General Hollywood History

Re-Enter the Dragon

Image shows Van Williams as the Green Hornet and Bruce Lee as Kato.
Van Williams and Bruce Lee as the Green Hornet and Kato, circa 1967.

While growing up, I had many heroes and I’ve discussed some of them in these columns. One I haven’t mentioned is Bruce Lee, better known to young-me as Kato on the 1966-67 TV series The Green Hornet and then in some martial arts motion pictures. I took Bruce Lee for granted as one of the coolest human beings ever and never thought of him as Asian or a minority or anything of the kind. He was just 100% Ohmygod Badass. Now through adult eyes I can see what he accomplished on television way back then in a United States ruled by and for white people. We had seen Asians play sidekicks and serve as comic relief, but a young Asian male as the soft-spoken and deadly enforcer of an otherwise unremarkable superhero the likes of Britt Reid/The Green Hornet; well, this was new.

Not long ago I watched a particular episode of The Green Hornet and Lee’s fight scenes struck me dumb. I wish I could find that sequence to show you but here’s something similar—it’s kinda dark but in several seconds you get the idea. What Lee brought wasn’t the same old quality of stuntmen for Adam West and Burt Ward throwing air punches with meat-slammer sound effects; Lee brought something else—something muscular and pulverizing that defied gravity.

Image shows Bruce Lee in The Big Boss.
Bruce Lee in The Big Boss.

After his all-too-brief turn as Kato, Lee went on to carve a successful career in Asian pictures that hold up well today, including The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, and then the Warner Bros. release Enter the Dragon, which I made my dad take me to see twice in first run.

Bruce Lee’s death from a freak allergic reaction to a painkiller made for another of those traumatic childhood events for me—Pete Duel had been taken at the turn of 1972, Roberto Clemente at the turn of 1973, and then Bruce Lee that July. Three of my heroes gone in 18 months, like, literally, my top three, at ages 31, 38, and 32.

All of which is to say you won’t find anybody who respects the achievements or memory of Bruce Lee more than I do, which is why I love the depiction of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. I more than love it. I love-love it. I could watch it on a loop for a week, or a month. As far as I’m concerned Tarantino brought Bruce Lee back to life just for me, exactly the Bruce Lee I needed in childhood and exactly as I would have wanted him to be. This Bruce Lee is funny and arrogant, as full of himself as I could wish him to be in his young prime during the Kato run. Who the hell wouldn’t be arrogant, doing what he could do? He encounters our stuntman-hero Cliff Booth backstage during filming of an episode of The Green Hornet, with Booth standing by to play an extra. Pretty soon they’re engaging in a friendly best-of-three-falls marital arts match and it’s one fall each with the third round dead even when the fight’s broken up.

Image shows the backstage showdown between Bruce Lee and Cliff Booth.
Bruce Lee re-imagined in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.

I’m no expert at hand-to-hand combat but there’s a misperception when Lee goes flying into the door of a car that Booth drove him there. But it seems as if Booth simply sidestepped a Lee attack and some deflected momentum took Lee into the car. That’s a fine point but an important one because there was quite the backlash from Lee admirers over the portrayal of “Bruce Lee” in Once Upon a Time. They said, How dare you disrespect our hero in this way? How can you imply some middle-aged stuntman could hold his own with the great Bruce Lee? Lee’s daughter led this charge and complained loudest of all.

Well, I loved both Bruce Lee and this depiction of Bruce Lee, and it’s pretty clear that Quentin Tarantino loved Bruce Lee and paid homage with this depiction. He brought Bruce Lee back to life, for crying out loud, and back into the spotlight in a fantastic way. Of course, this was a caricature of Bruce Lee like so much in the picture is caricature, but the reaction to my last column about the ending of Once Upon a Time indicated that for many people, the Bruce Lee vs. Cliff Booth sequence produced smiles to rival the ones resulting from that dreamlike happy ending when we fade out to Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, and Wojciech Frykowski living happily ever after.

I wish Quentin Tarantino would bring my dad back to life like that. Go ahead make him an arrogant physics professor who speaks in the third person. I promise I won’t say, “How dare you besmirch my father’s memory!” because he’d be alive again. Heck, he’d be bigger than life, if only for 5 or 10 glorious cinematic minutes.

Mike Moh as Bruce Lee.
Welcome back, my very good friend.

When Greg met Larry

Last night I watched the 1978 political thriller, The Boys from Brazil. I didn’t like it, which isn’t surprising because I don’t like many movies, actually most movies, but what I stumbled upon in my analysis afterward is what I consider to be a (for me) fatal flaw of some 1970s all-star vehicles like this one.

For example, I am endlessly bothered when I think about A Bridge too Far, the 1977 Joseph E. Levine WWII epic about the Market Garden campaign. It’s a true story with an all-star cast including Sean Connery as the British major-general who leads a parachute attack on a key Dutch town in the riskiest part of a risky operation. The mission is supposed to be a cakewalk and turns into anything but, and this British general ends up hiding in a Dutch family’s attic surrounded by Germans while his command is ripped to shreds. Imagine the psychology of this man, a British bigshot, sitting impotent for 24 hours in a civilian attic.

The script skims the surface of this incident and Connery plays it accordingly. Where’s my mark? What are my lines? Between an uncaring screenplay and a work-for-hire performance, history lovers are left 44 years later with a cardboard cutout of Sean Connery in a British uniform standing here and standing there, with nothing meaningful revealed about his character other than that every situation aggravated him. Clearly, the script of A Bridge too Far prioritized balanced screen time for its all-star cast above characterization.

Connery as an aggravated General Urquhart. Doesn’t he look like a cardboard cutout?

On to The Boys from Brazil, the Lew Grade epic of 94 clones of Adolf Hitler placed into hand-chosen families around the world during the 1960s by Nazi war criminal Dr. Joseph Mengele. Oops, sorry, I guess I should have warned, “spoiler alert,” because the fact they are clones of Hitler is revealed at plot point 2. Gregory Peck plays Mengele and Laurence Olivier plays the Jewish Nazi hunter chasing Mengele. Pardon me, but a little of these two in this circumstance goes a long, long, very long way, and after a while Peck, as creepy Mengele, dissolved into Peck the actor, ever-broadening his performance as if realizing how silly the whole thing was and deciding what the heck, let’s chew some scenery. In The Boys from Brazil, Olivier played the exact same character in the exact same makeup and using the exact same accent as he had in A Bridge too Far the previous year when he was cast a Dutch doctor (Where’s my mark? What are my lines?). Which is to say, this was Olivier’s stock performance by the latter 1970s, and what scraps of scenery Peck left behind Olivier grabbed at and gobbled up.

I remember what a big deal The Boys from Brazil was on first run, two titans of the screen in opposition, which didn’t interest me as a kid, so I didn’t see the picture then and I’m gratified these four decades later that my instincts were right. Now all grown up, I got to thinking what is it about these all-star epics from the 1970s that doesn’t hold up for me? The Boys from Brazil does boast an interesting and offbeat all-star cast that includes, below the top-liners, James Mason, Lili Palmer, Steve Guttenberg (still in his baby-fat youth), Anne Meara, Denholm Elliott, Rosemary Harris, Michael Gough, and even TV veteran John Dehner.

Lili Palmer making her best of a supporting role as the Nazi hunter’s sister and assistant. She did a nice job and left the scenery chewing to Olivier.

Budgets are always a problem in Hollywood and they certainly proved a factor in 1970s blockbusters. Your Joseph E. Levines and Lew Grades followed a formula where you hired known names up and down the cast and slotted them into this week in this location and flew them in and here’s your lines and here’s your mark and, Action! The screenplay merely connected the stars to the situation. Levine and Grade as filmmakers were slaves to a big-name formula and an unforgiving bottom line, and that’s why Sean Connery trudged into the middle of location shooting in the Netherlands and hit his marks, delivered his lines, collected his paycheck, and flew home without an iota of interest in who Maj.-Gen. Roy Urquhart really was or what he endured psychologically in the battle of Arnhem.

Part of the filmgoer experience back then in pictures like The Boys from Brazil was, oh, there’s Michael Gough! Oops, there was Michael Gough because he was murdered after a single line of dialogue. Hey there’s John Dehner! Oops, there was John Dehner after Mengele murdered him in the cellar. Cameos here, cameos there, cameos everywhere in a Lew Grade picture. It’s high-gloss surface entertainment with nothing much to make you think, except maybe that in 1978 bad people ran around plotting to set up authoritarian regimes and rule the world just like they do today.

To Kill a Mockingbird this ain’t. When a young Hitler clone’s dogs rip Mengele to shreds, the audience is served catharsis with a side of camp.

I finally checked The Boys from Brazil off my list. I do admit to enjoying these time capsules of production in the 1970s, and it’s nice to see Gregory Peck alive again and working in a big-budget spectacular. The print was beautiful, as fresh and crisp now as it was during the Carter administration. But after a first reel that sucked me into creepiness and murder in Paraguay, I caught on that the filmmakers didn’t take this picture seriously, so why should I? I went into the viewing feeling the creeps and came out two hours later drenched in camp and a gallon of Mengele’s blood.

I’m curious what you think about any number of these all-star WWII-related spectacles of the 1960s and 70s. Battle of the Bulge, Tora, Tora, Tora, Midway, A Bridge too Far, and so on. Was it The Longest Day that began the trend of big names slotted into here’s-your-lines-here’s-your-mark roles? John Wayne as the world’s oldest and most out-of-shape parachute colonel? Richard Burton as a pilot held together with, uh, safety pins? Connery again as a cynical Scottish private hitting the beach?

Actors still say it today: “It’s a living.” They take the paychecks where they can get them and the pictures float around in the cloud forever, waiting to be streamed. I guess you could argue that all these movies are escapism to entertain you for two hours, mindlessly or not, and maybe I’m too picky and too demanding. If that’s the case, never mind. I am a Virgo after all.

Stewart’s War

Bomb group CO Davenport, played by Gary Merrill, and his XO Major Stovall played by Dean Jagger, look at Robert Patton as Lieutenant Bishop, who is just back from a mission over France and on the verge of cracking up.

If you want to understand It’s a Wonderful Life, watch the 1949 20thCentury-Fox production of Twelve O’Clock High. Then sit there, digest what you’ve seen, and watch it again. Twelve O’Clock High has been recognized as the most accurate depiction of life in the Eighth Air Force, as proven by the fact it became required viewing at U. S. service academies in the 1950s.

The war depicted in Twelve O’Clock High was Jim Stewart’s war, marked by Quonset huts, mounting pressure, mud, and boring routine punctuated every so often by terror at 20,000 feet and the sudden death of your roommate.

Before D-Day in June 1944 the only Americans fighting in Northern Europe flew for the Army Air Forces and Jim was one of those guys, not in the first wave of bombers over Europe but in the second that came up as reinforcements. The first wave can be seen in Twelve O’Clock High, flying missions from southeastern England over the Channel to the coast of France, which in mid-1943 was dangerous and highly defended German territory as proven by the losses and stress on a bomb group that Gen. Frank Savage has to bring back to life through discipline. The story was written by veteran Hollywood screenwriter Sy Bartlett and former bomber pilot and journalist Beirne Lay, Jr., both of whom served in Eighth Air Force Bomber Command during the war—served, in fact, in close proximity to Captain, then Major, James Stewart of the 445thBomb Group.

Jim would know this building, the control tower of a U.S. heavy bomb group.

I have found no record whether Jim saw this picture or if he avoided it, which he might well have because of his close personal connection to events depicted. Right after the war Beirne Lay had written a two-part Saturday Evening Post exposé on Jim’s military service; had in fact written it from the inside, from knowing Jim during his 20 months in-theater. Jim would have remembered too well, from too close a proximity the life depicted in Twelve O’Clock High—those claustrophobic half-moon Nissen huts and the bad overhead pendant lighting, Franklin stoves that never alleviated the damp and cold, relentless English rains, all-night mechanical sessions to get ships that had been shot to pieces one day airworthy for the next, and the black curtain that opened to reveal not only the day’s target but also the place where some of the men being briefed were going to die. He’d have known the terms that are never explained, the I.P. (initial point of the bomb run) and the D.P.I. (desired point of impact of the bombs). He’d have recognized the boyish face of Lieutenant Bishop because Jim had known a hundred Lieutenant Bishops. And Jim would have known the feeling when Bishop is lost in combat because, as a squadron commander, Jim lost pilots and had to live with any error in judgment that had led to their deaths.

Like General Savage, played by Gregory Peck, Maj. Jim Stewart believed in group integrity, which was a disciplined approach to formation flying that maximized machine gun coverage from each ship’s ten machine guns and raised the odds of actually hitting any target. All the men I talked to who served under Stewart said he was a “by-the-book officer” both on the ground and in the air. As the decades passed, many apocryphal stories brewed up from men who said they had served under Stewart and described hapless Jimmy with the slow aw-shucks drawl who looked the other way from infractions. Don’t believe it. You don’t rise to the rank of full colonel in the USAAF and brigadier general in the Air Force Reserve by being a friend to enlisted men. Jim Stewart was tough.

Gung-ho General Savage finally goes flak happy after the in-mission death of his most relied-upon pilot. The same thing happened to Jim Stewart after a brutal mission to Germany.

I’ll touch just a moment on the Twelve O’Clock High production, with bases in Alabama and Florida standing in for Archbury, England. By my count they could muster eight stateside B-17s to represent a bomb group’s IRL complement of about fifty. Even a few years after the war they were being scrapped at a high rate. Please note as you watch the picture director Henry King’s use of long, unbroken takes under those stark pendants. I counted one scene between Gregory Peck and Hugh Marlowe as the “coward” Colonel Gately that ran more than five mesmerizing minutes, just the two of them in a scene of complex dialogue to match anything from The Caine Mutiny. One take! And it happens several times with Peck and his cast, the camera rolling and rolling on a two-shot, swooping in, moving back, but never a break. Everything they discuss, every issue they face, was based on what Bartlett and Lay saw during the war. Savage is really Col. Frank Armstrong and Maj.-Gen. Pritchard, played by Millard Mitchell, is really Maj.-Gen. Ira Eaker, first in command of the fledgling Mighty Eighth. Down to the sergeant who needs a zipper on his stripes because they keep getting put on and taken off, the characters are based in fact. The issues were just as real, as when Dean Jagger as Ground Exec Stovall gets drunk and says he can’t remember anyone’s face who has died in combat except they were all “very young faces,” or when Paul Stewart, the group’s doc, likens these young men to light bulb filaments burning bright one minute and burning out the next.

The parallels to Stewart’s war keep coming in this picture. Tough-as-nails Savage finally cracks after seeing the pilot he had counted on most die in the air. When you see Peck come apart right there on the perimeter track, think of Jim because the same thing happened to him. The exact same thing. He returned from somewhere around his twelfth mission and his plane cracked in two on landing, and Jim cracked with it. He went “flak happy” and had to go away to recover in the English countryside. It happened to many of the fliers; in fact, early in the film a navigator commits suicide after fouling up and that happened quite a lot as well—men blowing their brains out with their .45s because they couldn’t take it anymore.

Twelve O’Clock High only misses on a couple of things and both are understandable. The cast is simply too old. The officers who flew the missions at the front of the plane were in reality 20 at the youngest and 26 at the oldest, while in the picture the primary fliers were relatively ancient: Hugh Marlowe at 38, Gary Merrill 33, and John Kellogg 32. Robert Patten at 25 looked the part and was in fact the only actor in the cast with Eighth Air Force experience, serving as a navigator. The other miss is high-altitude flight as represented by the combat sequence that takes place an hour and a half into the picture. Yes, the cockpit crews are on oxygen and in helmets and goggles, but you never get the sense of life below zero degrees at 20,000 feet. It’s something Hollywood has never managed to capture and probably never will, but it’s another key to understanding the PTSD of those men on the front lines in 1943 Europe.

Twelve O’Clock High and It’s a Wonderful Life ought to be a double feature, and it doesn’t matter which you show first. When Jim Stewart came back to become George Bailey, he had just left the world of General Savage behind. He had lived in that base with those men in the same conditions under the same stress flying the same missions, and he too had cracked under the strain. The adult children of these fliers tell of a certain distance, sadness, and blind rage that could be experienced from “Pop” at any moment, and Twelve O’Clock High explains it all. Jim’s kids will tell you the same thing, that the war must have changed him because of that distance, sadness, and occasional blind rage. 

When I see Jim first appear in It’s a Wonderful Life as an adult, when the camera freezes and his arms are wide and he’s supposed to be playing a young guy of 21, I squirm because I see an old man and the face of war. A hairpiece and makeup can’t hide the horrors he had just encountered, which is why Twelve O’Clock High should be mandatory viewing for anyone who loves It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s the prequel that tells the story of an actor’s redemption and remarkable return to peacetime.

The face that had stared into the face of war. Now he’s back as a very old 37 year old in heavy makeup with a painted-on hairline.

A Wonderful time for IAWL

World War II magazine, on newsstands now.

I first noticed the trend with a Google Alert December 2 for a Closer magazine article about Kelly Stewart Harcourt’s Christmas memories; holidays in the Stewart household included an annual viewing of her father’s most memorable picture, It’s a Wonderful Life.

On December 6, another ping from Google Alerts pointed me to a Looper piece on Jim’s crying scene in IAWL and its motivation. And four days after that, two pings, the first another story about Kelly Harcourt and Christmas in the Stewart house, and the second a Showbiz Cheat Sheet look at the make-or-break nature of IAWL for Jim and the fact this could have been his last picture.

What interested me most (of course) was that my 2016 book Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe turned up in every piece as journalists investigated the magic of IAWL and the stark and ravaged nature of the Stewart performance. Then journalist Rachael Scott of CNN.com interviewed me for what turned out to be an excellent look at Jim’s experiences in war and its impact on his performance in IAWL.

Then The Federalist took a look at Jim the war hero and his return to make IAWL and again, there was Mission. And World War II magazine released a solid piece of work by David Kindy, who has interviewed me a few times over the years. That feature is The Dark Place and explains how Jim’s mind-altering 20 combat missions influenced the second half of his acting career.

At this point a producer from MSNBC’s Morning Joe contacted me to come on-air along with my favorite historical biographer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, to discuss Jim’s military career and return for IAWL. Hosts Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, and Willie Guest asked insightful questions, and the resulting 10 minutes of television blew up Amazon’s orderly inventory system and Mission went out of stock. (Twitter blew up as well with often-hilarious criticism of the room in which my Skype interview took place, but that’s another story.)

Doris offered wonderful insight on Morning Joe about why IAWL resonates with such power this year—George Bailey considered himself to be “stuck” in Bedford Falls just as all of us have been “stuck” at home through the pandemic. George’s life is such a dark place and the walls press in on him until he’s nearly crushed, and who among us hasn’t felt that way in 2020? When I described Jim’s combat career and its inevitable impact on his brain and his acting style, wasn’t I also describing the impact of Covid on the psyche of people worldwide as the germ wages war on all of us? Jim experienced combat fatigue; we are getting a taste of Covid fatigue. The Germans aren’t shooting at us at 20,000 feet, but the strain is real and ongoing.

As per the plot of IAWL, just in time for Christmas, George Bailey experiences redemption and realizes he’s living, after all is said and done, a wonderful life. It’s the kind of miracle comeback we all want to experience after such a bleak time in the history of our still-pretty-new century.

I can only wonder if playing George Bailey made Jimmy Stewart see himself as one lucky guy. The former playboy settled down after the war, married a mature divorcee with two sons, saw the addition of twin girls, and lived on. He survived the war when so many of his “boys” hadn’t. He lost many fliers from his squadron and bomb group in combat and took personal responsibility for this fact—it was one of the wartime memories he kept locked inside, and one of the reasons he would sit in quiet solitude at times and just stare at nothing, as Kelly Harcourt described to me.

Stewart’s beloved classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, was already a crazy-complicated picture, so warm and bright at times, so dark and unsettling at others. This year you may find watching it to be a deeper and more rewarding experience, and if true, we must give a nod to director Frank Capra, who sought, against conventional wisdom, to bring this story to the screen. In 1946 Capra was considered too sentimental and old school for a cynical post-war Hollywood. Now, I admire his vision as never before. It’s as if he foresaw our 2020 reality and brewed up what vaccine he could, and that’s why this year in particular the world is riveted by It’s a Wonderful Life as never before.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen
Heartfelt salutations from both Jim and George.

P.S. After this column went live, MSN’s The Wrap published a trivia slideshow with Mission content.

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

 

a + b = c, anyone?

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

Once in a while people ask me for recommendations for good WWII pictures. Obviously, Casablanca stands as the masterpiece of war-era romance and intrigue, but another Warner picture released exactly a year after Casablanca made an all-new impression on me when I watched it just last night.

I’d seen it before, but this time I cried at Edge of Darkness. I mean really cried in several scenes—which is funny because it had never affected me like that. In a nutshell, it’s autumn 1942 and Errol Flynn is the local resistance leader in a Nazi-occupied Norwegian fishing village of 800 as the Germans in charge ratchet up the pressure. They take food from the village and ship it off to Germany. They impose punitive sanctions against the citizenry, and the situation escalates to the point that all the resistance leaders in town are condemned and ordered to dig their own graves before they’re shot by firing squad.

For most of my life the story in Edge of Darkness seemed like just your usual wartime plot; a backdrop for Errol Flynn and crew to perform some onscreen heroics. Then I wrote Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II (now in paperback–get your copy today!) which involved many trips to the Netherlands to learn about a town under Nazi occupation. I was able to see the building that served as SS headquarters—the place where locals were tortured to reveal information. I walked streets once German-held. I met many people who lived under German rule, including the children of Dutch resistance leaders. These are the people depicted in Edge of Darkness, and boy, do they now ring true. The resistance leader who resents German presence. His girlfriend who is raped by a German soldier. Her father the doctor who doesn’t favor fighting the Germans and her mother the dim and detached hausfrau. Many realistic characters are portrayed and they have one connecting purpose: They are ready to fight the Germans and they know that to do so, “We must be like steel.”

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

After the rape of Gunnar’s girlfriend Karen by a German soldier, Norwegian resistance leaders must decide when and how to strike. Soon the decision will be taken out of their hands.

I cried because I now know people like this. I cried because I know their story, what they suffered with spirits unbroken, and how they fought the oppressor day by day, week by week as the war dragged on and their lives became ever more unbearable.

Edge of Darkness begins at the end of the story—a German patrol plane spies a Norwegian flag flying above a town inhabited only by masses of dead soldiers and civilians in what a German investigator arriving on scene assumes was a battle of annihilation for both sides. Then we flash back to witness the series of events that led to massacre. The picture unspools like a macabre whodunit, tension increasing with very little in the way of comic relief. The resistance movement solidifies under German oppression just as it did in the Dutch village of Velp that I investigated for Dutch Girl. The restrictions imposed on the Norwegian village of Trollnes were exactly the same as those imposed on the Dutch village of Velp. The reaction of locals—death over cooperation with the Nazis—mirrors what happened in Velp; in fact, Audrey was among those who participated in Dutch resistance activities, just as did pretty much everyone in the village portrayed in Edge of Darkness. And when the resistance leaders of Trollnes are seen digging their own graves, well, chills ran down my spine because of a key episode described in Dutch Girl involving a member of Audrey’s own family.

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

Villagers advance toward the final, probably fatal confrontation with occupying German troops.

There’s a subplot involving a Norwegian woman who falls in love with a German soldier, but given the film’s release date of 1943, she of course fights the urge because he’s an occupier. The only good German in 1943 was a dead German, and there are scores of them before long in Edge of Darkness.

I’ll leave it to others to talk about the crazy-strong cast and their performances. As directed by Hollywood veteran Lewis Milestone, Ukrainian-born and fluent in German, the climactic battle sequence pulls no punches for 1943. The Norwegians attack German machine gun nests with suicidal fury to match the ruthlessness of the oppressors. The body count is shockingly high on both sides and I can only wonder how those trying to escape wartime reality by going to an Errol Flynn picture—you know, the guy from Robin Hood—reacted at a story even grimmer than the day’s headlines.

I’d love to hear from people who a) read Dutch Girl and as a result b) cried at the courage and sacrifice in Edge of Darkness. If a + b were to equal c for any of you, that would make my day.

The Actor’s Dream

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The killers.

Imagine the world is the old world—the world before March. Imagine you work in an office with a bunch of other people. Imagine you step out for lunch without really saying goodbye to the people, because it feels like you’re always there, and always will be.

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A girlfriend and workmate, soon to be dead.

You come back and they’re all dead, murdered in grisly fashion. Blood still drips off the ceiling and runs down the walls. Your brain can’t process what’s happened or what you should do next. Are the killers still here? Do you report it to the police? Do you run?

That’s the premise of one of the creepier pictures I saw in the 1970s, Three Days of the Condor. I saw it either first run or soon thereafter, I can’t remember, but for me it was a nightmare scenario that I proceeded to live many times in the predawn darkness. Just writing this I had to go order a 1974 hardcover of the novel Six Days of the Condor by James Grady, which I never read. For me the film version was grueling enough, but now I’m curious.

I’m not writing about this picture as a picture. If I were, I’d tell you I loved it then and still love it now. I’d talk about how plausible it was and how much I thought of Robert Redford in the lead and Faye Dunaway, an actress I never cared for but found appealing here. What’s creepiest about the picture is you never know who the evil is or where the evil comes from, and it turns out the evil listens to classical music and paints in meticulous detail lead soldiers from past eras. And that, my friends, is the subject of my piece.

Swedish actor Max von Sydow passed on to his reward March 8, 2020. Max had been the Exorcist back in the day and Jesus before that. I remember spending a lifetime one afternoon watching The Greatest Story Ever Told at the Hollywood Theater in my hometown as a young boy, back when my parents tried the populist method of teaching me religion. (It didn’t work.) As an adult I’ve watched this picture and thought it wasn’t that bad, and that von Sydow had an impossible task in playing Jesus. Really, I ask you, who the hell can play Jesus? Any actor would love the chance, sure, but it becomes a cautionary tale because Jesus will never be able to be played in a motion picture. And you can quote me.

I remember maybe 10 years ago I read something about Max von Sydow and I thought, WHAT? He’s still alive?? You just assume that because Father Marin was 70 when (spoiler alert) he didn’t make it through The Exorcist, he can’t possibly be alive 40 years later, in 2010. The math doesn’t add up. But, bulletin: Max von Sydow was freakin’ 43 when he played the old priest! Really, 43! Now that, my frienda, is acting.

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Circling back to Three Days of the Condor, released in 1975, von Sydow played the head assassin as a charming gentleman who wouldn’t hurt a fly. For me this was definitive; it defined Max von Sydow and the role I will always think of when he is mentioned. In the last reel he has Robert Redford dead to rights. He can kill him any second, but (another spoiler alert) it turns out he no longer has a contract out for Joe Turner (Redford’s character), so he offers him a lift! He’s so beautifully calm about it, just so masterful in his performance, that you want to go home with the assassin and look at his toy soldiers!

I’ve met many Hollywood stars over the years, but I never met Max von Sydow, and I’m sorry I didn’t. Of course he has a tremendous body of work that includes Bergman pictures and The Exorcist and another personal favorite, Flash Gordon, when he played Ming the Merciless. But when I finally do see Max von Sydow, I’ll say to him, “Bravo, sir, for Three Days of the Condor. You gave me nightmares.” I know he’ll appreciate hearing that. It’s an actor’s dream.

Day of Infamy

It’s December 7, a momentous date in history. I think back to what this date meant to a U.S. civilian population rocked by the Japanese surprise attack, and I think about those already serving in the military on Dec. 7, and what a declaration of war meant to them. As you know, the draft had begun, and thousands of 12-month draftees knew as soon as bombs fell at Pearl that their number was truly up, and they wouldn’t get out after just a year. But they would soon be joined by millions of enlistees outraged by what happened to the Pacific fleet and by Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States.

Mission_Cover_webHollywood’s beloved boy-next-door movie star Jimmy Stewart was one of those draftees and had entered the service in February 1941. As described in my book Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, he was, as of Dec. 7, Corporal James Stewart, and in less that a month he would earn his wings as an Army flier with the rank of second lieutenant. (If you’re a WWII history lover, please explore this January 18 auction of an incredible military aviation collection in Plymouth, MA, which includes a complete Norden bombsight, pilot’s wings, very pistols, uniforms, plane parts, books, and so much more.)

The Mission hardcover gets a fair amount of attention at this time of year. Right now it’s being featured in all Barnes & Noble locations across the U.S., face out in the Military History section. Mission describes all 20 combat missions flown by Stewart, some of them “milk runs” over the coast of France, but many others harrowing, seven- and eight-hour flights that took Jim deep into Germany for strikes at the industrial heart of the Reich on the run-up to D-Day.

Of course there’s another reason why a book about Jimmy Stewart and the war does well at the holidays; the first picture he made after the war, while still suffering PTSD from all those missions, was It’s a Wonderful Life. When he began making this one in the spring of 1946, life wasn’t so wonderful for James Maitland Stewart. He’d left the holy crusade against Hitler, which had been Jim’s great purpose in life. His mind had been shattered by a few missions too many and the relentless strain of command, necessitating visits to the “flak farm” to de-stress. He’d aged in the service and no longer felt he could land a job as a romantic idol. And in fact no studios came calling except Frank Capra with his risky idea for a picture about a suicidal man and an angel.

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

Turning darkness into gold.

Suffering nightmares and flashbacks, his hands shaking, his diet shot from anxiety and confidence gone due to the years-long break from moviemaking, Jim stepped onto RKO soundstages to begin this crazy picture with Capra. And the director, who had been a king of 1930s Hollywood, was battling his own demons. He’d been away doing war work too, and now a grittier Hollywood had emerged that rejected his notions about crafting sentimental pictures. There was this film noir thing that now suited a shell-shocked, post-war America. Nobody welcomed Capra back just like nobody had welcomed Stewart—“welcomed” as in offered work. The men were desperate, as noted by IAWL leading lady Donna Reed, who described Capra and Stewart on the set as tense second-guessers; it wasn’t the happy shoot you’d imagine as these two giants of pre-war cinema set about trying to reestablish themselves in a younger, reborn Hollywood that had passed them by.

I was neutral on Stewart when I began writing Mission, and he’s a tough character to know because he closed himself off in some regards. But he showed remarkable bravery in the war, and even more guts in the peace that followed, because he did nothing short of win the battle of Hollywood; this 38 year old with the shakes who looked 50 began a second career when the wags called him washed up. First, he used the darkness of war in his characters, many of whom were now haunted or seeking revenge. Second, he urged producers to gamble on him as he gambled on himself—he’d take a smaller salary upfront in exchange for a percentage of the profits on each picture.

In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is called “the richest man in town” for having friends. But in the 10 years after the war, Jim Stewart became the richest man in town for picking good pictures and banking a fortune in profit participation. By any measure this was a hero, and it’s fitting that every year we get around to celebrating him and the post-war venture of two down-and-out war veterans, which happened to become the most beloved movie in Hollywood history.

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… Forever

I caught part of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade here in the U.S. on television this morning. Featured were the usual assortment of giant aerial balloons to enchant the kiddies—the Grinch, Spider-Man, Pikachu—all the usual suspects. But then my friend Eric tipped me off to a past Thanksgiving parade that featured a disturbing sight for any child.

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No, I’m not talking about the horrifying Pinocchio that terrorized New York beginning in 1937. If you lie, Junior, your fate will be an excruciating, inflamed erection on your face!!

As scary as that no doubt was, I’m speaking of the guy below, who was promoting Hammer’s then-new Frankenstein monster as portrayed by Christopher Lee in The Curse of Frankenstein. The new and improved version of Frankie appeared in 1957, a dramatic reboot by the British Hammer Studios of Universal’s creaking old black-and-white series that had begun in 1931.

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Imagine you’re an 8-year-old minding your own business in front of Macy’s flagship Manhattan store at the holidays 1957 and this guy comes floating into view.

The tag line of the picture was, The Curse of Frankenstein…will haunt you forever! I think maybe I just explained a generation of vivisectionists who patrolled the streets of New York City in the 1960s and 70s.

Happy Holidays.