Author: rmatzen

Award-winning author of the international bestseller "Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II" as well as "Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe" in 2016, "Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3" in 2014, "Errol & Olivia" in 2011, "Errol Flynn Slept Here" with Michael Mazzone in 2009, and three other books.

Remaking Robin Hood

Title card from Ivanhoe.

I watched the 1952 version of Ivanhoe last night. It’s the first time I really consumed Ivanhoe because I will now admit, I’m not a big MGM guy or a big Robert Taylor guy, so I have seen bits and pieces of Ivanhoe over the years but never sat down and watched it until last night. And what I saw was good and then almost-great.

What really became a thing for me as I watched was realizing that Ivanhoe was a sort of remake of Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood a mere 14 years—and a world war—later. In that regard, Ivanhoe is a more adult, grittier picture presented to audiences now grounded in darker cinematic themes. But there are many similarities between the pictures in that both main characters face the same time period with only slightly different points of view. Robin of Locksley’s POV as a Saxon nobleman is replaced by Wilfrid of Ivanhoe’s as another Saxon nobleman, and they share the same plot: the Normans under Prince John are in power in England because King Richard is being held prisoner for ransom by the Austrians. Combating the bigotry and injustice of the Normans is an outlaw named Robin Hood who has an army of Saxon guerrilla fighters in the forest who are determined to end the oppression of the French invaders. Robin Hood, or “Locksley” as he is known here as played by British actor Harold Warrender, is a prominent character in the screen version of Ivanhoe as he was in Sir Walter Scott’s source novel, and Locksley’s band works in coordination with Wilfrid of Ivanhoe to bring down Prince John. Spoiler alert: just as in The Adventures of Robin Hood, a regal King Richard appears at the last minute to stare down his slimy brother, end the Norman reign, and declare that great things are ahead for England. We had seen Richard briefly in reel one, imprisoned all alone in an Austrian castle, which makes his appearance at the end with 100 immaculately and identically costumed knights really stupid. It’s like they were supposed to report to another movie and got sent to the wrong location.

The storybook way Richard rides in to bring the narrative to a swift conclusion works against every gritty moment that came before in Ivanhoe. It’s way too pretty and way too pat and much more like something out of the pre-war Flynn picture.

Guy Rolfe as Prince John in Ivanhow.
Guy Rolfe as Prince John–he’s half Richard Harris, half Peter O’Toole, and 100% black-hearted.

As much as I love the Flynn version and the way he built a winning team—an invincible winning team—he was so damn competent that the outcome was never really in doubt. Robert Taylor’s older and more weathered Ivanhoe, on the other hand, wins a lot but loses sometimes and when he loses, he bleeds. Up to the final confrontation, you feel like this is a real dude doing real things.

Just to ruffle feathers, I’m going to state a personal preference for George Sanders’ Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert over Basil Rathbone’s Sir Guy of Gisbourne as a villain. As laid out in Robin Hood, Sir Guy kept saying, “I’m gonna get that Robin Hood.” “I’m gonna hang that Robin Hood.” “That Robin Hood is in sooooooo much trouble!” but we never got a sense that Errol Flynn was really in trouble because he won every battle large and small except for the time he was bored and wanted to be caught so he could escape to piss Sir Guy off. Robin Hood’s wits and athleticism rendered Sir Guy into a villain who was all bark and no bite. But Sanders’ Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert is a brawny, earthy villain with a realistic perspective and a palpable lust for the “Jewess” Rebecca, played by Elizabeth Taylor. Where Rathbone’s Sir Guy had a glancing crush on Maid Marian—something more alluded to than depicted—Sanders is like, I want this girl and she’ll do whatever I say this instant! And I mean, whatever I say! His was a dark, domineering corruption of courtly love well past anything dreamed of by Sir Guy of Gisbourne.

George Sanders as de Bois Guilbert in Ivanhoe.
The awesome George Sanders as an equally awesome de Bois Guilbert, Ivanhoe’s rival.

Then there is de Bois Guilbert’s fellow Norman knight, Sir Hugh de Bracy, played by a Robert Douglas who seemed to get off on this type of character—he played basically the same snarling evildoer in Adventures of Don Juan just four years earlier. What a pair Sanders and Douglas make as foes for Wilfrid of Ivanhoe! You just don’t know what these two will do next, except it’s probably going to be lethal.

The Adventures of Robin Hood was conceived as a fantasy with sequins and tights, and you never really lost the feeling this was a comic book shot in Hollywood USA. I’ll go a step further and say you could watch the 1938 Flynn Robin Hood with today’s series of Marvel pictures and see Sir Robin as another gravity-defying superhero. Wilfred of Ivanhoe, not so much. There is literal and figurative gravity in everything about the setup of the story and the action driving it. There are bitter interpersonal conflicts, and the oppression of the Saxons by the Normans isn’t depicted through a few token outrages—it permeates the people and times. Check out the Ivanhoe trailer.

In Ivanhoe, there are two women love interests for our hero, creating a triangle, whereas for Flynn’s Robin Hood there was only Maid Marian. It’s interesting to me that MGM cast in the Marian/female lead role Olivia de Havilland’s sister and bitter rival Joan Fontaine, years older at 34 than Livvie was at 21, but sporting similar braids and looking almost creepily alike, although the interpretations of the actresses were quite divergent. Livvie’s Marian was warm, charming, and ingenuous while Joanie’s Rowena was typical of this actress—pretty but aloof, distant, and at times unengaged. Then there was Elizabeth Taylor’s Rebecca, way younger and more passionate and ready at any moment for Ivanhoe to carry her off to destinations unknown. Whatever he wanted was OK by her.

Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Taylor in Ivanhoe.
Rebecca to Ivanhoe: Take me, I’m yours!

As conceived in 1937 at Warner Bros., Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood was to open with a grand jousting tournament that established the enmity of Sir Robin and Sir Guy, but for budgetary reasons this sequence was cut from the production. Ivanhoe gives us not one but two jousting sequences, one a full-scale, thrilling set of jousts with Ivanhoe unseating Norman knights bang, bang, bang, one after another. They look painfully authentic because they were, thanks to location work in England and historical accuracy provided by the British Museum. We feel the grounding of this picture in medieval times because it was shot entirely in England with the supporting players cast there and real castles used along with a modern fortress replica constructed just for the production.

The combat depicted in Ivanhoe is raw in its brutality, up to and including the final confrontation between Sir Wilfrid and Sir Brian. Just, ouch. In The Adventures of Robin Hood, a single feint and sword thrust dispatched Sir Guy after a lengthy, well-choreographed duel. In Ivanhoe, Sir Brian dies hard after many minutes of lance, ax, and chain-and-ball attacks. It’s a vicious conclusion and praise must go to George Sanders for whipping up surprising sympathy in his final moment as he declares his love to Rebecca and then expires. And up until the very last few feet of run time, we don’t know if Ivanhoe is going to choose distant, aloof Rowena or hot young Jewess Rebecca. OK, I will leave one outcome in Ivanhoe unspoiled. You’ll have to see for yourself.

Robert Taylor and Joan Fontaine in Ivanhoe.
Ivanhoe to Rowena: This is a really tough call. I mean, you’re pretty and fair and all that, but she looks just like Elizabeth Taylor. How can I say no?

Blindsided

Watching Roman Holiday this past Friday evening, I was blindsided. I hadn’t seen this picture since the release of Dutch Girl, and for me the experience was much like rounding a corner on a city street and running into a long-lost friend. Here was young Audrey just seven years removed from the wartime Audrey I had sat with for three years, in whose footsteps I had walked in the Netherlands. That was the first and strangest experience the other evening—seeing this Audrey put me in a time warp and in my mind flashed scenes of the war from Dutch Girl and then memories from the ceremony in Velp in September 2019 when Audrey’s son Luca Dotti and I attended the unveiling of a historical marker and statue of Audrey at the site of her wartime home. I came out of the viewing of Roman Holiday thinking to myself, I’ve had an interesting life intersecting with interesting lives.

Audiences had every right to expect a happy ending from this poster art for the romantic comedy, Roman Holiday.

Other things really hit me during what must have been my fourth or fifth viewing of this classic picture.

I thought about Audrey during a long, demanding location shoot in Rome, her first interaction with a city that seems on celluloid to be friendly and welcoming. She wanders the streets alone, a princess nobody recognizes, and people are nice to her and she is nice to people. A couple of ironies hit me—of all the places in the world, she would end up living here in Rome with her second husband. And maybe because of the profound experience of making this first Hollywood film here, she naturally assumed she was already a member of the club, citizens of Rome. But real life, real Rome, would be cruel to Audrey. The marriage became an unhappy one, and as documented in my book Warrior: Audrey Hepburn, Romans never warmed to a movie star turned wife and mother.

Audrey’s inner circle as well as Luca revealed that she was treated badly by the locals. Her friend, writer Anna Cataldi of Milan, told me, “People in Rome, they were not nice to Audrey. They were absolutely not nice. She needed desperately to have friends and warmth. People were awful to her.” Luca said, “I believe that, for certain Roman social circles, the fact that she was too much a housewife, too ‘square,’ took its toll more than her celebrity.” He described the city as a sea of clannish neighborhoods with no appetite for outsiders.

I’ve never asked Luca, who lives in Rome, if he talked with his mother about various spots in the city where Roman Holiday was shot. If it were my mom, I might just be a little haunted by the Spanish Steps where Anya sat eating gelato, or the other familiar locations where ingenuous Audrey Hepburn made her first important picture. Luca sometimes checks in on this blog so maybe he’ll provide the answer.

Audrey and leading man Gregory Peck on the Spanish Steps.

A couple of other aspects of Roman Holiday struck me this time. One was the “guy code” on full display. When a princess on the lam falls into their lap, press men Joe and Irving are out to get a hot story, complete with pictures. But when Joe falls in love with said princess, his principles intervene and he can’t cash in, which would betray her. Fair enough. But the guy code comes into play when Joe leaves it up to Irving whether he sells the Pulitzer-level photos he had taken of Ann’s Roman adventures. And for Irving there’s no decision. He does the honorable thing and foregoes the money and fame that would surely result and instead, gives the photos to the princess. Irving isn’t in love with her, his friend is, but that’s good enough for Irving. Boom—guy code. I honestly don’t know how many Irvings remain in the world today, this narcissistic gladiatorial arena of TikTok and Instagram where the number of clicks and the number of followers have become the raison d’être of…everyone? Surely not, but it seems that way sometimes.

The story itself impressed me on this viewing for the fact that boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and girl eschews a happy life with boy because of a commitment to duty and country. It’s such a bittersweet twist and not what one would expect walking into the theater in 1953 to watch a romantic comedy. The ending is downright somber as Gregory Peck walks away with hands in pockets, alone and heartbroken. They have both done the noble thing, which may have been expected in 1953 but not so much today (see previous paragraph). This conclusion packs a punch because of its real-life aspect; so often, great love stories don’t result in the predictable happy ending, with 50 years of marital bliss. It doesn’t make such romances less real, valid, or momentous.

Standing next to Joe (Gregory Peck), Irving (Eddie Albert) is about to abide by the Guy Code and hand an envelope of “commemorative photos” to Princess Ann.

One final irony that hit me this time: Ann’s coming of age, represented by her voluntary return to royal duty after a 24-hour escape and holiday, sees her take control of her personal space from “the Countess,” her stone-faced lady in waiting. At this time in her life, Audrey was beginning a lifetime project of taking control of her personal space from “the baroness,” Audrey’s mother, Ella, Baroness van Heemstra. So very many ironies in this aspect of the story. Ella’s younger sister Marianne, Baroness van Heemstra (Audrey’s aunt), served as lady in waiting to Princess Juliana of the Netherlands before and during the war. Indeed, Audrey had grown up amidst a noble Dutch family set apart from the common people, which gave a young actress character insights to offset a decided lack of acting experience. In that regard, 23-year-old Audrey Hepburn served as a technical advisor on the production of her own first major motion picture.

When in the final sequence Princess Ann demands that the Countess retire from the royal chamber, it made me smile—in her lifetime Audrey would never experience such a symbolic moment with her own oppressor. Yes, the tables would turn late in Ella’s life when she became ill and dependent on her daughter’s good graces, but Audrey would remain oppressed and bitter until her own passing. Never did she dare to say, “You may retire, Baroness.”

I have no problem admitting I cried my eyes out at the ending this time, probably more than at any past viewing, because of all the intersections, emotions, realizations, and memories. I didn’t see any of it coming; I just sat down to watch a romantic comedy on a typical Friday evening.

The bittersweet ending Roman Holiday: Joe Bradley walks away alone.

A Nightmare in Dreamland

I remember how taken I was with David Stenn’s Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow when I read it back at the turn of the century. As you may know, I generally despise biographical books—so-and-so was born, her parents did this that and the other; she turned 2 and this happened; at 8 that happened, blah blah blah. If I want somebody’s chronology, I’ll look at Wikipedia. Bombshell proved an exception, which shouldn’t be surprising because the book was written by TV scenarist and producer David Stenn and edited by Jackie Onassis during her time at Doubleday. Jackie had also edited Stenn’s other Hollywood biography, Runnin’ Wild, the Clara Bow Story.

My respect for Bombshell emanated from what I recognized as Stenn’s tenaciousness as a researcher and passion for telling a story. I wanted to be like David Stenn! So when I started down the path of writing a book about the plane crash that killed Carole Lombard, I sought David out because he had nailed the personality of Clark Gable and written authoritatively about him in Bombshell. It’s been 10 years now since he and I spoke, but I remember several conversations with David and appreciated his time, laser focus and advice. Speaking with him was like reading his work: He gave 100% of his attention to me and my topic, and his advice is embedded in my book Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 and my other Hollywood biographies, Mission about Jim Stewart and Dutch Girl about Audrey Hepburn.

But life goes on and I had lost track of David Stenn until last week when my friends CB and Marina were talking about a documentary called Girl 27. Their prompting nudged an “Oh, yeah!” out of my brain—that David and I had discussed MGM and its scandals of the 1930s. A couple were untold stories that had really captured his imagination.

The other evening, I sat down with the 80-minute documentary Girl 27, released in 2007, with David Stenn directing and serving as on-air storyteller. Girl 27 is one of however many—thousands, certainly—dark stories of Hollywood’s past, this one concerning Patricia Douglas, a young teenager living in L.A. who had gotten some work as a dancer in the movies. One day she answered a casting call for dancers to appear in cowgirl costumes for an evening job at the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City (also the location of MGM). But the job didn’t turn out to be motion picture production. Instead, a lavish party had been devised by MGM to entertain its exhibitors and salespeople from around the United States—hundreds of white men in town to be wined and dined. The dancers were to be eye candy for the dignitaries.

As described in an interview for Filmmaker magazine, David Stenn had come across page-one headlines as he was researching Bombshell about young dancer Pat Douglas crying rape following this event. But after a couple days of newspaper coverage, the story disappeared, as had Douglas.

Lots of things annoy me. On that list is the labeling of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executives Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling as “MGM’s fixers.” I’ll spare you the F-bombs going off in my head just writing this term. Eddie Mannix wasn’t somebody‘s hit-man; Eddie Mannix was a vice president at MGM and right-hand man of Louis B. Mayer, who ran the most powerful studio in Hollywood. I remember watching the movie Hollywoodland and there were Bob Hoskins as Mannix and Joe Spano as Strickling sitting there stone-faced mumbling plots like wiseguys over the fact that Mannix’s wife Toni was banging actor George Reeves. But IRL Mannix ran much of a city-sized movie studio while Strickling oversaw publicity. Once in a while, a tiny aspect of their jobs involved cleaning up messes caused by studio employees, in one case the rape of Pat Douglas by a Chicago exhibitor named David Ross at the evening party on the Hal Roach lot in 1937.

The MGM field guys came to Hollywood with the clear indication from Mayer and Co. that Hollywood was opening its arms in every way possible. Liquor flowed in rivers that night, and undoubtedly many of the ambitious cowgirls on hand were ready, willing, and able to further their careers any way they could. But Pat Douglas wasn’t one of them. Pat showed up to dance, with the servicing of strangers from out of town the very last thing on her mind. She was a virgin who didn’t drink, and when David Ross forced liquor down her throat, she rushed outside to throw it back up. Later he dragged her to a car and raped her, with Douglas discovered by a parking attendant who called for an ambulance. Douglas was taken to a rinky-dink local hospital where she received a douche to cleanse her. But she had been raped and naïvely went public with this fact.

Pat Douglas agrees to appear on-camera in her Las Vegas apartment after 65 years of anonymity.

Those were the headlines David Stenn discovered, and because he had been immersed in MGM history writing the Harlow story, he knew exactly who would have covered up the incident and how they would have done it. Sixty-five years later, the case as cold as the trail, Stenn went to work employing his furious research skills and Girl 27 tells the story of what he found. He located Pat Douglas’ daughter, as well as the children of the parking attendant and the son of the attorney who was supposed to represent Douglas. Stenn turned to Judy Lewis, illegitimate daughter of Loretta Young and MGM’s Clark Gable, to understand the nature of Hollywood cover-ups. And ultimately, much to his surprise, Stenn found Pat Douglas still alive, a Las Vegas shut-in age 85.

Girl 27 has many spooky aspects. It’s spooky to see Mannix whispering in Mayer’s ear in MGM footage shot during the exhibitor convention of 1937. It’s spooky to see David Ross isolated in that same film footage as he stepped off the train in L.A., this sinister rapist on the prowl. But it’s spookiest of all to sit with haunted Pat Douglas, who at first wouldn’t even speak to Stenn on the phone but who ultimately appeared on camera, this wreck of a human tortured by one man and one night for the remainder of her life.

Girl 27 tells a huge, powerful story about the darkness of Hollywood. In fact, I have found that Hollywood was more darkness than light, a reality obscured by the fact that only the shimmering motion pictures remain while the flawed humans who created them have all passed on. In the Pat Douglas case, Eddie Mannix and others at MGM did what they had to do to protect the brand. If one young woman had to be wrecked along the way, that wasn’t so bad. They paid off the parking attendant, the doctor who attended her, and the attorney serving as her mouthpiece, and poof, the case went away.

By the end we in the audience are screaming for justice, but that’s a view for a different century. Monday morning quarterbacking. Back in 1937, the entire world and not just the movies were black and white. Back then if you were raped you had asked for it; Douglas herself confirmed that. Hers became a life of hatred and mistrust courtesy of one nightmare evening in a place so often referred to as the dream capital.

The Pluses and Minuses of Time Travel

First seen through a windshield in 1973. (Hooker, looking at the bad guy: “He’s not so tough.” Gondorf (alarmed): “Neither are we.”)

Did you ever notice that some movies are like a time machine? And I mean very much like Rod Taylor’s contraption. You step into the movie, and it transports you instantly to another place and time—where you were when you saw it and how old you were, and you reconnect with your sensibilities back then and can feel who was sitting next to you at the theater. You can see the room if you were watching it on TV and remember your self back then. Who you were and what the world was like.

As the years pass this happens to me more and more. For example, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, a Universal horror B-picture released in 1943, isn’t very good. In fact, it’s downright bad, with plot inconsistencies to give you a headache and some questionable casting. But it’s my favorite because every time I see the Universal logo and hear the fanfare, I’m 10 again and staying up late to watch Chiller Theatre on WIIC in Pittsburgh Saturday night at 11:30, after the news. What a struggle it was to stay awake back then after marauding through town all day and playing hours of baseball in any pick-up game I could find.

I never did get to see House of Frankenstein as a kid because I’d always manage to fall asleep. What I remember about House of Frankenstein is imagining how spooky it was as my friends (made of sterner stuff) stayed awake all the way through and described the horrific goings-on. But I must have made it through Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man at least once for the memories it evokes of the living room in the house where I grew up, a place long ago demolished. The living room and being alone in the dark watching the TV and wondering if the Wolf Man was going to bound down the stairs and tear me apart.

I managed to survive my youth without the Wolf Man tearing me apart in the dark.

Watching The Sting takes me back to Cuppies Drive-In and watching the screen over my dad’s right shoulder and my mom’s left and through a windshield, with the tinny sound of a speaker attached to the driver’s-side window. The Sting shoots me into their world, and I feel my parents as they absorb the time and place—the 1930s during the Depression when they were young. I have to credit the accuracy of the time period recreated during production of The Sting in 1972 because my parents never had the spell broken by something inappropriate to the 1930s. They loved The Sting. In fact, they loved the movies, which is where I caught the bug. That fact makes the time machine experience of particular movies bittersweet because for fleeting minutes they’re alive again and in their prime and then, poof, gone. And here you are, alone, murmuring, “Damn.” For a little while it’s as if you could reach out and touch them as we all sat at the drive-in watching The Sting. The time machine is that powerful a piece of mental machinery.

I still can’t watch JFK because I saw it with my friend Tom during a dark time in my life, as a relationship was falling apart. Those were black, black days and seeing any reference to JFK picks me up and tosses me back into the pit of despair; better to walk a wide circle around that one. I remember my good friend John telling me a similar story about breaking up with his girlfriend at the time Gray Lady Down was released. He told me this a couple of decades ago, but I bet he still can’t stand to watch Gray Lady Down, and I get it.

This and the accompanying music is all it takes to send me back in time.

Why is it that those long-ago movie experiences made such an impression? I can remember more recent pictures seen in theater settings that don’t result in the same time transport. I guess it all ended with Star Wars—every time I see that distinctive title screen and hear the first note of John Williams’ fanfare, it’s 1977 all over again and a new world of adventure opens. I’ve got goosebumps just writing about it. I was right there at the vanguard and saw Star Wars in first run six times in the spring and summer of 1977, and every time I’ve seen it since, that’s where I am, at the Showcase East in Monroeville queueing up. Just a kid. I remember reading about Star Wars and this evil character named Darth Vader and thinking, “No, he’s too scary. What if I can’t handle it?” I could imagine myself running screaming from the theater. But I hung tough and made it all the way through Star Wars and can reconnect with my youthful self by sitting down and popping in a Blu-Ray. It’s pretty cool to be able to do that.

I can’t be alone, right? So what are your time-machine movies and where do they take you?

Back Where I Belong

Just a couple of factory workers.

I’ve been picking up some new subscribers to this blog lately and it occurred to me maybe I should actually write something for people to read. It’s not that I’ve been idle; I am deep into research for my next book, which to me is the mother of all ideas and I can only hope I do it justice.

So I’m back where I’m comfortable: 1941 and 1942 Hollywood. I’ve landed in this grand place at a time when an avalanche of great scripts was being turned into a stream of enduring pictures, one after another. I marvel at how fast the pictures we know by heart were turned out. For example, I saw a little Dec. 30, 1941, item on the sports page of the Los Angeles Times: “Cooper to Play Role of Lou Gehrig in film.” The article describes how Lefty O’Doul, manager of the San Francisco Seals (Pacific Coast League), had begun tutoring Gary Cooper on his swing and throwing motion so he can pass for a credible major league ball player. The news item stated that Cooper had been the only one cast to date and that no start for shooting had been scheduled here at the tail end of the year. My friends, Pride of the Yankees premiered the next August! They finished the script and chose a cast, shot the thing, and edited and scored it, then made prints, all in a span of seven months, January-July. Compare that to today’s glacial pace, which I know all too well because I’m living it: years to arrive at a concept and then a script, years to make a deal for production and distribution, then years more to line up the director and cast. In 1942 they made great pictures in seven months; in 2022 they can lumber along toward fair-to-middling pictures in seven years.

Let’s scrape away the egos and bureaucracy of Hollywood today and look at the mightily efficient factory system of Hollywood’s major studios of 1942. The downside of course was the seven-year player contract that bound even the biggest stars to one studio and assignment to any production deemed suitable. Another factor was the workload, which saw stars working 10- or 11-hour days five days a week and at least a partial Saturday, usually under hot lights in Southern California soundstages that back then lacked air conditioning. Plus, actors faced the pressure of nailing the first or second take because when cameras rolled, precious film stock was exposed, quite the issue after World War II broke out and film stock was rationed across town.

As fame grew, so did resistance to material the stars deemed beneath them and in the case of my favorite studio, Warner Bros., titanic battles saw James Cagney and Bette Davis preferring suspension to mediocre productions, and then Olivia de Havilland took Jack Warner to court to free herself from the bondage of the seven-year contract. Her victory meant the beginning of the end of the factory system capable of turning out a Pride of the Yankees in seven months.

But it wasn’t all bad for the stars. That system put them on the path to fame and paid extraordinarily well, in some cases six grand a week in 1930s dollars. Think about that; the U.S. was off and on gold standard and dollars meant something back then, and your Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Errol Flynn took home genuine fortunes. Even in 2022 dollars six grand a week makes you an executive.

Anyway, leaving alone the factory workers great and small, here’s how fast magic was made. A Warner Bros. memo related on May 19, 1941, that freelance player Mary Astor had seen the script for The Maltese Falcon and pronounced it a “humdinger” and would love to play the part of Brigid O’Shaughnessy. As late as June 6 George Raft was to be Sam Spade but turned the part down saying it was beneath him and went on suspension. Into the breach at the very last minute stepped Humphrey Bogart with precious little time to learn his lines because the picture began shooting June 10, then wrapped July 19 with a couple of short days for retakes afterward. It premiered in New York City on October 1 to rave reviews. To recap, Mary Astor didn’t know she had the part as late as May 19 and Bogart didn’t know at sunrise June 6, but both could see themselves 20 feet high in a theater about four months later in a picture now considered groundbreaking film noir, a picture I’ve probably seen and marveled at 15 times.

Olivia de Havilland turns 25 as They Died with Their Boots On commences production. Now, back to work!

Then think about the Custer biopic They Died with Their Boots On, a fair-to-say epic picture in terms of scope, settings, costumes, and action—both small and large battles including the climactic Last Stand at the Little Big Horn, which was shot outside L.A. with a high steel tower erected to capture more than 200 mounted horsemen doing battle. The picture began shooting in time for Olivia de Havilland’s 25th birthday July 1, 1941 celebrated on set with Errol Flynn presiding over a cake, and despite all that went into making it, including Max Steiner’s memorable musical score, Boots premiered in mid-November. The first call of “Action!” July 1 and in theaters four-and-a-half months later.

What I take from my research is how damn hard everyone worked, as if their lives depended on it, which sometimes they did. A stunt man fell off his horse and was impaled on his saber during that tower shoot of the Last Stand and died in the hospital the next day, and let’s not try to count all the people behind the scenes who worked themselves near to death turning out pictures at such a breakneck pace. But I’m happy to say I’m back among them and can only hope to keep up.

The Comet

As a self-respecting guy, I never had any use for a movie entitled Pollyanna, especially a Pollyanna released as a live-action feature by Disney. All I knew of Disney live action was what I’d experienced as a kid in the 1960s; you know, computers wearing tennis shoes, slime that made you jump high, and monkeys going home. Even as a kid I saw this wing of the Disney studio as producers of ridiculous, cornball stuff.

Now here I am well past my wonder years and I stumbled on Forever Young, the Hayley Mills memoir, and had my eyes opened to a pop culture phenomenon I knew nothing about since most of it happened before my time. Apparently, Hayley Mills hit the 1959 motion picture landscape like a tidal wave, first in the independent British feature Tiger Bay, which led to her personal introduction to Walt Disney and a starring role in Pollyanna, which was the brainchild of a 1950s TV director named David Swift, who managed to convince the big man of the validity of bringing the goody-two-shoes character Pollyanna to the screen.

My only real-time connection to Hayley Mills was when as a late-teenager she starred in The Trouble with Angels, which I remember sitting through as one of the first pictures I ever saw on the big screen. It wasn’t made by Disney but it felt like Disney, and Hayley Mills didn’t make much of an impression.

Thanks in part to a diary she kept and in part to her 2010s deep dive into Disney production files, Mills was able in her autobiography to reconstruct the experience of that first trip to Hollywood to make Pollyanna, and her backstage view prompted me to block out time and give Pollyanna a try. I sat down with slime and monkeys firmly in mind, and two hours and 14 minutes later, I was sobbing. Yes, my friends, I confess I was sobbing at live-action Disney.

The Disney studio surrounded Mills with veteran actors like Jane Wyman, Ed Platt, Adolphe Menjou, and Anne Seymour, seen here listening to a grim Karl Malden sermon about how “death comes unexpectedly!” (Others in the cast but not pictured here are Donald Crisp, Nancy Olson, and James Drury.)

Now I understand why this girl proved a global sensation hitting midway between Elvis and the Beatles. She describes herself in Forever Young as an untrained young actress who just liked to be on-camera and this captures the utterly natural screen presence of a 12-year-old Hayley Mills, who as orphaned Pollyanna arrives in a small, uptight town circa 1915 filled with bitter people to live with her strict Aunt Polly, played in veteran style by Jane Wyman.

The term “pollyanna” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a person characterized by irrepressible optimism and a tendency to find good in everything,” and in dictionary.com as a person “excessively sweet-tempered and optimistic even in adversity.” The Mills/Disney Pollyanna is much more the former than the latter, an ingenuous yet canny observer of the human condition who barges her way into the lives of bitter recluses played by Agnes Moorehead and Adolphe Menjou and subtly brings them back from the brink of loneliness and despair to see the good in themselves and then in others.

Pollyanna meets and begins to influence a cranky friend played by Agnes Moorhead.

Pollyanna’s positive influence on the town around her grows so slowly over two hours of run time that we only realize the girl’s impact when she faces a health crisis and the previously embittered townspeople respond by charging en masse to Aunt Polly’s mansion to show their support and then, cue the waterworks (I teared up just writing this paragraph).

Pre-pubescent Hayley Mills was a revelation, with enormous blue eyes that threaten to leap off the screen to devour the viewer. Her eyes are almost science fiction, they’re so powerful. My reaction to Pollyanna made me seek out the feature that preceded it, Tiger Bay. Boy, what a contrast in plots, with young Horst Buchholtz in his breakthrough role as a good guy driven to kill his girlfriend as witnessed through the letter box slot by Hayley Mills and her sci-fi eyes. In Forever Young Mills describes her agonizing 12 year old’s crush on the 24-year-old Buchholtz, who would soon go on to make The Magnificent Seven. Their chemistry in Tiger Bay is purely compelling and overcomes any audience notions to question aspects of the noirish plot.

Crazy chemistry between Horst and Hayley in Tiger Bay.

Forever Young delves rather deeply into Mills family history, but then picks up steam when Hayley gets into acting—it’s clear that’s really when life began for this little girl. She takes you inside production of a 1950s indie feature and then suddenly we’re in Walt Disney’s office for meetings with the living legend and seeing blow by blow the back-and-forth negotiations between reluctant father John Mills and Disney lawyers who are on a mission to sign Hayley to a seven-picture contract.

I’m only halfway through the book but it’s already been something of a life-changer for me. For those not in the know, Hayley’s big sister is accomplished actor Juliet Mills, or “Bunchie” to those in the family while Hayley is “Bags.” On the set of Pollyanna Hayley meets actor Kevin Corcoran of the acting Corcoran clan, who is referred to in the book by his on-the-lot nickname of “Moochie.” I guess what I’m saying is the charm factor is high in Forever Young as we see stars of the screen and TV as regular people worth knowing.

So now you’re caught up on what’s been going on with me; I’ve seen Hayley’s comet for the first time and I’m getting up to speed on a talent who is proving, to me at least, quite capable of holding her own with Elvis and the Beatles.

The eyes that launched several Disney ships.

Road Test

It’s official: Warrior: Audrey Hepburn saw release by GoodKnight Books Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, the same date a splashy feature about the book called “Warrior Woman” went online at people.com, coinciding with a two-spread version in the Oct. 11 print edition of PEOPLE magazine. PEOPLE had given similar attention to Dutch Girl upon release in 2019, and so I knew the spotlight in this top periodical would launch Warrior in style.

I was in Dallas this past week fulfilling a long-standing commitment to appear before a private group and my appearances there—and at Interabang Books, a well-respected Dallas indie bookstore—provided opportunities to road test messages in Warrior before live audiences.

Signing books at Interabang after presenting about the book.

It’s safe to say this packaging of Audrey Hepburn was a big hit with three diverse audiences over two days. As I told the story of her remarkable courage in so many circumstances during the UNICEF years, I could hear noteworthy gasps from groups that numbered up to 380 people. Just about everyone knows something about Audrey, and many speak warmly about moments they find special from her 20+ motion pictures. But nobody had previously understood the ferocity of her personality for causes she believed in or her fearlessness under fire. And when I say “fire” I am covering a range—from attacks in the press to bursts of AK-47s going off at close range.

Audrey’s son Luca Dotti introduced me to his real mother in 2019 and encouraged me to investigate this unknown side of her, the idea that demure Audrey was in fact a “badass.” He said he first realized it during his years at an exclusive Swiss academy when the principal called his mother to reveal that Luca had been caught kissing a girl—quite a scandal for the institution. Audrey listened to the revered head of the academy and then asked a simple question: “How are his grades?” She was assured he was an outstanding student. And upon hearing that, she told the principal, “Thank you. That’s good to know. As to the other matter, please leave the raising of my son to me” and hung up the phone. Luca couldn’t believe it; after living day to day among a student body that trembled in fear of this powerful academician, his mother had just tossed off a display of real power and put the principal in her place. For the first time Luca understood that his mother just happened to be the fastest gunslinger in the west, and that if anyone crossed her, they would pay a price.

This incident occurred before the UNICEF years when Audrey would grow into her true badass self, a woman of strong belief who followed her heart and Spidey senses to anyplace in the world where she felt she was needed—the poorest countries and regions facing famine, disease, and war. An audience member at one of the appearances asked, “What did Audrey actually do when she went to these places?” This is a great question, and it plays straight to my own pre-conceived notions about Audrey Hepburn and UNICEF. As I lived my misspent youth in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I experienced Audrey’s activities as background noise. I imagined she was just another celebrity determined to get attention and see her name in the paper.

In this photo taken by her companion, Robert Wolders, Audrey’s all smiles and girlish; underneath she carries a deadly serious message. She has just been airlifted by Sikorsky helicopter to a perilously remote mountain valley in northern Vietnam near the Chinese border. There she is offered traditional Tày garb and dons it eagerly to show solidarity with these wonderful people who have been oppressed by a U.S. government embargo still in effect a full 15 years after the end of the Vietnam War.

My response to the question posed on Friday was that in 1988 when she signed on with UNICEF Audrey had one of the most famous names in the world, earned for a unique face and body, appearances in some landmark films, awards including an Oscar and a Tony, and the glamorous way she wore clothes. Two marriages and divorces had added a sex angle to spice things up. That was her starting point–she knew she could get some attention for UNICEF. Then slowly and surely, Audrey came to understand the true power of her name and how much media interest she could draw by making appearances in public; rather than doing it at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, she’d do it in a village in Ethiopia where there was a famine, or in a far-flung mountain valley in northern Vietnam where a U.S. embargo was pressing down on civilian populations. She would go there, and the media would follow, and she’d put Audrey Hepburn and suffering children on camera together and hammer home that UNICEF had just helped these people dig a well or irrigate their crops or vaccinate their children and if you nice people out there will send some money, we will put it to great use digging more wells and irrigating more crops and vaccinating more children. “UNICEF helps people help themselves,” she explained.

I have so many examples of Audrey Hepburn’s displays of personal courage all over the world, but it’s way too early for spoilers and I want you to go out and buy the book. And if you happen to be ready to place an order, might I recommend bookshop.org, which represents independent bookstores across the United States. They call themselves the “rebel alliance” taking on the “empire” and that puts me in mind of star destroyers, droids, and princesses in distress. Who wouldn’t want to help the rebel alliance?

Plucky Rebel Alliance pilots get their briefing on taking down the Death Star.

The Decision

In 1987, the mink company Blackglama landed Audrey Hepburn (photographed by Richard Avedon) for its ongoing campaign showing legendary stars wearing fur. The photo sums up her life in retirement.

At age 58, Audrey Hepburn had no reason to leave an idyllic life of retirement in a Swiss village overlooking Lake Geneva to go campaigning for UNICEF. She lived in a beautiful home, family all around, a world-class fruit and vegetable garden she loved tending, and her best friend just up the hill. Audrey lived with Robert Wolders, the love of her life, third time being the charm after two tough marriages.

But there were nightmares, memories of World War II that ate at her many nights. Living in the Netherlands as a pre-teen and then a teenager, she had existed through every day of Nazi terror. She had watched the Germans march in and five years later endured the last days when the Allies drove them out again house by house, grenade by grenade. In between she experienced all the indignities of life under occupation, all the deprivation, all the outrages. Yes, the war had left quite an impression.

A convergence of issues prevented Audrey from living out her days in the seclusion of Tolochenaz, Switzerland. First, she was a van Heemstra, Dutch nobility that had for centuries felt the noble obligation of helping those less fortunate. “It’s just what one did,” as she expressed it. Second, she was an empath imprinted with memories of that war and out there in remote corners of the world were people suffering as she once had suffered. Their wars weren’t global; they were armed regional conflicts between political groups, religious groups, tribes, or clans within a country. She detested the term “civil war” but technically, that’s what they were and caught in the middle sat entire populations.

Audrey began her UNICEF career by accident. She was invited to emcee a benefit concert in Asia and then a second concert in a different country. Her participation was minimal—just a few minutes at the podium—and in each case UNICEF officials witnessed a mob of reporters desperate to cover the latest from this elusive celebrity. The top blew off the fundraising thermometer when Audrey Hepburn participated, which meant UNICEF must get Audrey to participate more often.

It’s an overlooked fact that Audrey attempted to dodge this commitment because she knew what it would mean for her partner, her family, and her own well-being. Nobody on her side of the fence wanted to see the brand known as Audrey Hepburn become a UNICEF representative because all sensed what it would mean. She knew, too. She knew her own nature and how totally she had always pledged herself once she made any promise. For a couple of months she backed away, listened to a drumbeat of entreaties from inside the family, and then finally, when she couldn’t back-peddle any further, she announced a decision. In so doing, she gave UNICEF a lot more than it bargained for.

I believe I’ve made a case that what she did with the next five years of her life altered the course of history, but you can decide for yourself. Warrior: Audrey Hepburn will be released by GoodKnight Books in hardcover, audiobook, and all ebook formats on September 28.

My Head Explodes Every Time

Warrior: Audrey Hepburn by Robert Matzen
Twenty-eight years after first working together, Jimmy Lydon (left) greets Martin Milner’s Officer Malloy … and my head explodes.

Since I was a kid I’ve watched Adam-12, the realistic police show that ran in the U.S. from 1968 to 1975. I still watch it often, having seen some episodes, who knows, 10 times? Maybe 20. A couple of episodes always make my head explode because James Lydon’s in them, like the one in season 7 when Malloy goes to a halfway house to secure a place for an aging ex-con.

OK, very quickly the backstory: Adam-12 chronicles the experiences of Officer Pete Malloy, played by Martin Milner, who trains young Probationary Officer Jim Reed, played by Kent McCord. The kid’s a rookie in season 1 and a wily pro by season 7. At the time the series was made, Milner had been kicking around as a player in various theatrical features and TV shows and had the lead in the popular series Route 66 from 1960-64. McCord was a newbie when Adam-12 began, a find of the series executive producer, Jack Webb. You can still see Kent McCord at autograph shows today, looking great in his 70s. Milner died in 2015 at age 83; Lydon is still with us at age 98.

So, anyway, in this episode, playing the operator of the halfway house is Lydon, whose career went back to child roles in 1939. Most famously, during the war years then-Jimmy Lydon played the title character Henry Aldrich—teenaged son in the all-American Aldrich family (made famous on Broadway and radio)—in a number of feature film adventures for Paramount Pictures. Then in 1946 Lydon was cast in a very big and high-profile film, Life With Father, which would become one of the major hits of 1947, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring William Powell and Irene Dunne.

Making his onscreen acting debut as one of the sons in Life With Father was Martin Milner, then age 15, playing John Day, younger brother of Clarence Day, Jr., played by Lydon.

I cut my teeth on Life With Father. I’ve seen Life With Father so many times I can recite all the lines before the actors have a chance to spit them out. And so, every time I see this episode of Adam-12, when Jimmy Lydon walks out a middle-aged man to shake hands with cop Martin Milner after they had once played brothers onscreen in a very big picture, my mind is blown thinking about the history these two shared on that Burbank set, and what must it be like to see each other again?

They were witnesses as volcanic Mike Curtiz, suave leading man Bill Powell, and elegant Irene Dunne worked together day after day. They experienced the pressure as Jack Warner attempted to transition Broadway’s immensely popular hit Life With Father to the screen with the rights-holders breathing down the filmmakers’ necks every day.

Warrior: Audrey Hepburn by Robert Matzen
Milner and Lydon flank William Powell in a publicity shot of Father Day and his four sons.

What do you think about when you’re Jimmy Lydon with 150+ acting credits and lots of additional work as a producer, and you’ve got a small speaking part in an Adam-12 as an act of kindness from EP Jack Webb, and you’re working with this guy Milner who was once just a kid with no experience and played your little brother in Life With Father? Is it just another four hours on the Universal lot? Hey, how’s it going, Marty? Or do you look at Milner and the memories come cascading back, boom, boom, boom, and he’s still 15 and you’re 23 again and teleported to the Warner lot in its 1946 heyday. Here they are in 90 seconds working together as brothers in Life with Father.

We know Martin Milner and Kent McCord had become good friends by this time, so did Milner introduce Lydon by saying, “Hey, I watched this guy kiss Elizabeth Taylor!” Who wouldn’t be impressed by that? Thinking about all this made me revisit Alan K. Rode’s epic Michael Curtiz biography, which details the difficult production of Life With Father, the 72nd picture in the career of Curtiz and so just a tiny bump in the road for the titan. In it, Lydon gave some great quotes about working in that particular pressure-cooker.

Did Jimmy and Marty share a nostalgic laugh about the time Curtiz drove Lydon and Taylor through take after take of a key scene and on take eight Liz burst into tears and fled to her dressing room with Curtiz in hot pursuit screaming obscenities that he intended to be an apology? “Sonoffabeech, Elizabeth! Don’t cry!” ranted Curtiz. Lydon, at age 90, tells this story in an onstage Q&A with Rode that’s available on YouTube.

Warrior: Audrey Hepburn by Robert Matzen
A page from the Life With Father pressbook reflects the importance of a very young (and very expensive)
Elizabeth Taylor to the production.

Taylor was then age 14 and rocketing to stardom as reflected in the attention she received in the lavish Life With Father pressbook that suggested promotions for the film—many of them involving the natural beauty of Elizabeth Taylor. Jack Warner had traded for her from MGM at great expense even though she had already gained a reputation for being high-strung—her whatever it was, 15 minutes of screen time had cost Warner $350,000 and the services of his contract player Errol Flynn, used by MGM in That Forsyte Woman.

You can see why my head explodes every time, because all these thoughts cascade through my mind witnessing the simple interaction of two actors in a scene shot in 1974 during the last season of Adam-12.

Warrior: Audrey Hepburn by Robert Matzen
Wish I knew what you were thinking, you guys.

Author’s Note: Next time we’ll continue the countdown to release of Warrior: Audrey Hepburn and look at the reasons Audrey decided to take on a gig for UNICEF. It was, for her, no easy choice.

What’s Next

Warrior: Audrey Hepburn by Robert Matzen
Strolling with Robert Wolders in Gstaad.

The book Warrior: Audrey Hepburn that I wrote in close collaboration with Luca Dotti, Audrey’s son, will be released September 28. It tells the story of a side of her that’s been touched on in other biographies but never explored. And it’s a common human theme, particularly among women: “I left the workforce to raise my children and now they’re grown. What do I do next?”

Audrey Hepburn found Audrey Hepburn a tough act to follow. An impossible act to follow. As an ingenue she had won a Best Actress Academy Award and been nominated four other times. She had won three British Film Academy Best British Actress awards and her mantel also held Golden Globes, New York Film Critics Circle Awards, and on and on. She had conquered Broadway and won a Tony and as a sidelight became the world’s most important clothes horse. Even after she was long retired, publishers hounded her to write a memoir.

At age 57, with older son Sean working in L.A. and younger son Luca on his own in Italy, Audrey stood at this important and vexing crossroads in frustration. She may still possess some vestige of the face that had launched a thousand magazines, and some sense of the talent that had earned her all those honors, but film roles for women in her age bracket were in 1986 what they are today: scarce. She had dutifully kept the same agent into the 1980s that had represented her in the Sabrina days, Kurt Frings, and he reviewed script after script and sent many on and always Audrey reviewed them with disappointment. Too violent, too depressing, too gory, too vulgar.

But despite her chronological age, she knew she was still young. Inside she felt the same exuberance that had gotten her through two shows a night dancing in West End choruses 35 years earlier. She ate healthily and loved long walks in the Swiss countryside. She traveled often—one week would find her in Paris and the next in Hollywood.

Staying in film was the obvious answer. She had never loved film work and yet films had earned her a nice living and it’s what she knew, so she kept looking at the scripts and even threw her hat in the ring for the role of a society matron in a television miniseries, The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, and it was here she learned the latest of life’s lessons: When you jump into such a casting pool as this, you better be ready for sharks. Not only did Academy Award-winner Claudette Colbert want that part; so did Academy Award-winner Bette Davis, and Colbert got it and would earn an Emmy nomination.

Funny thing about Audrey Hepburn: She had an ego that resulted inevitably from decades of success and an inferiority complex several times wider. Fame bewildered her because she didn’t consider herself pretty enough or talented enough to have earned it. All she could say with certainty and a lot of pride was that she worked damn hard and gave herself with total commitment to any job she took on. She had to work twice as hard as everybody else because she was, in her mind, only half as good an actress.

So what about that memoir? She probably could have commanded a million-dollar advance but no way would she ever do such a thing. Because of the war she had some skeletons in the family closet that she must keep locked away. More than that, editors would expect the inside story on her life and career and that meant dishing about friends and co-workers. She may have known that Humphrey Bogart was a bitter man who had no patience for her on the set of Sabrina, but that was her business, just like her affair with co-star William Holden on the same picture was her business. She would never dream of sharing these matters with the world.

Resting in the Swiss sun, perhaps pondering what would come next.

The life she was living in retirement wasn’t exactly torture. She owned a Swiss farmhouse tended by a wonderful staff. She maintained a world-class fruit and vegetable garden that provided bounty for the table almost year-round. She had minded her money to the extent that she could provide for herself and her family. And she had finally at long last found the love of her life, former actor Robert Wolders. She could easily live out her years at home, or visiting family, honoring famous friends, endorsing the occasional product, and presenting at the Oscars.

But that was just it—Audrey Hepburn had never done things the easy way, so why start now? And that is the jumping-off point for Warrior. Other authors always treated this as just another chapter in the story of her life. The final chapter. To me, it’s the beginning of an epic adventure.

Pre-order the 368-page GoodKnight Books hardcover Warrior: Audrey Hepburn now.