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.

Almost Ilsa

Have I mentioned that I’ve written a historical novel? Season of the Gods follows real people and actual events from 1941 and ’42, taking you inside the heads of key players at Warner Bros. studio during the golden age of Hollywood. The rough draft hit around 180,000 words and about 40,000 words got cut along the way, meaning entire story threads were lost. One of those storylines involved Michèle Morgan, an actress who gained a reputation in France working with international sensation Jean Gabin; Morgan came to the United States in 1941, after the Nazi occupation of France and before U.S. entry in WWII.

You probably have no idea how close Casablanca came to seeing Michèle Morgan as Ilsa Lund, with the only hang-up her asking price—RKO, which owned her contract, demanded $55,000 and wouldn’t budge; Ingrid Bergman, under contract to David O. Selznick, would cost only $25,000. Casablanca producer Hal Wallis had seen Morgan and Paul Henreid in the RKO wartime drama Joan of Paris during a screening at the Warner studio, where he was taken with both leading players. Morgan was a petite 21-year-old with topaz blue eyes who played well beyond her chronological age. In fact, when Paul Henreid first heard he would be working with Morgan in Joan of Paris, his mouth watered just thinking of the French sexpot. But meeting her in person he thought, My God, she’s just a young girl!

Morgan’s story fascinates me. RKO, the studio that had teamed Astaire and Rogers, imported Michèle because of her uniqueness, and then, once she arrived in Hollywood, her handlers worked tirelessly to obliterate that uniqueness. Change how you talk, how you walk, how you think, to become the French-girl stereotype that Americans expect. And she went through it alone, completely alone, a stranger in a strange land.

I believe Michéle Morgan would have been a dynamite Ilsa, whether walking into Rick’s Café Americain to knock Rick right off his pins, or hold a gun on him, or walk out of his life to board the plane for Lisbon. She would have been more vulnerable than the physically imposing Bergman, and edgier because of nerves that plagued Michèle’s career in the United States.

At left, Morgan at the front door of her new home in 1942; at right, Sharon Tate there 26 years later.

But the fact Michèle Morgan tested for and almost landed the role of Ilsa is only half the reason she worked her way into the storyline of Season of the Gods. The other involves the paranormal, and unspeakable evil, in the modest farmhouse Michèle built in November of 1941. The address was 10050 Cielo Drive in Beverly Hills, just off Benedict Canyon. In her autobiography, published in France, Morgan tells how her agent had advised she place her a new house on available cliff-side land at the end of a quiet street because its dramatic location would make good publicity, and indeed, many movie star magazines depicted every angle of the interior and exterior. However, in 1941, the spot was also remote. Very remote. She said, “This wild hill above Beverly Hills was quite isolated. I faced the former estate of Rudolf Valentino [Falcon Lair]. At the bend in the canyon was Ray Milland’s home, closer to Harold Lloyd’s. Still, I would have had time to scream for an hour and die 20 times before anyone heard me.”

Michèle poses in just about the spot Sharon would be found.

Despite the fact that the home was new construction and smelled of fresh-cut lumber, things went bump in the night immediately after move-in. She said, “In vain I reason with myself, tell myself that a new house, barely completed, cannot be haunted, but I am afraid.” It seemed logical there were prowlers—but no one was ever seen. She bought a guard dog, a Great Dane that took over the house but turned out to be as frightened as she was. Finally, her pal Madeleine LeBeau, another young French actress of only 18, moved in with Michèle so both could experience what they finally determined were ghosts. And, at that time, LeBeau was working on Casablanca as Rick’s friend with benefits, making another interesting storyline—LeBeau was cast in Casablanca while her friend Michèle was not—that I ultimately had to cut because of the length of the narrative.

Please note that the dog pictured is not the Great Dane that would sequester himself in her bedroom and bare fangs when she tried to reclaim her bed. As a result, she slept on the couch–the better to hear bumps in the night.

After Michèle Morgan married and sold the house, many Hollywood celebrities lived there as renters, including Lillian Gish, Cary Grant and his bride Dyan Cannon, and later, record producer Terry Melcher and his girlfriend Candice Bergen. It was during this time that a young musician named Charles Manson first stopped by the place, and aficionados of true crime know 10050 Cielo Drive all too well: on August 8, 1969, the Manson family would strike here and kill Sharon Tate and her friends Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, and Wojciech Frykowski, along with random visitor Steven Parent.

Michèle Morgan returned to France after the war and enjoyed a long and decorated cinematic career. In 1969, when she heard where Sharon Tate had been murdered, Michèle was shocked but not surprised. In her book she asked, “How could a house without a past, which I had built, be haunted by its future?” An intriguing question, Michèle. I wonder that myself.

Season of the Gods will be released by GoodKnight Books on October 3, 2023.

Miracle Baby

I’ve written a novel. I didn’t plan on writing a novel and didn’t have any ambition to write one. It’s like out of the blue I learned I was pregnant and out popped this historical novel. If you ever read the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, this novel is like that. Except instead of being about real-life characters fighting the battle of Gettysburg, it’s about Warner Bros. in 1942…and features all real-life characters fighting studio battles while they live their lives at the beginning of U.S. involvement in World War II.

It’s called Season of the Gods, which is an allusion to the power held by Hal Wallis as the Zeus of his Burbank Olympos, and all the lesser gods who schemed and feuded in the name of art on the one hand, and commerce on the other. Reactions to date from Hollywood experts who had read the manuscript are positive. All systems are go.

I’ve learned plenty about the craft of fiction in the last year courtesy of this experience. My knuckles are black and blue from being rapped by my editor for using nonfiction techniques instead of fiction techniques. I’d write a biographical paragraph and, WHAP! Right across the knuckles. I’d summarize some episode or other and, WHAP! Another one across the knuckles. Don’t summarize, she’d say. Live the moments. It’s almost like I wrote the novel twice, once the wrong way, and then again the right way.

I knew what I wanted the story to be about, but I didn’t know that once characters come to life, they have minds of their own and suddenly what you thought was going to happen doesn’t happen, or doesn’t happen the way you figured it would. And that led to the most fun I’ve ever had writing, finding out what these people would say or do next.

Season of the Gods concerns how a woman executive named Irene Lee (yes, a woman executive at Warner Bros.) had a funny feeling about an unproduced stage play and approached Hal Wallis about buying it. He had just bought rights to The Man Who Came to Dinner and was negotiating for Watch on the Rhine, so when Wallis hears it’s a stage play out of New York, he asks Lee, “Which theater? Who’s starring?” She confesses it’s unproduced and he says, “No track record? No stars? No press? Pass.” But Lee’s a sharp cookie and develops her own game plan to work the system and get the property in the door. Then she’s involved every step of the way through all the twists and turns and politics and serendipity and genius day by day as the unproduced stage play becomes an ever-more-important component in the Warner Bros. production schedule for 1942.

Irene Lee had served as story editor at Warner Bros. for eight years at this time. She stood five-foot-nothing and weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet, but by age 31 was going toe to toe with Wallis and with the chief himself, Jack Warner. Irene sought to become a producer—which was unheard of at the time, a woman producer—and even after Wallis shot the idea down, she became the de facto producer of her pet project, proving you shouldn’t get in Irene Lee’s way.

Her unproduced stage play arrived at the studio on Monday, December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, and within two months, Hal Wallis had changed his mind about moving forward with it, despite the fact the play had no track record, or stars, or press, and its plot about all manner of illicit sex couldn’t be filmed because of censorship restrictions. The idea and setting were too good to pass up, and the concept could be adapted as a war picture, which was key because the day after Pearl Harbor, the United States and Japan were at war, and a couple of days later came a U.S. declaration of war against Germany.

As the novel unfolds, everyone in Hollywood worries about a Japanese invasion every moment. Were the carriers that had taken out Pearl Harbor going to steam east and flatten Los Angeles? Nobody knew. And, in fact, Japanese submarines did shell the coast in January, so Californians had reason to worry.

Throughout pre-production of Irene’s picture, the Allies were losing the war. It wasn’t until after cameras rolled, after a very long stretch of script development, that the U.S. fleet kicked Yamamoto’s ass at the battle of Midway, and so up until that moment in June 1942, nobody from Hal Wallis and Irene Lee on down knew if their movie would make it to release, or if America would already be beaten. All they knew for sure was that the world needed this story she had found. As the passage of time proved, the world did indeed need it, and continues to need it. Season of the Gods shows how it all happened. I guess it’s sort of one miracle baby describing another miracle baby. Cool.

Season of the Gods will be published by GoodKnight Books, with release on October 3, 2023.

Finding Audrey

A while back I received an email from Brenda Janowitz, author of The Grace Kelly Dress, The Liz Taylor Ring, and six other books. Brenda explained that she had found inspiration for her new novel in part from my book Dutch Girl, which was nice to hear, although at the time I couldn’t imagine what she meant. Brenda sent along an advance reading copy of this new book, called The Audrey Hepburn Estate, and I wanted to pass along my thoughts about a reading experience that, for me, touched all the bases.

The story will be familiar to fans of Hepburn’s filmography: the parents of Emma Jansen worked for a family that owned a Long Island estate called Rolling Hill and Emma grew up living over its garage. Years later she returns to the grand house as it’s about to be torn down, setting off an adventure with childhood friends, including the grandson of the estate owners and the son of their driver. Dark memories are confronted and secrets revealed along the way and at various points, the plot evokes parallels to the life of Audrey Hepburn or characters she played.

As you can imagine, I’m all about historic preservation and loved the subplot about passionate attempts to save the crumbling Rolling Hill mansion. Just reading about the place and those dedicated to keeping it standing made me want to join the effort because who needs yet more luxury condos or another apartment building? Must we always bulldoze the past in the name of commerce? Oh, it’s in disrepair so we might as well flatten the old building. I’ve gotten involved in many efforts to preserve historic places, whether it’s a home or part of an old fort or a viewshed as once experienced by George Washington; sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. To me this aspect of the plot really resonated.

But there were still more goodies in store—mysteries related to Rolling Hill connecting back to the Netherlands in World War II, and secret passages in the old mansion, and was the place in fact haunted? So, what do you get when you round all the bases; that’s right, you hit a home run, and that was the treat Brenda Janowitz gave me. She handed me a page-turner of a book inspired in many ways by Audrey Hepburn, cleverly so, with a satisfying result. Time and again I smiled at a subtle Audrey allusion and then realized at book’s end that Brenda had included a “Finding Audrey Hepburn in The Audrey Hepburn Estate” epilogue taking the reader chapter by chapter through Hepburn references, parallels, and Easter eggs. I thought to myself, what a great device—the reader ends up not only with an entertaining novel but also an Audrey Hepburn primer, and I have no doubt Audrey herself would have been enchanted by this story because she loved to read and loved a great mystery.

The Audrey Hepburn Estate by Brenda Janowitz will be released in the United States on April 18, 2023. Good luck with it, Brenda, and thank you for an evocative reading experience that will inspire a new generation to learn more about one of the most inspiring people of the twentieth century.

Like Audrey’s character in Sabrina, Emma once lived above the garage of a grand estate.


Audrey Hepburn in The Nun's Story.

I was reminded how much I miss Audrey Hepburn the other day when The Nun’s Story played in the U.S. on TCM. As you probably know if you’re a Hepburn fan, she never considered herself an actress and always classified herself a dancer. If she’d had her druthers, she’d have been a Balanchine girl, or at the very least a choreographer, but fate had other plans and thrust her into the limelight as an actress who occasionally enjoyed opportunities to dance in her films.

The book was a big deal at around the time of the film’s release.

I lived with Audrey Hepburn for five years writing first Dutch Girl and then Warrior, and that’s why I say I miss her. Any author will tell you that strong relationships are formed during the creation of a biography and you’re living with your subject, hearing her voice, walking in her footsteps, making sense of her decisions—and sometimes yelling at her, “You fool! Don’t do that!”

Audrey was one tough woman, hardened by all the trials of life smack-dab in the middle of a world war. She lived by instinct, and I can argue instinct was her superpower because she used her instincts to make a living as an actress and mold her own personality into whatever character she portrayed, even without formal stage training as an actress.

And there it all was in The Nun’s Story, where the non-Catholic Audrey portrayed long-suffering Sister Luke, a woman of passion and talent trying to live a life of humble obedience serving others in Europe and Africa. It’s a beautiful performance, always understated, with never a false step that I could see, and it earned her an Academy Award nomination and a Best Actress award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

If you’ve read Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, you know what Audrey endured in the war. The parallels in the plot of The Nun’s Story always startle me—in the last reel of the picture, World War II breaks out in Europe and Sister Luke is stationed in the Netherlands when the Germans march in. We hear that the Nazis have swept through Holland and forced a capitulation, and then that Sister Luke’s father has died in the fighting. When another nun starts to work for the Dutch Resistance, Sister Luke tries to look the other way but still sanctions the actions of her colleague. Finally, Sister Luke leaves the order so she can do her own fighting on the outside, and the last shot we see is this young woman walking out into the streets of the Netherlands toward an uncertain future.

Peter Finch plays a doctor in the Belgian Congo for whom Sister Luke develops feelings, especially after he helps her past a near-fatal bout of tuberculosis.

Imagine what she was thinking as she made this picture. Imagine her motivations for these scenes, as when German soldiers swarm onto the set. She had seen that uniform every day for years. Her uncle and cousin and many friends had been executed by men in that uniform. German soldiers had caused so much pain and hardship that the sight of those costumed extras, and the plot of invasion and death, could only have produced visceral reactions.

In preparation for making the picture, Audrey met with the author of the book The Nun’s Story, Kathryn Hulme, and through Hulme formed a friendship with Marie-Louise Habets, whose story was fictionalized by Hulme. Like Hepburn, Habets was born in Belgium and lived through the war in Europe. After leaving the convent, Habets did indeed join the Dutch Resistance, as did Audrey Hepburn. Until publication of Dutch Girl, the world didn’t fully grasp Audrey’s role in the war—after all, she was only 15 so what could she have done? Well, she did a lot, as it turned out, displaying toughness and discipline that would serve her through a variety of situations over a lifetime, including her work in The Nun’s Story. This was my third viewing of The Nun’s Story and I appreciate it now more than ever for reminding me of my very dear friend Audrey. We had some times together, you and I. They are with me always and I’ll cherish them, and you, forever.

Audrey was self-conscious about the bags under her eyes, but they served her well here as a nun under relentless pressure as both her health and faith begin to fail.

Going Camping

Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin is my hero. She and I have shared the stage twice, the first time 20 years ago in Presidents Day interviews on KDKA Radio Pittsburgh talking about George Washington, and then more recently in a joint interview with Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, and Willie Geist on MSNBC’s Morning Joe discussing the holiday tradition of It’s a Wonderful Life and the circumstances of its creation just after World War II. Recently I saw Doris on C-Span as she donated the DKG and Richard Goodwin papers to the University of Texas at Austin Library. Doris said something to the effect that “it breaks my heart” that so few people are studying history these days. It breaks mine, too. And it probably breaks yours, because if you read my columns you are, de facto, a history-lover.

History’s my thing. I’d much rather retrace old footsteps than blaze a trail of my own. When I go to Gettysburg, I hear the guns. When I visit Warner Bros., they’re making The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca. On a street here in my hometown, I fixate on the spot where the Flathead Gang blew up an armored car in 1927.  If you don’t get history, my friend, you can rest assured that I won’t get you.

Recently I was invited to appear on a holiday edition of History Camp, an hour-long video interview series, discussing Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe and the circumstances around the making of It’s a Wonderful Life. This show will air Thursday, December 22, at 8 p.m. ET.

It’s an understatement to say that I admire the work of this nonprofit, The Pursuit of History, which stages on-location workshops at historic sites in Boston, Philadelphia, and other places, and provides virtual events, including its weekly author interview series. A quote on their website states, “We create and present these innovative programs because we believe that more people gaining a broader understanding of history has never been more important.” I share this belief, that the accumulated knowledge and wisdom provided by history can guide us in uncertain times—like now. I encourage you to sign up for their emails, donate to the cause, and begin walking in historic footsteps. Pursue history with this group, from the Egypt of Tutankhamun to Radio City Music Hall, from Valley Forge to Camp David. These people believe in preserving the past, just as I believe, and you probably believe. It’s common sense that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But learning about history is also Fun with a capital F. The best stories are the true stories, crazy twists of fate, people defying odds, and outcomes that changed the future of individuals and nations. Come on, take my hand. Let’s jump through the portal and revisit the past in The Pursuit of History.

Happy Holidays, everyone.

The Masked Man

Dec. 17 update: My friend Walt Powell sent me this treasure: an autographed photo of the Lone Ranger pitching Amoco gasoline in the late 1960s. Note gas pump nozzle in his holster! That day at the Dodge dealership, I did not think to get the Lone Ranger’s autograph; thanks to Walt’s generosity, now it’s as if I did. Thank you, Walt. Hats off–white hats, that is–to Clayton Moore, the Lone Ranger, for remaining relevant during the most turbulent period in American history.

The time I met the Lone Ranger in person, it struck me all at once that he was in color! He wore a powder-blue shirt and matching pants, with a red kerchief around his neck. I was maybe 10 or 11 and Clayton Moore was appearing for Dodge at a dealership only 10 miles from my house, and so my dad took me to meet him. It remains a vivid memory for several reasons, first and foremost because at that time we didn’t have a color TV and so I had only ever seen The Lone Ranger TV show in black and white. But man, oh man, seeing him in color—wow!

The Lone Ranger and Tonto as I was used to seeing them, in black and white.

Now, if you recall (that is, if you’re ancient enough to recall) a Lone Ranger feature film was released in 1981, and at that time they forbad Clayton Moore from appearing as the Lone Ranger for copyright reasons, but his promotional work for Dodge preceded that controversy, and he looked just about exactly like the hero from television. There he was in the mask, white hat, and blue outfit, with two gleaming chrome-plated Colt .45s.

It astonished me that my dad could stand there and chat with the Lone Ranger as if the Lone Ranger was just a person and not a legendary hero of the Old West. And that Saturday, late in the morning, for whatever reason, there was nobody there to see the Lone Ranger but my dad and me, so there was my father engaged in this serious conversation with the masked man who had bested Butch Cavendish and his gang and so many other villains, which increased my admiration for my dad by, like, 5 billion percent.

Among the things your future Hollywood historian did not ask Clayton Moore, aka the Lone Ranger, while in his presence: What are your best stories from Warner Bros., where you had bit parts in five pictures in 1938? How did you make the transition from WB to MGM, where you worked in a half-dozen pictures in the golden year of 1939? Talk about your rapid rise to become a king of serials at Republic in The Perils of Nyoka, The Crimson Ghost, The Ghost of Zorro, and many others. In the contract dispute when you walked off The Lone Ranger series for a year, did you fear you’d never wear the mask again? What were the differences working on the weekly TV series from 1949-57 vs. the splashy Lone Ranger Warner Bros. feature films of 1956 and 1958? Noooo, none of that. As an idiot pre-teen, I didn’t dare squeak more than “Hi” when my dad introduced me to the Lone Ranger.

The Lone Ranger in color, as I saw him that day.

One of the upper cable channels is back to showing The Lone Ranger and I’ve been DVRing them. The last season was in color, and I’ve been admiring the pretty-good stories and the abundant action. By that last season, they had polished the production to high gloss and Clayton Moore had matured as an actor. In retrospect, however, he was no match for Jay Silverheels as Tonto, a god of a human generations ahead of his time—brave, wise, loyal, and able to match the Lone Ranger’s heroics move for move, punch for punch, and shot for shot. How many times did Tonto save his white friend’s bacon…a hundred maybe over the course of the series. The presentation of Tonto as a hero whose indigenous roots gave him an advantage over friend and foe alike stands out to me today as astonishing and progressive.

My father died in 1982 and Clayton Moore 17 years later. The Dodge dealership where I met him was razed decades ago and I couldn’t even find a photo of the place to post here. And the silver bullet given to me by the Lone Ranger that day, which was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, has likewise been lost to antiquity. All I have is the memory of a Saturday when two heroes met and stood toe to toe, the Lone Ranger and my dad.

My Hero

Clem graduates Gunnery School in 1943.

When I began researching and writing about Jimmy Stewart in WWII, my friend Walt Powell referred me to Clem Leone, who had served in the same bomb group as Stewart and actually flew with him on a training flight. Walt warned me that Clem could be tough and did not suffer fools—after the war he had become a schoolteacher while also rising to the rank of major in the Maryland National Guard.

Clem agreed to meet with me at his home in Gettysburg, PA—that was in 2014 when he was a sprightly 90 and still bowling every week. He told me his incredible war stories, which included bailing out of two flaming B-24s. I took furious notes during our meetings and then wrote up the Leone storyline for inclusion in the book that became Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. During my first visit, he took me on a tour of a room in his house converted into a war museum, with beautiful scale models of a B-24 and an FW-190, which he pointed out with a certain pride as the German fighter that shot down his plane over Gotha in 1944. Also on display were his medals and uniforms and the ring from the parachute that had saved his life.

We met up again after I had sent him a printout of the narrative and he corrected key points. In those places where I had taken the wrong path (for example, had two characters looking at each other as they floated to earth after bailing out of the plane), he would point at me and say, “That’s not history, that’s Hollywood!” The rigors of working with Clem led to a 100% accurate depiction of life in a bomb group stationed in the English countryside because Clem had no interest in self-aggrandizement. He was what they call a straight shooter.

I’ve written about Clem many times here because he’s simply the most remarkable person I ever met. I love the guy, and for whatever reason, he grew to love me. He considered seeing his war story captured in Mission to be, as he said, “the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”

Clem and I shared the podium for a Mission book presentation in Gettysburg in November 2016, which ranks up there with the launch party for Dutch Girl in Velp as the most memorable, gratifying experience of my literary life. Seeing the outpouring of love and admiration from the entire town as he told his story, and then as we sat signing books together afterward, was an inspiration.

Clem tells his story to adoring friends and fans in Gettysburg.

I next saw Clem at his 95th birthday party in July 2019, an event so jam-packed with well wishers that Clem and I had to shout our happiness to see each other over the din. Since then, I would call him occasionally just to check in, and he was always sharp as a tack. He told me at one point he had dismantled his museum and donated it here and there, with some pieces going to the Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana, PA. Always the practical fellow, he told me all his funeral arrangements had been made, and chuckled while he said it.

On three or four occasions I heard that Clem was on his last legs and I would call up, full of concern, and there would be that ironic chuckle and he would sound exactly like his old self until I began to understand that any guy who could survive two bailouts, betrayal by a double agent, imprisonment in a German luft stalag, and a death march across Poland, was going to be hard to shove out of this world.

I always laugh when I think of the time he told me his daughters wanted to buy him a ride in a vintage B-24 at an air show sometime in the last 10 or 15 years. He barked in return, “I had to bail out of two of the damn things when they were new—I’m not going to get inside one that’s 70 years old!” That, my friends, is a survivor.

You know where I am going with this. My hero, Clement Francis Leone, died this past Tuesday after a fall in his home that led to a series of medical emergencies. Were it not for that mishap, I know he would still be with us. The world is a gray place without you in it, Clem. May you enjoy your reunion with Sylvia and the boys of your ship, Wacky Donald, who went on to their reward on February 24, 1944.

Clem and me.

Mystery Brothers

Epstein brothers Julius left and Philip right in 1944.
Julius Epstein (left) and his twin brother Phil (right) during their heyday at Warner Bros. They were rock stars before there was such a thing as rock stars and this portrait would have been at home on any 1970s rock album cover.

Full disclosure: I am loath to watch any Bette Davis picture. In my mind, of all the actors who haven’t stood the test of time, she heads the pack. Rules the roost. Stands head and shoulders above the rest. I’m the first to acknowledge her perfection in All About Eve, which I find to be one of few perfect pictures ever. But in general, Bette and I don’t mix well.

This is the price—141 minutes in the dark with Bette Davis—I was willing to pay last night to watch her 1944 film Mr. Skeffington for the first time, having successfully steered clear of it all my life. My interest certainly wasn’t Davis, but rather Julius and Philip Epstein, twin brothers who wrote and produced Mr. Skeffington as their successful follow-up to key involvement in the writing of Casablanca. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with the Epsteins, who are shrouded in mystery and legend to what I feel is the detriment of Hollywood history.

As a researcher, I’m shocked how little survives about these two screenwriters beyond the few stories repeated ad nauseum about their verbal fencing with Jack Warner, their completion of each other’s sentences, and their general brilliance as both writers and wits. They were also individuals with separate lives and families and that part is just gone from the record because they were only screenwriters in a town ruled by the stars, and neither cared to blow his own horn. Nor did they date starlets or write tell-all memoirs. They were in their 30s when they co-wrote Casablanca (for which they shared an Oscar with Howard Koch) and produced Mr. Skeffington. Then Phil died suddenly and horribly of cancer at age 42, leaving his collaborator Julie to go on another 48 years alone. That part of their story rips my guts out because of how close these guys were. Julie said that after Phil died, he never successfully recaptured the collaborative spirit with any other writer. Imagine that degree of loss for not only a twin brother but also a twin creative spirit.

Every line in Casablanca that you know is coming and still don’t see coming is thanks to Phil and Julie. “Waters? What waters?” “OK don’t have a drink.” “That is my least vulnerable spot.” Etc. Sure other writers had their hand in the Casablanca script and made critical contributions, but the wit that greased the skids and propelled the story was theirs. No, Jack Warner didn’t care for the Epsteins, but he knew they were good and agreed to make them producers as a reward for the success of Casablanca. And so, in my investigation into what made the Julius and Philip Epstein tick, I watched Mr. Skeffington.

What struck me was how ambitious this project was as their first attempt at co-producing, this epic spanning 30 years, and the social issues it took on—anti-Semitism, narcissism, mental illness, and finally, Nazism. It’s the story of a flighty woman who’s the belle of the ball in the beginning and turns down suitors right and left but marries a Jewish businessman played by Claude Rains to keep her mentally ill brother from going to jail. Several reels and relationships later she’s an old hag and reunites with Rains who has proven time and again during the course of the picture that he’s much too good for her.

The screenplay rings true as pure Epstein, or at least what I have come to understand of the Epsteins, who were brilliant, creative, energetic, and socially conscious. They threw everything into the story including the kitchen sink and every other fixture in reach and veered from comedy to tragedy so fast you could lose your lunch. Davis is Davis, affected and unbelievable at every stage of the story, so it’s left to Claude Rains and the always able Walter Abel to lug this picture on their backs for a long running time; no easy chore, but they’re up to it. When the inevitable payoff comes, I managed some tears only because Rains made it all work. He’s so damn good.

Bette and Claude. Ever the pro, he lugged the picture on his back.

And OMG Davis; what a ham. I know this is a Warner prestige picture, and Davis naturally got all the studio’s A-picture roles. But this time she was simply miscast as a raging beauty. I never bought her as a “catch” in this picture and found her shrill and unsympathetic from start to finish. The part called for Lana or Rita or Linda Darnell or somebody who could start out radiant and gorgeous, although none of these actresses had Davis’s range to fully execute the maturation of the character. But why was Bette so (frankly) bizarre in this picture? Supposedly, decades later she apologized to the surviving Epstein for being impossible during production of Mr. Skeffington; I only learned this morning the reason for a performance that feels today massively uneven.

Make-up aged Bette and make-up aged (and ever-able) Walter Abel.

The director of Mr. Skeffington, Vincent Sherman, documented its production in his book, Studio Affairs. By the time he wrote this memoir in the 1990s, Bette was gone and the story could be told. After completing the 1943 picture Old Acquaintance that they worked on together, Bette and Vince had been about to embark on an affair (both were married) and her husband, affectionately known as “Farney,” intervened and asked Vince to back off. Bette then felt doubly betrayed by both her husband and her lover when Vince deferred to Farney. One thing led to another and Bette and Farney engaged in a horrible screaming match and soon Farney dropped dead of a brain aneurism, for which Bette blamed herself. Soon thereafter, Mr. Skeffington began production and Davis was impossible for Sherman to deal with—she brought a toxic mix of guilt and resentment to the set every day that made the production of Mr. Skeffington a living hell for the entire cast and crew. For me watching all these decades later, this vibe is evident in the negatives exposed back then. Sherman concludes his chapter on Bette Davis by saying, “For some of her fans, it [Skeffington] has become one of their favorite Davis vehicles. I remember it as a turbulent, frustrating experience; I vowed never again to get emotionally involved with any actress I was directing.”

Watching the film as an exploration of the Epsteins as writers and co-producers, I came away from Mr. Skeffington impressed by their vision and ambition. The picture proved a big success at the box office (according to John McElwee of Greenbriar Picture Shows, Mr. Skeffington made a boatload of money, $1.2M in domestic profit). Despite this fact, Julie and Phil retired from the producer role after this one shot, which speaks to the sweat and blood required to go from mere screenwriters to producers responsible for every aspect of a motion picture. It was for them a bridge too far, and they realized it.

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?


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.