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.

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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.

Seeing Red

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

At the intersection of passion, ambition, and love lay the red shoes. I arrived late to an appreciation of the Pressburger/Powell collaboration The Red Shoes, released in England in 1948 by the Rank Organisation. Give me The Sea Hawk and pirates, or Excalibur and King Arthur, I used to grumble. Don’t give me ballet!

But then in the late 1990s I did get exposed to ballet when I worked on a video tribute to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s retiring artistic director Patricia Wilde, who had been a George Balanchine ballerina. I learned then how cool ballet was, and how much discipline it took to make a dancer. Seeing vintage footage of Patricia Wilde as she danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the New York City Ballet left me slack-jawed. And here I was interviewing this great woman on camera about that career.*

Flash forward 20 years. I trespassed in the ballet world again recently as I sat writing Dutch Girl and learning about Audrey Hepburn’s aspirations for a career in dance—sat not only here stateside but also in the very theater where she once performed, the Stadsschouwburg in Arnhem, the Netherlands. She studied for four years in Arnhem with a Dutch ballet mistress named Winja Marova and followed that with a stint in Amsterdam under Sonja Gaskell and then in London under Marie Rambert. All three are important names in European ballet—Gaskell is very well remembered and Rambert is a bona fide legend.

Ask Audrey at any point in her life what she aspired to be and she would say “a dancer.” She never answered “an actress.” Meryl Streep—there is an actress, Audrey would tell you. But even though Audrey had played Gigi on Broadway and then won a Tony Award for Ondine the next year, she claimed she faked her way through. She did what an instinct for survival told her to do and lived to tell the tale.

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

Tortured Lermontov punches a mirror.

I have to find out what Audrey thought about The Red Shoes, which is set in post-war London at a time when she studied under Rambert and began a brief but intense career as a chorus girl after coming to grips with the fact that her dreams of ballet would never become reality. The Red Shoes tells the story of the rise of ballerina Victoria Page as molded by ballet impresario Boris Lermontov. He asks her at a critical point, “What do you want from life?” She answers at once, breathlessly, “To dance!” It was an Audrey moment.

I always find The Red Shoes, now digitally restored, an astonishing experience on many levels. It presents the world of professional ballet as muscular and visceral, one minute beautiful, the next nightmarish, and always obsessive; it saturates your eyes with Technicolor designed by director of photography Jack Cardiff; it lays bare the souls of a trio of characters who will break your heart for their spectacular individual talents and crippling human limitations.

I love Lermontov, played by Austrian-born Anton Walbrook. Lermontov never bends, never breaks. It’s his company and you will do it his way or get out! He rules ruthlessly, savagely, relentlessly. Nothing must be allowed to get in the way of his art. If he retires to his apartment off-hours and talks sweetly to his cat, we don’t see it. He seems to live at the theatre and wields power at all hours. Once in a while he might seem to relent, but only as another way to skin a cat—as a different means to an end. [Note to readers: This is as close to me as it gets, people. I live for my whatever passes for my art, just like Lermontov.]

Then there’s Vicki Page, played by real-life-ballerina-turned-actress Moira Shearer. Vicki has it all under Lermontov, all she has said she ever wanted, ever dreamed of, and then loses her way by falling in love with composer Julian Craster. You just want to shake her by the shoulders and scream, “Snap out of it! He isn’t worth it!” But no matter how many times you watch The Red Shoes, she never listens.

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

The confrontation: Craster, played by Marius Goring, confronts Lermontov with his love for Vicki.

What a fascinating woman Moira Shearer was. She had been a Sadler’s Wells ballerina and a great rising star—until The Red Shoes. After that she claimed the traditional ballet world considered her a sellout for lowering herself to act, and her career never recovered. She continued to dance for a while and then tried acting full time, but neither worked out. Later on she would lecture and write and finally she died in 2006 at age 80. Boy, I wish I had known this woman.

One more link between Audrey and The Red Shoes: Fourth billed is Sadler’s Wells principal dancer Robert Helpmann of Australia. On May 9, 1940, Audrey sat in the city theatre of Arnhem and watched the Sadler’s Wells touring company featuring Helpmann and Margot Fonteyn dance. It was a turning point in the life of an 11 year old, and she would tell the story of stepping onto the stage with these forces of British ballet to deliver flowers to ballet mistress Ninette de Valois.

Please forgive me for stumbling blindly through the first decades of life avoiding The Red Shoes. I’ve learned the error of my ways. Ballet rocks. And, for me at least, never does it rock harder than in The Red Shoes.

__________________________

*Thinking about the Patricia Wilde video caused me to dig it out and upload it to Youtube. It was my first job as a producer (co-producer, actually) and one of my first creative experiences in the edit suite working with post-production ace Kathy Kruger. This video hasn’t seen the light of day for 21 years, but it’s part of the historical record of American ballet and I believe for that reason it should be preserved.

Friends

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

Young pre-Hollywood Audrey.

I’m done. The fun part is over—the fun part being sitting alone night after night, figuring out the story and writing it. If you commit to 1,000 words a session and understand that some of the words will be good, some bad, and some indifferent, before too long you get a book. Following that process, along with three trips to the Netherlands and a year associated with Dutch researcher Maddie van Leenders, Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, is written and weighs in at about 103,000 words. Release is set for April 15, 2019. As a workaholic introvert, I have enjoyed the experience of spending two years alone with Audrey Hepburn more than I can tell you. She’s been very pleasant company; in fact about the pleasantest ever, right up there with George Washington.

When you work on a biography that long and get so deep inside the heart and soul of your subject, he or she invariably becomes a friend, or at least a “work friend.” When I produced the three documentary films on George Washington, we became pals and I still miss him after more than 10 years.

I would call Errol Flynn a work friend at best because here I was working in the same office with a tortured soul for two books and along the way finally figured out what was going on in his chaotic, complex mind. Just yesterday I watched his finest acting job, in Elizabeth and Essex, and because I know him so well, my heart broke at the heroic effort this generally lazy hedonist put into one very tough job, to make sure the powers trying to defeat him would not prevail. Then there was the leading lady of his lifetime, Olivia de Havilland, who I had to figure out for the book Errol & Olivia (BTW, Belated Happy Birthday this past July 1, OdeH). We had been correspondents for a long time, and I studied her from Saratoga, California, on; in fact it was there in the concrete driveway of the Fontaine home that I laid my hand over the tiny handprints of Livvie and her little sister Joan. They must have been six and five at the time they pressed them into the cement, but it’s as if these two future Academy Award winners were already performing their own Grauman’s Chinese ceremony. I think in retrospect Livvie’s the most interesting person I’ve ever tackled. She remains at age 102 a closed book, a loner, and 100% pure badass. I have come to admire her tremendously.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Loner Olivia de Havilland and complicated Errol Flynn.

I’ve documented Carole Lombard on these pages as well as in Fireball so I won’t bore you with more, except to say hers is a lively spirit to spend a couple of years alone with. There were a number of surprises on that project. Among them was Clark Gable, an interesting guy and, I concluded, an OK guy despite a flawed character. But then most of us are flawed characters one way or another. The second surprise involved the 15 Air Corps pilots on Lombard’s death plane who wanted their stories to be told. Who knew? One of these fellas even showed up a couple years ago, which introduced me to a new friend, Felicia Borla of the Clark County Coroner’s Office.

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

The lively Lombard and her cat-who-ate-the-canary smile.

Jim Stewart and I came to an understanding over the course of Mission’s development. During his lifetime, two things were sure about Jim: 1) he would not talk about his WWII combat career, and 2) he hated biographers. So what did I set out to write? His combat biography. You’d suppose that on the other side he wouldn’t be happy with me, but in describing Stewart in combat I put a spotlight on the great group of guys he commanded in battle. Those men deserved the kind of attention that their proximity to Jimmy Stewart the actor would have promoted, and Mission made that happen. So now Jim and I are OK; not tight, but OK.

And now we come to Audrey Hepburn. Audrey’s another tough cookie for a simple reason: She had secrets she felt could not be revealed, which led her to turn down several seven-figure offers from publishers to write her memoir. Then she died much too soon, and biographers went to town writing about her life and they’re still at it, and now I’ve done it too.

My book’s different from the others because I went right after the secrets, and had to hack and slash through a lot of false leads, inaccurate reporting, myths, and subterfuge to get at the truth, or at least what truth can be determined when files have been intentionally destroyed. I’m not going to give you any spoilers here, so you’re going to have to wait and read Dutch Girl to find out what the secrets are and if she makes it out of World War II alive.

I wanted to use this photo on the cover of Mission but got overruled.

Like always there was a get-acquainted period with Audrey, and I came to see her as a pretty fierce introvert. Well, to be precise, she wasn’t an introvert as a ballerina, which is all she ever wanted to be. It was the acting and particularly the speaking that gave her the shakes. We got along very well and the good vibes grew, and now I’m associated and sharing information with her son, Luca Dotti. Luca’s now in the process of adding some pretty incredible details to the narrative, things only someone inside the family could.

There’s nothing like the experience of positive energy aligning on a great project, and that’s what Dutch Girl has been—the most enjoyable adventure of my career thanks in large part to a wonderful group of Dutch people who love history, or lived it, or knew Audrey, or had some sort of expertise they were willing to provide to a clumsy American. They include Maddie along with Gety, Annemarth, Clan, Rosemarie, Ben, Herman, Patrick, Johan, Dick, and Robert, Luca in Rome, and Marina and Ann, my stateside researchers. They all have made collaboration a joy—even for a guy who likes nothing better than to sit alone and write.

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

In June 2017 with the help of Dutch historian and author Gety Hengeveld-de Jong, I interviewed Ben van Griethuysen, Annemarth Visser ‘t Hooft, and Rosemarie Kamphuisen, who lived in the village of Velp with Audrey during World War II. All provided information critical to the Dutch Girl narrative.

Fireballed

You may be wondering where I’ve been. Well, I’m working on my new book and it’s the bottom of the ninth, as in, after two years, I have to be done at the end of May. I only have a one-track mind, unlike later more sophisticated models of humans who can, as the kids say, multitask, and so getting this thing completed is pretty much all I’m eating and sleeping these days.

And because of that single track, I haven’t addressed a very interesting comment that came into this website at the end of April, so I thought I would pause to admire it in the sunlight. Mary Whittaker had first left a comment here saying that she had begun Fireball and was enjoying it. Then she followed up.

First of all, thank you Mary for reading and liking Fireball and for taking the time to write about the following:

So wow – I just finished “Fireball” and am still “not over it.” Thank you so much for writing this book. It was absolutely fascinating…and the most fascinating thing to ME is the question of WHY this story is so compelling (and it absolutely, positively is). The amount of angst and stress I felt reading it – having absolutely no personal knowledge of the individuals involved AND with full knowledge of pretty much how it all ended…was remarkable.

When I consider Lana’s retort (‘I didn’t make her get on that plane’), I find that I have to reluctantly somewhat agree. Gable didn’t make her get on it either. How is it possible that this smart, savvy, successful, confidant and seemingly universally loved woman was somehow reduced to changing her interests, going cross country in desperate pursuit of pregnancy, lurking around Hollywood sound stages to monitor her husband’s behavior and accepting a pattern of one sided adultery in her marriage? How did she get to a point where she was so desperate to hang onto a man that she was a wreck over an 8 day separation and the fact that he wasn’t answering the phone….to the point of defying solemn promises made to her traveling companions, ignoring military air travel demands during war time and throwing a celebrity fit in order to get her way? It’s maddening! I understand that he was “the king” and all…but she was not exactly chopped liver and absolutely nothing in her background would lead one to believe that she would not only put up with this kind of situation but literally kill herself and 2 others in her single minded desperation to retain it. I’m guessing that this wealthy high society party girl/hugely successful actress was not previously terribly interested in hunting/camping. Her prior relationships, marital opinions and career plans did not seem to have a lot of focus on motherhood. She seems to have been trying to become what she thought he wanted from the start – then obsessed with having a baby (really good idea with a straying husband) as a further means to hold him. You just want to reach through the pages and shake her — HE IS NOT WORTH IT!!!

An irony too I think is that if she hadn’t died like this, my guess would be eventual divorce when she had finally had enough. He certainly was not going to stop his behavior as her prior entreaties had not worked…it was just a matter of time before she either became too humiliated/fed up to take it any more…or he got someone pregnant (again) or found some other 20 something actress to replace his (in Hollywood) “aging” 30 something wife. I don’t think absent this tragedy the “Gable and Lombard” legendary love story would have endured.

I did not quite come away with much admiration for Gable. I felt for him and was mesmerized by the details of his attempt to climb up, time in Las Vegas waiting for the outcome/bodies and life after…but at the end of the day I couldn’t help but think that karma had kind of gotten him (with the incredibly unfortunate corresponding outcome for Winkler and Petey too). His treatment of his first wife – the ugly reality of his second marriage – the complete abdication of human/moral responsibility for Judy Lewis and of course his cavalier and hurtful behavior while with Lombard — all too much for me to erase via a few kind deeds later on.

As you so correctly pointed out, SO many people died in WW2…WHY does this one plane crash seem so compelling?! It is positively haunting to me and I’m not exactly sure why. The passage of 75 years….the fading photos of a long ago movie star who many/most today have never have even heard of….the lingering debris (including that wedding ring) still resting undisturbed on that mountain….the LONG list of reasons why this never had to happen and the various opportunities that would have changed everything are gut wrenching. I can certainly understand why Gable never recovered.

Thank you for an outstanding read. I never knew all the details…now I do and will never forget them.

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

My 2012 view of the place where all the stories intersected.

What more could any author want than a reader who is this literate and this energized after reading that author’s book? You bring up so many great points, Mary, with the first being, why did Carole bend herself into a pretzel to try to accommodate this particular man? I think the answer can be found in her capacity to love unconditionally. She was an old soul and she understood and was able to accept his baser instincts, insecurities, and shortcomings. It wasn’t ever a two-way street with these two. He was the king and she was his consort. But then she hit 30 in the place where one must never do that—Hollywood. And tastes changed among moviegoers, causing her to drive her career into a ditch. Once she was in there, it wasn’t so easy to get back out, and the result was fear she would lose her man to the hottie of 1941, Lana.

Another point you raise, the one that made you want to reach through the pages, concerned her rush to get home. As I read your reaction, it occurred to me that at age 33 years and 3 months, Carole still possessed the energy and invincibility of youth. Dying was for other people. If there’s one thing I understand above all (because she and I share this trait in spades), it’s Carole’s goal orientation. And that night her goal was, I gotta get home. She saw the prize and she went for it whereas after another 10 or 20 years of living, she might have tempered her impulse into, I want to get home, but he’ll be there tomorrow and I can’t put my traveling companions through emotional hell.

I’ve said it a thousand times and I’ll say it again. I remember vividly sitting there in the middle of writing Fireball in my quiet house. Dead quiet. And looking at the wall in front of me and thinking, “Will anyone care about this story of a movie star who’s been dead 70 years?” I’m going through it right now in a different sense because, Audrey Hepburn. Sheesh. But this time it’s, “Have I pulled this off? Have I told this story in a way that compels the reader to keep going?” You just never know.

But in both cases I’ve latched onto a story that all past biographers stepped right over without really even glancing back to see what that just was. In the case of the last days of Carole Lombard, I was like, wait a minute. There were so many stories that had never been told. Carole living the best full day of her life on the last full day of her life. The veteran airline pilot who made a rookie mistake. The first responders rushing up a mountain to make a rescue. The crash investigators trying to figure out what had happened. The poor young officer who had to pick up body parts on mountainside you couldn’t even walk across. The hotshot Army flyboy desperate to get to his fiancée. And on and on. You didn’t have to end up liking Gable because there were so many other people who were so goddamn cool, including some who broke your heart by not living to the end.

Audrey in the British picture Secret People playing a young dancer. She made this two years before she hit Hollywood.

In the case of Audrey Hepburn in World War II—that’s my next one, Audrey Hepburn in World War II—there’s an obligatory chapter on this topic in all the bios that came out after she died in 1993. A single chapter about six years of her life in the midst of the greatest crisis in human history! Oh let’s just get past this thing about Hitler and Jews, the murder of her uncle, the battle for Arnhem, the Hunger Winter, and all that other boring history. We have to blaze through it so we can get to the good stuff about sex with William Holden and the making of Breakfast at Tiffany’s! Well, fine, you all did that. There are some really good AH bios out there, particularly the one by Barry Paris.

Me? By focusing on the Netherlands, I found a story just as riveting as what there was on Potosi. Once again I’m sitting here thinking, I can’t believe I get to be the one to tell it! But, boy, I can’t just tell it. I have to tell it right. That’s the pressure and the sixty-four-dollar question. Have I told it right?

Anyway, that’s where I’ve been—back in time in the Netherlands circa 1940-45 learning how Audrey Hepburn became who she ended up being. Walking in her footsteps, breathing her air, meeting some of the people she knew in the places she knew them.

In the meantime this is just me poking my head in to say hello and to acknowledge the tremendous compliment paid by Mary Whittaker.

When 1 + 1 = death

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

Pete Duel and Ben Murphy in Alias Smith and Jones.

I watched a lot of television as a kid, which is ironic because I don’t watch any now. Today I know nothing, as in zero, about Game of Thrones or This is Us or others that are talked about. I’m more interested in living my own life than watching imaginary people, usually troubled people, live theirs.

My favorite show in 1971 was Alias Smith and Jones, a Western following the formula of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which my dad and I had just seen. Whereas the latter featured two big stars who knew they were big stars and played their parts with smug self-satisfaction, Alias Smith and Jones starred two hungry young actors, Peter Duel and Ben Murphy. A more likable pair you could not find, and their chemistry was terrific playing train-robber outlaws who had decided to go straight. There was a lot of humor, minimal killing, and a revisionist edge combined a little flirtation with the counterculture, and it all set this series apart from creaky old Western claptrap like Gunsmoke. (Here’s 46 seconds that sums up Alias Smith and Jones pretty well.)

By the second season, Pete Duel had become my hero, this charming “latter-day Robin Hood” who as outlaw Hannibal Hayes (alias Joshua Smith) always had a plan and something witty to say, and always seemed happy even when his plans backfired in grand fashion. Innocent little-old me wanted to grow up to be Pete Duel.

Then at the holidays 1971, innocent little-old me heard on the news that Pete Duel had killed himself. I couldn’t comprehend this news. Heroes didn’t do such a thing. I knew precious little about death and it hadn’t yet invaded my family, but the newspaper said my personal hero had shot himself in the head beside the Christmas tree. Oh, the pain of this knowledge. I remember it not as rational hurt, but as, really, my first experience with profound grief. I remember roaming my neighborhood in the night, just aimlessly wandering around by myself in the dark Pennsylvania cold trying to cope with this strange occurrence.

Flash forward to last week—what is it, 46+ years later. Alias Smith and Jones was on Cozi TV, one of those nostalgia channels for Baby Boomers. And there was my hero, charming as ever, very much alive and rollicking his way through the Old West once more. And here I am all these decades later, someone who tries to figure out past people and events. I decided it was time to unlock the door to that long-sealed-off pocket of grief in my head and understand the death of Peter Duel.

It turns out Pete had left Broadway and given himself five years in Hollywood to make it big, at which point he would return to the Great White Way. He had started out as a recurring player in the teen surfer series Gidget, and

Duel with Sally Field in Gidget.

and then landed a starring gig in a 1966 series called Love on a Rooftop, which was a takeoff of Barefoot in the Park that lasted only one season. In 1968 he had some lines in a Universal feature, Hell Is for Heroes,

Then after more guest-starring spots came Alias Smith and Jones in the spring of 1970, year five of his five-year plan, which is when I—and I assume a legion of other kids my age—entered the picture. I learned last week that Duel, then 30, didn’t appreciate his hit series and thought he was better than series television. Whereas today’s stars are interchangeable from the big to the small screens and back again, in 1970 television was looked-down upon and reserved for has-beens and never-wases. I learned Duel was a passionate McGovern Democrat, avid environmentalist, and poet, but also a recovering alcoholic and probably bipolar. I learned he was a perfectionist on the set and considered by everyone to be “difficult to work with.” He was aptly named Duel because it seems there was a running battle going on inside him. He’d be up one day and down the next, but consistently dismissive of the quality of the entertainment that, by Universal Pictures contract, he was forced to aid in putting before cameras. (Never mind that the show holds up today better than most series TV of its time.) By the beginning of season two, co-star Ben Murphy feared Duel was going to walk away from the series at any moment because he had reached year six of his five-year plan.

Shortly before his death, Duel ran for an elected position in the Screen Actors Guild—and lost. In a grim prelude to his suicide, he framed the letter he received about the matter, hung on it on the wall, and shot it with a handgun he kept in the house.

According to his girlfriend, on the night of the dirty deed, Pete watched himself in the latest episode of Alias Smith and Jones. He had gotten his blood alcohol level up to .31, and his anger renewed at the “crap” he was participating in. At such a point, I guess, the options for a TV star in a hit series and idol of millions are: kill yourself or pass out and sleep it off. He picked the wrong one.

Just not lest ye be judged. I don’t know and can’t imagine what the demons were in his head. How sick was this guy who was pretending not to be? Co-star Ben Murphy said he was shocked when he heard the news, “but not exactly surprised.” He said he’s had an imaginary conversation with Duel over and over. In it he says, “Petey, what were you thinking?” And Duel always shrugs and smiles his impish smile and says, “I goofed up.” And then Murphy adds what Duel always adds at the end of this mythical conversation: “And I’m not so sure I wouldn’t do it again.”

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert MatzenThere’s a tragic figure for you. I came away from my adult’s investigation of this man and this event frustrated and sadder still. I am able to sit back and enjoy the exploits of Hannibal Hayes and remember what it was like with Pete Duel as my hero. He had magic about him and could portray a happy person without being one. That’s talent for you. But there’s always hurt seeing him too and there always will be, I think.

I can understand his hypercritical nature—the feeling that you always could be doing better in your career. There’s no success I’ve had yet that I’m completely happy with. But he was a TV star! He had his youth and his health! Maybe the show’s writers weren’t Shakespeare, and no, he wasn’t starring in features and therefore hadn’t met his own five-year marker. Suddenly these things represented to this man at these holidays a death sentence. I don’t get it. I guess this is where insanity enters the picture, and a .31 blood-alcohol level. Then all bets are off. Then 1 + 1 = pull the trigger.

In recent times Sally Field, star of Gidget and later an Academy Award winner, was interviewed and the subject of Pete Duel came up. “I loved Pete,” she said, and after extolling his virtues she got to the point, a point you could see was still difficult for her: “Bless him, and God damn him because, you know, he isn’t alive, and he,” pause, pain visible, “you know—killed himself. I’m sure I’m not the only one in the world who wished he hadn’t done that.” No, Sally, you are not.

#ballbuster

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert MatzenIn case you haven’t noticed, we’re living through a gender revolution that will make the history books. Women from all walks of life are stepping out of the shadows to speak about the sexual abuse they’ve suffered, whether in the form of unwanted advances, or bullying, or rape. It began with actresses in Hollywood, but now workers in the casino, restaurant, and hospitality industries have come forward, and we stand at a moral crossroads. The movement has revealed the continued inequality of the sexes, and a truly surprising lack of progress made in the treatment of women by men. Personally, speaking only for myself as a male of the species, I would argue that men and women aren’t equal at all. Women are superior in almost every way.

When you stop to think about the fact that Harvey Weinstein and so many others have been getting away with vicious behavior in Hollywood in what should be an enlightened age, you have to wonder how bad things were 70 and 80 years ago when L.A. was, to an even greater degree, a “man’s world.”

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

Gable is his usual over-showered self but not his mate who emerged from a successful hunting trip unbathed and wearing no makeup. But still in a fur.

Since the Weinstein business came to light, we’ve seen a cascade of alleged male abusers. You know who this has brought to mind? Carole Lombard. I’ve gained new and growing awareness about how Lombard conducted herself during her Hollywood years. Back around the time she became a leading lady in 1928, she adopted a hard-edged vocabulary that earned her the alias “profane angel” and she used it with everyone, but particularly with men. She was an aggressive woman. She arranged to be photographed with men’s toys—cars, airplanes, guns. She kidded the hell out of men and in the rawest possible terms. She kept men off guard pretty much all the time. Throughout her career, she was known for cursing like a sailor and adopting a manner with men that was charming but also in the bounds of “confrontational.” In other words, she made it clear she was in charge of any situation, and since I got to know this woman pretty well while writing Fireball, I’m going to wonder if once she may have been sexually groped or assaulted.

Once.

If it did happen, her highly unconventional behavior of the next 15 years suddenly makes perfect sense. Supposedly her two older brothers, Fred and Stuart, helped Carole figure out how to live successfully in a man’s world through a tailored attitude and vocabulary. Whoever it was who came up with the formula, it worked. As one of the fan magazines trumpeted, Lombard ‘lives by a man’s rules’ in such grand fashion that, pretty soon, she had a reputation like a gunslinger: Don’t mess with this one; you could get hurt. Carole Lombard flat-out intimidated men—she who kept the massive ego of Clark Gable in check as easily as she wielded a shotgun.

Last month marked 76 years since Carole Lombard died in a plane crash near Las Vegas. That span of time boggles the mind because of how progressive she was. She negotiated paychecks comparable to those of some of the leading men of her day; she made it a point to learn all about directing, producing, and lighting—all of which were male domains; she cheerfully paid 80 percent of her income in taxes because it was for the common good; and she espoused equality of the sexes in a town, and a world, dominated by men. And now, viewed through the prism of the #metoo movement, she seemed to have found a way all those decades ago to take charge of her own safety. I used to think her blue language was eccentric, but now I realize the brilliance and practicality of her brash manner as a loaded weapon with the safety off.

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

Giving Robert Stack the business on the set of To Be or Not to Be.

Spy vs. Spy

Kasteel Zijpendaal tricked out as Nazi headquarters for the film Betrayed in 1954. It had indeed been taken over by German command in 1943 and must have looked pretty much just like this.

Here it is in 2015 on our first visit.

There was a high body count of Germans for the run of Betrayed. Here members of the beret-clad Dutch underground shoot their way out after rescuing Gable and take off.

One more, 2015 again, showing the side of the house scaled by “the Scarf” as he rescued Deventer. In real life, 11-year-old Audrey Hepburn loved to explore these grounds in 1941. She would read here on the lawn and play with the animals, which she preferred to people.

 

You could have knocked me over with a feather. I had a hankering to watch Betrayed the other night, Clark Gable’s last picture for MGM, made in 1954 and about the Dutch underground in WWII. I never much cared for later Gable pictures—he didn’t seem to care so why should I? But these days everything Dutch is important so there I was, watching Gable as Deventer, code-named “Rembrandt,” a Dutch CIA-type fighting the Nazis in his home country, which had been invaded and occupied by the Germans in May 1940. The first sequence in the picture was shot at Kasteel Zijpendaal—a locally famous Dutch castle built in the 18th century on a little lake at the edge of the city of Arnhem. It was “the ancestral home of the Baron van Heemstra,” Audrey Hepburn’s maternal grandfather who was once Arnhem’s mayor.  As a girl of 10 and 11, shy Audrey communed with nature in the lush grounds surrounding the castle.

So there right in front of me was Kasteel Zijpendaal dressed up as Nazi headquarters, and there was Victor Mature as the notorious Dutch underground leader “the Scarf” rowing across the little lake and climbing in a window and helping Clark Gable to escape right before Deventer was about to be tortured and made to talk. There were fake hand grenade explosions inside, Germans mowed down by the machine guns of the Scarf and his men, and then Mature burst out the front door with Gable on his back, stole a Nazi staff car, and escaped. I was dumbfounded because Mary and I had been to this castle multiple times. The rest of the picture played out almost entirely in the Netherlands with Lana Turner parachuting onto Dutch soil as a spy planted by the Allies. She is in love with Gable but quickly gets mixed up with Mature amidst spy vs. spy shenanigans. And so on and so forth.

Something you don’t see every day: Lana Turner parachuting into hostile territory. To lessen your concern, I can report that she didn’t break a nail, let alone an ankle.

The depiction of Mature and the Dutch underground is hilarious. They were bumping off Nazis right and left in all these raids that never happened. At one point he and his men barge into a Luftwaffe base and annihilate a great number of Germans having a party. In truth, I love you dearly, Dutch people, but I terms of violence, you were only good at blowing off an occasional hand or foot—usually your own. When you outwitted a German, which you did all the time, it was by making an illegal radio the size of a matchbook or sending your kids out to steal dinner from the soldiers or hiding forbidden leaflets in the fake tummy of a fake pregnant lady. That was the way you won the war. One woman told me that when she was a little girl, a German officer came to their house and while he was in another room, she picked up his hat and spat in it. Classic Dutch mischief.

But they also did deadly serious stuff, like hiding thousands of Jews just before they would have been sent to Auschwitz, along with American and British fliers who fell from the skies after their bombers and fighters were shot down. One of these was Clem Leone, a friend of mine whose incredible story is chronicled in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. Thanks to many courageous Dutch people across the country, Clem evaded capture for four months as he made his way south through the Netherlands–it was a lousy Belgian that turned him over to the Nazis in Antwerp.

I did some reading in Lyn Tornabene’s Long Live the King and Jean Garceau’s Dear Mr. G. after finishing my viewing of Betrayed. Gable spent a month in the Netherlands shooting at various locations and was treated like his royal self everywhere he went. He was mobbed and it made all the Dutch newspapers. The location work was fantastic and everything you’d expect—lots of windmills, and dikes, and water, water everywhere. You just can’t replicate that stuff on a soundstage, and the lushness of the production, in Eastman Color no less, really surprised me given the dire straits of MGM at that time—TV drowning the studio’s books in red ink and most of its stars cut loose as a result. ‘Mr. G.’ went freelance at the end of production and never again walked through the gates of the studio that made him famous over the course of more than 20 years.

In a very cool finish, survivors of British Airborne shuffle past our beleaguered heroes.

The ingenious payoff to the plot of the picture is that Gable provides information allowing 3,000 besieged British Airborne paratroopers to escape after the September 1944 “Bridge Too Far” battle of Arnhem. The title Betrayed refers to one of the three leads leaking the plans for Operation Market Garden to the Germans, which causes them to roll in two panzer divisions in anticipation of the Allies dropping 10,000 paratroopers behind Nazi lines to capture the Arnhem Road Bridge. The whole thing was a real-life disaster for the British and 7,000 of their boys ended up dead, wounded, or captured. The very last shot in the picture shows the Airborne survivors limping out of the fog after they had crossed the Rhine along an escape route mapped by heroes Gable and Turner.

If you know the history of this battle, the plot of Betrayed is a perfect fictional backstory that fits hand in glove with real-life events. Another surprise is that there’s very little explanation for what’s going on, meaning that Hollywood expected everyone in the 1954 audience to have the facts of Market Garden top of mind. It’s a level of sophistication that would never be anticipated by movie producers today.

I had no idea I was going to get to go back to Holland on a frozen Friday night in Pennsylvania and watch my Dutch friends do a whole bunch of crazy-heroic stuff to a whole bunch of hapless Germans. Oh, the Dutch were heroic in World War II all right. Much more heroic than simply wielding a machine gun. Come to think of it, Clark Gable had Dutch roots and his character in Betrayed is very Dutch indeed. He’s not a gun toter; he uses his brains at every step to outwit the thugs who hijacked the 20th century on their way to a thousand-year Reich. “Not on my watch,” was the response of the crafty, and ultimately liberated, Dutch.