If Only

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert MatzenThere should be a law that Hollywood stars who are going to die young should only make first-rate pictures. Take Audrey Hepburn, for example. There was only so much Audrey to go around. She reached her zenith in looks and glamour around the time of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, then did Charade and My Fair Lady, and before and after there were some stinkers. I’ll grant you Roman Holiday’s a fine, original picture, Funny Face has its moments, and The Nun’s Story is, well, awesome, but War and Peace, Green Mansions, Paris When It Sizzles, How to Steal a Million—I wish to heck since Audrey had a limited shelf life and moved on to humanitarian work that she had made better career choices.

Marilyn Monroe’s another one. I want more of the Marilyn of Niagara, How to Marry a Millionaire, and The Seven Year Itch—I’m not as big a fan of Some Like It Hot as others are—but boy she completed her trajectory fast. I don’t care much about seeing MM play a psycho in Don’t Bother to Knock. River of No Return? Eh. Bus Stop—not to my taste. The Misfits depresses me. I think she looks great in The Prince and the Showgirl and it has some moments, but it’s also a test of the kidneys. And the perfect torture for your worst enemy: tie him or her to a chair and force consumption of Let’s Make Love in its lethal entirety. She’s the perfect example of how limits of even tremendous Hollywood stars can be tested by forcing them into pictures that were just plain bad ideas.

I’m not your biggest fan of Jean Harlow (although I have nothing against her), but the other week Saratoga was on and I tried to sit and enjoy it. I decided that even if Harlow had lived to film every scene in the script, Saratoga would still have been a dog, just like Personal Property had been a dog. It makes me wonder if Harlow wouldn’t have followed Joan Crawford into the MGM doghouse with another bad picture or two the likes of Saratoga.

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

So let me see if I have this straight, Mr. Montand. I’m Marilyn Monroe, and you’re getting more screen time than me in this picture?

Carole Lombard made some pictures that are hard to watch, particularly earlier in her career, but Fools for Scandal, Vigil in the Night, and They Knew What They Wanted? Ouch.

Do you ever do that? Do you ever sit consuming a bad picture by a big Hollywood star and wish for better? Errol Flynn was the perfect screen swashbuckler but made very few good ones. I watch him forced to go through the paces saddled with that hellacious Against All Flags script and before long I’m ranting at the screen. Earlier today I caught a few moments of his Civil War western Santa Fe Trail and it was a few moments too many. Some time back I went through all the production notes on this one and even as he toiled on it day by day, Flynn knew it stank. He was a cranky man making Santa Fe Trail and for good reason.

It’s the flip side of Golden Age Hollywood: stars needed vehicles, needed to have their faces out there with three, four new pictures a year, many or most of them forgettable and some downright painful because there just weren’t enough good scripts and good directors to go around.

Clark Gable may have been the King of Hollywood back in the day, but take away It Happened One Night and Gone With the Wind, and what do you have? Some decent pictures and many more iffy ones.

We think of Cary Grant as a hit maker but man did he foul off lots of pitches in the 1950s. For every To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest there was a Crisis, Room for One More, Kiss Them for Me, and The Pride and the Passion. I mean, he’s Cary Grant for crying out loud! Give him better material!

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

The movie posters for The Pride and the Passion should have been warning enough.

My beloved Marx Brothers may be the best example of all. After five stout Paramount comedies in as many years, the boys moved to MGM and died a lingering death. Somehow their funny bones never got packed and stayed back in the soundstages on Melrose. What a tragedy! Such great talent wasted as they ran out of motivation in the face of flop after flop and suddenly were too old and didn’t care anymore.

Am I the only one who wishes that all those unique talents living in their unique times had been better taken care of?


  1. I’ve often pondered the irony that the two Gable films you named, Robert, which I agree were his two best, were both made away from his home studio, MGM. What does that say about the manner in which the studio of the lion treated their “King” of Hollywood? As long as his films were going to make money anyway, why bother with really good material, seemed to be Mayer’s attitude.

    Lombard appeared in a handful of good comedies, starting with 20th Century. But look at her films before that Howard Hawks screwball farce – ouch! (Likewise, look at the lady’s performances before she worked with Hawks – another ouch, in my opinion).

    Cagney was almost always the best thing about his own films. Thank goodness he at least had a White Heat. Bogart, on the other hand, once his stardom was established in the early ’40s, had a quite remarkable run of good and even outstanding films – Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Big Sleep, Treasure of Sierra Madre, African Queen.

    As for Flynn not having made many good swashbucklers, there I have to disagree with you, however. For starters, there have been very few really good swashbucklers ever made, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is having the right leading man (few actors can be both athletic and graceful, as well as treating their material with a certain light heartedness, to be really convincing as a swashbuckler).

    Having said that, Errol was in four of the best, in my opinion, Robin Hood, of course, but also Captain Blood, Sea Hawk and Adventures of Don Juan. One of the reasons that Flynn may be regarded as the king of swashbucklers, I feel, is because no other actor appeared in nearly as many outstanding ones as he, with apologies to Doug Fairbanks and Ty Power.

    So while later Flynn costume efforts may, indeed, be less than inspirational, his outstanding four of the Warners period more than compensate for that, in my opinion. And that is what I would rather choose to emphasize about Flynn, that he was an actor who, unlike any other screen swashbuckler, appeared in so many good ones.

    1. I’ll grant you, Tom, that Flynn’s big four swashbucklers represent the highest total by any star in this genre. But since he was the best, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to want more than four. Astaire and Rogers did how many dance pictures together at RKO just in the 1930s, eight? Nine? Satisfying public demand each time. Why is it unreasonable to ask Warner Bros. to keep teeing up Flynn in the adventure genre when demand was so high? There was only one Flynn capable of doing Flynn things, yet the studio squandered him through most of the 1940s. He’d have made a killer Hornblower, for example. But they kept not doing Hornblower and instead turned out junk–you name the picture, Footsteps in the Dark, Desperate Journey, Uncertain Glory, Never Say Goodbye, Escape Me Never, Cry Wolf, Silver River. And on and on. Each of these pictures had varying degrees of merit but did nothing for Flynn’s legacy or boxoffice standing.

      Love your inclusion of Cagney.

  2. I agree, Robert, that it is exasperating that, for all of Errol Flynn’s fame as a swashbuckler, Warners only cast him in four true star vehicles of that nature during his prime years. Certainly after his great initial success as Captain Blood you would have hoped for more than just three follow ups. The war, of course, had something to do with that as the studios were cutting back on big budget productions and Errol, in particular, was used by his studio for propaganda efforts.

    All of Flynn’s films directed by buddy Raoul Walsh are of interest to me, with four of them having, in my opinion, some of Flynn’s very best work as an actor, yet none were of the genre for which the actor is most renowned. Most frustrating. By the way, I hope you didn’t really mean it when you lumped Silver River in as “junk.”

    By the way, when it comes to my own list of great movie swashbucklers, the only non-Flynns that I think rank at the top are Selznick’s Prisoner of Zenda (1937), The Mark of Zorro (1940) with Ty Power, Scaramouche (1952) the peak of Stewart Granger’s career, and Richard Lester’s two Musketeer films of the ’70s.

    Yes, there are a small handful of other titles that could be mentioned (including a couple of Fairbanks silents) but, for my money, it’s a movie genre with painfully few great classics. Those few that it has, though, I love, with Errol clearly the head of the class.

    Yes, Cagney is one of my very favourite actors. Frustrating how much second rate material he was forced to try to elevate during his prime Warners years, though.

    1. I was just thinking today about Jean Harlow in Saratoga. Watching it is a rather ghoulish exercise to see if you can spot the real Jean or Mary Dees. I agree with you Robert,this one would have been a dog had Harlow lived to complete production. I also feel Jean’s looks were slipping(due to the illness that eventually killed her). She seemed to be playing second fiddle to Myrna Loy in her later films(Wife vs. Secretary and Libeled Lady). I think she would have been firmly in the MGM doghouse along with Joan Crawford.

      As for Lombard, I would have loved to see her do another film with Robert Montgomery. I think they had the best chemistry in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. If only she had taken the train…

      1. I’m glad it’s not just me that sees some Harlow slippage in the spring of 1937, Sue. And Lombard did have good chemistry with Montgomery, which I would never have expected because to me he can be a cold fish. But Hitch or Carole got a warm performance out of him.

  3. Let’s all agree that really good movies are simply difficult to make. A long time ago I settled for the standard you also seem to use: whether it is painful or joyful to watch.

    I do think that it was, and is, almost impossíble for an actor to choose projects wisely. There is so much that can go wrong and rent should still be paíd. Most in Old Hollywood cared about their careers but could not afford to go on suspension. The result is: very few Actors were/are lucky to have more hits than flops, not only in box office terms.

    Harlow, for instance: you watch “Public Enemy” and you are not even sure how she was cast, só bad she is. I think she just got interested in her career towards the end of her life. She managed to be terrific in “Dinner at eight” and to give a couple of really fine performances. “Saratoga” I did not watch, but she was already feeling very sick and unwell, I bet acting was the least of her concerns back then.

  4. For a few of the stars you mention, Robert, I wonder if the problem wasn’t just the pictures, but whether those actors/stars actually had the holding power that the studios (and the public) assumed. For instance, while I find Jean Harlow has a certain brassy charm and a gift for comedy in Red Dust and Dinner at Eight (and RedHeaded Woman is great pre-code trash), in many movies, I find her an ineffective and even bad actress. I do wonder what her future would have been if she hadn’t died tragically at 26. I happen to appreciate Marilyn in Bus Stop, Some Like It Hot, and even The Misfits, but in some of her earlier work, I’m inclined to agree with George Sander’s comment about her in All About Eve as having come from the “Copacabana school of acting.” If she hadn’t died tragically, would she have remained a cult figure, or faded away in a fog of substance abuse and mental illness like Rita Hayworth? However, as a female, I might also be somewhat immune to Harlow and Monroe’s charms.

    I’m afraid I’m not so immune to Audrey Hepburn. I find her eminently watchable. She is one Funny Face is a treasure. Two for the Road, which is one of her later movies, is one of my favorite movies about marriage. I think her chemistry with Peter O’Toole in How to Steal a Million is delightful. I think she exited the industry with a lot of class and left some lovely memories.

    I have to reveal my prejudice in favor of Errol Flynn, someone else who was eminently watchable. Even in trash like Against All Flags, he still has that swagger and a way with a line. Like Tom I also find Flynn’s performances in some of the less popular movies interesting; Uncertain Glory has actually grown on me after a couple of viewings. I also think that Warner’s in the mid to late 40s was miscasting lots of folks in poorly written vehicles. Except for Bogie, other stars — especially female stars like Bette Davis and Ann Sheridan — were stuck in some awful stuff totally inappropriate for their talents.

    Cary Grant is another actor whom I can watch in just about anything. Again, some of his “minor” films in the 50s, I find quite interesting, particularly Crisis and People Will Talk.

    As a rule, the studios didn’t seem to know what to do with many of their late middle-aged stars. Except for High Noon and Friendly Persuasion, Gary Cooper was in tons of crap in the late 40s and 50s. Gable’s pickings were even slimmer. Except for The Misfits and Run Silent, Run Deep, I can’t think of a single Gable movie past 1945 that I have been able to sit through.

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