General Hollywood History

Curtin call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RM: Your father picked the Army Air Forces?

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

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

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

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

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

RM: Do you have his medals and combat ribbons?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On The Virginian in 1962.

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

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

RM: What did he do with those six months?

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

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

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

Holt Afghanistan

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

Heroes

Buster Keaton, every inch a hero in The General.

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

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

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

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

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

________________________

 

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

Echo of Your Energies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Spartans of New York

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

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

 

Our unlikely heroes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olympic Shark Jumping

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

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

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

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

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

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

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

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

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

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

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

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

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

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

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

When 1 + 1 = death

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

Pete Duel and Ben Murphy in Alias Smith and Jones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duel with Sally Field in Gidget.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spy vs. Spy

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

Here it is in 2015 on our first visit.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Santa Claus and the Cold Hand of Death

Fox poster art for the June release dismissed the Christmas angle, which was known to be bad box office.

On Thanksgiving morning I was watching a bit of New York City’s Macy’s parade on television, which inspired me to revisit one of my favorite seasonal touchstones, Miracle on 34th Street. I try to watch it every year, but this time what really hit home was the scene when the woman brings the adopted Dutch girl to see Santa. Lately, I’ve been deep-diving into all things Netherlands—the language, the culture, and especially the history of life in Holland during the Nazi occupation of 1940 to 1945.

If you were living in the Netherlands when the Germans marched in on a pleasant May morning, there was a decent chance you would not be living when they were driven out in 1945. If you happened to live in Rotterdam, you could have died in the German bombing of the central city that forced the Dutch surrender four days after the invasion. If you were a Jew, you would have been given a one-way ticket to a concentration camp. If you were deemed an enemy of the state, you might have been shot. If you got caught up in the combat of 1944 and 1945 when the Allies came in, well, either side could have gotten you. If you made it as far as the Hunger Winter just before war’s end, you might have starved. And if you happened to be standing under an Eighth Air Force bomber, well, duck, cover, and pray.

When Miracle on 34th Street was released in June 1947, its audience knew all too well the horrors that Holland had weathered. So, when the Dutch girl’s adoptive mother explains to Santa that the girl comes from an orphanage in Rotterdam, it would have sent chills through many. The girl’s parents clearly had died in the war, and the child is emotionally scarred as a result. She has only one wish, and that’s to connect with Sinterklaas, the Dutch St. Nicholas who each November sails by ship from Spain and lands in some obscure part of the Netherlands with his sidekick, Zwarte Piet the Moor, who lugs a sack full of presents and candy for the good children. After stepping ashore like MacArthur in the Philippines, Sinter sets out on a white steed to make his way through the lowlands while poor Piet goes afoot. In many Dutch households, Sinterklaas knocks at the door and comes in for a December 5 sit-down that amounts to a performance review for the children living there. If you’re good, well, you don’t have to fear the bearded man with the lethal staff, scary mitre, and lurking strong-arm man. You get gifts and candy in your wooden shoes placed neatly under the Christmas tree. If you happened to be a bad kid, however—and this is where it gets a little weird—Zwarte Piet manhandles you into the sack and carries you back to Spain.

The forlorn look of a refugee from the world’s darkest days.

I always loved the Miracle on 34th Street scene between Santa and the Dutch girl for the elemental conflict presented. Her poor caretaker doesn’t want to expose this little war orphan to a department-store Santa who can’t possibly understand her language or needs. I always understood her culture shock at being in New York, U.S.A. What only became clear on this viewing after my Nederland immersion is the aura of death surrounding the child and what motivated her forlorn look when she first interacts with the Macy’s Santa. The girl, who seems to be about seven years old judging by the missing front teeth, lights up when Santa suddenly begins speaking to her in Dutch and she gets the confirmation she needs: He really is Sinterklaas.

I have to hand it to Edmund Gwenn for doing as well as he does with what is truly a tough language to learn, even if it’s only a few lines. Marlene Lydon does as well with her Dutch impression as any seven-year-old California girl with missing front teeth possibly could. And at plot point one, when Natalie Wood as little Susan watches the interaction between Santa and the orphan and begins to suspect that Santa is more than a department-store stand-in, it’s the best moment of all—her jaw drops and she experiences real magic for the first time in her very sensible life.

In my experience, horses don’t do the roof any good, but there is Sinterklaas on his white steed, while poor Zwarte Piet ends up with the short end of the stick. In modern appearances Piet is usually played by a Caucasian in blackface, and there has been a formidable social backlash in the Netherlands.

There are so many things to love about Miracle on 34th Street (the original–I refuse to accept more recent substitutes). I’m not the biggest Maureen O’Hara fan, but as Mrs. Walker she underplays beautifully throughout, like when she tries to tell Susan that Santa isn’t real even though, as Susan points out, he can speak Dutch. “I speak French,” Walker reasons, “but that doesn’t make me Joan of Arc.”

O’Hara, Wood, and Gwenn, part of a perfect cast in a perfect film.

I’m not breaking new ground here when I go on and on about this perfect film, a triple Oscar winner, I don’t have to tell you, one for Gwenn and two for the writing. I just wanted to take a moment to call out that scene and the all-new effect it had on me after a lifetime of viewings. And if I don’t get another column up in the next little while, Happy Holidays, one and all, from the Netherlands salt mines where I toil, pretty much night and day.

P.S. Don’t forget to order Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, which has proven to be the perfect holiday gift for active-duty service members, veterans, armchair generals, and lovers of everything Hollywood.

Simple Man

power of women2

In a plot that still resonates today, the family bucks a conservative watchdog group to play at a women’s rights rally.

 

 

I didn’t sleep well last night because I had just learned that David Cassidy died. I didn’t sleep well the night before because I knew he was gravely ill and there was no hope he was going to get better. I don’t know if David Cassidy was a part of my family or I was a part of his, but for the four years that The Partridge Family ran, I was in their living room every week. In fact, I was in it twice a week because the station in Steubenville ran the previous week’s episode on Wednesday evenings and I rigged an elaborate antenna system to bring it in—this being a time just before the dawn of cable television. At first it was a mad crush on Susan Dey that drew me, but then I got engaged on an intellectual level through episodes centered around Laurie’s push for equal rights for women, or the family’s commitment to save whales from extinction, or my favorite plot of all: Danny wanders off and enlists the militant Black Panthers to save nightclub owners Lou Gossett and Richard Pryor. It was the first time I realized that black was cool, and I’ve thought so ever since.

The Partridge Family was my dirty little secret. At a time when all the other guys were talking about the latest from Alice Cooper or Deep Purple or a Led Zeppelin on the rise, I was coming home from school, tearing up to my room, and losing myself under headphones to the music of The Partridge Family. What’s funny is that about three years into the show, I found out one of my best friends was keeping the same secret about the same band. Even then as a kid I knew that The Partridge Family songs were being written and performed by some of the finest talents in Southern California, award-winning songwriters and first-rate backup singers and musicians. They’d go on to work with Springsteen, Jim Croce, and others. Don’t get me wrong; I still loved Alice and Bad Company and Mott the Hoople—I just loved the Partridges more. I still do.

Suzanne Crough, Tracy Partridge (lower right), died suddenly of a rare heart defect in 2015. Now a second Partridge has departed way too soon.

Some years back Mary and I met up with Shirley Jones and I wanted to tell her how much she meant to me as Shirley Partridge. I wanted to see if she remembered my mom’s best friend, who knew Shirley from the Rainbow Girls in West Newton, Pennsylvania. I had all these things prepared, but when we were face to face, all I could choke out was, “I love you.” That’s the effect The Partridge Family and Shirley as a second mom had had on me.

I just wanted to take a minute to pay tribute to Shirley’s step-son David Cassidy as a terrific singer with a phrasing that was unique and powerful. It’s a shame he got pigeonholed in the genre of “bubblegum pop” because he was more than that. He wowed ’em in concert all over the world and made and lost a fortune doing it. He made the cover of Life and Rolling Stone. He really was the biggest heartthrob of them all.  About five years ago, Mary and I went to see him in a concert-in-the-park setting and were astonished that the same females who had idolized him 40 years earlier were in the front row screaming and waving signs and album covers. For these women he never lost his magic, and as he performed the Partridge hit parade—an evening 100 percent devoted to that music because it’s what the people came to see—I realized how much he had grown to love the songs because that’s the way he talked about them, as cherished old friends. I don’t think he always felt that way, because they’re simple songs about seeing a girl, or falling for a girl, or loving a girl, or losing a girl. It was very much early-Beatles influenced music with a lot of heart, and I guess that’s what he came around to in the end. As a matter of fact, Cassidy passed on the 47th anniversary of the single I Think I Love You going to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. How’s that for weird?

Unfortunately for David Cassidy, there were demons hidden in the genes of his parents, and in many ways the years were unkind. But as my friend Johnny Ray Miller put it last night on Facebook, “We lost an entertainer of magnificent proportions, but saddest of all, we lost a good man. A simple man at heart.” Johnny should know—he wrote When We’re Singin’, the definitive Partridge Family book, and David Cassidy contributed the introduction. Johnny had met and interviewed nearly all the key people involved in the show and the music, and I know by the depth of his mourning that underneath it all, David Cassidy must have been a fine fellow. I’m glad, because the show and the music that he helped to create are big parts of how I became me.

David Cassidy at about the time we saw him, still sounding great.

 

Lost and Found

I always understood the cult of Somewhere in Time without ever considering myself to be a part of it. I first saw this picture on its HBO release, probably in 1981, because of course no one saw it in theaters on wide release, where it bombed because Christopher Reeve’s star was already descending, and because an actors’ strike kept the two main players from hitting the road to talk up their new release.

Anyone who has ever loved and lost can relate to Somewhere in Time and the blackness, the despair of going on alone. There’s a desperation for happiness among the characters, a happiness so fragile every minute. I have to pause here and thank Matt of MattsRadShow on Youtube for his video that I stumbled upon stream of consciousness-like the other day, because Somewhere in Time was, right then, somewhere near the last thing in the entire world on my mind. I ‘got’ Matt instantly and wondered if we were twins separated at birth the way he and his wife, Ashley, traveled to Mackinac Island to track down and record key shooting locations—cleverly so!—and produce a video that I’d argue is as haunting as the picture it honors. [My aside to Ashley: I know you’re long-suffering because I have a better half who has similarly endured wild, improbable adventures in support of her man. Well played, my friend.]

I didn’t mess with superlatives for Jane Seymour in this column, but, boy, she gives the role of Elise depth beyond the words on the pages of the screenplay.

So inspired by Matt’s work was I that I headed for OnDemand on a Saturday night and consumed this picture for the first time in decades. I loved it. Truly savored it. My reservations are still my reservations, but Somewhere in Time has three things going for it that simply overwhelm its drawbacks. The assets are, in no particular order, Jane Seymour, Mackinac Island locations, and John Barry’s score, which went through my head all night and is still there now. In fact, what the hell, let’s play it in the background while I write this.

Nice. Very nice.

Cutting to the chase, speaking just for me, Christopher Reeve almost ruined this picture. I was never a fan. I tried my best to like his Superman and succeeded for a while because the press kept telling me he was good. But OMG is he not good. He thought he was an actor but was simply too quirky, too unaware of how he was coming off, and proved it in picture after picture. Yes, he had his good moments here and there. But too many bad ones. I like to think if he had remained healthy, he would have gotten the right coach and really developed the talent that was inside him.

That said, I still remember exactly where I was when I heard the news he had suffered a catastrophic injury during an equestrian event. It shook me up; I never got over it. I’m still not over it. For a vital, successful young person to endure such a fate… The agony of Chris Reeve adds a layer of pathos to Matt’s video transposing Reeve at Mackinac locations with those locations today. It tears your heart out knowing what happened later on. I have to wonder if Reeve’s spirit doesn’t live on at Mackinac, so effective is Matt’s technique.

Somewhere in Time begins with young drama student Richard Collier being visited by an elderly lady who puts a pocket watch into his hands and pleads with him out of the blue, “Come back to me.” He stands there stunned, having never seen her before, and has no perspective on what’s happened. He goes on with his life and eight years later, as a successful playwright suffering writer’s block, gets out of his native Chicago and heads for a getaway on Mackinac Island, off the coast of Michigan. At plot point 1 he finds, and falls in love with, the portrait of a young actress on the wall at the majestic Grand Hotel. He learns her name, Elise McKenna, and that this photograph of such timeless quality was taken 68 years earlier, in 1912. Library research reveals “the last photograph taken of Elise McKenna” and it’s the old woman who had put the pocket watch into his hands eight years earlier!

Academy Award-winning actress Teresa Wright only has one meaty scene, but it’s a honey as the nurse of elder Elise who helps Richard Collier begin the journey into his future…in the past.

OK, you’ve got me. A perfect first half hour of cinema. Now just don’t blow it. Reeve borders on being pretty good in this first half hour. He’s got all these fidgety, self-conscious mannerisms he thought people needed to see, but he largely keeps them in check during the set-up.

The way he gets back in time is preeeeeeeeeetty iffy. Not Reeve’s fault at all—it’s the device of the novel, Bid Time Return, by Richard Matheson. But eventually he does get back there and his meeting with young Elise on the beach by some trees is one of the sweetest, most effective scenes I’ve ever experienced. That location, that music, that woman, the intrigue of that moment and of his struggle to get to the bottom of the mystery but more importantly to get close to this face he’s fallen in love with. Reeve’s uncharacteristic, unbreathing stillness on the dolly approach helps the scene along as well.

In case you were wondering.

Yadda yadda, they spend time together despite her pill of a manager (there has to be a bad guy) and it’s 45 minutes of standard romance with an obligatory sexual coupling before his iffy time-travel device comes a cropper, and he’s catapulted back into 1980 as she screams his name and witnesses his dematerialization.

I hated the ending 36 years ago and I hated it last night. It’s almost as if, “Welp, we’re outta money, folks, so let’s go home.” Red River comes to mind—90% of a winner of a picture with many touches of brilliance poisoned by an erring final plot twist. But as I murmured while experiencing the last 60 seconds of Somewhere in Time at 11:30 last night, James Cameron must have been one huge fan because he ripped it off down to single genomes for the ending of Titanic. I simply never put 2 and 2 together. Yikes.

Granted my misgivings, I’m urging you to set your disbelief on a shelf and spend 104 minutes on the journey of Elise and Richard. In fact, watch Matt’s rad video first and then consume Somewhere in Time. This world crumbling around us needs more romance, more lush scenery, and more pretty music. Somewhere in Time has all three, and my shout-out goes to Matt: Thanks dude for helping me re-find a lost treasure.

Jane Seymour returns to Mackinac Island for the traditional “Somewhere in Time Weekend” in 2015.