Author: rmatzen

Award-winning author of "Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe," "Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3," "Errol & Olivia," "Errol Flynn Slept Here," and three other books.

Santa Claus and the Cold Hand of Death

Fox poster art for the June release dismissed the Christmas angle, which was known to be bad box office.

On Thanksgiving morning I was watching a bit of New York City’s Macy’s parade on television, which inspired me to revisit one of my favorite seasonal touchstones, Miracle on 34th Street. I try to watch it every year, but this time what really hit home was the scene when the woman brings the adopted Dutch girl to see Santa. Lately, I’ve been deep-diving into all things Netherlands—the language, the culture, and especially the history of life in Holland during the Nazi occupation of 1940 to 1945.

If you were living in the Netherlands when the Germans marched in on a pleasant May morning, there was a decent chance you would not be living when they were driven out in 1945. If you happened to live in Rotterdam, you could have died in the German bombing of the central city that forced the Dutch surrender four days after the invasion. If you were a Jew, you would have been given a one-way ticket to a concentration camp. If you were deemed an enemy of the state, you might have been shot. If you got caught up in the combat of 1944 and 1945 when the Allies came in, well, either side could have gotten you. If you made it as far as the Hunger Winter just before war’s end, you might have starved. And if you happened to be standing under an Eighth Air Force bomber, well, duck, cover, and pray.

When Miracle on 34th Street was released in June 1947, its audience knew all too well the horrors that Holland had weathered. So, when the Dutch girl’s adoptive mother explains to Santa that the girl comes from an orphanage in Rotterdam, it would have sent chills through many. The girl’s parents clearly had died in the war, and the child is emotionally scarred as a result. She has only one wish, and that’s to connect with Sinterklaas, the Dutch St. Nicholas who each November sails by ship from Spain and lands in some obscure part of the Netherlands with his sidekick, Zwarte Piet the Moor, who lugs a sack full of presents and candy for the good children. After stepping ashore like MacArthur in the Philippines, Sinter sets out on a white steed to make his way through the lowlands while poor Piet goes afoot. In many Dutch households, Sinterklaas knocks at the door and comes in for a December 5 sit-down that amounts to a performance review for the children living there. If you’re good, well, you don’t have to fear the bearded man with the lethal staff, scary mitre, and lurking strong-arm man. You get gifts and candy in your wooden shoes placed neatly under the Christmas tree. If you happened to be a bad kid, however—and this is where it gets a little weird—Zwarte Piet manhandles you into the sack and carries you back to Spain.

The forlorn look of a refugee from the world’s darkest days.

I always loved the Miracle on 34th Street scene between Santa and the Dutch girl for the elemental conflict presented. Her poor caretaker doesn’t want to expose this little war orphan to a department-store Santa who can’t possibly understand her language or needs. I always understood her culture shock at being in New York, U.S.A. What only became clear on this viewing after my Nederland immersion is the aura of death surrounding the child and what motivated her forlorn look when she first interacts with the Macy’s Santa. The girl, who seems to be about seven years old judging by the missing front teeth, lights up when Santa suddenly begins speaking to her in Dutch and she gets the confirmation she needs: He really is Sinterklaas.

I have to hand it to Edmund Gwenn for doing as well as he does with what is truly a tough language to learn, even if it’s only a few lines. Marlene Lydon does as well with her Dutch impression as any seven-year-old California girl with missing front teeth possibly could. And at plot point one, when Natalie Wood as little Susan watches the interaction between Santa and the orphan and begins to suspect that Santa is more than a department-store stand-in, it’s the best moment of all—her jaw drops and she experiences real magic for the first time in her very sensible life.

In my experience, horses don’t do the roof any good, but there is Sinterklaas on his white steed, while poor Zwarte Piet ends up with the short end of the stick. In modern appearances Piet is usually played by a Caucasian in blackface, and there has been a formidable social backlash in the Netherlands.

There are so many things to love about Miracle on 34th Street (the original–I refuse to accept more recent substitutes). I’m not the biggest Maureen O’Hara fan, but as Mrs. Walker she underplays beautifully throughout, like when she tries to tell Susan that Santa isn’t real even though, as Susan points out, he can speak Dutch. “I speak French,” Walker reasons, “but that doesn’t make me Joan of Arc.”

O’Hara, Wood, and Gwenn, part of a perfect cast in a perfect film.

I’m not breaking new ground here when I go on and on about this perfect film, a triple Oscar winner, I don’t have to tell you, one for Gwenn and two for the writing. I just wanted to take a moment to call out that scene and the all-new effect it had on me after a lifetime of viewings. And if I don’t get another column up in the next little while, Happy Holidays, one and all, from the Netherlands salt mines where I toil, pretty much night and day.

P.S. Don’t forget to order Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, which has proven to be the perfect holiday gift for active-duty service members, veterans, armchair generals, and lovers of everything Hollywood.

Simple Man

power of women2

In a plot that still resonates today, the family bucks a conservative watchdog group to play at a women’s rights rally.

 

 

I didn’t sleep well last night because I had just learned that David Cassidy died. I didn’t sleep well the night before because I knew he was gravely ill and there was no hope he was going to get better. I don’t know if David Cassidy was a part of my family or I was a part of his, but for the four years that The Partridge Family ran, I was in their living room every week. In fact, I was in it twice a week because the station in Steubenville ran the previous week’s episode on Wednesday evenings and I rigged an elaborate antenna system to bring it in—this being a time just before the dawn of cable television. At first it was a mad crush on Susan Dey that drew me, but then I got engaged on an intellectual level through episodes centered around Laurie’s push for equal rights for women, or the family’s commitment to save whales from extinction, or my favorite plot of all: Danny goes militant and enlists the Black Panthers to save Lou Gossett and Richard Pryor. It was the first time I realized that black was cool, and I’ve thought so ever since.

The Partridge Family was my dirty little secret. At a time when all the other guys were talking about the latest from Alice Cooper or Deep Purple or a Led Zeppelin on the rise, I was coming home from school, tearing up to my room, and losing myself under headphones to the music of The Partridge Family. What’s funny is that about three years into the show, I found out one of my best friends was keeping the same secret about the same band. Even then as a kid I knew that The Partridge Family songs were being written and performed by some of the finest talents in Southern California, award-winning songwriters and first-rate backup singers and musicians. They’d go on to work with Springsteen, Jim Croce, and others. Don’t get me wrong; I still loved Alice and Bad Company and Mott the Hoople—I just loved the Partridges more. I still do.

Suzanne Crough, Tracy Partridge (lower right), died suddenly of a rare heart defect in 2015. Now a second Partridge has departed way too soon.

Some years back Mary and I met up with Shirley Jones and I wanted to tell her how much she meant to me as Shirley Partridge. I wanted to see if she remembered my mom’s best friend, who knew Shirley from the Rainbow Girls in West Newton, Pennsylvania. I had all these things prepared, but when we were face to face, all I could choke out was, “I love you.” That’s the effect The Partridge Family and Shirley as a second mom had had on me.

I just wanted to take a minute to pay tribute to Shirley’s step-son David Cassidy as a terrific singer with a phrasing that was unique and powerful. It’s a shame he got pigeonholed in the genre of “bubblegum pop” because he was more than that. He wowed ’em in concert all over the world and made and lost a fortune doing it. He made the cover of Life and Rolling Stone. He really was the biggest heartthrob of them all.  About five years ago, Mary and I went to see him in a concert-in-the-park setting and were astonished that the same females who had idolized him 40 years earlier were in the front row screaming and waving signs and album covers. For these women he never lost his magic, and as he performed the Partridge hit parade—an evening 100 percent devoted to that music because it’s what the people came to see—I realized how much he had grown to love the songs because that’s the way he talked about them, as cherished old friends. I don’t think he always felt that way, because they’re simple songs about seeing a girl, or falling for a girl, or loving a girl, or losing a girl. It was very much early-Beatles influenced music with a lot of heart, and I guess that’s what he came around to in the end. As a matter of fact, Cassidy passed on the 47th anniversary of the single I Think I Love You going to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. How’s that for weird?

Unfortunately for David Cassidy, there were demons hidden in the genes of his parents, and in many ways the years were unkind. But as my friend Johnny Ray Miller put it last night on Facebook, “We lost an entertainer of magnificent proportions, but saddest of all, we lost a good man. A simple man at heart.” Johnny should know—he wrote When We’re Singin’, the definitive Partridge Family book, and David Cassidy contributed the introduction. Johnny had met and interviewed nearly all the key people involved in the show and the music, and I know by the depth of his mourning that underneath it all, David Cassidy must have been a fine fellow. I’m glad, because the show and the music that he helped to create are big parts of how I became me.

David Cassidy at about the time we saw him, still sounding great.

 

The Bear

My best friends in elementary school were John, nicknamed “Skip,” who lived a couple blocks away in one direction, and two brothers, Bobby and Ricky, who lived a couple blocks away in the other. We lived in a college town where my dad taught physics, and Bobby and Ricky’s dad was a big deal in the music department. He was also a wonderful guy and a WWII veteran. That made him into something like a mystical character to me. A lot of the fathers of my friends were in “the war”—my dad wasn’t because he was color blind. Talk about seeing the world as many shades of gray—that was my dad.

Skip’s father was what you might call the opposite of Bobby and Ricky’s. He had also been in the war, and my memories of this man are vivid through the passing decades. He lived in the darkened bedroom and was rarely seen. I heard him many times, snarling at his wife, a very nice lady, and yelling at his son over some misdemeanor. Skip never talked about the abuse that he and his mother were taking, but he didn’t have to. He wore the sadness everywhere, especially in school where he started to have trouble as the years passed.

To me as a kid, Skip’s father was a snarling bear in a cave. Skip and I never went near that part of their little ranch house; the basement door was near that bedroom, and we tiptoed so as not to poke the bear. There’s no one left to ask why he was like this; Skip died of a heart attack in the 1990s at a very young age because, I guess, if you lug that amount of sadness around long enough, it’ll wear you out. He was such a nice guy, probably because he knew how it felt when people weren’t nice. I wonder if Skip had any idea where his dad had seen action. Did he hit the beaches of Anzio or Normandy or Iwo? Was he ground crew for the heavies in England? Was he caught in the slaughter of the Bulge? Whatever had happened to him over there had left a wreck of a human back here, and laid waste to a family unit that deserved better.

I thought about that snarling bear for the first time in a couple generations because I’m involved in a project that’s analyzing 1945-46 in the life of Jimmy Stewart as he returned home from war and contemplated his future. He was one of 11,000 G.I.s who stepped off the Queen Elizabeth on August 31, 1945—maybe Skip’s father and Bobby’s stepped off with Jim, who knows. But all these guys who had just stared into the face of the most horrific war in human history now returned home to something just as terrifying: All had to make their way in a world that was different from the one they left behind. Now they actually had to live with the brides they had married in haste. They had to find jobs because the ones they had left had been filled by younger men or, in some cases, by women. Did you know that one of the greatest shortages of 1946 was the one for dress shirts for job interviews?

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

One day after stepping off the Queen Elizabeth, Jimmy Stewart condescended to hold a press conference after keeping the press at bay for the better part of four and a half years. That day he said he just wanted to make a comedy, “if anyone will have me.”

I am amazed at the bravery of these men. In Jim’s case, as detailed in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, he had flown 20 combat missions over France and Germany and survived many close calls. I can’t imagine you’re ever quite the same again after a German fighter has flown straight at you-as-pilot and fired wing-mounted machine guns at the cockpit of your bomber. Or after an anti-aircraft shell has hit your plane over the heart of Germany and blown a hole in the flight deck between your feet. Or after you’ve seen the planes under your command break up in the air or explode in a fireball. That was Jim’s tiny little corner of the war, and most of the 11,000 others on the QE had lived through their own little corner, whether it involved bullets or shells or some psychological evil that was even worse. And there were hundreds of passenger ship dockings, each unloading 11,000 more men. And more and more and more.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

I have always been drawn to this shot as we first see Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. He’s playing a young man of about 20 and we suspend our disbelief, but if you look closely, the face that had stared into the face of war is clearly visible under heavy makeup.

It’s easy not to really think about what combat soldiers see in any conflict in any spot in the world. Whatever that is, they can never unsee it, and it becomes part of the veteran’s mind, and in some cases a handicap that inhibits performance at home and on the job.

For the World War II veteran, it had to take tremendous courage to start over in a civilian world where the men you had counted on to have your back, the ones who had been part of what Jim called a “grand thing,” were now your competitors for jobs. You knew another vet by the look in his eye, and you resented the ones who didn’t have it because you knew they had spent the war at home for whatever reason. The veterans had also changed physically. Many had left as wiry 18-year-old boys and come home as square-shouldered men to the surprise of mothers and siblings. In Jim’s case, as noted in Farran Smith Nehme’s excellent Village Voice piece, going into the service at age 32 and serving four-plus hard years had left Jim “so careworn that no studio would cast him.”

Jim must have lived right because the one call that did come resulted in It’s a Wonderful Life, and that rollercoaster picture with the happy ending contains a tour-de-force Stewart performance that mirrors the crisis in his post-war personal life. He stood at a crossroads like so many million others and displayed courage enough to push his way forward. He survived. He thrived. He lived 50 more mostly wonderful years while consciously tamping down an ongoing loop of black memories. He controlled them; they didn’t control him. For Skip’s father and I’m sure millions of others it didn’t go so well, and I think I could make a case for poor Skip being another casualty of World War II, once removed.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Director Frank Capra chose to throw Jim in the deep end and shoot this scene first. Jim was suffering PTSD and his confidence was shot, all of which is imprinted in celluloid for posterity. The scene is full of clumsy energy and some very strange kisses between stars who, Jim would claim later, had no chemistry.

Lost and Found

I always understood the cult of Somewhere in Time without ever considering myself to be a part of it. I first saw this picture on its HBO release, probably in 1981, because of course no one saw it in theaters on wide release, where it bombed because Christopher Reeve’s star was already descending, and because an actors’ strike kept the two main players from hitting the road to talk up their new release.

Anyone who has ever loved and lost can relate to Somewhere in Time and the blackness, the despair of going on alone. There’s a desperation for happiness among the characters, a happiness so fragile every minute. I have to pause here and thank Matt of MattsRadShow on Youtube for his video that I stumbled upon stream of consciousness-like the other day, because Somewhere in Time was, right then, somewhere near the last thing in the entire world on my mind. I ‘got’ Matt instantly and wondered if we were twins separated at birth the way he and his wife, Ashley, traveled to Mackinac Island to track down and record key shooting locations—cleverly so!—and produce a video that I’d argue is as haunting as the picture it honors. [My aside to Ashley: I know you’re long-suffering because I have a better half who has similarly endured wild, improbable adventures in support of her man. Well played, my friend.]

I didn’t mess with superlatives for Jane Seymour in this column, but, boy, she gives the role of Elise depth beyond the words on the pages of the screenplay.

So inspired by Matt’s work was I that I headed for OnDemand on a Saturday night and consumed this picture for the first time in decades. I loved it. Truly savored it. My reservations are still my reservations, but Somewhere in Time has three things going for it that simply overwhelm its drawbacks. The assets are, in no particular order, Jane Seymour, Mackinac Island locations, and John Barry’s score, which went through my head all night and is still there now. In fact, what the hell, let’s play it in the background while I write this.

Nice. Very nice.

Cutting to the chase, speaking just for me, Christopher Reeve almost ruined this picture. I was never a fan. I tried my best to like his Superman and succeeded for a while because the press kept telling me he was good. But OMG is he not good. He thought he was an actor but was simply too quirky, too unaware of how he was coming off, and proved it in picture after picture. Yes, he had his good moments here and there. But too many bad ones. I like to think if he had remained healthy, he would have gotten the right coach and really developed the talent that was inside him.

That said, I still remember exactly where I was when I heard the news he had suffered a catastrophic injury during an equestrian event. It shook me up; I never got over it. I’m still not over it. For a vital, successful young person to endure such a fate… The agony of Chris Reeve adds a layer of pathos to Matt’s video transposing Reeve at Mackinac locations with those locations today. It tears your heart out knowing what happened later on. I have to wonder if Reeve’s spirit doesn’t live on at Mackinac, so effective is Matt’s technique.

Somewhere in Time begins with young drama student Richard Collier being visited by an elderly lady who puts a pocket watch into his hands and pleads with him out of the blue, “Come back to me.” He stands there stunned, having never seen her before, and has no perspective on what’s happened. He goes on with his life and eight years later, as a successful playwright suffering writer’s block, gets out of his native Chicago and heads for a getaway on Mackinac Island, off the coast of Michigan. At plot point 1 he finds, and falls in love with, the portrait of a young actress on the wall at the majestic Grand Hotel. He learns her name, Elise McKenna, and that this photograph of such timeless quality was taken 68 years earlier, in 1912. Library research reveals “the last photograph taken of Elise McKenna” and it’s the old woman who had put the pocket watch into his hands eight years earlier!

Academy Award-winning actress Teresa Wright only has one meaty scene, but it’s a honey as the nurse of elder Elise who helps Richard Collier begin the journey into his future…in the past.

OK, you’ve got me. A perfect first half hour of cinema. Now just don’t blow it. Reeve borders on being pretty good in this first half hour. He’s got all these fidgety, self-conscious mannerisms he thought people needed to see, but he largely keeps them in check during the set-up.

The way he gets back in time is preeeeeeeeeetty iffy. Not Reeve’s fault at all—it’s the device of the novel, Bid Time Return, by Richard Matheson. But eventually he does get back there and his meeting with young Elise on the beach by some trees is one of the sweetest, most effective scenes I’ve ever experienced. That location, that music, that woman, the intrigue of that moment and of his struggle to get to the bottom of the mystery but more importantly to get close to this face he’s fallen in love with. Reeve’s uncharacteristic, unbreathing stillness on the dolly approach helps the scene along as well.

In case you were wondering.

Yadda yadda, they spend time together despite her pill of a manager (there has to be a bad guy) and it’s 45 minutes of standard romance with an obligatory sexual coupling before his iffy time-travel device comes a cropper, and he’s catapulted back into 1980 as she screams his name and witnesses his dematerialization.

I hated the ending 36 years ago and I hated it last night. It’s almost as if, “Welp, we’re outta money, folks, so let’s go home.” Red River comes to mind—90% of a winner of a picture with many touches of brilliance poisoned by an erring final plot twist. But as I murmured while experiencing the last 60 seconds of Somewhere in Time at 11:30 last night, James Cameron must have been one huge fan because he ripped it off down to single genomes for the ending of Titanic. I simply never put 2 and 2 together. Yikes.

Granted my misgivings, I’m urging you to set your disbelief on a shelf and spend 104 minutes on the journey of Elise and Richard. In fact, watch Matt’s rad video first and then consume Somewhere in Time. This world crumbling around us needs more romance, more lush scenery, and more pretty music. Somewhere in Time has all three, and my shout-out goes to Matt: Thanks dude for helping me re-find a lost treasure.

Jane Seymour returns to Mackinac Island for the traditional “Somewhere in Time Weekend” in 2015.

Mama we’re all crazee now

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

Olivia de Havilland as glamour puss in 1939’s Elizabeth & Essex.

I was reminded recently that we’re all “crazy” in one way or another. I use the term advisedly because there’s crazy and there’s crazy, but we all have foibles. The other week I mentioned to someone that when I go to a restaurant I always order the same thing, and I was told that this practice is “bizarre.” I was told that it’s normal to always order something different off any menu. To me ordering “the usual” offers comfort and stability in my life; I have something to look forward to that I know I’m gonna like. To me it isn’t bizarre at all—ordering something different every time is just plain nuts.

I freely admit I’m a creature of habit and that I’d rather watch one of my favorite pictures for the tenth time than watch something contemporary a first. Once again: comfort and stability in a world of constant change. Not to mention the fact that I have so often felt cheated by modern cinema and robbed of three hours of my life, forty or fifty bucks, and a chunk of my hearing.

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

Poster art for The Snake Pit hinted at the obvious: This wasn’t a comedy.

What are some of your foibles? What are those things you do that keep you sane and offer satisfaction but cause friends and family to label you as an odd one? Do you keep your house as clean as a hospital to the extent that you are compelled to throw out things that later turn out to have been important? Do you keep it as sloppy as an old barn so you can’t find anything at all? What works for you that others find “crazy”? (I really need your help here, or I’ll think I really am the crazy one.)

Today’s topic, the holiday 1948 Fox release of The Snake Pit, deals with insanity and a misunderstood picture. I know it’s misunderstood because I used to misunderstand it myself, and I had a conversation with Greenbriar’s John McElwee years ago during which he expressed disdain for the theme of said picture and wondered why anyone would spend time with something so dreadful. Just as a fact-check I asked him about The Snake Pit just this morning.

“I stayed away due to harrowing repute of The Snake Pit,” John responded. “The mood necessary to get through one like this doesn’t come often. Maybe I’d watch right after they told me I’d won the Irish Sweepstakes, when presumably nothing could dampen my cheer.”

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t fall into The Snake Pit until I had to, when I was researching Olivia de Havilland for the book Errol & Olivia. Then straightjacket-bound, I sat there determined to endure this woman’s descent into madness. But John and I had good reason to be wary: When you call something The Snake Pit and the poster art depicts a disheveled and unmade-up glamour-puss like Olivia de Havilland surrounded by lunatic versions of herself, well, you don’t expect Groucho one liners and Harpo’s horn.

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

Nobody in golden-age Hollywood cared about the craft of acting than Olivia de Havilland. Nobody. Livvie spent time in mental hospitals while prepping for The Snake Pit. Glamour be damned.

The Snake Pit manages to expose truths about mental illness that for its time were revolutionary. Demand for such a picture in 1948 resulted from a country bulging with men just back from the war who were dark, haunted strangers to heartbroken loved ones. Wives, parents, and siblings wanted to know who this monster was that lurked under their roof and how had he become this way, and The Snake Pit offered clues if not answers.

I don’t know how to break this to you and especially to John, but The Snake Pit is a charming picture armed with no small doses of ironic humor and packing a powerfully positive emotional release in the final reel. Virginia Cunningham is a recently married young white-collar woman who descends into madness and is hospitalized, and it’s up to Dr. Kik to find out why. Along the way we hear Virginia’s obsessive internal monologue, which (I don’t know about you but…) is something like mine. Overanalyzing to make sure people think I’m as sane as they are. If you’ve seen The Snake Pit, do you agree? Do you see and hear yourself or your spouse or a parent or a child in Virginia’s running analysis?

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

Virginia and Dr. Kik, well played by Brit Leo Genn, work toward answers.

Another thing the screenplay by Frank Partos makes clear is that people declared the sanest among us—in this case Virginia’s caregivers—are among the cruelest. And that the true love of a family member, as expressed here by Virginia’s husband Robert, is unconditional. Robert isn’t angry that his bride has been taken from him; he just wants her well and he wants to understand why.

Not that The Snake Pit is a fun two hours at the movies. It becomes one when we embrace the concept here and begin rooting for Virginia to triumph over her often-charming cellmates and especially over the nasty staff as Dr. Kik digs through her subconscious to get at the basis for her illness. It might seem cliché what he uncovers about childhood episodes and the damage they do, but isn’t that where we become who we are, in childhood? The seeds of Virginia’s illness were sown there, but the world and adulthood bring them to flower, just as the real world and what those boys had seen “over there” took America’s fighting men to a dark place that many would never escape. There’s universal truth represented here in this exercise in Psych 101 that holds up 70 years after the picture’s production. And how the movie-going public did respond, making The Snake Pit Twentieth’s second-highest-grossing picture of the year.

The worst moment for me is the shock treatment as defenseless Virginia is strapped down with a rubber bite strap and zapped as we sit there going, what’s this supposed to help? There are people I wouldn’t mind see get electroshock therapy, but it has nothing to do with wanting them to get well—if you know what I mean. What you’re supposed to understand is that shock treatment is barbaric, as barbaric as McMurphy’s lobotomy-as-“cure” in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest decades later. These are horrifying physical solutions by the “sane” world to sophisticated emotional problems that could strike anyone at any time.

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

The picture’s signature shot: an almost-well Virginia sees the place she’s in as a deep pit, and the patients as snakes.

Can there really be any “spoilers” for a 70-year-old picture? Either you’ve seen it or you haven’t, but if you haven’t, give The Snake Pit a chance. It’s a tour-de-force by de Havilland that dwarfs her work in To Each His Own a couple of years earlier, the one that oh by the way earned her an Oscar. The Snake Pit would earn her another Best Actress nomination. I promise all readers, and especially you, John, that Virginia will charm you, and that the last reel will make it all worthwhile.

I’m the sentimental fool that moguls like Zanuck and Goldwyn envisioned out there in the dark, and I cry every time Virginia reaches understanding and walks out of “that place.” Of course it’s a tainted victory because Partos and director Anatole Litvak telegraph what you’re supposed to feel with an excruciating singalong of a ditty called “I’m Goin’ Home” by inmates at a dance who are way too lucid at that moment. But what the hell; Virginia makes it out and gives hope to all of us who are beaten down through the course of our lives by harmful experiences, so harmful that they make us a little bit, or a lot, crazy.

*   *   *

Note: The title of this column pays homage to the 1970s British glam-rock band Slade and one of its greatest hits. All hail Noddy Holder, Jimmy Lea, Don Powell, and Dave Hill, who helped us realize that a little crazee (and a little misspelling) was fine as they gave the world, among other masterpieces, Cum On Feel the Noize.

Curves and Straightaways

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

I know I’m not the first to make this realization, but while scanning 1950s articles about Hollywood the other day, I stumbled across a piece comparing and contrasting two stars on the rise in 1953, Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

As the evil Rose in Niagara, Marilyn was dressed in several outfits to show off her feminine curves, and director Henry Hathaway gave her long, lingering walking-away shots to leave the boys in the audience panting.

It had never occurred to me that this dichotomous pair, arguably the two most iconic, recognizable, still-relevant Hollywood stars ever, burst upon the scene within months of each other. Yes, Marilyn had already appeared in many pictures as a supporting player from 1947 through 1952, but it was her role as the would-be husband killer in Niagara (released in February 1953) followed in quick succession by the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (August) and comedy How to Marry a Millionaire (November) that launched her to superstardom.

Hepburn on the other hand had found Hollywood via Broadway, where she’d earned raves for Gigi in 1952. Just to show how stars are born, Marilyn clawed and scraped her way up the ladder, while Audrey lucked into break after break. A couple of bit parts had earned Hepburn a pair of supporting roles in European pictures. While making one of these, the playwright Collette stumbled upon Hepburn in a Monte Carlo hotel lobby and knew instantly that this was the girl to play her title character, Gigi.

Faster than you can say Air France, Hepburn was jetting to Broadway in 1952 and earning press that made Hollywood a logical next step. And who should snap her up but William Wyler at Paramount for Roman Holiday, a picture tailor made for a pretty, young European unknown with a mostly British accent. In other words, it had taken Marilyn six years, many nude modeling assignments, and by my count 20 motion pictures and however many casting couches to get where Audrey Hepburn found herself overnight in September 1953.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

This is a face that had stared into the face of war. Despite no formal training, the life she’d lived gave Audrey tremendous depth as she starred in Roman Holiday at age 24

What struck me about the late-1953 article taking a first look at Monroe and Hepburn was its question posed to the American public: Which do you prefer: curves or straightaways? Marilyn was already well known for bombshell curves the likes of which Hollywood had rarely seen. She was like a crazy-deluxe combination of Mae West and Lana Turner. Then out of nowhere comes this Hepburn girl from Holland by way of London and New York. Hepburn was described out of the gate as “boyish” and “elfin.” Wyler even called her a strange combination of “pretty and ugly.” In retrospect this seems outlandish but in context, Audrey had lived through World War II and spent months emaciated from lack of food. After the war, she grew chubby from overeating. And all the while her face was transitioning from nothing special to drop-dead arresting. When she hit Broadway and then Hollywood, nobody had seen anything quite like her before, and that which has become a modern standard for beauty took consumers in the United States some getting used to.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Publicity shots at this stage of Marilyn’s career sold sex, sex, and more sex.

It’s amazing to me that IMDB lists 33 film and TV credits for Marilyn Monroe and 34 for Audrey Hepburn. Neither had a long career for vastly different reasons, and both left us wanting much more. As humans, they couldn’t have been any more different. Insecure Monroe became a super-sad super diva, while Hepburn retired from the screen for her two sons and for Unicef. Monroe coveted accolades as an actress and studied under Lee Strasburg; Hepburn spent her later years feeling she was never an actress and kept apologizing for it. Monroe was notorious for missing her call times by hours and half-days and Hepburn never showed up anywhere late even by a single minute. Yet today, given that Marilyn died 55 years ago and Audrey 24, they are the most famous of Hollywood icons, these two who hit the bigtime in 1953, one famous for curves, and the other for straightaways.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Audrey spent most of her career covered up. She always considered herself a ballet dancer and not an actress, but her lack of curves could be traced back to the war and long stretches of hunger.

Turnover

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

If you happened to be at the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn in Glendale, California, this past weekend, I want to be in touch with you because I wonder if you heard a kuh-thump sound. That would have been Carole Lombard turning over in her grave, because at the Heritage auction house in Dallas, Texas, a movie poster from one of her films auctioned today for $107,550. The reason she turned would have done the old flip-a-roo is that the poster represented Supernatural, her least favorite picture in a career spanning almost 80 screen appearances over 20 years.

As some of you may know, I’ve been involved with movie posters since high school, and to me there’s nothing so evocative as the smell of a stack of old lobby cards or other carefully aged, 80-year-old paper. I saw the Supernatural one sheet on a wall in Hollywood somewhere around 1985—the one that sold for $107K may have been the same copy for all I know. I believed it would go high because it’s rare (only a few survived) and scarce (many people want the few that exist) and stunning to look at. Lombard’s mesmerizing eyes follow you from all angles—it’s one of those posters, the spooky kind, as CL clutches a glowing crystal ball in her hands.

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

Roma Courtney, now possessed by the spirit of Ruth Rogen, who recently went to the chair for murder.

As recounted in Fireball, Supernatural is Carole’s only horror film, made in 1933 by the Halperin Brothers¾Victor, who directed, and Edward, who produced. Their reputation on poverty row preceded them to Paramount Pictures, where Lombard was then under contract and forced to make this tale of a dead murderess whose spirit drifts around possessing people, including at one point Roma Courtney as portrayed by our gal. The Halperins had just hit pay dirt creating one of Bela Lugosi’s signature features, White Zombie, great-great-great granddaddy of today’s endless stream of derivatives, including a series I just can’t stand called The Walking Dead.

Give me Supernatural any day. It’s a tons-of-fun sexy pre-code feature that moves at a mile a minute. The cast is solid led by Carole, Randolph Scott, H.B. Warner (relevant to today’s general viewer for It’s a Wonderful Life and Sunset Boulevard, although he goes way back in the silents), and Vivienne Osborne as the crazed, dead-then-undead killer. Everyone takes the proceedings oh so seriously, where today with something like this there’d be lots of winks and nods at the camera. Why Lombard was so exasperated making Supernatural I really don’t understand, because she was way into all things paranormal, cavorted with psychics and palmists, and should have seen the benefits of making a picture that was truly different from what was frankly a lot of crap that Paramount kept putting her in—mindless melodramas that induce migraines today. But exasperated she was, to such an extent that at one point during production she threw her arms open wide and screamed to the heavens, “Who do I have to screw to get off this picture?!”

Well, Carole, Supernatural lives on. Brother does it. Your mug made the cover of the Heritage auction catalog and the fact that the Supernatural one sheet, complete with your staring eyes and a pair of glowing, shadowy brow ridges that would make any gorilla proud, will hit the news in collecting circles for the fact that this poster cracked a hundred-grand and comfortably so. You might as well grin and bear it, baby. You have made the news in 2017.

Kuh-thump.

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

The Chain

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

The mountain that called to me.

In the course of my career, I’ve been inspired many times to create, almost always by looking at an aspect of history and wondering why. Where it gets interesting is when what I’ve created inspires others in something of a chain reaction.

Knowing that the wreckage of a DC-3 still littered a remote Nevada mountainside, that you can see the site of the crash from every part of Las Vegas, had been pulling me toward that spot for years. Finally I yielded to the siren’s call and got the shock of my life when after a four-hour ascent, 22 dead people whispered in my ear. Suddenly I was inspired to tell many stories instead of just that of Carole Lombard—and I think it was these souls who had been calling to me all along.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert MatzenI guess inspiration is a baton that’s passed from person to person. Reading Fireball served as inspiration for Las Vegas-based artist Kim Reale. First, I have to show you an incredible photograph—Kim displaying superpowers during her ice-skating career. The last time I saw her, she surprised me with a piece of giclée art of a most ethereal Carole Lombard that now hangs on my wall. “The book filled me with such empathy and compassion, I created a painting from it,” said Kim. “I felt Carole’s spirit rising from the horrific plane crash ascending to the heavens above with a dreamlike sadness of what might have been.” I’m pretty sure that prints of this painting–the word ‘haunting’ comes to mind–are available through Kim’s website.

Fireball reader Brian Lee Anderson had to learn more about Carole Lombard after finishing the book, and his quest led him to such rare finds as a previously unknown audio recording of her Cadle Tabernacle speech in Indianapolis the evening before she died. Brian also climbed to the crash site with FAA investigator Michael McComb and planted flowers at that desolate spot. I asked Brian to describe the role of Fireball in his life. “Your book jump-started all things Carole for me and my mom,” he responded. “I have always been a fan of Carole but in the fall of 2013 I took my mother on vacation to the beach for a week and we talked a lot and she told me the story of exactly how much her mother, Rosalie, was a fan [of Carole’s] and that she went to Indianapolis to meet her and how Carole’s death affected her. It all triggered my quest for more information. After we got home from the beach, I found your book on Amazon and ordered two copies, and Fireball answered so many of our questions and led to my finding the speech and trekking up Mt Potosi.”

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

Brian Anderson in the Nevada desert and about to climb to the crash site in April 2017.

Knowing that Jimmy Stewart took his wartime secrets to the grave inspired the writing of Mission. I saw only the challenge of getting at this long-hidden story, which turned out to be one of courage and dedication, of overcoming fear and fighting the good fight. I’ve done several dozen interviews promoting the book since its release, including a recent one with Daniel McCracken, a podcast journalist for a website called the 10th District. As we chatted before the interview began, Dan revealed that reading Mission had inspired him to pursue his pilot’s license. “Reading Mission was the initial push that drove me to research the training programs offered in Chicago,” said Dan. “I’ve read other aviation books but was never drawn to anything like Jimmy in Mission. His courage and humbleness was so endearing and the timeline you constructed helped me envision myself in his world. My training is going well now and the moments of discouragement are balanced by my new instinct to look back on how difficult being a pilot was during the war and at the dawn of aviation.”

It’s funny; each of these people found a unique means of self-expression from the printed page and a way to take the stories to places I never imagined. Brian not only added to the historical record but brought the beauty of flowers to a scene of grim disaster. Kim captured the sweet soul and transcendent energy of Carole Lombard through paints. And Dan now has the ability to soar above the clouds and experience, as Jim Stewart once said, “more than liberation…the ultimate experience of being in control.”

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

In the foreground: pilot Daniel McCracken. In the background: the wild blue yonder.

Who will take the baton next, for instance finding inspiration in a flower-shrouded mountainside, or in Brian’s research finds about Carole Lombard (thanks to his work, the entire speech Carole gave in Indianapolis can be found in the trade paperback edition of Fireball)? Who will stare at Kim’s painting of Carole and write a song or another book? Where will Dan’s career as a pilot take him, and who will he inspire to become a pilot in the future? All I know is, once the energy begins to push in a forward direction, the chain reactions seem to continue, and I can’t wait to find what comes next in the Lombard and Stewart stories.

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

Prominent spot for a precious piece of art.

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

What a Dame

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

I don’t think any photo ever better captured Livvie than this one taken in 1942. Beautiful, brooding, determined and remote, she was then at war with Jack Warner. Ultimately, she would win.

“Though she be but little, she is fierce.” The character Helena uses this description of her friend Hermia in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Not coincidentally, the description fits Olivia de Havilland, who portrayed Hermia in the 1935 Warner Bros. film adaptation of the play.

I first corresponded with Miss de Havilland in 1978 and have been in and out of touch with her ever since, although off for several years now. I fell head over heels for her as Maid Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood as many a male has and have been smitten ever since. I’m also her most recent biographer with my book, Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood (GoodKnight Books, 2010), which is to say I know something of the little and fierce human known as OdeH, who turns 101 today as I sit here and write this.

Happy Birthday, Miss de Havilland!

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

An Oscar in each mighty little fist. Take that, Jack Warner.

She is indeed little if five-three soaking wet qualifies as little. In my book it does. She is indeed fierce for having thrived in Hollywood for 20 solid years after not really wanting to become a film actress in the first place. She sort of backed into her career but then played by her own rules, earned two Academy Awards (for To Each His Own and The Heiress), and should have won two others (for Gone With the Wind and The Snake Pit). She was, simply put, a tremendous, underappreciated Hollywood home run hitter. A real slugger while in her prime.

You’d have to remind me of a time when OdeH ever grandstanded for publicity. And I mean ever, from 1935 to present day. It wasn’t her style to do that. She was and I’m sure remains a sober, serious, even brooding introvert, measured always in actions and delivery. A pro’s pro as an actor, a stand-up human, and a two-fisted brawler when backed into a corner.

During World War II, more than 70 years ago now, OdeH and Jack L. Warner went to court over the rights of studios and actors. Warner was then one of the two or three most powerful men in a town that respected only power. He was also a loud, uncouth bully and the “little girl” as she was known to the Warner front office kicked his ass in court. There’s no other way to put it. Warner lost and de Havilland won and “freed the slaves,” breaking the back of the studio contract system. Freedom from Warner Bros. led to those Oscars because prior to leaving Burbank, she wasn’t being assigned to Academy Award-caliber pictures. Courtroom combatant Jack Warner has been under the sod nearly 40 years while courtroom combatant Olivia de Havilland (born an English subject) just received, within the past two weeks, appointment by the Queen of England as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

In other words, never underestimate the little girl. Seventy-two years after defeating a Hollywood mogul, the fierce one is back in court, this time with a suit against Ryan Murphy Productions for their portrayal of “Olivia de Havilland” in the FX TV series Feud, which is based on real people and real events.

Said the attorneys for Dame OdeH in The Los Angeles Times, “Miss de Havilland was not asked by FX for permission to use her name and identity and was not compensated for such use.”

What bothers her more is what bothered me about Feud’s depiction of de Havilland by Catherine Zeta-Jones: “…the FX series puts words in the mouth of Miss de Havilland which are inaccurate and contrary to the reputation she has built over an 80-year professional life, specifically refusing to engage in gossip mongering about other actors in order to generate media attention for herself.”

The Zeta-Jones presentation doesn’t ring true; at least not in the episodes I saw, and in fairness I didn’t see all 18. My accusation against Ryan Murphy Productions is that they didn’t bother to research the real de Havilland or they wouldn’t have presented her as an insincere, trivial, gossiping, clichéd “movie star.” She deserves so much more credit than that and by God, she’s about to claim it in court because though she be but little, Olivia de Havilland, our birthday girl, is the fiercest of Dames.

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

Zero Hour

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Here is Lt.-Col. Jim Stewart one month after the D-Day landings. I chose this image for the cover of Mission because it reflects the toll of war on a man so recently thought of as youthful. He had by this time flown 14 combat missions, earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses, and supervised his bomb group’s D-Day bombing missions. The photo was found in Jim’s personal collection, which he had donated to Brigham Young University.

 

One of my favorite chapters in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe concerns the run-up to D-Day, which Maj. Jim Stewart had a hand in, as did just about everyone in the Eighth Air Force. I well remember sitting in a Brigham Young University library looking at records from the 453rd Bomb Group at Old Buckenham and feeling chills along my spine as I read a rare history of the 453rd written during the war. It described “invasionitis”—the endless speculation over when and where the attack would take place—as it reached its peak, and then suddenly, after weeks and months of anticipation, the base went on lockdown. No one in or out. All leaves cancelled. No phone calls. All fliers on alert. Imagine how those guys felt—the invasion of Europe was at hand. It was Zero Hour, and they were literally on the front lines.

Now I’m researching my next book and looking at the impending invasion through the eyes of civilians in Nazi-occupied countries. As they felt the iron fist of Hitler’s Germany close around their throats, as Jews were sent away and innocent civilians were executed in reprisal for partisan raids, as young men and women were kidnapped off the streets where they’d lived all their lives and sent to Germany as slave labor or worse, the only hope of entire populations was an Allied invasion. Every day and every day and every day they waited and hoped and prayed, and it kept not happening. On the continent as in England and the U.S., rumors filled the vacuum of information as top-secret preparations continued. Loose lips could do a lot more than sink ships in May 1944—loose lips could result in a repulsed invasion and a prolonging of a war that had already killed tens of millions of human beings.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

The landing craft that the B-24s couldn’t see as D-Day commenced.

Seventy-three years ago right now as I sit here in the New York time zone, B-24s took off from Old Buck to hit targets immediately behind the beach code-named Omaha on the Normandy coast. Jim Stewart briefed his bomber crews that they would be able to look down and see the mightiest fleet ever set to water, but upon return hours later, the pilots and bombardiers complained bitterly to Stewart that they had seen nothing because of heavy cloud cover. Among the things they didn’t see during those early June 6 sorties were their targets (Wehrmacht barracks and gun emplacements), which the bombardiers missed, and badly. Eisenhower had ordered a ‘Go’ to the operation despite continued lousy weather, and so shortly after dawn, tens of thousands of young men hit beaches that were supposed to be neutralized by bombing but hadn’t been softened at all. We know the result: Omaha was a bloodbath.

As the years pass by and the veterans of that day’s assault pass to glory, it becomes increasingly difficult to appreciate the gravity of D-Day, the shock of the headlines, the importance of the news to simply everyone in the world: to soldiers throwing up in landing craft in heavy seas knowing a storm of lead awaited; to parents across the ocean fearing for their sons in harm’s way; to oppressed civilians in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands desperate for liberation; to Jews heading for concentration camps or already there; and, yes, to Germans who could see their empire and dreams of a unified Europe slipping away. They knew that if the Allies got a foothold in France and headed toward Germany on one side with the Russians moving in on the other, the Reich was doomed.

For Baby Boomers (defined broadly as the children of service men who returned from WWII), D-Day is represented by The Longest Day, made by Darryl F. Zanuck’s 20th Century Fox in 1962 over the course of 10 months at more than 30 locations in France. It’s an occasionally brilliant, mostly ham-handed, decidedly G-rated version of a brutal 24 hours in world history. If anything, The Longest Day trivializes what really went on as it lays on globs of irony that’s supposedly clever and amusing and gives us some of the more unusual casting in Hollywood history. Everybody who was anybody got a cameo to the detriment of what this epic picture might have been. Even 18 years after the event when The Longest Day was released, there was no way to convey what D-Day meant to the world. So many decades after that, it’s downright impossible to do justice to this day and these people on all sides, particularly all those men who stormed the beaches code-named Juno, Sword, Gold, Utah, and Omaha. All I can say is, I salute each and every one of them for what they gave the world—a chance for an end to the most catastrophic war in history. And beyond that, a chance for a peace in Western Europe that remains to this day. Stated plainly, the accomplishments of the men of D-Day will always dwarf any and all acts of terror, for it infused the continent with a steely resolve that I’m convinced will endure forever.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

John Wayne and a bunch of guys who looked nothing–NOTHING–like the generation of young Americans who participated in D-Day. Press materials noted “an unusually large and attractive cast.” Um, agree about the large part, at least in the Duke’s case.