General Hollywood History

The Dark Horizon

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

Look out! The Germans—I mean, the Spanish—are about to invade, warns Errol Flynn as Geoffrey Thorpe in The Sea Hawk. A few months after this photo was taken, the battle of Britain commenced.

Errol Flynn and his home studio of Warner Bros. made a picture in 1940 that’s highly regarded as one of his best—well, by many devotees of classic cinema if not by me. I’ll readily acknowledge some brilliant moments, but I have too many nits to pick with The Sea Hawk to love it. One of my chief complaints is the script, and the funny thing is, The Sea Hawk didn’t make any sense to me until yesterday when I finally had a huge and hilarious aha moment. Compounding my problem is that way back in college I had first seen the 1947 reissue print of this picture, multiple times in fact, and that memory had stuck with me. The reissue print had more than 20 rather key minutes removed, including the opening strategic speech by King Philip II of Spain and the closing strategic speech by Queen Elizabeth I of England.

In the past 30 years, the missing footage was reconnected into a full 126-minute print of The Sea Hawk, and I only ever applied my brain to that print yesterday when it played on TCM/U.S. I realized just yesterday that the only way the absurd, confusing plot of The Sea Hawk can be comprehended is to substitute the word Germany every time you hear the word Spain. Any time they say the word Philip, insert the word Hitler. Then and only then does any of the nonsense make sense.

Guess what: It’s history time!

The Sea Hawk went into production at the end of January 1940 after delays of a few weeks while Flynn rested up following the exhausting production of wild and wooly Virginia City, chronicled previously on these pages.

CUT TO: King Philip of Spain’s opening speech: “The riches of the new world are limitless, and the new world is ours, with our ships carrying the Spanish flag to the seven seas; our armies sweeping over Africa, the Near East and the Far West. Invincible everywhere but on our own doorstep. Only northern Europe holds out against us? Why? The reason is a puny rock-bound island as barren and treacherous as her queen, who secretly gives aid to our enemies while her pirates plunder our commerce. We cannot keep northern Europe in submission until we have had a reckoning with England.”

He goes on at great length to say how short his lifetime is and how he must fulfill his destiny (Hitler had said this time and again). Then Philip stands beside a massive, and I mean 20-foot high, 30-foot wide, world map, and in silhouette, his finger pointing directly at Germany, recaps the global spread of Nazism—er, Spanish domination—concluding, “One day, before my death, we shall sit here and gaze at this map upon the wall. It will cease to be a map of the world. It will be Spain!”

As actor Montagu Love recited his lines on a Warner soundstage, Hitler had conquered Poland just four months earlier, completing the first round of European real estate acquisition—Austria, the Sudetenland, then the remainder of Czechoslovakia, and now Poland. Cameras rolled on The Sea Hawk during the time period known later as the Sitzkrieg, when it became quiet. Too quiet, and Hitler was apparently making Western Europe guess what he would do next. In reality, little Germany was trying to recover from war with Poland because what seemed to be a rollover was anything but, and the Poles had packed more of a punch than Hitler would allow in public. Germany always stretched its limited resources to the max any time it made an attack; history has lost sight of the fact that the Germans only had so many guys, weapons, fuel, and food to go around, which is why gobbling up territory became so important—to replenish all these things.

I can’t imagine that any kid in the audience, and there had to be scads of them because this was an Errol Flynn pirate picture, had any clue what all the speechifying was about, but their parents got an earful about the looming threat of Nazism and the inevitability of war. Warner Bros. was at the forefront of spreading the word after drawing a line in the pavement with production of Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939—it was a picture that pissed Hitler off and he said so. But pounding the message home was a gamble for the studio because the United States was still an isolationist nation determined to let the Europeans work out their problems.

It never made any sense to me why in this movie English pirate ships captained by “sea hawks” were allowed to raid Spanish shipping in time of peace. But careful listening reveals the British admiral in charge explaining to the queen, “Our privateers have made substantial contributions for the very purpose of providing a navy.”

And only Errol Flynn’s Geoffrey Thorpe, coolest of the “sea hawk” captains, has the guts to proclaim in the queen’s court: “Spain is at war with the world.”

There, the “puny, rock-bound island” needs defenses from the looming threat, and German—er, Spanish—ships deserve to be attacked because of the ruthless ambitions of Hitler—er, Philip.

The last half of the 1930s in European history is covered concisely during two hours of plot time in The Sea Hawk, courtesy of a hasty rewrite of the original script by Warner screenwriter Howard Koch. There’s the expansionism of Germany, the attempted appeasement by the British Chamberlain regime, and most important, the imminent threat of a German invasion of England as exposed in communications intended for the chief Nazi—er Spanish—agent working near the queen but intercepted by Thorpe in the last reel.

The picture concludes with a grim speech by the queen that was cut from reissue prints: “A grave duty confronts us all: to prepare our nation for a war that none of us wants, least of all your queen. We have tried by all means in our power to avert this war. We have no quarrel with the people of Spain or of any other country. But when the ruthless ambition of a man threatens to engulf the world, it becomes the solemn obligation of all free men to affirm that the earth belongs not to any one man but to all men, and that freedom is the deed and title to the soil on which we exist.” And she goes on from there with even more flag-waving.

No kidding, this is how a major motion picture ended in 1940, with a political speech! But Warner Bros. wasn’t run by fools, and the U.S. print faded to The End right after the queen knights her favorite sea hawk and before she holds her political rally. Only the British print contained the full Elizabethan address.

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

Queen Elizabeth, played by Flora Robson, knights Geoffrey Thorpe, and the U.S. version of The Sea Hawk fades out. In the British edition, Elizabeth goes on to inspire attendees with a speech about the world war dead ahead.

Upon the picture’s splashy release at the end of August, 1940, the Battle of Britain was raging, and wise ones in the audience knew the “great armada” of Spain, whose use had been threatened throughout the picture, wasn’t seaborne but rather airborne in the form of hundreds of German bombers and their fighter escorts.

I imagine little boys walked out of the theater wondering what the hell, but there had been enough action, pirates, and ships and cannon, to hold their interest. Who knew or cared about Nazi spies?

It would be another 16 months until the United States entered the war, and the conflict would indeed become a nightmare. The queen’s speech, shot at the beginning of February 1940, became prophetic about ruthless ambitions engulfing the world, and many in the audience who watched The Sea Hawk would die in the conflagration ahead. Then followed long decades and re-releases of edited prints of what would become just another pirate movie, if a revered one, with a plot that made no sense. At least to me. Until yesterday.

 

Outcasts

monkeybusiness

The Marx Bros. smuggle themselves into the port of New York in Monkey Business (1931).

I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately for just about everything from my youth. It’s funny the things that make us who we are. I bleed nitrate after most of a lifetime in classic film that began with a sudden and deep love of the Marx Bros. toward the end of 1973. I can’t remember how it started, but I jumped on the Marx bandwagon as a youngster during their college campus resurgence and enjoyed the hell out of many Marx double-bills with my dad at the Guild Theatre in Squirrel Hill, near the University of Pittsburgh.

My pal, Greenbriar’s John McElwee, asked not long ago if the Marxes could possibly play to college audiences today—I wonder the same thing. Imagine a 300-seat theater as the Guild was then, shoehorning in kids aged 18-21, and here I was, much younger than that. The double-bills paired The Cocoanuts and Monkey Business, Horsefeathers and Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, At the Circus and The Big Store, and A Night in Casablanca and Love Happy. I know I’ve never laughed as hard as I did in the Guild in the dark, a lot of that the sharing of the experience with so many others so eager to laugh. I remember one particular Friday evening with a blue haze hanging in the air and the smell of pot so thick I choked on it. But son of a gun if the boys weren’t funniest of all on that occasion.

guild

The Marxes made my scrapbook of 1970s memories. They even played a week at a suburban walk-in–can you imagine that happening today?

America needed a laugh back then, mired as the nation was in nightly reports of carpet bombing and dead soldiers, but that was life coming out of the turbulent ’60s. Now let’s do some math. In 1972, Horsefeathers—the story of Professor Wagstaff at Huxley College—was just entering middle age at a tender 40. Now let’s think of what was popular 40 years ago right now, way back in 1979, and that was the dead spot between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back; the year of Alien and Apocalypse Now. Those pictures hold up well today, but can you believe that in 1972, college kids were happy to watch black-and-white prints full of splices and sprocket damage representing pictures that reached back not only to the depths of the Great Depression but to Prohibition as well?

Do you even know who I’m talking about with the Marx Bros.? I imagine some of my younger visitors have never seen a Marx picture. There was cynical, wise-cracking Groucho, ingenuous and silent Harpo, loyal and good-hearted Chico, and up through 1933, handsome young straight man Zeppo. They resonated in the late ’60s and early ’70s as iconoclasts, challengers of authority, afraid of nothing and contemptuous of strait-laced society. Maybe audiences understood that off-screen the brothers were just the same—what you saw was what you got out of this collection of Jewish boys from New York City’s mean streets. No airs or pretentiousness with these guys. Chico was “a restless Aries who lived so fast he could hardly keep up with himself” (said biographer Joe Adamson); Harpo an onscreen imp who was IRL an intellectual who loved children and with his wife Susan adopted several and retired to a grapefruit farm; Groucho a serious thinker by nature who could rustle up any number of reasons not to do what he was supposed to do; and Zeppo a shrewd businessman who became Hollywood’s top talent agent.

4-marxes

Chico, Zeppo, Groucho, and Harpo. Only the two in the middle would live to see their counterculture renaissance.

They started in the wild west of pre-Code Hollywood and landed at Paramount, where they ruled a roost that turned out to be crooked—their studio was cooking the books and not paying them. The ornery brothers then moved to MGM where production chief Irving Thalberg thought they needed a makeover and it killed them. They retired a mere four years later and made only one real Marx picture after that, in 1946 for UA. Now it’s 86 years since the end of their Paramount heyday and the boys have slipped into obscurity. They didn’t fit in 1933 and they don’t fit in 2019, except to a small and loyal legion that includes yours truly. I will always love these guys for the experiences they gave me with my dad, and for the way they introduced me to classic Hollywood.

The Marx Bros. and their admirers had it best in those crazy counterculture days, after Chico and Harpo had passed on and Groucho was in his dotage selling out one-man shows all over the place, including Carnegie Hall—and with that one, Groucho the contrarian had the last laugh: He got there without practicing.

Ghosts—Part 2

Note: Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II will be released in the United States by GoodKnight Books on April 15 and in Italy by Piemme in June. The Polish (Albatros) and Dutch (Overamstel) editions will follow, with others hopefully being announced soon.

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

The Stadsschouwburg in Arnhem. From the first row of the balcony, known as the Queen’s Circle, Adriaantje watched her first ballet performance in December 1939. Within a few years she would be performing as Audrey Hepburn-Ruston on this stage as Arnhem’s most famous ballerina.

I’m not one who sees ghosts, but I sometimes can feel them, or simply the weight of history hits me—understanding what happened in a place and how the people felt who lived it. Following the WWII trail in and around Arnhem as background for writing Dutch Girl, there were many occasions when I felt the gravity of the war and those who experienced it, or in some cases, affected the course of history.

I felt it in the streets of Oosterbeek where the van Heemstras lived in the 1930s and years later SS Panzer troops fought to the death with British Airborne house to house and room to room in one of the most savage melees of the Western Front.

I felt it in the Diogenes command bunker at Deelen Air Base just a few miles from Audrey’s home in Velp. Diogenes was a massive concrete building that served as German fighter central command for all the Netherlands. It was so formidable a structure it couldn’t be destroyed during or after the war. It stands today and always will, and down in the bowels of Diogenes where Luftwaffe staff worked for years, there are said to be ghosts and I don’t doubt it for a moment.

I felt it in a hangar of the air base that had been disguised as a Dutch home and is now a farmer’s barn. Inside, warning signs remain painted on the walls in German: RAUCHEN—VERBOTEN! SMOKING—FORBIDDEN! And the place still smells of petrol after all these decades.

I felt it in the corridors and stairwells and balconies of the Stadsschouwburg—Arnhem’s City Theatre where Audrey performed from 1941 into 1944.

I felt it at Kasteel Zijpendaal where Audrey’s grandfather Baron van Heemstra lived from 1939 into 1942 along with Audrey’s Aunt Meisje and Uncle Otto. Audrey’s presence is there on the grounds by the lake where she communed with nature and read her books during a short and happy time before the war became personal.

I felt it at the site of the Arnhemsche Muziekschool, the most important building in Audrey’s world until it was blown to bits by German tanks to root out British paratroopers during the battle.

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

This was one of only two photos I could find of Audrey’s beloved Muziekschool at Boulevard Heuvelink 2 in Arnhem, not far from the bridge. Not much remained after German tanks and self-propelled guns were through with their work ferreting out British paratroopers from the area. (Courtesy Gelders Archive)

I felt it in the streets of Velp, at the site of Villa Beukenhof, the van Heemstra home; at the site of the Velp hospital, center of Resistance activities where Audrey volunteered; and at the site of the Rotterdamsche Bank that had been converted into a prison in 1944. It was from there that Audrey heard the screams of Dutchmen being tortured.

I felt it as I walked the route she took along back streets from Villa Beukenhof to the hospital, a walk of just a few minutes that had to be tension-filled for a 14-year-old girl with German soldiers always present.

I felt it at St. Michielsgestel where Audrey’s Uncle Otto was imprisoned. I was fortunate to be able to stroll the halls of the seminary building, a spooky old building, and walk the forest where Otto met his fate. This man and his four companions are national heroes who unfortunately have been, in a sense, lost to time as the Dutch tried to move on from the war. There’s still a commemoration at the 15 August 1942 site every year, but the attendees are aging and growing fewer. My hope is that Dutch Girl will shine a new light on The Five and bring them back to a prominence so richly deserved.

For me the immersion in Audrey’s history was total, and on many occasions I felt myself going back in time, aided by eyewitnesses, to a history in Velp shared with all the van Heemstras, especially the Dutch girl.

The title of the book reads Audrey Hepburn and World War II for a reason—it’s not just her story. She lived in a place and time affected by so many external factors that to understand what she went through, one needs to understand a global situation. Why did she work for the Resistance, and why would Resistance leaders rely on a 14 year old? Why did the British try to take Arnhem from the Germans? Why did the battle go the way it did, with devastating results for Audrey and her family? Why was Velp so critical to the Western Theater, causing the battle line to harden in that spot? Why did the food run out? How did the food start flowing again? As my friend Tom would say, “It’s all connected, maaan.”

I sit here writing this on the last day before Dutch Girl’s official release on April 15—the very next day, April 16, is Liberation Day in Velp, which is still remembered with a ceremony every year. The first time I met and interviewed Rosemarie Kamphuisen, who was Audrey’s contemporary in Velp, I thanked her for agreeing to lend her time to the project. She squared her shoulders and said, “I am happy to! After all, you are our liberators!” Imagine.

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

Each year the people of Velp gather at the statue of a small Jewish onderduiker to commemorate Velp’s Liberation Day, 16 April. The moving ceremony culminates with each attendee laying a tulip at the feet of the little girl.

For his New Books in Film podcast, Joel Tscherne had interviewed me in past years for Fireball and Mission, and the other day for Dutch Girl. After hearing me talk about the experience of writing it, he said, “This sounds like your most personal project of all.” He’s right; it really is. I wrote the book that was in me about my now-close-friend Audrey Hepburn. It’s backstory that explains who she became and why she lived the life she did. It’s a very human tale constructed with the help of many wonderful people in the Netherlands and it honors all of them for what they surmounted—so much so that I dedicated Dutch Girl to the people of Velp.

Long Live Oranje!

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

The massive Diogenes Luftwaffe command bunker just north of Arnhem. Those blotches on the wall are patched bullet and shell holes.

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

Inside Diogenes, German staff workers known as “blitz maidens” shine light beams on a sophisticated, wall-sized glass map of the Netherlands to note the locations of bomber formations during 1943. Now the interior of the bunker is silent and the lower level is said to be haunted.

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

Note the painting to resemble curtained windows for what looks from a distance to be a Dutch farmhouse–the Germans did this to confuse Allied bombers. In reality this is a hangar for a German fighter aircraft, either a Focke Wolf 190 or a BF-109.

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

Inside, warnings in red remind German airplane mechanics not to smoke in a room that after 75 years’ use as a barn still smells of petrol.

Ghosts – Part 1

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

Utrechtseweg in Arnhem after the battle, with a dead British paratrooper on the sidewalk in foreground. This is the sidewalk leading to SD headquarters, which is where all the German vehicles are parked farther up the hill. Late-evening walks here cause the ghosts to stir. (Image courtesy robertjkershaw.com.)

Note: Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II will be released in the United States by GoodKnight Books on April 15 and in Italy by Piemme in June. Other foreign editions will be coming soon.

Night is my favorite time in Arnhem, a Dutch city along the Rhine 40 miles west of the German border. I’d go on exhaustive excursions for days on end in a wide radius around the city, visiting the places of Audrey’s youth or key German sites; I’d interview people who lived through the war and go on guided battlefield tours, and there’d be miles of walking. Then back at Hotel Haarhuis in the heart of Arnhem, I’d want to go for one last walk along the Utrechtseweg, the city quiet, its ghosts just beginning to stir.

I like to take late-night walks up to the old headquarters building of the SD, the German intelligence service, also known as the SS. If you were Dutch and taken here during the war, you knew you were about to be tortured. It might or might not be your last day on earth. SD headquarters sits six or seven minutes from the Haarhuis by foot, but it’s a piece of ground loaded with history. That little slice of street was the farthest the relief column made it in an effort to relieve Frost at the bridge during the battle of Arnhem. Fighting on this street was desperate on 18 September 1944. There’s a photograph I always think about as I stroll the sidewalk of Utrechtseweg—it shows dead British paratroopers lying right where I walk, shot down in their desperate attempt to make it onto the bridge.

Arnhem is a modern, rebuilt city, but a very old one. If you know where to look (and I do thanks to my friend Robert Voskuil), there are scars of battle everywhere. The battle of Arnhem, also known as the “Bridge Too Far” battle, was as ferocious as D-Day but not fought on wide-open beaches. It was fought in a city built on the wealth of the Dutch East Indies—businessmen would make their fortune in the east and bring it back to Arnhem and neighboring Oosterbeek and retire there. The German general staff knew the Arnhem and Oosterbeek area from pre-war days when it had served as a resort destination.

This was Audrey Hepburn’s home. Her grandfather, former mayor of Arnhem and governor of Suriname, owned a villa in Oosterbeek before moving to rented rooms in a castle in Arnhem. Because he’d lived as a civil servant, Baron Aarnoud van Heemstra hadn’t accumulated great wealth in his career and lived humbly so he could distribute his funds among six children, including Ella, Audrey’s mother. From Arnhem the baron moved to the equally wealthy village of Velp and his small, rented Villa Beukenhof became Audrey’s vantage point for the battle of Arnhem.

I was astonished in 2015 when I stumbled upon the Audrey-in-Arnhem story and realized nobody had done it as a book. Huh? How was this possible? Oh, said her biographers, she was too young to have experienced anything. She wasn’t in any battles. She lived quietly and danced her way through the war.

Word to the wise: Nobody in Europe lived quietly through that war. There had to be a story, and brother what a story it turned out to be.

In his review of Dutch Girl, John McElwee of Greenbriar Picture Shows Blogspot said of his reading experience, “You actually wonder if Audrey will make it through such harrowing ordeal, despite evidence of beloved film roles she did later….” Even pre-release, I’ve heard this theme several times: You the reader know intellectually that she’s going to live, but the book’s still a page-turner because you can’t imagine how she’s going to live.

The violence of war first hit Audrey full force in 1942. In 1944 came the paratroopers, then bombings, strafings, V1s, and finally tanks and machine guns. You look at Princess Ann, you look at Holly Golightly, and in that serene and innocent face you see no hint of a girl in a blood-stained dress, a girl who had to show her Ausweis just to be permitted to go to shops at the end of her street.

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

Villa Maria in Oosterbeek, home of the family of Audrey’s sister-in-law, Miepje Monné.

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

Bullet holes in the iron fence in front of the Monné home all these decades later. In Oosterbeek, the battle raged for a brutal week.

The trick is, you had to go poking around in the Netherlands to learn these things. You had to bump into the ghosts. It was really the job of some Dutch author after Audrey’s death to root out the war story when so many were still alive who had lived it with her. Up until her passing no one dared because Audrey felt she had a lot to hide about her mother Ella, as explored by the Daily Mail this week. Then the story sat all these years, waiting.

In the next installment I’d like to talk about the experience of visiting Audrey’s world, traveling back in time.

Los Angeles Angels

monk-color

The Zanuck version of The Mark of Zorro is a picture that makes me smile—and breaks my heart. I experienced both emotions last Saturday afternoon when TCM U.S. ran The Mark of Zorro, and I marveled at what a firecracker it is, with what is for me the most muscular and realistic duel in movie history. There was young Don Diego Vega in early 1800s Los Angeles taking on the guise of Zorro, protector of the oppressed peons. And here I fell in love all over again with Linda Darnell, which one mustn’t do because at the time she was all of 17, if that. In my defense she was already playing adults, so I’m not the only male to be smitten in the past 80 years. Linda Darnell clearly had it. And such chemistry with her leading man, Tyrone Power—yikes.

monk

Of all Hollywood duels of the golden era, this one felt deadliest thanks to the skills of Power and his opponent, Basil Rathbone. When J. Edward Bromberg observed of Zorro, “You handle a sword like a devil from hell,” we can only agree.

What makes me crestfallen is the fact that both these beautiful people sharing the screen so perfectly and so sweetly—he then 26 to her 17 and both seeming in 1940 to have it all—died far too young after bittersweet lives that failed to live up to their silver perfection on the screen.

I looked around YouTube to find one of their love scenes in The Mark of Zorro but failed. I did find this one as young Lolita considers Don Diego a foppish boor—until they dance together and he takes her to the heights, before yanking her back to earth.

Everyone always said Darnell was and remained a sweetheart who never “went Hollywood.” And in all my years immersed in Hollywood history, I never heard a cross word about Ty Power either. If anything these two were ill-equipped to face the headwinds of that brutal town and what it does to people—one small example: respective business managers swindled each trusting soul out of a fortune.

bad-girl-linda

Linda all grown up.

Both Ty’s parents were Shakespearean actors, and he shot to the top in the Hollywood of 1937-40. He joined the Marines in 1942 after making his pirate epic The Black Swan and had himself a distinguished tour of duty as a pilot flying into, among other places, Iwo Jima—and came back a changed man like they all seemed to. Once returned to 20th-Century Fox he never regained his status as a tape-measure home run hitter. It was no coincidence that Darnell’s career lost steam after her frequent leading man Ty left town, but then by 1944 she had grown into steamy femme fatale roles in film noir pictures like Summer Storm, Hangover Square, and Fallen Angel. I could see this harder-edged Darnell incarnation taking any mere mortal male down a bad road, say me for instance, and so Linda as noir girl was natural. But by 1950 and the age of television, when studios began to cut way back on the number of features produced, there went Darnell.

Ty fared better in the 1950s as he coasted a long way on pre-war momentum. He remained a Fox leading man long after other contract men had been cut loose, but age softened his once-chiseled features and in some of those later pictures like King of the Khyber Rifles I want him to take it easy and not risk some cardiac episode. By the time he hit 40, years of heavy smoking and the lifestyle of a movie star had taken their toll. He died with his boots on making Solomon and Sheba in 1958, felled by a heart attack in the midst of an onscreen duel with another leading man aging badly, George Sanders. The photos of poor Ty semi-conscious on the floor of the movie set are out there if you care to look. For me it’s just too sad. For more on the “serenely competent” Tyrone Power, visit John McElwee’s Greenbriar Picture Shows.

solomon

Ty’s last stand in Solomon and Sheba, in the duel scene with George Sanders that would kill him.

Seven years after Power left the world, Darnell followed at age 41 after being caught in a Chicago house fire that caused ultimately fatal burns. (In a small irony, one of Power’s first big hits was In Old Chicago about the big fire there.) By the time of her passing in 1965, Linda had been stripped of her fortune and was taking any acting jobs that came along—from television to dinner theater. For more on the spectacular Darnell, see Sister Celluloid’s compassionate blog post. All I can hope is that in some parallel universe, the beautiful young people of The Mark of Zorro, Don Diego and Lolita, did indeed go on to enjoy many decades in their vineyards, well beyond the raising of “fat children” and with plenty of swordplay—the friendly kind, of course.

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.