Badlands

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

Across the Mojave, Potosi’s snow-covered peaks are visible in the distance at left-center due south of Red Rock Canyon’s mouth.

Two years ago right about now, in conjunction with the anniversary of the crash of Flight 3, I was asked to speak in Las Vegas about Fireball, and to appear on the local NPR affiliate. While in the city, Mary and I visited our favorite haunts, which aren’t in Vegas proper at all. They’re the village of Blue Diamond and the Blue Diamond Mine off to the west, which, if you’ve read Fireball, you know are the settings for much of the story.

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

Tweed Wilson, right, as a young man. Much later he would be the tough old cowboy who led a rescue party up Potosi Mountain.

That day we went on to visit the Spring Mountain Ranch, also known as the Wilson Ranch, in Red Rock Canyon. There on January 16, 1942, Calvin Harper, head loader at the mine, came driving in a hurry on the blackest of nights looking for horses for a rescue mission up Potosi Mountain where “a plane fell.” Willard George answered the door that night and talked first to Harper and then to Maj. Herbert Anderson of McCarran Field in Las Vegas, who was trying to find a reported fire on the mountain due south of Wilson’s ranch. I already described some of our day in Red Rock Canyon, but not the ranch itself.

Visiting what had once been this key spot of ground in Fireball, now a Nevada state park, had a dreamlike quality about it for a number of reasons. The park office, which was a ranch home built at the site six years after the crash, didn’t mention Carole Lombard or Flight 3, but the exhibits bowled me over. First, I saw a 1900 photo of Tweed Wilson and his brother—41 years after it was taken, Tweed led rescuers up Potosi on horseback. And over there sat a framed photo of Willard H. George, a key eyewitness who saw the doomed airliner fly over and later gave testimony that confounded investigating bodies. And there, a photo of the Willard George house as it looked in 1942, just as Harper and Anderson found it that awful night looking for horses and riders for a rescue on the mountain, which seemed to be nearby but was really more than 10 impossible miles away.

I have to say, I experienced a case of the willies at Willard George’s place on this creepy January day with cold, damp fog and periodic rainbows. I had climbed Potosi four years and change earlier and now the place seemed to be welcoming me back, welcoming me home.

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

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

Willard George was working on his car when Flight 3 hit Potosi.

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

The Willard George place at the time of the crash. I learned a flash flood washed it away in the late 1950s.

Each book I write becomes a part of me, not only the people but the places, since I always consider the locations I write about to be characters. In fact, I think I choose my topics in part because of the places involved. Red Rock Canyon and Potosi Mountain were the biggest and baddest I ever encountered, in literature or in person, characters that could kick any Nazi’s ass any day. Tonight, contemplating the anniversary of the crash tomorrow, I’m thinking of a little ranch and some brave men and their horses who took on those badlands of Nevada—the same badlands that had swatted a DC-3 out of the sky, and there went Wayne C. Williams, Morgan Gillette, Alice Getz, Hal Browne, Jr., Kenneth Donahue, Fred Cook, Charles Nelson, Stuart Swenson, James Barham, Robert Crouch, Al Belejchak, Martin Tellkamp, Nicholas Varsamine, David Tilghman, Milton Affrime, Frederick Dittman, Robert and Edward Nygren, Lois Hamilton, Otto Winkler, Elizabeth Peters, and Carole Lombard.

Postscript: Just up the road from the old Wilson Ranch, on lands adjacent to Wilson’s spread, sits the Bonnie Springs Ranch. Once a stagecoach stop and for decades a local attraction with a western town and petting zoo geared for families, is scheduled for the wrecking ball. Please consider signing this petition to save the Bonnie Springs Ranch.

One-way Mission

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Jamie Dornan as Jan Kubis and Cilian Murphy as Josef Gabcik, two heroes of Czech history.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II covers Audrey Hepburn’s life under Nazi rule in the Netherlands from May 1940 through April 1945. We’ve all grown up with movies and TV shows depicting the Nazis and what they were like, but such a lifetime bombardment can only desensitize the viewer. Yes, the Nazis were terrible and yes, they committed unspeakable acts upon millions. We know that; can’t we move on? Well, no, let’s not. Let’s never truly move on because we had better learn from this history so we never have to repeat it. Hate whipped up against innocents must never again point a democracy toward extremism that puts the free world in peril.

Friday night I watched a feature that you probably missed, detailing the attempt to assassinate a German high commander you probably never heard of. The picture is Anthropoid, which sounds like science fiction but details Operation Anthropoid, the Allied mission to take out Reinhard Heydrich, the number three Nazi as of 1941 and Hitler’s SS executioner known as “the butcher of Prague.” Heydrich was key to implementation of the Final Solution—when Hitler admires you for your ruthlessness, that’s saying something.

Late in 1941 a group of Czech special ops soldiers parachuted into their country on a top-secret mission to kill Heydrich. Anthropoid isn’t the first picture to cover this mission, but I’m not sure I need to see the others—I’m still recovering from this one. As I watched, I kept thinking, this was Audrey Hepburn’s world, living in a Nazi police state where civilians must not so much as make eye contact with the occupier, where no one was trusted and everyone might be a betrayer, where locals heard random gunshots echoing off the buildings as their neighbors were murdered. The only difference is that Anthropoid depicts life in Prague, Czechoslovakia, rather than in the Dutch city of Arnhem and its neighboring village, Velp. Both countries were occupied by the Third Reich.

I spend quite a lot of time in Dutch Girl discussing the Nazi regime because everything they did mattered to everyone in the countries they had invaded. It so happened that the village in which Audrey lived with her family for the worst part of the war, Velp, was the same village used in the latter part of the war as headquarters for the top Nazi rulers in Holland. In fact, the Reichskommissar of all the Netherlands was Audrey’s neighbor. As in, can I borrow a cup of sugar? He lived that close by.

This intimacy with evil and with death permeates every frame of Anthropoid, which displays a few sentences painting a picture of the butcher of Prague and devotes all its run time to putting us in close quarters with the heroes sent on what they have to know is a one-way mission. When they reveal to local Prague resistance leaders why they are there and who they plan to kill, the reaction is equal parts anger and fear. Even aiming a bomb or bullets in Heydrich’s direction will mean the deaths of thousands of innocent Czechs whether the attempt succeeds or not. This action will start a war of annihilation no matter the result.

With stakes so high, no one can be trusted and moment to moment we wonder where and when the plan will break down, when the Germans will come bursting in with guns blazing or worse, when they will take prisoners. German torture was very real and we see it in Anthropoid. Audrey told a chilling little story of walking along the street in her village and hearing screams coming from a building that had been turned into an SS jail. Her mother explained that men inside were being tortured. Do me a favor and take a moment to let that sink in. Your gentle humanitarian heard the screams of neighbor Velpenaren being tortured (and believe me, she endured much worse than that during the war).

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

An elegant gingerbread turret marked the Rotterdamsche Bank in Velp. In 1944 it became an SS prison and Audrey heard screams from within as she walked past.

Anthropoid pulls no punches; even this extraordinary trailer packs a wallop that’s true to the picture. The war is presented as the war really was, and this mission is recreated down to the names of the patriots who participated and the floor tile in the apartment where the plot was hatched. The attempt to kill Heydrich plays out in human terms, with no computer-generated assist and no one defying the laws of physics. The fate of the assassins is depicted with gut-wrenching clarity, and we see what real heroes looked like and what they sacrificed in this war. I salute you, Sean Ellis, writer, director, and cinematographer, for the searing vision you presented in this, a motion picture I will never forget. Shooting it in Prague using Czech actors and crew as much as possible injected extra adrenalin into the proceedings.

One last thing: As the story of Anthropoid unfolded, I thought of Audrey describing how in the darkest times gallows humor got her family through. She remembered bombs falling, tanks droning past, and the rat-tat-tat of machine-gun fire—as she, her mother, aunt, and grandfather cracked jokes and giggled in the cellar of their besieged home. That spirit triumphed over Adolf Hitler and all his hate, and it remained within Audrey as she made the transition from actress to beacon for peace.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

As the assassination attempt unfolds, and immediately goes wrong, Reinhard Heydrich (Detlef Bothe) stands to shoot a patriot blocking the road ahead. At left, Jan Kubis attempts to toss a bomb at the car. Actor Jamie Dornan had portrayed Christian Grey in three films based on the erotic “50 Shades” novels. Let’s not hold that against him because in Anthropoid, he’s quite good.

Duckling and Swan

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Spoiler alert: Except for a mention in passing, I didn’t touch the subject of Breakfast at Tiffany’s in Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II. The book focuses squarely on the war and defers on topics like the production of her films to existing biographies on the Hollywood years.

I first saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s long ago and wasn’t impressed. The other night it played on TCM/US and I watched it again, this time with knowledge gained after two years in close quarters with Audrey and an understanding of all she had seen and done during the war.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

The one sheet can fetch $15K, although usually it auctions around 5.

I remembered only two scenes from past viewings: That magnificent opening series of shots as the cab glides down deserted Fifth Avenue and deposits Holly Golightly in front of Tiffany’s for her impromptu opening-credits breakfast, and the scene near the end when she abandons Cat in the rain. I sort-of recalled being annoyed at Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of a Japanese landlord without remembering any of his scenes in particular, and I very vaguely recalled liking George Peppard as boyfriend Paul as much as I always like Peppard, which is to say, not at all.

This time around I enjoyed Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and what struck me above all was Audrey’s luminescence cast against type as a gentleman’s paid companion—allusions to which are so vague it had to be explained to me, and only then did I start to notice the references, as when Holly peered in the window and saw Paul’s older lady-friend drop cash on his nightstand; a little later she told Paul that she understood his situation. Well, how did she understand? Because she was used to being paid to be various men’s girlfriend, content that strayed into the realm of pay-for-play and scraped against the waning days of Production Code censorship.

I now get why a Tiffany’s one-sheet movie poster sells for a consistent five grand and why this is Audrey’s iconic role. She’s mesmerizing—chic, poised, articulate, mysterious, always dressed to the nines but wearing the clothes not as clothes but as skin like she was born in it and born to do it. She had played the Pygmalion-ugly-duckling-turned-fashion plate twice already, in Sabrina and Funny Face, and by now was using hats, sunglasses, and cigarette holders in her performance like Astaire used lamps or coat racks as dance partners. Everything she did on film became suddenly cool. Even the highlights in Audrey’s swept-back hair hypnotized me.

I did a little investigating afterward. Truman Capote wrote the story on which the film was loosely based. It first appeared in Esquire and the resulting sensation had Hollywood calling. Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe as Holly, and what a different film that would have been because there would be no doubt how Holly made money and why men were hanging around. Capote vocally and loudly hated Audrey in the role because she spun it in directions he never intended. There was speculation about who had served as the role model for Capote’s main character when in likelihood it was bits and pieces of several prominent women he knew, none of whom were anything like one-of-a-kind Dutch aristocrat Resistance fighter war veteran ballerina doctor’s aide Audrey Hepburn, she of multinational roots and vaguely European accent and sensibilities when all the models for Holly had been 100-percent well-bred New York City American.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Even when motionless for a mundane hair and makeup test, yikes.

It occurred to me how unconventional was this story for 1961, never adhering to the formula of the endless stream of factory-produced romantic comedies that had come before. Literally the studios would each have a big pile of scripts and produce a story, and then the script would sink back to the bottom of the pile and get pulled out and made again every so many years; this had gone on for decades, but this strange story by the strange little author was different. Offbeat, infantile in places, adult in places, and then out of left field Holly’s husband from Texas appears and explains that Holly was once a barefoot hayseed and you’re like, suuuuuure she was. I can see Audrey Hepburn as that. Because it was so different, I don’t mind George Peppard as the love interest; he was then new and different too and unlike the string of conventional golden era leading men cast against the Dutch baroness-by-birth. Peck had been older, as had Holden, Bogart, Ferrer, and Cooper. But here came young pretty-boy Peppard who passed the side-by-side test with Audrey even if he was cold and distant—oh, and a total sonofabitch of whom nothing good was ever said. When Audrey Hepburn doesn’t like you, and word had it she didn’t like Peppard, then you’ve got issues.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Holly observes Paul with his sugar-mommy, played by Patricia Neal.

Henry Mancini’s Moon River is a terrific melody. In the first couple minutes at Tiffany’s window it grabs you and never lets go to the extent I kept waiting for it to play in some variation as underscoring to reinforce Holly Golightly’s mood of the moment. Having Audrey sit on her brownstone’s fire escape strumming a guitar and singing Moon River makes no sense at all in terms of the story; she could as easily have hummed it brushing her teeth and the effect would have been the same, but no, she sang it. What’s telling is that Audrey Hepburn had been around music her whole life, not as a singer but as a dancer. Her comfortableness with music shows in the way she sings the song. The two drifters in the lyrics are Holly and Paul, both bought and paid for and making their way in the concrete jungle, but, um, the huckleberry friend? I read it’s a reference to Huck Finn of Mark Twain fame and I guess that makes huckleberry about wide-eyed adventurers? I don’t like it in the song. The word huckleberry doesn’t roll off an aristocrat’s tongue, and at least for me it broke the illusion of this woman sitting there singing this song. Even if the situation of Audrey Hepburn on a fire escape with a guitar is ridiculous, which it is, it all works until she sings the word huckleberry and then it took me a while to get back into the story.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

At a later viewing she quipped that couldn’t imagine abandoning a cat as Holly did. Although the reunion was pretty spectacular.

Audrey was at this time 32. She had been out of the war for 16 years, and I want you to think about what you were doing at the beginning of 2003 and that’s how close to Hitler’s oppression Audrey Hepburn was as she portrayed Holly Golightly. Even past the turn of 1960 she was dodging questions about the war as she would always dodge them. She could bob and weave like a prizefighter and steer clear of any interviewer’s probing that she didn’t like, and there were many questions about the war she wouldn’t or—she felt—couldn’t address. Acting on location in New York City in that story wearing those clothes is as far away from war-torn Velp as she would ever find herself, and yet the war cast a shadow in which she would forever walk. Throughout her career she appreciated every perfectly tailored dress on the wardrobe rack because she had survived to April 1945 in clothes that were threadbare and would always remember after liberation walking into a room that was piled high with clothes that had been donated by the people in America “who must be rich,” she thought.

Quibbles aside, knowing what Audrey had endured earlier as a disease-ridden duckling in a steady rain of bombs made two hours with 1961’s beautiful swan in a steady rain of, well, rain, a magical experience.

 

The Cloaking Device

I must have seen Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood 35 or 40 times in my life, including, I think, nine times on the big screen in all its 35mm Technicolor glory. Despite those many viewings, I never realized something that Mary, my practical better half, pointed out when she walked into the room at a particular moment.

The whole point of the plot of the picture is that King Richard is off fighting the crusades and then is taken hostage and held for ransom in the Holy Land, leaving his brother Prince John free to pillage his way through the Saxon England countryside on behalf of the Normans, but mostly for himself.

John’s actions force the Saxon Sir Robin of Locksley to take violent retribution on behalf of his people. But unbeknownst to Prince John, King Richard somehow gets himself freed and sneaks back into England in disguise with, I guess—although it’s never explained—his personal staff or key knights or whatever they are by his side.

What Mary opined when seeing incognito King Richard and his knights sitting around a table at an inn trying to be unobtrusive was, “You’d think they could come up with better disguises than Snuggies in primary colors.” Son of a gun, I realized, she’s right. These aren’t just garden-variety Snuggies; they’re jewel-tone Snuggies that any 21st century couch potato would be proud to sport.

OK fellas, look, do NOT attract attention to yourselves.

I always had a whole other problem that Richard and his boys wore their chain-mail unis under the Snuggies than to stop and think about the colors of the Snuggies themselves. It had to be mighty uncomfortable living in that chain mail (including full head-pieces) and you’d also think the metal made a fair amount of racket for people trying not to attract attention to themselves. With their ears covered in metal, weren’t they going around shouting, “What? WHAT??” But then, every time I watch Robin Hood I’m annoyed that when Richard and his knights whip off their Snuggies to reveal white tunics emblazoned with red crosses, they preen and pose hands on hips to make sure the Saxon rabble are suitably impressed. As in, “Behold! Are we not awesome?!”

In case you need any last-minute gift ideas this holiday season, why not dress your significant other like Ian Hunter’s King Richard the Lion-Heart in a jewel-tone Snuggie? Better yet, save the idea for next Halloween when your entire family can trick-or-treat as Richard and his entourage. On November 1, your Halloween costume automatically converts back into fashionable loungewear, if not a subtle disguise.

Audrey in 2020!

This morning, Audrey Hepburn’s son Luca Dotti announced in Variety a new dramatic television series about his mother’s life that will begin shooting in 2020. The Rome-based production company, Wildside, has a wealth of experience, including success with the series The Young Pope and My Brilliant Friend, which has recently been renewed. Wildside is in growth mode, which can only benefit a project about Audrey.

A TV series that digs into what Luca calls Audrey’s “formative years” could rip your guts out without ever straying into embellishment. She lived through a war, and those big brown doe-eyes saw it up close. She provided thousands of words about her wartime experiences to interviewers, and the amazing thing is, she kept most of what she experienced secret, “under lock and key in her heart,” as Luca put it. As she was raising him, he always sensed there was a lot she wasn’t revealing, and he was right.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Audrey at about the time she started working for the Dutch Resistance.

I have to believe an unknown talent is about to explode onto the scene playing Audrey. Casting is still a ways off, but Audrey’s story really started when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands just after she had turned 11. This fact will call for the casting of a gifted young actor who could conceivably grow through the seasons of the series. Or do you cast a different actress each season, as in Dr. Who?

The dramatic demands will be harsh. At 11 Audrey took up ballet and developed iron-willed discipline; at 12 she danced in public for the first time; at 13 she lost her first family member to the war; at 14 she risked her life to work on behalf of the Dutch Resistance; at 15 she was stepping over body parts in the streets and nearly dying of disease. And we haven’t even gotten to the secrets yet.

Casting of Audrey’s mother will likely draw interest from A-list actresses because it’s a plum assignment for many reasons. Ella van Heemstra was many things—socialite, partyer, provocateur, and rebel, not to mention a vibrant woman with a wicked sense of humor who inspired a lifetime of love and loathing in her daughter. It won’t be an easy relationship to capture in screenplay form or render on film.

Luca Dotti himself was one of two authors of the draft treatment that serves as a starting point for the as-yet unnamed TV series. In 2016 and 2017 he was involved in development of an exhibit at the Airborne Museum in Oosterbeek called “Ella and Audrey” about the years of Audrey Hepburn and her mother in Arnhem and vicinity under Nazi occupation. He and I have talked about his deep desire to do his mother’s story justice, so I feel the conceptualization is in good hands.

I’m as anxious as anybody to see the plan evolve and learn the scope of the production, including shooting locations. Today’s announcement is just the beginning of what is sure to be an interesting 18 months leading up to when cameras roll.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Audrey and Ella in 1953.

Curtin call

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

The Hustons and Holts share a laugh during production of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. From left: Walter Huston and Tim Holt, stars of the production, John Huston, director, and Jack Holt, who played a bit part.

Maybe you remember Tim Holt as the snap-to young cavalry lieutenant in Stagecoach with John Wayne. Or as priggish young George in The Magnificent Ambersons. Or as doomed Virgil Earp in My Darling Clementine. For me, he’ll always be Curtin, the naïve and honorable gold hunter in Mexico who’s shot and left for dead by Fred C. Dobbs in Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Tim Holt was also a hero in RKO B-Westerns made in the early 1940s and then after the war into the early 1950s when, for reasons you’ll soon learn, he decided to give up on Hollywood and head east to life on a horse farm. In all, his career spanned 35 years and more than 70 credits in A and B pictures.

The other month, a colleague heard that I love old movies and told me he knew Tim Holt’s son Jack. Well, my ears perked right up, and I asked for contact info so I could ask for an interview and pepper him with questions. Luckily, Jack Holt was receptive and we talked about his famous dad.

Jack Holt is the eldest of Tim Holt’s three children born to third wife Berdee Stephens—their half-brother Lance had resulted from Holt’s marriage to Virginia Ashcroft. Jack, along with sister Bryanna and brother Jay, were born in Oklahoma, where Tim and Berdee had decided to call home after his movie career. Jack spent 20 years in the National Guard and U.S. Army, and still works as a federal contractor with DoD, which is how I came in contact with him. I spoke with Jack on Saturday, November 17, and here is what resulted.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

The ensemble cast of Stagecoach plus Tim Holt as the young cavalry lieutenant who must leave them to their fate.

RM: Tim Holt’s father—your grandfather—was Jack Holt, the actor. I know he started out in the silent Westerns, and then in the 1930s he played feds and even had his own serials, didn’t he?

JH: He had one serial, Holt of the Secret Service. This was long before James Bond and before Jason Bourne. Nobody really thought much about spies or secret agents. Back then, all there was was the Secret Service. That gave him a chance to bring his style of hero to a different audience. My grandfather was also his own man and had his own way of doing things. He was a little more hard-edged I think. They called him “Mad Jack” because he always seemed to be mad at something. At Columbia he was having trouble with [Harry] Cohn—who my grandfather just did not like. But this serial was a moneymaker and gave him a chance to shine as the tough-guy hero while being a little bit older.

RM: Did your dad tell stories about his Hollywood years? Did he have mementos around the house?

JH: He didn’t really have mementos. There were a few photos around from the war, and a few from his movie career. As a kid I had one of his movie posters on the wall, but Dad was always looking ahead. He would look back to find out where he was, which is something I learned in the military. Sometimes to find out where you are you have to shoot a back azimuth, which is turn around 180 degrees and see if everything is where it’s supposed to be on the map. So, you have to look back in order to move forward sometimes—and that’s the way he looked at his career. It was something he did, and then he was looking for the next thing.

Hugh Beaumont from Leave It to Beaver was in some of my dad’s westerns, so when Leave It to Beaver would come on, I can remember him talking to the TV saying, “Hugh! It’s good to see you’re doin’ well!”

While he loved the business and the people he was working with, World War II really did change him. I can’t remember what movie it was that I saw him in, but it was the quintessential Tim Holt movie. He was a young kid, and he’s at a campfire and a guy reaches for his pistol. There’s this look in Dad’s face of sheer mischievous joy right before he pulls a blanket out from under this guy’s feet and upends him. That was Tim Holt early in his career up until the war years. He was fun-loving and having the time of his life in those early films. My wife had never seen any of those films before and she said, “These are so much fun!”

RM: Did you sit down and watch his movies with him, like Stagecoach, for example?

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

The Earp brothers, played by Henry Fonda, Ward Bond, and Holt, discover what a wild town Tombstone is in My Darling Clementine.

JH: We did. There were three of them that would come back around at least once every couple years on TV while my dad was alive. Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, and Treasure of the Sierra Madre. They were big pictures. We would sit down and watch them. He wasn’t really a fan of watching himself. However, we would sit and talk about different things.

He said in Stagecoach there was a scene in the weigh station where John Wayne was supposed to wash his face. John Ford made him do it over and over and over again. Ford was riding him—“Can you not just wash your damn face?” Kept on him and on him. And this is John Wayne’s first big movie. The crew was all mad at Ford for being so ridiculously rough on him, and everybody was tired. My dad had known John Ford for years because John Ford was a friend of my granddad and came up in the industry as my granddad was a star. Finally, Dad stood up and said, “Pappy, will you leave the kid alone!” and walked off. He said that moment just kind of broke the tension. What was funny was that John Wayne was older than my dad. But Dad had that familiarity with John Ford that allowed him to do what probably nobody else on the set could have done.

He told a story about Bogart, who was pissed because they were all down in Mexico shooting [Sierra Madre] when there was a yacht race he wanted to be in. John Huston said, “No, we’ve got a schedule to keep.” So here came Ronald Reagan, who was racing in the yacht race. He came in wearing a yachting cap and the blue coat and white pants looking for all the world like Hollywood aristocracy. Bogart was in costume sitting there looking all grimy, and he looked at Reagan and said, “Damned all-American boy.” It really set Bogart off. I can’t remember what city they were close to, maybe Acapulco but I’m not sure, but Bogart took off. Dad thought, John’s not going to like this a bit, but I better go along with him. So, they were gone and nobody heard from them. John Huston was pissed. So, when they finally came back, Huston was all over Bogart yellin’ and screamin’ about being gone. Then Huston turned to my dad and said, “And what the hell were you doin’?” My dad said, “Just making sure he came back.”

RM: So, he did The Magnificent Ambersons and was working on RKO B-Westerns. Then came the war. Did your dad enlist, or was he drafted?

JH: No, he enlisted. After Pearl Harbor, RKO kept telling him no, no, no, you’ve got a contract. The only way he could join the service was to make almost a film a week for the next year to [fulfill his contract and] free him up so he could join. Meantime [Gen.] George Marshall, head of the War Dept., was Granddad’s cousin, so they knew each other and my granddad was made a major so he could buy horses for the Army at Fort Reno in Oklahoma. I don’t believe much in coincidences, but a funny little story—one of the soldiers in Europe fighting around the Spanish Riding School, maybe in Italy, was Dale Robertson. It turned out they saved the Lipizzaner Stallions, which the Army had to then get out of Europe. Eventually my granddad ended up receiving them at Fort Reno, and then they were shipped to the polo stables of people he knew in California. That’s where they were held until after the war. So, a future movie star helped save horses that were sent to a former movie star and then to the stables of current movie stars. It was crazy. And Dale Robertson was born in Harrah, Oklahoma, the same town as my mom. How in the world do things like that happen?

RM: Your father picked the Army Air Forces?

JH: Yes. He wanted to learn to fly. He signed up for pilot training, got through Victorville learning to fly airplanes. But there was a shortage of bombardiers, and so he was picked to be a lead bombardier and one of the first to use the Norden bombsight. It had just come out. The ones chosen were skilled pilots and had other skills as well.

RM: It sounds like he was a training bombardier in addition to a lead bombardier. How did he end up in the Pacific?

JH: George Marshall, being a cousin and knowing of my dad’s career, learned of a message that had been intercepted by British Intelligence—one of the last movies my dad made before going into the service was called Hitler’s Children. His appearance in that movie infuriated Hitler and the communique that was intercepted read, “If this man is ever found, he’s to be shot on sight.” There was also a photo of my father from the day he enlisted in the Air Forces. Marshall said, “War is hell enough” and he wasn’t going to put Tim Holt in that position. That’s how he ended up in the Pacific.

RM: Was he flying in b-17s or B-24s? Do you know?

JH: I think most of the combat positions he flew were in 17s and 29s, the Superfortresses. Most of the missions over Japan were in 29s. He was a bombardier or pilot in almost anything that flew, from the 25s, the [twin-engine] Mitchells, to the 29s. He earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for one of his last missions. The plane was named after a Disney character, The Reluctant Dragon, and it was shot all to hell. Most of the crew was wounded. It barely made it back and crash-landed when it got there. Supposedly it was laying the groundwork for the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. [Holt also received a Purple Heart for wounds received in this mission.]

RM: Do you have his medals and combat ribbons?

JH: No, I don’t. Some of it was stolen when we lived in Oklahoma. I think I was just a baby. My mom told a story that they came home one night and the place had been broken into. My dad had some guns that were stolen, including a Winchester, or it might have been a Henry, with an ox-bow ring. It was identical to the one John Wayne had in Stagecoach. Dad said it was an awkward rifle, but when you learned to use it, it was pretty handy. It was an awkward rifle and so Dad had a house in Malibu. Before getting started on Stagecoach, John Wayne would come by and they’d throw bottles in the ocean and shoot at them just to get used to shooting those rifles. That got Wayne to the point where he could handle the rifle in the movie.

RM: So, you talked about your dad’s plane being shot up, and barely making it back. And you said that before the war he was one kind of guy and after the war another. Do you think he suffered some sort of lingering trauma from the war?

JH: Yeah, I think everybody does. War changes everybody. It’s something I’ve grappled with myself. You don’t see the world the same way and for Dad, the war meant growing up and making an adjustment because it changes you. Then you have to figure out, what am I gonna do about it? I talk to troops today and it’s like, there’s no magic answer for this. You figure it out one day at a time. You have experiences nobody else has, even others that were in the war. That was all wars and all soldiers. It’s not the same for everybody, but it does change everybody.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Most defining role: as Curtin with Walter Huston as Howard and Humphrey Bogart as Dobbs in Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

RM: Then he worked for RKO making a ton of Westerns into the early 1950s. Why did he decide to retire?

JH: I think for Dad there were a couple of things that happened that were instrumental for him deciding to leave Hollywood. One of them was coming back from the war and it’s just different. He was still under contract to RKO. He had aged and was no longer the kid, and there were others who had stepped up.

Another was the change in Hollywood itself. They had moved from the studio system where you were under contract to a studio and went to the idea of stars as independent contractors. That’s something Dad never considered or wanted to do. It’s a lot more work or responsibility than just being under contract to a studio. He didn’t really want to deal with that. At that time something happened between him and his dad that caused a bit of a split. I don’t know what it was; my aunt never would say, but it was something that happened between the two of them. It was disillusioning to my dad. My granddad is one of the founding members of the Academy. There were a lot of things that were happening that built a wall between my dad and granddad.

I think the thing that bothered my dad more than anything else at that time was the McCarthy hearings and watching all these people he had grown up with, knew, loved, all were friends, and they were at each other’s throats. He said, “I can’t deal with this. I want no part of this.” He was a journeyman actor who came to work with his toolbox and did what was needed, adjusted to the role, did his job, and moved on to the next one. So, all of these things were converging in the early 1950s and he said, “No, I’m not playing anymore.”

RM: You grew up with Tim Holt as a 45- and 50-year-old man. What was the physical toll of all that riding, all that shooting, the war—everything he went through? I know he had broken bones and things. What was the physical toll that you saw?

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

On The Virginian in 1962.

JH: You could kinda tell it in the way he walked. There were lower back issues. There’s a scene in My Darling Clementine with this horse fall. Some prints cut it out. He’s chasing down the Clanton boy across the desert. His horse stumbles on a sand dune and horse and rider tumble down. After the cut, he says, “I think I need to go to the doctor”—he had broken all his ribs. They had him rooming with Ward Bond, who had broken his leg. Dad said he had never hurt so much in his life as when he was laughing at Ward Bond and Bond was laughing at him as they were trying to get out of bed in the morning. He said, “It was the funniest time of being in pain I ever had.”

By the time we were school age he had given up the ranch and was working at a radio station in Oklahoma City. I think not having horses was part of the problem. He loved horses—it was his exercise. Lack of exercise meant more aches, more pains. He had just turned 53 when he was diagnosed with cancer. It was pretty fast-moving. It was bone cancer. This was Dad—he had had a couple of spells where he had passed out and was rushed to the hospital. They couldn’t find out what was wrong. They thought maybe it’s epilepsy, but he’d never had anything like that before. As they started doing the tests, they came back and said you’ve got cancer. Dad came home after getting that diagnosis and said, “OK, gather ’round. They tell me I’ve got cancer. They tell me I’ve got six months. Let’s make the most of it.” That was Dad. That was just him.

RM: What did he do with those six months?

JH: Well, he spent a lot of time in and out of the hospital, and we’d all go down and spend time in the hospital. He’d get out, but he was limited in what he could do because of the physical toll of the treatments. But it wasn’t so much doing stuff with him as it was being around him. He never lost his sense of humor. He never let us get down about anything. He was just, “This is life and here’s what we’re going to do with it.” And we’d talk about stuff. Sometimes he would confide in me some things that were bugging him because we were on the same wavelength. It was always like that; there was just this rapport between us. But during that time, it was just about being together.

RM: That’s cool. You know what else is cool? You sound like Tim Holt. I feel like I’m talking to Tim Holt.

JH: That’s one of the things my wife has said as she’s watched some of his movies over the years. She said, “It is uncanny, your mannerisms. You are exactly alike.” And it freaked her out. She saw a picture of my dad from the last TV show he did, The Virginian, and she said to me, “When did you get this picture made?” I said, “That’s not me, that’s my dad.” She said, “No, it’s not.” I said, “Yes, it is!” She couldn’t believe it wasn’t me.

Holt Afghanistan

Jack Holt in Afghanistan, looking a lot like his father in The Virginian.

Heroes

Buster Keaton, every inch a hero in The General.

I came upon a piece of writing the other week that moved me, a column on my colleague Sister Celluloid’s blog. It turns out this piece was written in 2015 and re-posted last month, which is when I had the good fortune to cross its path.

In a few hundred words Sister C. captured my professional admiration, and I know this piece is going to stick with me and become a touchstone, a thing that other things remind me of. Reading it took me back to my own childhood, to fears and phobias, to school and not being able to keep up, to the tricks that get a child through another day or difficult situation. When I was a little kid of 6 or 7 and had to do something scary out in the world, usually in school, my mom would hand me a button or a hair clip and say, “Here, put this in your pocket. When you get scared, hold onto this and everything will be OK.” Son of a gun, it always worked. Mom imbued inanimate objects with magical powers that managed to keep me safe.

Errol Flynn at age 30 as Geoffrey Thorpe in The Sea Hawk, a character and picture that made a big impression on Gertrud Siepmann.

Sister C.’s magic came from Buster Keaton. As I read her column I imagined how Keaton would have felt if he had had the opportunity to read it himself. I’m not going to cheapen this slice of genius by giving it Spark Notes treatment. In my mind Sister C.’s work already hangs in the Louvre with stanchions and velvet ropes keeping it safe for posterity. What came to mind as I read it was Errol Flynn, who could never come to grips with being anyone’s hero. He knew what he was, and it wasn’t a knight in shining armor. Except, in a way he was because he entertained uncounted millions, and for some, adoring Errol Flynn became a reason to go on living. I think of my friend Gertrud Siepmann, who I wrote about in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. Gertrud survived World War II and its aftermath in Germany in part by being in love with Errol Flynn and keeping Flynn front-of-mind as a shining light in the blackness of those times. There he’d be every day, at Gertrud’s side, a square-shouldered protector, sword in hand to fend off any dangers she faced. As related in Errol & Olivia, Gertrud finally got to see Errol Flynn with his wife Patrice Wymore in the lobby of a hotel in Bad Soden, Germany, in the 1950s. Gertrud waited for hours, flowers in hand, for what she imagined would be a magical meeting. By then her Capt. Geoffrey Thorpe, protector of German maidens, was a bitter 45 and at first she didn’t recognize the real thing because “he was taller than I imagined, and much thinner—almost frail looking. His face was still beautiful, but so unexpectedly sad and weary that it shocked me—and broke my heart.” As he passed, he gave her a smile and she managed to smile back and then he was gone. She remained for a while rooted to the spot, still holding the flowers she’d intended to give him, and she wept at the sadness of the real Errol Flynn.

Gertrud Siepmann is known in today’s United States as Trudy McVicker, and if you asked Trudy if Errol was a real-life hero she would say an enthusiastic yes! That’s what came to mind when I read Sister C.’s ode to her protector and inspiration, Buster Keaton. That and the powerful, clear and clean craftsmanship of the piece.

________________________

 

Coming Soon: Columns about the research and writing of Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II.

Echo of Your Energies

I don’t usually tackle horror on these pages, although I am a horror guy, in love with Universal horror my whole life thanks to Pittsburgh’s “Chilly Billy” Cardille(y) and every-Saturday-night dates with Chiller Theatre. As you know I strive to never, ever give you a standard rehash of any picture. Here’s how the plot unfolded, so-and-so was at his finest here, and so on. I leave that to others.

My better half, the smart and sensible half, watched The Wolf Man with me the other night, stayed awake through almost all of it, and pronounced at the end, “What a sad story!” Those four words kept ringing in my ears and for the first time I started to think about one of my most taken for granted horror shows.

I used to wonder, why does a kiddy scare-em-up like The Wolf Man contain such a fine cast? Did they really need to round up Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Warren William, Patric Knowles, and Maria Ouspenskaya to support Lon Chaney, Evelyn Ankers, and Bela Lugosi? Well, the scantest bit of digging revealed that The Wolf Man was Universal’s most important picture of 1941. Warner Bros.—located just over the hill from Universal Pictures—would boast something with Bette Davis as its prestige picture. MGM would give you Gable and somebody, or Tracy and somebody, or Garland and somebody. But Universal gave you The Wolf Man, so this fact alone opened my eyes to how such a picture was viewed in 1941, whereas today it’s fodder for Svengoolie on Me-TV.

The Wolf Man menaces leading lady Evelyn Ankers in a publicity photo for the picture.

A playful Ankers then hammed it up with Chaney for another set of pix.

Then I ordered a book called Pioneers of Wonder: Conversations with the Founders of Science Fiction by Eric Leif Davin because it contains an interview with the screenwriter of The Wolf Man, Curt Siodmak, who said in that interview, “I created the character of The Wolf Man. I wish I had the copyright on him, but Universal owns it.” In this terrific sparring match we see Siodmak as an inaccessible old man, bane of any interviewer; he’s seen it all and done it all and has precious little patience for the questions of a whippersnapper who brings a revisionist’s perspective to the horror and science fiction genres. Time and again Siodmak comes back to, it was a job and I needed to feed my wife and myself.

When asked if he respected the scriptwriting jobs he took on, including the likes of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Siodmak answered, “I respected it. If you spit at your work, it will spit back at you. In your life, you are merely the echo of your own energies. I put all my energy into every job I had. I took them all seriously.”

That answer gave me goosebumps. Lots of things do; that did.

Siodmak was born in Germany in 1902 and spent young adulthood in the Weimar Republic as a writer of novels, short stories, and title screens for silent pictures. Was he Jewish? “My father says so and I am his child,” Siodmak answered, making it pretty clear he wasn’t a practicing Jew. He also said, “I didn’t choose my family,” hinting at conflicts that would influence his work in Hollywood, including writing The Wolf Man.

The Gestapo didn’t care either way if Siodmak was practicing, just that he was a Jew, and forbade him from affixing his name to anything in print and so he hurried to England. His wife feared Hitler’s long reach even there and so the Siodmaks followed a trail of breadcrumbs to Hollywood, where he got a job writing sarong pictures for Dorothy Lamour at Paramount. His brother Robert, meanwhile, had been a director in Europe and pursued the same trail. Their paths would converge at Universal in 1943 where Robert directed Curt’s screenplay for Son of Dracula.

A pentagram visible in the palm marks the next victim for death. Is it difficult to imagine the Star of David here, and its implications?

So here was a German-Jewish writer, a very proud writer at that, who’d been kicked out of his country and now in 1940 was asked to script Universal’s prestige picture of 1941, The Wolf Man. Werewolves had been done onscreen before, but Siodmak reinvented the concept. His werewolf, once infected, sees a mark in the palm of his next victim and can only be killed by the purity of a silver bullet. He puts on display the struggle of so many humans who are “bitten” by something that’s bigger than they are, something that changes them—booze or heroin or opioids or ideology—and they lose control. As we know too well, humans can become monsters.

The Wolf Man unspools in a tidy 70 minutes, but even given the lightning pace, Siodmak’s script is literate and layered. An American-sounding man, Lawrence Talbot, returns to his ancestral English home following the death of his elder brother. We learn he’s the black-sheep who had left long ago and grown up in the States. He’s back presumably to claim his brother’s spot as next in line to rule the manor. We also learn early on he’s a wolf, as in a skirt-chaser. In a scene I always found creepy, he uses his father’s powerful telescope to spy on a young woman in her bedroom, then tries to flirt with the woman using facts gleaned in the telescope. He’s a genial enough guy and we’re supposed to like him, but already we learn things to make you go, “Hmmmm.” He left because he couldn’t stand the spotlight on his older brother; he returned for money; he’s a peeping Tom.

As per Siodmak’s comment about not choosing his family, the script details a murky relationship with the father-figure. Sir John Talbot, portrayed by Claude Rains, is a fine upstanding civic leader but out of touch with his son throughout the picture. He’s old-fashioned and steps behind the lethal problems at hand. Set against Rains is Lon Chaney Jr. as “Larry,” bringing his own conflict and sadness to the role of a man born in the shadows cast by mighty spotlights on Dad. Chaney had lived just such a reality with his own father, Man of a Thousand Faces 1920s Hollywood superstar Lon Chaney.

Soon enough in Siodmak’s screenplay, the figurative skirt-chasing wolf is bitten by a real one after it’s been carefully recited four times in about eight minutes, “Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” Siodmak drives the point home over and over: There’s nothing you can do, Larry. You’re screwed.

At the next full moon, doomed man Lawrence Talbot becomes a werewolf himself. Supposedly in Siodmak’s original script the audience never witnessed a full transformation of man to beast, but rather received visual cues and the rest was left to the imagination. But in its wisdom Universal knew it needed full makeup supplied by virtuoso Jack Pierce as part of the successful formula of Frankenstein and The Mummy. So the transformation became visceral and the monster makeup frightening—Fox would try the subtle approach with The Undying Monster in 1943—showing the monster only fleetingly—which proved Universal correct because which film made huge profits, spawned sequels, sold model kits, and still resonates today?

Maybe it’s coincidence that the German Jew wrote a story about an okay-but-flawed man who sees a series of straight lines inside a circle and then becomes a beast. As someone born within a mile of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I know all too well that the same monsters are still loose. Siodmak remembered a return trip to Berlin made long after the war. “There I was, standing on the same sidewalk in front of the same theater where I’d stood sixty years before for a screening of my science fiction film The Invisible Agent [made in America in 1942 and shown in Berlin in the 1980s]. In the meantime, there’d been a world war, they’d killed my family. It made me feel sick. You Americans don’t know what it was like to live through those times.”

In The Wolf Man, the father must kill his infected son; in real life, German fathers were powerless to stop the infection, or too busy becoming infected themselves. I’m not sure if Curt Siodmak ever answered the question of whether The Wolf Man was about Nazism, but Mary’s right, it is a sad story, and in its way the most horrific monster tale of all. But I like to think Siodmak enjoyed some measure of revenge. With Hitler and his cronies all long dead by suicide or execution, Curt Siodmak lived on with his wife in comfort in the States. He finally passed on a month after his 98th birthday in the year 2000, I’m sure feisty to the end.

 

Spartans of New York

Almost 40 years ago The Warriors, a feature about New York street gangs, hit theaters. I well recall the furor caused by that wide release. In various places around the country, riots broke out as the show unspooled and some young people died. The Warriors concerns a gang forced to journey from the north side of the Bronx through 27 miles of hostile urban jungle—the turf of rival gangs—to reach home, Coney Island. I remember sharing the nation’s outrage that such a movie even existed to glorify violence and egg on viewers to commit mayhem.

But a funny thing happened: In the first of many similar lessons, I learned that those condemning a piece of art too often do so sight unseen. And when this small-town white boy sat and watched The Warriors, I became an instant fan. It’s a picture that up to and including this week I find irresistible. If I surf to it, that’s that: I am compelled to watch to the end.

 

Our unlikely heroes.

Yes, this is the story of a New York street gang, and yes, its members beat to a pulp rival gangs in a series of bloody battles spanning several city boroughs. But from the start you’re on their side. At one point one of them gets handcuffed to a park bench by an undercover woman cop and says in a panic, “Come on, lady!” and continues to call her “lady” as he struggles to get out of the cuffs and decks a uniformed city cop in the process. The Warriors are clearly defined protagonists—plot-wise they’re wrongly accused of assassinating a warlord who wants to consolidate the city’s various rival gangs into one mega-gang. What struck me on yet another viewing this past Sunday was how classical the story is and how reminiscent these warriors are to the 300 Spartans or any outnumbered army in history. Further investigation in the past couple days reveals that, son of a gun, the plot of The Warriors is based on Anabasis, an ancient book by Greek professional soldier Xenophon about a Spartan army stranded in Persia and fighting its way home.

The Warriors of modern-day Coney Island are led on the night depicted in the picture by Swan, promoted to general of the gang when the original leader is lost early in reel one. Swan leads his troops on an odyssey to reach their turf with numbers dwindling as they go. And the gangs they fight are simply awesome, each more dangerous and inhuman than the last. By the time the weary Warriors reach the turf of the Baseball Furies, who wear menacing full-face makeup, dress in baseball uniforms, and carry Louisville Sluggers, the outnumbered and unarmed heroes are tired of running and turn to fight. But you don’t want them to because the Furies are something straight out of a nightmare. The stand of the Warriors here as elsewhere knocks the breath out of you, edited in lightning cuts from combatant to combatant as our heroes take on their foes.

One of the truly scary Baseball Furies menaces James Remar’s Ajax.

As much as I remember the controversy of this picture on first run, I also remember my visits to NYC in the 1970s and ’80s—the timeframe depicted here. The Apple wasn’t doing well at all back then, making filmmaker Walter Hill’s depiction of dark and dangerous streets a little too uncomfortable in its accuracy.

Swan stares down a rival gang at a subway stop as tagalong Mercy looks on.

The cast features some faces you’ll recognize and others you won’t. Michael Beck had some success in the 1980s and ’90s but was never better than here as the laconic Swan, who most often lets his silent chiseled face and cold eyes convey key messages. The gang had originally been scripted as all-black but by the final cut they were a nice mix of white, black, and multigrain, with ethnically vague Deborah van Valkenburgh as Mercy, the tagalong love interest. A familiar face for some will be then-25-year-old James Remar, whose long and successful career included three years in the recurring role of Richard Wright, boyfriend of Samantha Jones on Sex and the City. Here he’s Ajax, the gang’s most belligerent headbanger.

I guess the movie had (and I imagine still has) its detractors among the critics—the People magazine article linked earlier noted critical response upon initial release that ranged “from mild disdain to modest praise”—and yes, the picture “glorifies violence,” as charged by Hollywood producer Tony Bill. These are, after all, American city streets serving as the battlefield, and real people did die in the initial run of the picture. I’ll add that there’s nothing at all romantic about the drug-peddling street gangs of today with their incessant gunplay and ever-rising body counts that make the fistfights, clubs, and occasional switchblades of The Warriors seem comparatively quaint. By design, Walter Hill kept guns to a minimum so the contest would be one of guts and skill. He also favored sparse amounts of dialogue, which maintains the high tension, and he wisely stayed away from profanity that would have dissipated the cascading energy. It’s a night of sweat and occasional mayhem leading into the only daytime sequence in the entire runtime: the climax on the beach at Coney Island. “Waaariors, come out to plaaa-eee-aaay.”

One side note—two years after The Warriors came the beloved-by-some Escape from New York, which borrowed liberally from Walter Hill’s creation, down to the stern-faced monosyllabic hero, dark and wetted-down nighttime streets, exotic automobiles, nightmarish villains, and even the electronic musical score. But for me none of it worked quite so well the second time around. Walter Hill had created genuine magic.

After that tumultuous 1979 release, The Warriors would go on to cult status as measured by the number of clips and featurettes visible on YouTube, including a trailer with 6.3 million views and counting—although this one with only a half million is better quality. I’d actually like to hear from those of you out there who have seen The Warriors and don’t care for it. To me, it’s compelling stuff. Simple, taut, underplayed. And the lesson learned for me was, see the art then judge, instead of the other way around.

Several original cast members of The Warriors, including Michael Beck (center) staged a reunion for laughs and brotherhood at Coney Island in 2015 as part of Rolling Stone’s The Warriors:’ Last Subway Ride Home.

Olympic Shark Jumping

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Him: Penny for your thoughts. Her: I hate you.

I know the examples are legion, but tell me some of the instances where an actor or actress was miscast for a picture. Then I’ll play my hand: the time the pint-sized Lubitsch veteran was cast as a dance hall girl in an Errol Flynn western.

In his recent book Miriam Hopkins: Life and Times of a Hollywood Rebel, Allan R. Ellenberger claims that Jack Warner blackmailed the blond-haired, going-on-40 Hopkins into making Virginia City—if she didn’t do it, Warner would reveal she was having an affair with writer Carl Zuckmayer and ruin her already fragile career. That’s exactly what her performance in this picture reflects—an actress performing under threat of blackmail.

Errol & Olivia by Robert MatzenFor historical perspective, Virginia City is a splashy Warner Bros. production from 1940 that was made in the wake of Aussie-accented Flynn’s giant success in the previous year’s Dodge City. Flynn had been big box office from the start, but after The Adventures of Robin Hood, ka-boom! Huge. He justified ever-bigger budgets for his pictures, and for Virginia City, which was shot at the end of 1939, the Warners signed checks with reckless abandon. Jack Warner and right-hand-man Hal Wallis followed the lead of cash cow Gone With the Wind, then smashing records in theaters. The American Civil War was all the rage in 1940 and Virginia City drips with Suthun drawwwwwls and talk of the noble lossst cawwwws.

The catch was, Flynn thought it ludicrous that with his accent and South Seas background, WB would put him in westerns. He didn’t believe he belonged there.

I’m going to figure, judging by the description of shooting Virginia City in Alan K. Rode’s definitive 2017 bio Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, that the renowned director would go on to erase this credit from his resume because the location work in Arizona was long and chaotic, punctuated by sniping and factionalism among cast and crew. Then I checked Rudy Behlmer’s Inside Warner Bros. and revisited one of my favorite studio memos ever, to associate producer Mark Hellinger from producer Robert Lord: “Dear Mark: Your basic story line is about as good (perhaps a little better) than the basic story line of Dodge City and Union Pacific. That is to say: ‘It stinks and they stank.’” Under that memo in Behlmer’s book is another, this one to Hal Wallis from screenwriter Robert Bruckner begging him not to extensively rewrite the script and giving the reasons why. Bruckner lost and in fact the script was rewritten day by day just ahead of the shooting schedule to the extent that nobody knew their lines. When a final screenplay features more blue pages (denoting rewrites) than white pages (originals), you’re in trouble.

Then there was the ad-libbing, which the Marx Bros. could pull off but not so much the Warner Bros. (who didn’t have a funny bone in their bodies). In his Curtiz bio, Rode describes a long bit of comedic improvisation by Flynn and idiot co-stars Alan Hale and Big Boy Williams that made it into the final cut—and a more uncomfortable, unprofessional couple minutes of film you’ll be hard-pressed to find, except in the productions of Edward D. Wood Jr. Everything that worked between the three actors in Dodge City grew embarrassing, even offensive this time out. And damned if they didn’t get together and do it again for Curtiz in Santa Fe Trail later that year!

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

The notorious ad-libbed scene. With friends like Moose and Marblehead (I’m not kidding–those are their names in the picture), who needs rebels or Mexican bandits? And Flynn does himself no favors by trying to improvise comedy before loaded cameras.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Anybody call for me? I’ve already got the costume.

Plot in 30 seconds: Flynn and his Yankee bumpkin friends are confined in a southern prison run by Randolph Scott, but they escape and it turns out they are intelligence men (full disclosure: I didn’t see any intelligence among the three of them) who have uncovered a southern plot to sneak $5M in gold from Virginia City, Nevada, into the Confederacy to keep the war going. By sheer coincidence the man in charge of the rebel plot is Randolph Scott who gives up his job running the prison and goes to Nevada to supervise the gold-sneak. Meanwhile Flynn and bumpkins take the stage from (apparently) Virginia to Nevada, and during what must have been a long and painful ride he falls in love with southerner Miriam Hopkins. Then—

Oh hell, why bother because there’s a whole lot more plot but suffice to say, a little boy dies in reel 2 as per all Warner Bros. western scripts of the time, and there’s a wagon train (also mandatory) that ends up under attack not by Injuns but by Mexican bandits led by Humphrey Bogart. Can someone please explain to me why Indians in old-time movies (or Mexicans in this case) ride around and around the circled wagons when all that happens is they get picked off one by one or two by two or five at a time and never, ever accomplish anything except to lose? Was life really that cheap in the real Old West? Not to mention that, inevitably, the cavalry is going to arrive, and they do here of course, just in the nick of time. Douglas Dumbrille, yet another character actor, is leading them and in such a sour mood that it seems like he’s sorry he saved the day.

Blah blah blah more plot. Whatever. This exercise in shark-jumping begins with Miriam Hopkins as a Scarlett O’Hara wannabe in the office of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and ends with Hopkins pleading for Flynn’s life in the office of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln—on the morning of his assassination yet! Even in 1940 I can’t imagine buying this crap.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Say, wasn’t there supposed to be a girl in this scene? Whoa! I didn’t see you down there, little lady!

I found Flynn horrible in Virginia City. He’s uncomfortable and disinterested and doesn’t bother to learn his lines except in the instances where he knows he’ll get close-ups. In the scene where he learns his lady-love is really a dance-hall girl, he doesn’t know his motivation and instinct tells him to turn nasty. This ain’t the Flynn we’re used to. I think he was shell-shocked after completion of the marathon Elizabeth and Essex. That production, also for Curtiz, co-starring Bette Davis, and documented in Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood, left our boy scarred, unsure, and angry at his treatment by the front office. And here again he was saddled with a sour-puss co-star, this time Miriam Hopkins, a fine actress in pictures like The Smiling Lieutenant, Trouble in Paradise, and Design for Living, all for Ernst Lubitsch. Supposedly, she was a flaming boil to work with (arrived late, offered suggestions on how co-stars could play a scene, demanded dialogue rewrites, etc.), and we know Flynn could be an infected hair follicle himself. What a pair! Here Hopkins is lost in a dusty western and ill-suited to costumes meant for a Vegas showgirl and not a woman who was so diminutive that she looked like a sapling among tall pines Flynn and Scott. The part cried out for Warner contract player Ann Sheridan who had already played it in Dodge City—I swear Bruckner wrote it with Sheridan in mind—but Hopkins was also under WB contract and at a far higher rate, so she got the nod.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

You feex me up, eh, doc? Why of course I will, Mr. Bogart, because I’m reliable character actor Moroni Olsen. (Observe Randolph Scott as he looks on with unwavering solemnity.)

Some of the veteran character actors come off well by comparison to Flynn, Hopkins, and inscrutable Randy Scott, whose monotone delivery and solemnity are unwavering. If you want reliable, call John Litel, Moroni Olson, and Russell Hicks. The actor who surprised me pleasantly on this recent viewing was Bogart, who has been called “miscast” by every Hollywood historian who ever addressed this picture. To me, that’s rear-view-mirror stuff because in 1940, Bogart was not a lead but rather a character man and this was a character part. And his accent sounds exactly like that of Jesús, our favorite server at El Paso Mexican Restaurant, so who’s to say it’s not authentic? Bogart owns the scenes he shares with Flynn. They try to out-smug each other but Bogart’s got the chops and Flynn doesn’t, so Bogie wins. We know Errol was capable of good performances because he gave them in The Dawn Patrol and Essex, but here he just seems to be pissed off and when Flynn’s pissed, he shuts down.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Errol sets his co-star in a tree. A real, exterior, in-the-middle-of-a-river tree. Of course you can’t see the river because Curtiz has filled his foreground with junk.

There’s a scene I always thought odd and uncomfortable: The stagecoach gets stuck in a river and Flynn, knee-deep in water, carries Hopkins to an overhanging tree limb and sets her there like a high-wire-act sack of potatoes. Then later he fetches her off the branch and carries her to dry land. For decades this scene has raised my hackles and I don’t know why. I think it’s because you can feel the contempt between the players at somewhere around 120 Hz—too high a frequency to actually see but there nonetheless. “All day long I have been afraid that Errol would drop me in the water,” she said that evening on location. “Perhaps it would have been better if he had.” Yes, Miss Hopkins, drowning was one quick way out of this mess.

Flynn liked younger women (the younger the better), and Hopkins at eight years his senior did not ring the bell. “They simply couldn’t stand each other and were at swords point all the time,” said screenwriter Bruckner. And it shows; does it ever.

Then there’s the aforementioned dance-hall sequence, which was the last thing to be shot, back in Burbank after contentious weeks on location in Arizona. Hopkins had started out dancing on Broadway in the 1920s, but as was common in those days, spent no time in the gym since hitting Hollywood in 1930. As a result, she faced these days on the barroom set at the studio like her own execution. She dislocated her hip rehearsing two days before Christmas—perhaps one of those self-inflicted wounds you hear about in extreme combat—which delayed the shoot until January 11, 1940. “That morning, she arrived late and hid in her portable dressing room,” wrote Ellenberger in his biography. “After two hours, Curtiz remarked, ‘Now, either she dances or else,’ lightly tapping on her dressing room door. Miriam stepped out wearing a black, laced bodice and a ruffled skirt. ‘Let’s get this over,’ she said, smiling.”

Now, I’ll tell you, dear reader, that I couldn’t get up on a stage and sing and dance in a chorus line any better than Miriam Hopkins in Virginia City. But I don’t think I could do a lot worse, either. I can safely say from the distance of going on a century, as a dance hall girl, Miriam Hopkins is no Ann Sheridan. And I like Miriam Hopkins. She’s a terrific actress, but so so so miscast in Virginia City.

It’s obvious I’ve seen this turkey several times in the distant past because I knew the lines before they were delivered, but my sensibilities must have changed in the past two score plus 10. This time, I sat horrified. With a painful run time of 121 minutes, everything got tossed in during all those rewrites, including the kitchen sink. I will credit Curtiz for some nice scenics and action shots and dollies over and cranes up and cranes down, and of course there’s foreground junk cluttering up the frame. But even Curtiz couldn’t junk up spectacular Arizona Painted Desert vistas. And when Max Steiner’s hired for the musical score, all is not lost. According to Curtiz biographer Rode, the picture did boffo business, proving that at least in this case, more was deemed to be better. You know what Virginia City would be perfect for? A Friday night send-up like Rocky Horror, complete with people dressed as Mexican bandits and showgirls and Abe Lincoln and sing-alongs of “The Union Forever” with Miriam Hopkins. That would finally do justice to this, one of the more incredible motion picture releases of the golden era.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

In their only big sequence together, Bogart and Flynn smug it out trying to out-suave each other. My verdict: Bogart wins. Is Errol actually looking at his fingernails? I thought they only did that in the movies. Oh, right.