Errol & Olivia

The War About the War

Olivia returns to the Loew’s Grand in Atlanta in 1961 for the re-premiere of her favorite picture.

All my life, the film version of Gone With the Wind was a big deal. In my wonder years, my mother adored Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. Huge crush. And I remember being dragged to see a reissue in a Pittsburgh movie palace where, as a red-blooded boy, I waited impatiently for Civil War battle scenes that never materialized. Just endless talk of war and a bunch of girl stuff. The closest I got to interest was a scene showing the aftermath of a battlefield, but for my four-hour forced investment, I was left embittered.

Some years later I became interested in Hollywood history and ultimately made a career of it, and GWTW became a different animal to me—a cornerstone of that history and a turning point in motion picture production.

So, yes, Gone With the Wind has been a big deal. While researching my book Errol & Olivia in 2009, I came across some photos of the 1961 Civil War Centennial re-release of Gone With the Wind in Atlanta with festivities that mirrored the 1939 premiere, including a relaunch at the Loew’s Grand Theatre, which had been the focus of all in December 1939. Selznick came back for the series of events, along with Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, Evelyn Keyes, Victor Jory, and some others, and they relived the glory of that December 1939 moment when the world turned to Atlanta and audiences finally, officially, got to see Selznick’s version of Margaret Mitchell’s vision flickering in the dark.

For 76 years of her life, Olivia de Havilland enjoyed a spotlight for being central to the Gone With the Wind experience. More than any other topic, even Errol Flynn, people wanted to talk about GWTW and her Academy Award-nominated performance as Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, and she was always delighted to oblige.

Then in June 2015, New York Post entertainment columnist Lou Lumenick posed a then-shocking question: Wasn’t it time to send Gone With the Wind “the way of the Confederate flag?” Oh, the uproar among lovers of Old Hollywood. I can only surmise now how firmly Lou’s tongue was planted in his cheek as he asked the question because he knew it would stir up a hornet’s nest. More than that, it earned him late-career multimedia headlines.

Since then, for some, GWTW has transitioned from pleasure to guilty pleasure as consciousnesses have been raised to issues of racism in society worldwide, including and especially in the U.S. Deep South, and Lumenick has been revealed as a visionary for his question and its context.

Full disclosure: At first I thought Lou’s argument to be silly, just as I found the uproar over Confederate statues to be nonsense. Now I think, yes, let’s learn, grow, and move on. We shouldn’t be defending the politics that found it necessary to glorify the post-war Southern cause with monument after monument. In the Declaration of Independence, written four-score prior to the Civil War, all men were granted the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If anything is the American way, this is it. And we should be honoring that concept at the expense of pieces of bronze or granite.

As an historian, I view Gone With the Wind, both the book and the film it inspired, as artifacts of their day—snapshots of early 20th century Southern perspectives on race as written by reclusive Margaret Mitchell, a product of her culture and times. Selznick’s picture based on the Mitchell manuscript drowned box offices in cash nationwide. To hold a 1935 fictional book billed as a “romance” to 2020 social and historical standards seems to me to compare apples and vacuum cleaners. And banning it screams fascism—sometimes the Left extends so far left that it ends up on the Right.

Why not just let the legion of GWTW fans enjoy Selznick’s picture for the fantasy it is? To me Rhett Butler represents the devil’s advocate and conscience of the South; never does he take “the Cause” seriously. I would love it if the fans of this picture could acknowledge the goings-on as fantasy and acknowledge the institutionalized racism that has been embedded in our society since long before the Civil War. Racism that endures to present day.

Of course Gone With the Wind is a racist tome; it has to be, based on subject matter that views the Antebellum South as Camelot burned to the ground by damn Yankees.

My point is, OdeH lived so extraordinarily long a life that she got to see her greatest accomplishment tarnished black. When she turned 100 and proclaimed that she planned to live to 110 and then reevaluate, of course I believed her. I had seen her iron will on display both from afar and up close. But then two things happened, either of which may have made her question her extended longevity plan. In 2018 the courts ruled against her lawsuit with the makers of the TV series Feud. Such a bitter pill for the victor of the de Havilland Decision to be forced to swallow. She was just as right this time as that time—one may not defame living people—but the ruling went against her. To be blunt, the grand dame took big business’s sucker punch.

When George Floyd was murdered, the nation quaked, and the shock waves hit her beloved Gone With the Wind full force. I can only wonder if she then reasoned, It’s time for me to go. Who knows?

I still don’t love Gone With the Wind the movie, but I admire the filmmaking and the drama of its production and release. Recounting the epic months on Hollywood soundstages as seen through the eyes of OdeH rates among my favorite aspects of researching and writing Errol & Olivia. And I feel sad that the fallout over racism as it applies to Gone With the Wind occurred in the final reel of the life of Olivia de Havilland, the last titan of Hollywood’s Golden Era.

Author’s note: I wrote this piece seven weeks ago but due to various factors am only posting it now. Aside from a broken bone, the issue is completion of my next book, which I’ll be discussing soon.

Complicated

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

My favorite image of Olivia de Havilland, taken in 1942. Though she be but little, she is fierce.

It’s pretty weird living in a world that doesn’t have Olivia de Havilland in it. Columnists and bloggers have been singing Olivia’s praises since her passing a week ago, justifiably so of course. She was the last major star of Hollywood’s Golden Era. In taking OdeH for granted as one does since she’s been around all our lives (unless you happen to be age 105 and up), I was awestruck last Sunday to scroll through Facebook and see tribute after tribute in an unbroken string that went on and on. Even the latest from the White House couldn’t crack the de Havilland hit parade.

That’s on the one hand. The day after her passing I was contacted by Barnett Parker from a FOX TV affiliate in California and put on alert to appear on-air via Zoom to speak about OdeH. Then an hour later the idea was nixed because the 40-year-old news editor had never heard of Olivia de Havilland, and so obviously her passing wasn’t newsworthy. That is the other hand; time has marched on.

I go back to 1986 with OdeH. Like every other growing boy who came into contact with the Errol Flynn picture The Adventures of Robin Hood, I fell in love with Olivia as Maid Marian. Heck, what was not to love? She received bins of mash notes from smitten men written in care of her easily accessed Paris address, and mine was just another. She responded politely and girlishly because she knew that’s what her legion of admirers needed her to do. There was also, even then, an author inside of me, and so I started asking her questions getting at the story behind the filmmaking she had experienced, and our occasional correspondence continued.

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

To promote Captain Blood in 1935, Warner Bros. dressed its newest starlet in short-shorts and leather boots for a series of  publicity pinups. By the late 1930s Olivia chafed at such exploitation and refused to participate.

Flash forward to 2009 after Michael Mazzone and I had co-written the surprise hit Errol Flynn Slept HereErrol Flynn Slept Here—a forensic look at Flynn’s life through the mountaintop playpen he had built at the height of his fame. Research conducted then suggested his life with OdeH onscreen and off warranted a separate volume and that led to Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood. During the writing of that one I got back in touch with my old pal Olivia who, it turned out, was a fan of Errol Flynn Slept Here. I told her about E&O and asked for an interview and a phone number—basically asked respectfully for what any author needs from a subject-matter expert.

(You can’t see it, but I’m sitting here looking out the window rubbing my whiskers trying to find words for the process of corresponding with OdeH.) The words I’m coming up with are “glacial.” “Tectonic.” Maybe if I had jumped in the DeLorean and gone back 10 years and written the letter in 1999, she’d have been ready to help me in 2009. But I knew she had an assistant and a particular way of handling the volume of mail she received. I also knew this is the gal who would invite people to Paris to meet with her, and tell them to give her a call at an appointed time after they’d arrived, and when they called she would say, oh, was that today? Well, let’s make it the same time next week. Which is perfectly within her rights as a legendary multiple Academy Award winner in her 90s. But over here in the real world, where there are author contracts and deadlines, her science of time didn’t really match mine. I tried violating protocol by calling and I left a couple of messages to no avail.

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

In 1940, Olivia turned the tables and posed for this series of shots as if to say, You don’t own me, Jack Warner. I’m my own woman.

Also while writing E&O, I contacted Olivia’s sister Joan Fontaine (Olivia + Joan = the second or third most famous feud in Hollywood history) for an interview to talk about  her sister and Errol Flynn. Joan had jaunted into Hollywood in the later 1930s and won an Oscar under the nose of her hard-working sister, before her hard-working sister had won one, which only deepened a rivalry that went back to their childhood. The very idea of speaking about this subject for the record appalled Joan, who told me in that caramel voice of hers, “If I spoke to you about Olivia, it would be like an atomic bomb going off.” Maybe in 1969 that would have been true, or 1979, but this was 2009 when only we dedicated few movie lovers remembered the Joan Fontaine of Rebecca and Suspicion—and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, for that matter. That’s OK, Joan, I was still able to cover your crazy relationship with Olivia in a no-holds-barred section entitled Twisted Sisters.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Olivia de Havilland was a live-by-her-own-rules firebrand, the same woman who had beaten Jack Warner’s blacklist of 1941 through ’45 in court and earned the de Havilland Decision that really was an atomic bomb going off in the middle of Hollywood. This little woman of 5’4″ brought down the studio system stubbornly and single-handedly and then carried that victory into a string of three Academy Award nominations and two wins in four years. After she had proved everything there was to prove, she left Hollywood and settled in Paris, wrote a terrific book about it, and spent the remainder of her life sipping champagne and living life on her own terms. Not my terms, certainly. Her terms.

When Errol & Olivia was published, I sent her a copy just to say, look, a coffee table book about you and Errol. It’s a beautiful volume with a couple hundred photos; I bet many she’d never seen before and I bet they brought back memories. I did this with some trepidation because I wrote something in there based on all my research that I knew she wouldn’t like—that evidence suggested she and Errol had been more than friends around the time of Santa Fe Trail when they were a couple of lonely and restless souls. The narrative nailed her as exactly what she was: a loner, a workaholic, an accomplisher, depressive and isolated her whole life. The silence coming out of Rue Benouville was deafening. She sure wasn’t that silent a couple years ago when she went after the producers of Feud for the way Catherine Zeta-Jones had portrayed her, as a cold and gossipy bitch—which was not OdeH at all. OdeH was a charmer and the soul of discretion at all times, which is, I believe, why she couldn’t deliver the memoir she’d promised to her publisher, Dutton, at the end of 1980.

Oh, that’s another story. So when she continued to miss her deadlines, and after I’d had a couple of books published, I asked if maybe I could help her get over the hump and finish her memoir and get the manuscript safely off. Well! The nerve of this whippersnapper! She told me this was quite impossible because “Every word has to be my own.” I tried, friends, but as it stands, she took every word to her grave, which is the ultimate evidence that Feud got her all wrong.

This is my long-winded way of saying, I love you, Olivia. I admired the time you gave me, and every challenge and every complication that went with it. You lived life your way and enjoyed a champagne diet past age 104. I can only hope you and Errol have had a chance to catch up—there must have been plenty to say since you outlived him by, oh, a mere 61 years.

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

 

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.

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.

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.

Mama we’re all crazee now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

What a Dame

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday, Miss de Havilland!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juicy 3: Slivers of Bone

Ray "Boom-Boom" Mancini, Angelo Dundee, and Bert Randolph Sugar critique the climactic fight scene from Gentleman Jim.

Ray “Boom-Boom” Mancini, Angelo Dundee, and Bert Randolph Sugar critique the climactic fight scene from Gentleman Jim.

I want to begin with a digression. I grew up in a white Republican household, and one of many who weren’t in favor in the Matzen house was Mohammed Ali. To my parents he was a draft dodger, a punk, and a loudmouth. So of course I thought so too as a kid, and then over the years I realized my very smart parents were dead wrong and that this was a magnificent human being. Oh, how I mourned when Ali died in early June. “I’m too pritteh,” I can hear him saying, pointing at that magnificent face. Smug, playful Ali was such an evolved being that I am only sorry he went into prizefighting instead of into curing cancer or securing world peace.

So, maybe you saw that TCM recently ran an old spot showing Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer for 20 years (died 2010), Bert Randolph Sugar, famed boxing writer (died 2012), and boxer Ray “Boom-Boom” Mancini sitting watching and analyzing James Cagney’s boxing in The Irish in Us, and then Errol Flynn’s boxing in the 1942 Warner Bros. picture Gentleman Jim. I got a big kick out of the way the three of them choked out rebuke of Cagney’s attempt at prizefighting for the screen and practically held their noses watching Jimmy’s silly attempts at the sweet science.

Then they turned their attention to Errol Flynn, and pink hearts practically popped out of the eye sockets of Angelo Dundee watching Flynn in a clip from Gentleman Jim. At one point in the historic climactic boxing match reenacted between heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan (played by Ward Bond) and James J. Corbett (Flynn), Errol threw a particular punch. They froze the film and Dundee exclaimed, “How about that counter left jab he threw!”

The jab in question, as Flynn delivers, snapping back the head of Ward Bond.

The jab in question, as Flynn delivers, snapping back the head of Ward Bond.

“When was the last time you saw a left jab in a movie?” said Sugar with enthusiasm. [Note: A jab is a punch thrown straight from one body to another, as opposed to a hook, which comes out and around.]

“A counter left jab!” said an excited Dundee. “Forget about a regular jab. My God, there’s so much talent there, it’s scary!” The highly decorated boxing great Angelo Dundee concluded by saying, “I would have wanted to manage that guy!” This was the trainer of the greatest prizefighter in history saying he would have liked the opportunity to manage a boxer with Flynn’s talent.

CUT BACK TO A GRAVEL DRIVEWAY — NIGHT — FLYNN AND HUSTON

Flynn in the 1937 star vehicle The Perfect Specimen, which included a boxing scene.

Flynn in the 1937 star vehicle The Perfect Specimen, which included a boxing scene.

As you’ll recall from “Juicy 2: A Shot Across the Bow,” a drunken Flynn had made a vile remark about Olivia de Havilland to John Huston at a David O. Selznick party at the DOS mansion on Summit Drive. Huston wouldn’t say what it was except to call it “something wretched,” uttered one womanizer to another. Now, I don’t for a moment believe that Errol just insulted Olivia for no reason. What he said was really about some aspect of the deH-Huston liaison, as in, she was cheating on you, John, with me. Flynn had at this point been jilted three long years ago by Livvie, but Errol was thin-skinned and carefully fed and watered his grudges, so this one was top of mind. Always top of mind. Huston then called Flynn on the remark, called him a “sonofabitch” as a matter of fact, and they took it outside so as not to incur breakage on stately DOS interiors.

Down past Selznick’s famous gardens they trudged in the wilds of the Hollywood Hills off Benedict Canyon to a gravel road. They removed their jackets and squared off, ready for combat, with Huston feeling pretty confident since he had been a prizefighter in his colorful youth. Boom. That left jab of Flynn’s, the one that made Angelo Dundee all giggly, the one that caused Bert Randolph Sugar to gasp in admiration, shot out of nowhere and turned out Huston’s lights. You see, one of Flynn’s cronies was ex-welterweight boxing champion Mushy Callahan, now a Warner Bros. grip, who had spent many an hour sharpening Flynn’s form and footwork for Gentleman Jim. In fact, Errol had been a huge fight fan from his brawling days in the South Seas and loved nothing so much as mixing it up after a few drinks.

Huston landed on his elbows, gained his wits, and jumped up as if to say, no big deal, and Flynn set him right back down again. “Each time I landed on my elbows,” said Huston, who claimed that for years afterward slivers of bone would emerge through the skin of his right elbow courtesy of his bout with Flynn.

John Huston demonstrates boxing technique while directing the 1972 feature film, Fat City.

John Huston demonstrates boxing technique while directing the 1972 feature film, Fat City.

Tale of the tape on these two was that Huston was then 38 and Flynn 35. Flynn was an inch taller and 25 pounds heavier than Huston, all of it lean muscle. Huston had gone 22 and 3 as an amateur boxer and was once California champion. Flynn’s record is unknown because he fought his bouts like this one, outside the ring, although it’s confirmed that ex-wife Lili Damita knocked him out cold with a champagne bottle on their anniversary in 1938, so Flynn was something-something and 1 at the least.

Huston wrote about his fight with Flynn in An Open Book, his autobiography. He figured going in that Flynn would fight dirty, and when Huston had gone down on his elbows those first times, he expected Errol to kick him in the head and end the fight in a hurry. “He didn’t,” said Huston. “He stepped back and waited for me to get up, which I thought rather sporting of him.”

Flynn kept his guard high to protect that pretty face, which was where the money was, so Huston started going for the body and played Flynn’s ribs like a xylophone. John knew he was getting to Errol when Flynn started to lean in and hold onto Huston—the classic sign in boxing that body blows are taking a toll and wearing down a combatant.

Far from a brawl, they boxed, and boxed, and kept at it until headlights from departing party guests illuminated the pair and tipped off Selznick about what was happening practically under his nose. At that point he burst out enraged and broke things up. Said Huston, “David assumed Errol had started the fight, since he had that reputation, and there were recriminations.” Whoa, Nellie, I bet there were! Both Flynn and Huston ended up in the hospital and would find their fight a bonding experience to the point that Flynn ended up calling Huston “Johnny,” and a dozen years later Errol would star in the John Huston African adventure film, The Roots of Heaven.

Olivia at about the time of the brawl.

Olivia at about the time of the brawl.

And what of the lady in question, the subject of the remark by Flynn? Olivia de Havilland would remain estranged from both men, although Flynn wrote to Livvie less than two months after the boxing match inviting her to star opposite him in his new comedy, Never Say Goodbye. This was shortly after the “de Havilland Decision” had broken Jack Warner’s power and she was unable to find work because of a Hollywood blacklist organized by Warner against her. She declined Flynn’s offer in a return note, no doubt in part because making this picture would require her to return to Warner Bros. Flynn made it clear Never Say Goodbye was to be made by his own production company so he had the power to get her in, or, as he phrased it, “I could guarantee that not only would the Bros. not get in your hair but on the contrary would lay out a good number in velvet carpets for you.” But it also meant working in close quarters with Errol again, and so even though offers weren’t coming in, she said no. It would be another 13 years before they met up face to face, an occasion described in my book Errol & Olivia (2010) that would wound her deeply and break his spirit.

Flynn, de Havilland, and Huston were three solitary, not-very-happy people living in an age long before email and text messages. Where today a wistful lover can tap out a smartphone message in a nostalgic moment and hit send, in the old days there was a deliberate process that had to be followed: pull out paper, pull out pen, sit there and reminisce and write, then sign your name, fold it up, address an envelope, lick and place a stamp, and (heart pounding) drop in mailbox. It was slow, calculated torture to send handwritten notes to lost loves via snail mail, like those exchanged by Errol and Livvie in 1945, and by Livvie and John in 1967. But in both cases—the love of Errol and Livvie and the love of Livvie and John—the relationships were poisoned and there was no going back.

Mission-box3

 

Juicy 2: A Shot Across the Bow

 

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Olivia may seem to be at rest in this shot taken around the time of the Huston affair, but she never really was.

So where were we? Oh that’s right, in the middle of a love triangle between Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and John Huston. OdeH began it with Errol Flynn in 1941 after hot-blooded Frenchwoman Lili Damita had finally filed for divorce from in-like-Flynn. Livvie had told Errol point blank when he proposed to her in 1937 (big of him to propose while heavily married) that she wouldn’t do anything with him (think sex) while he was bound to Lili. Then nature took its course with Flynn and Damita over the next four years, leaving both Flynn and de Havilland at liberty during production of They Died with Their Boots On from July through September 1941. As much as Livvie would like you to believe that she and Errol didn’t do the horizontal tango, well, they were adults, beautiful, and known to be dating. She was going through a rough patch with her employer, Jack Warner, and Errol was an iconoclast and particularly supportive of her cause. Oh, and he had just seen completion of his bachelor pad up on Mulholland Drive, a place he had designed with pride as a sexual Mount Olympus. They were young, unattached co-workers who had been attracted to each other for years and now had their evenings free in a hideaway on top of a mountain. You do the math on that one.

Then something happened. Something bad. She found out something or he did something or she did something or she simply got too close and stared in the eye of the Flynn manbeast, but suddenly they were estranged at the beginning of 1942 as she began making her new picture with Bette Davis, In This Our Life. And then, as reported here last week, came the thunderbolt. Just after breaking up with Flynn she fell head over heels for John Huston and he for her. Well, no he didn’t. Huston was one of those bad boys you hear tell of. He loved ’em and left ’em, but by all accounts this guy could charm a gal right out of her panties and he did it all the time, right under the nose of his wife, Lesley. I’m telling you, John Huston, a not very handsome man with a nose that rambled all over his face, scored with the babes at all hours of the day. And who should be vulnerable rebound girl but OdeH when he began directing her in this new picture with Davis. (Note: As reported in Errol & Olivia, Livvie was a sucker for older authority figures, and Huston fit the bill to a T.)

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

John Huston went to war and distinguished himself as a combat journalist, but it was also convenient to get away and let things cool off on the home front.

Scandal ensued because Livvie and John were bangin’ here, there, and everywhere, but Huston being Huston, he began to get a little uncomfortable falling under the scrutiny of a serious, highly intelligent, kinda nuts, powerhouse human like de Havilland, who suddenly had the idea they were soon to be Mr. and Mrs. So what did he do? He joined the army and got as far away as he could think to go, to the Aleutian Islands past Alaska proper, where there were no telephones, to make a documentary about the war being fought up there between the Americans and the Japanese. “I’m sorry, baby, I can’t call for two months. There aren’t any phones.”

Olivia de Havilland was a stand-up woman in 1942, and remains one today, a titan among humans, smart, funny, multi-talented. Did you know she can imitate a dog’s bark so well that she can converse with other dogs? Did you know she can sketch like a pro? She used to entertain cast and crew alike with these sidelights while, oh by the way, making enduring classic motion pictures and earning Academy Award nominations and statues.

As things always went with Mr. Huston, this lover was traded in for the next lover. Livvie and John went their separate ways, and she got a nice tour of the fiery pits of hell pining away for John Huston while she was blackballed from the motion picture industry by Jack L. Warner and then almost died of viral pneumonia while entertaining the troops on Fiji Island in 1944. It was rough for Livvie, while Huston didn’t miss a beat.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Nora and Errol Flynn participate in the Victory ball not long after the memorable evening with John Huston.

CUT TO APRIL 29, 1945. There’s a party at the home of David and Irene Selznick, and Errol and wife Nora are invited, as is John Huston. Both Errol and John were three-fisted drinkers and half in the bag when they edged within earshot, and Flynn in his wisdom decided to fire a shot across Huston’s bow. Neither would ever dare repeat what he said at that critical moment, but the subject was whom-was-Livvie-with-and-when. I’m pulling my punches here, but Flynn didn’t when he stated it one drunk to another.

As reported in Errol & Olivia, Flynn’s shot-across-the-bow hit Huston right in the crotch, which is where John kept his ego. “That’s a lie,” he spat. “Even if it wasn’t a lie, only a sonofabitch would repeat it.”

I love Errol’s response. It’s so him: “Go fuck yourself.”

Bombed though they were, both knew not to wreck the home of David O. Selznick, so they took it outside to a gravel drive down at the bottom of Selznick’s garden, where two former real-life prizefighters practiced the sweet science on each other’s faces. Huston must have underestimated Flynn’s skill because with one straight left jab, Huston was down to his knees.

And here’s where we’ll leave the story until next time, when our little love triangle will reach its twelve-round conclusion.

 

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

Coming in October: Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, with more tales of real-life Hollywood in the golden age, when truth was stranger than fiction.

Juicy

While researching one of my books at the Academy Library in Beverly Hills, I came across a juicy letter, and I can’t even remember whose papers I was looking at. Logically speaking, it was a John Huston file because the letter was written from Olivia de Havilland to John Huston in January 1967. She opened by saying that she took her kids to the theater to kill time and the picture they walked into was The Bible, and she claims to have been shocked when she heard his voice narrating, and the voice took her back to another time and place, and she went on to describe intimate details about places they spent time together in 1942. I’ll quote the letter a little later, but first, some backstory.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland prepare for a scene on a darkened soundstage during production of They Died with Their Boots On at Warner Bros. In three months they would be estranged.

It was the wildest time in the life of a talented, no-nonsense survivor, the time she threw caution away and drove with the top down and no scarf. She was 25 and in a dark place, broken up not long from former boyfriend Jimmy Stewart (see Mission, coming soon), battling Jack Warner over her Warner Bros. contract and on again, off again romantically with long-time costar Errol Flynn. In January 1942 Errol and Olivia were off again because she had gotten too close to him around the time they completed They Died With Their Boots On and finally realized what a troubled soul he possessed. So that January she was a free agent and began production on a drama called In This Our Life with Bette Davis. The first day of work, kaboom, she fell under the spell of the picture’s director, who happened to be the hottest commodity in Hollywood at the time, 35-year-old writer-director (and notorious ladies’ man) John Huston. What Huston didn’t have in the classic looks department he more than made up for in charm, brains, and killer wit. Livvie, known as “Old Iron Pants” around the soundstages at Warners, found herself struck by the big thunderbolt like nothing ever before, not even with Flynn. Livvie was not only in love, she was in total, all-consuming lust, despite the fact that Huston was married at the time. High-profile Huston was involved in making a documentary on the war, Report from the Aleutians, and for a time they carried on from afar, but carry on they did through that year in what became filler for news columns, and a full-fledged scandal among gossip-mongers at Warner Bros.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

John Huston doesn’t seem to be very happy with Olivia looming over him in this 1942 shot. They were seldom photographed together in what was supposed to be a secret relationship.

There was no way it would end well, and of course it didn’t. Serial-monogamist Huston grew bored pretty fast and moved on to Livvie’s Gone With the Wind co-star, Evelyn Keyes, while Livvie’s dark time went on. She would battle Warner Bros. for two more years, endure blackballing by all the studios, remain estranged from Flynn, battle her sister Joan Fontaine endlessly, and nearly die of illness contracted when she went off to entertain the troops in World War II. The clouds finally broke over Livvie’s head in 1946, and boy-howdy, what a dawn she witnessed. She won an Oscar for her 1946 picture To Each His Own, then topped that performance playing mentally disturbed Virginia in The Snake Pit in 1948, then won another Oscar in 1949 for The Heiress.

The thing to remember about Livvie is she has always been a loner. She has now spent a century as an island, a closed book, a tough cookie. To me, after having corresponded with this woman since 1978 and studying her life for my book, Errol & Olivia, this was the most revealing document I’d ever encountered. It read in part, “…I heard your voice. It was an extraordinary experience, for no one had told me that you had done the soundtrack, and, of course, with the first word I knew it was you speaking. It brought back, with a rush, the year of 1942 and the Aleutians, and the film you made there, that beautiful film, and ‘I’ve Got Sixpence,’ and your voice on the soundtrack for that picture, and, well, many things. I hope all goes well with you—I always have. I always will.”

Livvie is a beautiful writer, and here in a rare instance she bares her soul and engages in some flirting with a one-time lover who had meant the world to her, who had hurt her so deeply, and this was to say it’s all right. I forgive you and remember the good times. Classy move. Classy woman.

Happy 100th Birthday, Miss de Havilland. Speaking of your talent as a writer, I hope everyone goes right out and buys your terrific 1962 book, Every Frenchman Has One, which has just been re-released.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Next time we’ll look at one of the most incredible moments in Hollywood history, the time the aforementioned men in Livvie’s life fought over her, almost to the death.