He wasn’t; the rest is history.

Seventy-five years ago yesterday, the finished version of Gone With the Wind premiered in Atlanta, Georgia. Movie stars imported from Hollywood began arriving two days earlier, on December 13. The picture’s producer arrived on December 14 with cast members Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland via Eastern Airlines DC-3. Later, on an American DC-3 (because he couldn’t stand Selznick), Clark Gable arrived with his bride, Carole Lombard, and the pair of them stole the show from the other VIPs and held the city spellbound for 36 hours.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The fireball, Carole Lombard, arrives in Atlanta on American Airlines with husband Clark Gable and bandleader Kay Kyser on December 14, 1939.

Many activities took place over three crazy days, which the governor of Georgia declared a state holiday. The teeming throngs of Atlantans that clogged Peachtree Street 300,000 strong have been described in many books. Still, a few pieces of trivia astound me.

Did you know that city schools and public buildings in Atlanta were closed the day of the premiere, a Friday? Imagine any movie commanding such attention in a top-10 U.S. city today.

Did you know that there were still many Confederate Civil War veterans living at the time of the premiere, and when they trooped into the Loew’s Grand Theater from the Old Soldiers’ Home, the crowd erupted in cheers and rebel yells?

Did you know that among the non-cast members attending the Atlanta festivities were World War I fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker, Wimbledon tennis champ Alice Marble, and Clark Gable’s Oscar-winning It Happened One Night co-star, Claudette Colbert?

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

No Gable isn’t falling asleep at the Atlanta premiere of Gone With the Wind. Lombard is whispering something in his ear; probably something snarky.

Did you know that the ticket price in the sold-out, two-thousand-seat theater was $10 but scalpers were getting $200+?

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

A charming tike, age 10, who would participate in Gone With the Wind festivities and then change the world.

Did you know that certain cast members were barred from attending the Atlanta festivities at all because of the color of their skin? This group included Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen, who would not have been permitted to socialize with the white stars in segregated Georgia. (David Selznick fought against this segregation almost to the point of threatening cancellation of the entire Atlanta experience.) McDaniel would become the first African American to win an Academy Award just a couple of months later.

Did you know that among the costumed “slaves” performing at a charity event during premiere activities was Martin Luther King, Jr., age 10, as part of the Ebenezer Baptist boys’ choir?

As noted in this column earlier, the time of Gone With the Wind has largely gone, but in an America recovering from Depression, it was the biggest thing ever, a social phenomenon like nothing seen before or since. If you lump The Graduate with the original Star Wars and pile The Godfather on top and serve Jaws as whipped cream and Titanic as the cherry, and plunk it all on a platter of Lord of the Rings pictures resting on a table of The Hunger Games, you would still not equal the pop culture earthquake that was Gone With the Wind 75 years ago yesterday.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Gable and Lombard in the motorcade through Atlanta. They shut the city down for the day. Note the stars and bars at upper left. In 1939 it was no big deal; today, not so welcome.

Mystery Woman

You remember how I posted a picture of James Stewart and Errol Flynn and jokingly said one of the women with them was Marge Eddington just to see if you were paying attention? Well some of you were and stated that this is NOT Marge Eddington, mother of Nora Eddington Flynn Haymes Black, who in turn was the mother of Rory Flynn, who co-hosted an evening of Errol Flynn pictures this past Tuesday evening on Turner Classic Movies. Rory was one of those saying this pic did not show the elusive Marge—David De Witt did a posting featuring the photo on his excellent Errol Flynn blog.

Actually, I could have sworn it was Marge. There’s a facial resemblance to Nora and her daughters. But to me the takeaway is that people are reading this column and it’s moving them to thought and action. I’m happy to review comments by new participants like Betsy, who commented on recent Carole Lombard columns.

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen

Uncomfortable James Stewart, the mystery woman, burr-under-his-saddle Errol, and his wife Nora. We still don’t know the context for this meeting. Also note that Flynn at six-foot-two is still looking up at the towering Stewart–something else to make Errol uneasy.

At any rate, below is a photo of Marge from Nora’s landmark 1960 tell-all, Errol & Me, which paints Errol none too kindly as a date-rapist and drug addict. By the time I knew Nora 20-some years later she was anything but an iconoclast. She had come to terms with all the facets of her ex-husband’s character, the good and the bad, and was feeling quite protective of his memory.

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen

Marge and Errol captured in a photo from Errol & Me. This photo would have been taken several years after the Stewart-Flynn photo op. So you are SURE that if you take the cat’s-eye cheaters off this woman, she’s not the one in the poodle perm seen in the photo above?

The funny thing is that the identify of the woman is a topic of discussion, yet no one has commented on the event that brought James Stewart and Errol Flynn face to face, and no one has noted the discomfiture of both the males in this photo. Stewart has forced a smile and stands there stiffly, hands in pockets (we do that when we’re on guard), as if counting the seconds until he can exit stage whatever; Errol is wearing his most smug, unfocused expression of disdain. Yet here are these two women who appear to be genuinely thrilled to be in Stewart’s presence at a time in his career when he wasn’t anywhere near the cult symbol that he would become with the re-emergence of public domain It’s a Wonderful Life. He was just another leading man in trouble at the advent of television. If this is 1948, which Tom Hodgins believes, Stewart was in the process of reinventing himself with pictures like Call Northside 777 and Rope. In retrospect it turned out to be a good Stewart year, although I’m not sure it seemed so to him at the time.

If this is late 1949 or 1950, then it’s after Nora and Errol split up. One critic claims it’s impossible that the photo was taken in 1950 for this very reason: Errol and Nora were divorced in 1949. However, Mr. Critic, Marge continued to work at Mulholland Farm, and according to Nora herself, Errol grew more civil after they split. Plus the fact that Errol continued to participate in the upbringing of his children. For the unorthodox Flynn, squiring your ex to a formal affair is well within the sphere of credibility.

Whatever the truth of this photo may be, Tom Hodgins has surfaced quite the Kodak moment.

Invaded by Mights

Pardon my grumpiness, but five Errol Flynn pictures played in succession on Turner Classic Movies U.S. on Tuesday evening, hosted by Robert Osborne and guest programmer Rory Flynn, Errol’s daughter. Here are some things I wish they had discussed:

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Objective, Burma! should have been one of Flynn’s most popular pictures, but it wasn’t.

Objective, Burma!, the first picture shown, is an action drama set in the latter stages of World War II in Burma. Grim and realistic, it presents a fictional account of U.S. paratroopers dropped into the Burmese jungle to raid a Japanese radar station. They wipe out the Japs just fine but then everything goes to hell and they are 200 miles from help.

Objective, Burma! is most notable as a disaster of the first order for Errol Flynn the actor. It was by far the most rugged picture he had ever made, shot mostly in exterior locations—deserts, jungles, swamps—and he worked his ass off. His performance is highly regarded for a particular tone of understatement, and he fit well in an ensemble cast. He did every single thing right in making Objective, Burma! And what was his reward?

The British government protested that Objective, Burma! showed an American operation in Burma when it was in fact the British who were fighting there. British big cheese Lord Earl Mountbatten was furious and went out of his way to slam Flynn for make-believe heroics, saying that Errol was in effect grinding his heel into the graves of British war dead. As a result, Objective, Burma! played in first release, was never reissued, and became a poison pill for Errol Flynn the actor. Soon he was boozing it up through a string of features and then fled to exile in Europe. It’s a picture that hastened his decline and early death.

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen and Michael Mazzone

Well, boys, this is going to be a big success. What could possibly go wrong?

Another notable talking point is that the plot of Burma was stolen directly from the story of Rogers’ Rangers and a raid during the French and Indian War that was recounted in the historical novel Northwest Passage and depicted in the 1940 motion picture of the same name starring Spencer Tracy as Rogers. The way the studios sometimes operated, scripts were put into a pile and they’d periodically pull a script off the bottom of the pile and redo it. In this way Warner Bros. took the 1945 property Objective, Burma! and adapted it into a 1951 Gary Cooper pic called Distant Drums. This time it’s a pre-Civil War story as Cooper’s men sneak into Florida and destroy a Seminole Indian village before everything goes to hell. Raoul Walsh directed Objective, Burma! Raoul Walsh directed Distant Drums, and used some of the same camera setups in the latter that he had used in the former.

More recently, the same plot was reused in one of my all-time favorite pictures, Predator (1987) starring Arnold Shwarzeneger. This time mercenary commandos go into South America to rescue hostages and wipe out a guerilla stronghold before everything goes to hell, this time because of one nasty alien. The raid is so similar to Errol Flynn’s 1945 radar station incursion that during Objective, Burma! I was quoting Jesse Ventura’s Blain with perfect timing when he says his incredulous, admiring, “What The Fuck?” as Arnold opens the battle in unorthodox fashion. The classic exchange between Poncho and Blain also fit perfectly into the Flynn action:

Poncho: “You’re bleeding!”

Blain: “I ain’t got time to bleed.”

Poncho: “You got time to duck?”

And Poncho launches mortar rounds that blow bad guys out of their machine gun nest overhead. Predator is an homage to Objective, Burma! and the familiarity of this plot through generations of Hollywood filmmaking—good guys stage a raid and then everything goes to hell—is something the TCM hosts might have mentioned on Tuesday.

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen and Michael Mazzone

“I ain’t got time to bleed!” No, wait, that’s from a different (albeit similar) picture.

Second up on Tuesday night was The Adventures of Robin Hood, Errol Flynn’s classic of classics, and I cringed when it was asserted during the intro that tension between Errol and RH director Michael Curtiz resulted from the fact that Curtiz had once been married to Errol’s wife, Lili Damita. Yes, this internet rumor was announced as fact on broadcast television. Unless I have missed some important news, a Curtiz-Damita marriage has never been verified and since so many European paper records were destroyed during World War II, it is doubtful this allegation will ever be confirmed.

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen and Michael Mazzone

Flynn’s most physically demanding picture included this scene shot at Lucky Baldwin’s Ranch in Arcadia, CA.

The hosts might have talked about any number of interesting angles to Robin Hood. They could have discussed the high cost of the production—highest yet for Warner Bros. There might have been discussion of Olivia de Havilland’s growing distaste for playing Errol Flynn’s girl in picture after picture, especially a character she found as two-dimensional as Maid Marian. Mention of the location shoot in Chico, California might have been made as an epidemic of influenza swept through cast and crew. Or of the fact that Basil Rathbone, playing Errol’s rival, was 17 years older than Errol but just as athletic in the climatic duel. Or that Rathbone, who was run through and killed in that duel, was actually a more accomplished fencer. Or that this was an Academy Award-winning film (it won three), or that it was re-released several times and always successfully, or that Flynn owned a 16mm print of the film and watched it often, or that de Havilland refused to go to the premiere and didn’t condescend to watch Robin Hood until 1959—21 years after its initial run.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

After you are dead, Errol, I am going to tell everyone how–even at 17 years your senior–I was the better swordsman and could have kicked your ass in a real duel anytime I wanted to, except the script would never let me.

The audience for these pictures might have been enlightened, but they weren’t, although props go to Robert Osborne for stressing repeatedly that Errol Flynn was an underrated actor, which was borne out in all the pictures screened (the others were Gentleman Jim, Rocky Mountain, and Never Say Goodbye). Hopefully, the evening billed as “Starring Errol Flynn” will lead a new audience to seek out more information about one of the most enigmatic personalities of the Twentieth Century. There is plenty of information out there waiting to be accessed in, oh, I don’t know, maybe [insert shameless holiday plug] two outstanding hardcover books loaded with information and photos, Errol Flynn Slept Here: The Flynns, the Hamblens, Rick Nelson, and the Most Notorious House in Hollywood and Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood.

Main Event

Tom Hodgins shared this photo with me, and suddenly a past bio subject confronted a future one. It’s Errol Flynn with wife Nora on one arm and her mother Madge on the other, all looking at James Stewart, who seems … tense. My question is, where the hell is this, and when?

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

James Stewart, Marge Eddington, Errol Flynn, and Nora Eddington Flynn, except, where, when, and why?

The backstory is that I co-authored Errol Flynn Slept Here with Mike Mazzone in 2009 and then wrote Errol & Olivia in 2010. My next book is tentatively titled Capt. Stewart, and details the exploits of James Stewart in the U.S. Army Air Corps air war in Europe. Jim dated Errol’s girl, Olivia de Havilland, or “Livvie,” in 1940. Errol was an insecure sort and didn’t like the fact that Jim was doing the nasty with Livvie. Didn’t like it one bit. Then Jim enlisted in the Air Corps in 1941 and soon thereafter, following Pearl Harbor (73 years ago today), Errol journeyed to D.C. and tried to enlist but was turned down because at 31 his health was shot with a capital S. All that hard living in hard conditions like the jungles of New Guinea had boiled his innards. Jim became a war hero and flew 19 missions in the air war in Europe, rose from private to lieutenant-colonel, and, as of the time of this photo, was a colonel in the Air Force Reserve. Errol, well, Errol fought World War II on the soundstages of Burbank, California, in pictures like Edge of Darkness and Objective, Burma! and always resented all the men who were able to go off and fight in the war while he was forced to ride the bench at home.

Here we are in 1948 (according to Tom) or 1950 (it seems like to me), and Jim is on the verge of becoming the most successful freelance actor in Hollywood, and Nora is on the arm of Errol while they are about to divorce or already are divorced. Flynn has had a drink or five, and Jim is stone-cold sober. One seems to be bombed and irritated; the other uncomfortable. The women are ecstatic, but why? My impression is that Jim is the center of attention, but again, why? Was Jim receiving some award or was he the guest of honor at some benefit? Why is Stewart in a suit and Errol in a tux?

Other clues: Is that snowflakes behind Stewart, making this holidays 1948? 1949? Knowing both these men as I do, it feels very much that they are unhappy to be in this scenario, but they both understand how to handle themselves before a camera—Stewart better than Flynn because at least Stewart is sober. Errol was 6-foot 2 and Stewart was 6-foot-3+. But both were lean and you’d have to classify them as middleweights. It would have made an interesting bout as these two settled whatever score there was.

The only thing I can figure is that this is the Photoplay Awards at the end of 1949, wherein Jim won for The Stratton Story. But that’s a shot in the dark. If anyone has any clues as to the date and occasion of this most interesting photo I have seen in quite a while, Tom and I would love to know.

**Note: Tom also points out that Rory Flynn is hosting an evening of five pictures starring her father on Tuesday December 9 on TCM/U.S. beginning at 8 P.M. Eastern time.

The Machine

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The stars of Deliverance, Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight (as much as you would like to believe it’s not Jon Voight but really Robert Matzen).

I haven’t thought much about Burt Reynolds for a long time. Way back when, I remember thinking he was pretty cool. Burt got his start in TV as brooding half-breed Quint on Gunsmoke and moved to his own detective TV show before hitting it big in Deliverance and then The Longest Yard. I remember liking him in this romantic western he made called The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing when I was a kid, but right after The Longest Yard, I lost interest in Burt Reynolds. I dismissed him as a one-trick pony who could only play Burt Reynolds. Granted, in Deliverance he was good, and he would call Deliverance “the best film I ever did,” a film that “gave me credibility as an actor.” What an unsettling picture. It was made by John Boorman in 1972 when movies had taken a hard left into nastytown, and thankfully Boorman wasn’t in an artsy mood when he exposed his film in the wilds. Here’s the Deliverance trailer to give you a three-minute primer on one startling weekend on the rapids. Deliverance also features Jon Voight, who people used to mistake me for (and often) 25 years ago. These people weren’t deterred by the fact that Voight had many years and four inches on me and there was this one time in a Sizzler in L.A. that was downright embarrassing when a woman exclaimed, “Oh my God!” and attracted a lot of attention because she thought I was Jon Voight. I would like to think that Jon Voight wouldn’t be caught dead in a Sizzler. All the attention might have been flattering if I happened to like Jon Voight’s looks, which I never did. But I digress.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Long before Katniss there was … Burt.

Right around the time of Deliverance, Burt Reynolds appeared as the gatefold in Cosmopolitan, which was beyond a big deal at the time. You can go ahead and Google “Burt Reynolds Cosmo” and the image will come right up. Reynolds may not have invented the beefcake photograph, but he sure did give the concept a boost at the height of the Sexual Revolution. He spent the 1970s as the definition of virility and put the cherry on his own sundae by directing and starring in the gritty cop picture Sharky’s Machine in 1981.

The real machine was Reynolds himself, who starred in a picture I will always have a soft spot for, The Man Who Loved Women as a man who, well, loved women, as he was transitioning into Phase II of his career as panderer to the lowest common denominator of audiences in several car pictures, Smoky and the Bandit, Cannonball Run, Stroker Ace, et al ad nauseam. Some of these co-starred two-time Oscar-winning actress Sally Field, with whom Burt fell “in like” (his term) for a while. But wait. Wasn’t it about 15 minutes ago that Burt was young stud to cougar Dinah Shore and they carried on admirably for quite some time? I mean, these two were hot stuff there for a while despite a 20-year age difference; hot stuff to the extent that when you saw them together, you just knew that the headboard had been rockin’ and would soon be rockin’ again. I will double-check Webster’s, but I am pretty sure that the definition of “chemical attraction” still reads, “See Burt Reynolds and Dinah Shore.” [Note to whippersnappers: Tennessee-born Dinah Shore started out as singer around the beginning of World War II and went on to greater fame as a TV personality in the 1960s and 70s–the Oprah of her day. She was soft-spoken and demure, except with Burt. Dinah passed on in 1994 at the age of 77.]

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Dinah’s daughter pleads with Mom to steer clear of Bad Boy Burt. But there was no fighting the attraction.

I missed the entire 1990s Reynoldsance—Phase III of his career—when Burt (apparently, as I’m just reading this) appeared in two big pictures I never saw, Striptease, which I didn’t watch because I feared becoming impotent at seeing Demi Moore strip, and Boogie Nights, which was a concept that had no appeal for me at all.

That’s my background for an unsettling-going-on-sad experience just now as I thumbed through 674 Burt Reynolds-owned items that are being auctioned off December 11 and 12. These are hard times for Burt, apparently, and this scenario is all too common these days for people living beyond their capacity to produce income. Burt’s awards are on the block, everything from high school sports trophies to many Top Box Office Star awards (proving the vast appeal of the Reynolds machine), several People’s Choice Awards, and an Emmy. Burt’s gun collection, real and prop weapons, are going. Burt’s cars, going. Dozens and dozens of photos and books inscribed to Burt by presidents, athletes, and fellow actors will be sold off. Clothing, pieces of his art collections—both paintings and statuary—will scatter to the winds.

Why would somebody want a Top Box Office Star statuette that was given to somebody else? If you didn’t earn it yourself, why put it on your mantel? But mine is a minority opinion: Almost everything has bids, mostly multiple bids, so I figure that Burt will do all right out of this endeavor. He claims he is only getting rid of stuff he’s tired of having around, and I’m gratified to see that there are only four Dinah Shore items being offered, three of them canvases she painted. It would be nice if there were many Dinah items in Burt’s possession; items he was determined to hold tight. (Yes, I have a special fondness for this couple and their time together.)

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Reynolds has always been a larger-than-life character, as was Dinah. Together the chemistry was off the charts.

I hope I make it to death before my estate hits the auction block. I like my stuff too much to see it go prematurely. Actually, I was sort of hoping to build a great pyramid and take it all with me to the afterlife, and I’m feeling a little down that Burt didn’t think of this as well. After spending some time looking back at Burt Reynolds, I appreciate him a lot more. Is it sacrilege to label Burt Reynolds as Clark Gable in the same place but at at a different time and without the backing of the biggest studio in Hollywood? I’ll let you ponder that one as I admire Burt’s life of accomplishment. Believe me, I’ve just skimmed the surface here of a career spanning more than 50 years. Reynolds has hobnobbed with the elite. He has done good work that he’s proud of, and he has entertained millions. Now I hope he can go on and live a comfortable life post-auction and enjoy a grand Reynoldsance IV.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

One more for the road. They were in popularity something akin to the Gable and Lombard of the 1970s.