General Hollywood History

Remaking Robin Hood

Title card from Ivanhoe.

I watched the 1952 version of Ivanhoe last night. It’s the first time I really consumed Ivanhoe because I will now admit, I’m not a big MGM guy or a big Robert Taylor guy, so I have seen bits and pieces of Ivanhoe over the years but never sat down and watched it until last night. And what I saw was good and then almost-great.

What really became a thing for me as I watched was realizing that Ivanhoe was a sort of remake of Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood a mere 14 years—and a world war—later. In that regard, Ivanhoe is a more adult, grittier picture presented to audiences now grounded in darker cinematic themes. But there are many similarities between the pictures in that both main characters face the same time period with only slightly different points of view. Robin of Locksley’s POV as a Saxon nobleman is replaced by Wilfrid of Ivanhoe’s as another Saxon nobleman, and they share the same plot: the Normans under Prince John are in power in England because King Richard is being held prisoner for ransom by the Austrians. Combating the bigotry and injustice of the Normans is an outlaw named Robin Hood who has an army of Saxon guerrilla fighters in the forest who are determined to end the oppression of the French invaders. Robin Hood, or “Locksley” as he is known here as played by British actor Harold Warrender, is a prominent character in the screen version of Ivanhoe as he was in Sir Walter Scott’s source novel, and Locksley’s band works in coordination with Wilfrid of Ivanhoe to bring down Prince John. Spoiler alert: just as in The Adventures of Robin Hood, a regal King Richard appears at the last minute to stare down his slimy brother, end the Norman reign, and declare that great things are ahead for England. We had seen Richard briefly in reel one, imprisoned all alone in an Austrian castle, which makes his appearance at the end with 100 immaculately and identically costumed knights really stupid. It’s like they were supposed to report to another movie and got sent to the wrong location.

The storybook way Richard rides in to bring the narrative to a swift conclusion works against every gritty moment that came before in Ivanhoe. It’s way too pretty and way too pat and much more like something out of the pre-war Flynn picture.

Guy Rolfe as Prince John in Ivanhow.
Guy Rolfe as Prince John–he’s half Richard Harris, half Peter O’Toole, and 100% black-hearted.

As much as I love the Flynn version and the way he built a winning team—an invincible winning team—he was so damn competent that the outcome was never really in doubt. Robert Taylor’s older and more weathered Ivanhoe, on the other hand, wins a lot but loses sometimes and when he loses, he bleeds. Up to the final confrontation, you feel like this is a real dude doing real things.

Just to ruffle feathers, I’m going to state a personal preference for George Sanders’ Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert over Basil Rathbone’s Sir Guy of Gisbourne as a villain. As laid out in Robin Hood, Sir Guy kept saying, “I’m gonna get that Robin Hood.” “I’m gonna hang that Robin Hood.” “That Robin Hood is in sooooooo much trouble!” but we never got a sense that Errol Flynn was really in trouble because he won every battle large and small except for the time he was bored and wanted to be caught so he could escape to piss Sir Guy off. Robin Hood’s wits and athleticism rendered Sir Guy into a villain who was all bark and no bite. But Sanders’ Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert is a brawny, earthy villain with a realistic perspective and a palpable lust for the “Jewess” Rebecca, played by Elizabeth Taylor. Where Rathbone’s Sir Guy had a glancing crush on Maid Marian—something more alluded to than depicted—Sanders is like, I want this girl and she’ll do whatever I say this instant! And I mean, whatever I say! His was a dark, domineering corruption of courtly love well past anything dreamed of by Sir Guy of Gisbourne.

George Sanders as de Bois Guilbert in Ivanhoe.
The awesome George Sanders as an equally awesome de Bois Guilbert, Ivanhoe’s rival.

Then there is de Bois Guilbert’s fellow Norman knight, Sir Hugh de Bracy, played by a Robert Douglas who seemed to get off on this type of character—he played basically the same snarling evildoer in Adventures of Don Juan just four years earlier. What a pair Sanders and Douglas make as foes for Wilfrid of Ivanhoe! You just don’t know what these two will do next, except it’s probably going to be lethal.

The Adventures of Robin Hood was conceived as a fantasy with sequins and tights, and you never really lost the feeling this was a comic book shot in Hollywood USA. I’ll go a step further and say you could watch the 1938 Flynn Robin Hood with today’s series of Marvel pictures and see Sir Robin as another gravity-defying superhero. Wilfred of Ivanhoe, not so much. There is literal and figurative gravity in everything about the setup of the story and the action driving it. There are bitter interpersonal conflicts, and the oppression of the Saxons by the Normans isn’t depicted through a few token outrages—it permeates the people and times. Check out the Ivanhoe trailer.

In Ivanhoe, there are two women love interests for our hero, creating a triangle, whereas for Flynn’s Robin Hood there was only Maid Marian. It’s interesting to me that MGM cast in the Marian/female lead role Olivia de Havilland’s sister and bitter rival Joan Fontaine, years older at 34 than Livvie was at 21, but sporting similar braids and looking almost creepily alike, although the interpretations of the actresses were quite divergent. Livvie’s Marian was warm, charming, and ingenuous while Joanie’s Rowena was typical of this actress—pretty but aloof, distant, and at times unengaged. Then there was Elizabeth Taylor’s Rebecca, way younger and more passionate and ready at any moment for Ivanhoe to carry her off to destinations unknown. Whatever he wanted was OK by her.

Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Taylor in Ivanhoe.
Rebecca to Ivanhoe: Take me, I’m yours!

As conceived in 1937 at Warner Bros., Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood was to open with a grand jousting tournament that established the enmity of Sir Robin and Sir Guy, but for budgetary reasons this sequence was cut from the production. Ivanhoe gives us not one but two jousting sequences, one a full-scale, thrilling set of jousts with Ivanhoe unseating Norman knights bang, bang, bang, one after another. They look painfully authentic because they were, thanks to location work in England and historical accuracy provided by the British Museum. We feel the grounding of this picture in medieval times because it was shot entirely in England with the supporting players cast there and real castles used along with a modern fortress replica constructed just for the production.

The combat depicted in Ivanhoe is raw in its brutality, up to and including the final confrontation between Sir Wilfrid and Sir Brian. Just, ouch. In The Adventures of Robin Hood, a single feint and sword thrust dispatched Sir Guy after a lengthy, well-choreographed duel. In Ivanhoe, Sir Brian dies hard after many minutes of lance, ax, and chain-and-ball attacks. It’s a vicious conclusion and praise must go to George Sanders for whipping up surprising sympathy in his final moment as he declares his love to Rebecca and then expires. And up until the very last few feet of run time, we don’t know if Ivanhoe is going to choose distant, aloof Rowena or hot young Jewess Rebecca. OK, I will leave one outcome in Ivanhoe unspoiled. You’ll have to see for yourself.

Robert Taylor and Joan Fontaine in Ivanhoe.
Ivanhoe to Rowena: This is a really tough call. I mean, you’re pretty and fair and all that, but she looks just like Elizabeth Taylor. How can I say no?

A Nightmare in Dreamland

I remember how taken I was with David Stenn’s Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow when I read it back at the turn of the century. As you may know, I generally despise biographical books—so-and-so was born, her parents did this that and the other; she turned 2 and this happened; at 8 that happened, blah blah blah. If I want somebody’s chronology, I’ll look at Wikipedia. Bombshell proved an exception, which shouldn’t be surprising because the book was written by TV scenarist and producer David Stenn and edited by Jackie Onassis during her time at Doubleday. Jackie had also edited Stenn’s other Hollywood biography, Runnin’ Wild, the Clara Bow Story.

My respect for Bombshell emanated from what I recognized as Stenn’s tenaciousness as a researcher and passion for telling a story. I wanted to be like David Stenn! So when I started down the path of writing a book about the plane crash that killed Carole Lombard, I sought David out because he had nailed the personality of Clark Gable and written authoritatively about him in Bombshell. It’s been 10 years now since he and I spoke, but I remember several conversations with David and appreciated his time, laser focus and advice. Speaking with him was like reading his work: He gave 100% of his attention to me and my topic, and his advice is embedded in my book Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 and my other Hollywood biographies, Mission about Jim Stewart and Dutch Girl about Audrey Hepburn.

But life goes on and I had lost track of David Stenn until last week when my friends CB and Marina were talking about a documentary called Girl 27. Their prompting nudged an “Oh, yeah!” out of my brain—that David and I had discussed MGM and its scandals of the 1930s. A couple were untold stories that had really captured his imagination.

The other evening, I sat down with the 80-minute documentary Girl 27, released in 2007, with David Stenn directing and serving as on-air storyteller. Girl 27 is one of however many—thousands, certainly—dark stories of Hollywood’s past, this one concerning Patricia Douglas, a young teenager living in L.A. who had gotten some work as a dancer in the movies. One day she answered a casting call for dancers to appear in cowgirl costumes for an evening job at the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City (also the location of MGM). But the job didn’t turn out to be motion picture production. Instead, a lavish party had been devised by MGM to entertain its exhibitors and salespeople from around the United States—hundreds of white men in town to be wined and dined. The dancers were to be eye candy for the dignitaries.

As described in an interview for Filmmaker magazine, David Stenn had come across page-one headlines as he was researching Bombshell about young dancer Pat Douglas crying rape following this event. But after a couple days of newspaper coverage, the story disappeared, as had Douglas.

Lots of things annoy me. On that list is the labeling of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executives Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling as “MGM’s fixers.” I’ll spare you the F-bombs going off in my head just writing this term. Eddie Mannix wasn’t somebody‘s hit-man; Eddie Mannix was a vice president at MGM and right-hand man of Louis B. Mayer, who ran the most powerful studio in Hollywood. I remember watching the movie Hollywoodland and there were Bob Hoskins as Mannix and Joe Spano as Strickling sitting there stone-faced mumbling plots like wiseguys over the fact that Mannix’s wife Toni was banging actor George Reeves. But IRL Mannix ran much of a city-sized movie studio while Strickling oversaw publicity. Once in a while, a tiny aspect of their jobs involved cleaning up messes caused by studio employees, in one case the rape of Pat Douglas by a Chicago exhibitor named David Ross at the evening party on the Hal Roach lot in 1937.

The MGM field guys came to Hollywood with the clear indication from Mayer and Co. that Hollywood was opening its arms in every way possible. Liquor flowed in rivers that night, and undoubtedly many of the ambitious cowgirls on hand were ready, willing, and able to further their careers any way they could. But Pat Douglas wasn’t one of them. Pat showed up to dance, with the servicing of strangers from out of town the very last thing on her mind. She was a virgin who didn’t drink, and when David Ross forced liquor down her throat, she rushed outside to throw it back up. Later he dragged her to a car and raped her, with Douglas discovered by a parking attendant who called for an ambulance. Douglas was taken to a rinky-dink local hospital where she received a douche to cleanse her. But she had been raped and naïvely went public with this fact.

Pat Douglas agrees to appear on-camera in her Las Vegas apartment after 65 years of anonymity.

Those were the headlines David Stenn discovered, and because he had been immersed in MGM history writing the Harlow story, he knew exactly who would have covered up the incident and how they would have done it. Sixty-five years later, the case as cold as the trail, Stenn went to work employing his furious research skills and Girl 27 tells the story of what he found. He located Pat Douglas’ daughter, as well as the children of the parking attendant and the son of the attorney who was supposed to represent Douglas. Stenn turned to Judy Lewis, illegitimate daughter of Loretta Young and MGM’s Clark Gable, to understand the nature of Hollywood cover-ups. And ultimately, much to his surprise, Stenn found Pat Douglas still alive, a Las Vegas shut-in age 85.

Girl 27 has many spooky aspects. It’s spooky to see Mannix whispering in Mayer’s ear in MGM footage shot during the exhibitor convention of 1937. It’s spooky to see David Ross isolated in that same film footage as he stepped off the train in L.A., this sinister rapist on the prowl. But it’s spookiest of all to sit with haunted Pat Douglas, who at first wouldn’t even speak to Stenn on the phone but who ultimately appeared on camera, this wreck of a human tortured by one man and one night for the remainder of her life.

Girl 27 tells a huge, powerful story about the darkness of Hollywood. In fact, I have found that Hollywood was more darkness than light, a reality obscured by the fact that only the shimmering motion pictures remain while the flawed humans who created them have all passed on. In the Pat Douglas case, Eddie Mannix and others at MGM did what they had to do to protect the brand. If one young woman had to be wrecked along the way, that wasn’t so bad. They paid off the parking attendant, the doctor who attended her, and the attorney serving as her mouthpiece, and poof, the case went away.

By the end we in the audience are screaming for justice, but that’s a view for a different century. Monday morning quarterbacking. Back in 1937, the entire world and not just the movies were black and white. Back then if you were raped you had asked for it; Douglas herself confirmed that. Hers became a life of hatred and mistrust courtesy of one nightmare evening in a place so often referred to as the dream capital.

The Pluses and Minuses of Time Travel

First seen through a windshield in 1973. (Hooker, looking at the bad guy: “He’s not so tough.” Gondorf (alarmed): “Neither are we.”)

Did you ever notice that some movies are like a time machine? And I mean very much like Rod Taylor’s contraption. You step into the movie, and it transports you instantly to another place and time—where you were when you saw it and how old you were, and you reconnect with your sensibilities back then and can feel who was sitting next to you at the theater. You can see the room if you were watching it on TV and remember your self back then. Who you were and what the world was like.

As the years pass this happens to me more and more. For example, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, a Universal horror B-picture released in 1943, isn’t very good. In fact, it’s downright bad, with plot inconsistencies to give you a headache and some questionable casting. But it’s my favorite because every time I see the Universal logo and hear the fanfare, I’m 10 again and staying up late to watch Chiller Theatre on WIIC in Pittsburgh Saturday night at 11:30, after the news. What a struggle it was to stay awake back then after marauding through town all day and playing hours of baseball in any pick-up game I could find.

I never did get to see House of Frankenstein as a kid because I’d always manage to fall asleep. What I remember about House of Frankenstein is imagining how spooky it was as my friends (made of sterner stuff) stayed awake all the way through and described the horrific goings-on. But I must have made it through Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man at least once for the memories it evokes of the living room in the house where I grew up, a place long ago demolished. The living room and being alone in the dark watching the TV and wondering if the Wolf Man was going to bound down the stairs and tear me apart.

I managed to survive my youth without the Wolf Man tearing me apart in the dark.

Watching The Sting takes me back to Cuppies Drive-In and watching the screen over my dad’s right shoulder and my mom’s left and through a windshield, with the tinny sound of a speaker attached to the driver’s-side window. The Sting shoots me into their world, and I feel my parents as they absorb the time and place—the 1930s during the Depression when they were young. I have to credit the accuracy of the time period recreated during production of The Sting in 1972 because my parents never had the spell broken by something inappropriate to the 1930s. They loved The Sting. In fact, they loved the movies, which is where I caught the bug. That fact makes the time machine experience of particular movies bittersweet because for fleeting minutes they’re alive again and in their prime and then, poof, gone. And here you are, alone, murmuring, “Damn.” For a little while it’s as if you could reach out and touch them as we all sat at the drive-in watching The Sting. The time machine is that powerful a piece of mental machinery.

I still can’t watch JFK because I saw it with my friend Tom during a dark time in my life, as a relationship was falling apart. Those were black, black days and seeing any reference to JFK picks me up and tosses me back into the pit of despair; better to walk a wide circle around that one. I remember my good friend John telling me a similar story about breaking up with his girlfriend at the time Gray Lady Down was released. He told me this a couple of decades ago, but I bet he still can’t stand to watch Gray Lady Down, and I get it.

This and the accompanying music is all it takes to send me back in time.

Why is it that those long-ago movie experiences made such an impression? I can remember more recent pictures seen in theater settings that don’t result in the same time transport. I guess it all ended with Star Wars—every time I see that distinctive title screen and hear the first note of John Williams’ fanfare, it’s 1977 all over again and a new world of adventure opens. I’ve got goosebumps just writing about it. I was right there at the vanguard and saw Star Wars in first run six times in the spring and summer of 1977, and every time I’ve seen it since, that’s where I am, at the Showcase East in Monroeville queueing up. Just a kid. I remember reading about Star Wars and this evil character named Darth Vader and thinking, “No, he’s too scary. What if I can’t handle it?” I could imagine myself running screaming from the theater. But I hung tough and made it all the way through Star Wars and can reconnect with my youthful self by sitting down and popping in a Blu-Ray. It’s pretty cool to be able to do that.

I can’t be alone, right? So what are your time-machine movies and where do they take you?

Back Where I Belong

Just a couple of factory workers.

I’ve been picking up some new subscribers to this blog lately and it occurred to me maybe I should actually write something for people to read. It’s not that I’ve been idle; I am deep into research for my next book, which to me is the mother of all ideas and I can only hope I do it justice.

So I’m back where I’m comfortable: 1941 and 1942 Hollywood. I’ve landed in this grand place at a time when an avalanche of great scripts was being turned into a stream of enduring pictures, one after another. I marvel at how fast the pictures we know by heart were turned out. For example, I saw a little Dec. 30, 1941, item on the sports page of the Los Angeles Times: “Cooper to Play Role of Lou Gehrig in film.” The article describes how Lefty O’Doul, manager of the San Francisco Seals (Pacific Coast League), had begun tutoring Gary Cooper on his swing and throwing motion so he can pass for a credible major league ball player. The news item stated that Cooper had been the only one cast to date and that no start for shooting had been scheduled here at the tail end of the year. My friends, Pride of the Yankees premiered the next August! They finished the script and chose a cast, shot the thing, and edited and scored it, then made prints, all in a span of seven months, January-July. Compare that to today’s glacial pace, which I know all too well because I’m living it: years to arrive at a concept and then a script, years to make a deal for production and distribution, then years more to line up the director and cast. In 1942 they made great pictures in seven months; in 2022 they can lumber along toward fair-to-middling pictures in seven years.

Let’s scrape away the egos and bureaucracy of Hollywood today and look at the mightily efficient factory system of Hollywood’s major studios of 1942. The downside of course was the seven-year player contract that bound even the biggest stars to one studio and assignment to any production deemed suitable. Another factor was the workload, which saw stars working 10- or 11-hour days five days a week and at least a partial Saturday, usually under hot lights in Southern California soundstages that back then lacked air conditioning. Plus, actors faced the pressure of nailing the first or second take because when cameras rolled, precious film stock was exposed, quite the issue after World War II broke out and film stock was rationed across town.

As fame grew, so did resistance to material the stars deemed beneath them and in the case of my favorite studio, Warner Bros., titanic battles saw James Cagney and Bette Davis preferring suspension to mediocre productions, and then Olivia de Havilland took Jack Warner to court to free herself from the bondage of the seven-year contract. Her victory meant the beginning of the end of the factory system capable of turning out a Pride of the Yankees in seven months.

But it wasn’t all bad for the stars. That system put them on the path to fame and paid extraordinarily well, in some cases six grand a week in 1930s dollars. Think about that; the U.S. was off and on gold standard and dollars meant something back then, and your Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Errol Flynn took home genuine fortunes. Even in 2022 dollars six grand a week makes you an executive.

Anyway, leaving alone the factory workers great and small, here’s how fast magic was made. A Warner Bros. memo related on May 19, 1941, that freelance player Mary Astor had seen the script for The Maltese Falcon and pronounced it a “humdinger” and would love to play the part of Brigid O’Shaughnessy. As late as June 6 George Raft was to be Sam Spade but turned the part down saying it was beneath him and went on suspension. Into the breach at the very last minute stepped Humphrey Bogart with precious little time to learn his lines because the picture began shooting June 10, then wrapped July 19 with a couple of short days for retakes afterward. It premiered in New York City on October 1 to rave reviews. To recap, Mary Astor didn’t know she had the part as late as May 19 and Bogart didn’t know at sunrise June 6, but both could see themselves 20 feet high in a theater about four months later in a picture now considered groundbreaking film noir, a picture I’ve probably seen and marveled at 15 times.

Olivia de Havilland turns 25 as They Died with Their Boots On commences production. Now, back to work!

Then think about the Custer biopic They Died with Their Boots On, a fair-to-say epic picture in terms of scope, settings, costumes, and action—both small and large battles including the climactic Last Stand at the Little Big Horn, which was shot outside L.A. with a high steel tower erected to capture more than 200 mounted horsemen doing battle. The picture began shooting in time for Olivia de Havilland’s 25th birthday July 1, 1941 celebrated on set with Errol Flynn presiding over a cake, and despite all that went into making it, including Max Steiner’s memorable musical score, Boots premiered in mid-November. The first call of “Action!” July 1 and in theaters four-and-a-half months later.

What I take from my research is how damn hard everyone worked, as if their lives depended on it, which sometimes they did. A stunt man fell off his horse and was impaled on his saber during that tower shoot of the Last Stand and died in the hospital the next day, and let’s not try to count all the people behind the scenes who worked themselves near to death turning out pictures at such a breakneck pace. But I’m happy to say I’m back among them and can only hope to keep up.

The Comet

As a self-respecting guy, I never had any use for a movie entitled Pollyanna, especially a Pollyanna released as a live-action feature by Disney. All I knew of Disney live action was what I’d experienced as a kid in the 1960s; you know, computers wearing tennis shoes, slime that made you jump high, and monkeys going home. Even as a kid I saw this wing of the Disney studio as producers of ridiculous, cornball stuff.

Now here I am well past my wonder years and I stumbled on Forever Young, the Hayley Mills memoir, and had my eyes opened to a pop culture phenomenon I knew nothing about since most of it happened before my time. Apparently, Hayley Mills hit the 1959 motion picture landscape like a tidal wave, first in the independent British feature Tiger Bay, which led to her personal introduction to Walt Disney and a starring role in Pollyanna, which was the brainchild of a 1950s TV director named David Swift, who managed to convince the big man of the validity of bringing the goody-two-shoes character Pollyanna to the screen.

My only real-time connection to Hayley Mills was when as a late-teenager she starred in The Trouble with Angels, which I remember sitting through as one of the first pictures I ever saw on the big screen. It wasn’t made by Disney but it felt like Disney, and Hayley Mills didn’t make much of an impression.

Thanks in part to a diary she kept and in part to her 2010s deep dive into Disney production files, Mills was able in her autobiography to reconstruct the experience of that first trip to Hollywood to make Pollyanna, and her backstage view prompted me to block out time and give Pollyanna a try. I sat down with slime and monkeys firmly in mind, and two hours and 14 minutes later, I was sobbing. Yes, my friends, I confess I was sobbing at live-action Disney.

The Disney studio surrounded Mills with veteran actors like Jane Wyman, Ed Platt, Adolphe Menjou, and Anne Seymour, seen here listening to a grim Karl Malden sermon about how “death comes unexpectedly!” (Others in the cast but not pictured here are Donald Crisp, Nancy Olson, and James Drury.)

Now I understand why this girl proved a global sensation hitting midway between Elvis and the Beatles. She describes herself in Forever Young as an untrained young actress who just liked to be on-camera and this captures the utterly natural screen presence of a 12-year-old Hayley Mills, who as orphaned Pollyanna arrives in a small, uptight town circa 1915 filled with bitter people to live with her strict Aunt Polly, played in veteran style by Jane Wyman.

The term “pollyanna” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a person characterized by irrepressible optimism and a tendency to find good in everything,” and in dictionary.com as a person “excessively sweet-tempered and optimistic even in adversity.” The Mills/Disney Pollyanna is much more the former than the latter, an ingenuous yet canny observer of the human condition who barges her way into the lives of bitter recluses played by Agnes Moorehead and Adolphe Menjou and subtly brings them back from the brink of loneliness and despair to see the good in themselves and then in others.

Pollyanna meets and begins to influence a cranky friend played by Agnes Moorhead.

Pollyanna’s positive influence on the town around her grows so slowly over two hours of run time that we only realize the girl’s impact when she faces a health crisis and the previously embittered townspeople respond by charging en masse to Aunt Polly’s mansion to show their support and then, cue the waterworks (I teared up just writing this paragraph).

Pre-pubescent Hayley Mills was a revelation, with enormous blue eyes that threaten to leap off the screen to devour the viewer. Her eyes are almost science fiction, they’re so powerful. My reaction to Pollyanna made me seek out the feature that preceded it, Tiger Bay. Boy, what a contrast in plots, with young Horst Buchholtz in his breakthrough role as a good guy driven to kill his girlfriend as witnessed through the letter box slot by Hayley Mills and her sci-fi eyes. In Forever Young Mills describes her agonizing 12 year old’s crush on the 24-year-old Buchholtz, who would soon go on to make The Magnificent Seven. Their chemistry in Tiger Bay is purely compelling and overcomes any audience notions to question aspects of the noirish plot.

Crazy chemistry between Horst and Hayley in Tiger Bay.

Forever Young delves rather deeply into Mills family history, but then picks up steam when Hayley gets into acting—it’s clear that’s really when life began for this little girl. She takes you inside production of a 1950s indie feature and then suddenly we’re in Walt Disney’s office for meetings with the living legend and seeing blow by blow the back-and-forth negotiations between reluctant father John Mills and Disney lawyers who are on a mission to sign Hayley to a seven-picture contract.

I’m only halfway through the book but it’s already been something of a life-changer for me. For those not in the know, Hayley’s big sister is accomplished actor Juliet Mills, or “Bunchie” to those in the family while Hayley is “Bags.” On the set of Pollyanna Hayley meets actor Kevin Corcoran of the acting Corcoran clan, who is referred to in the book by his on-the-lot nickname of “Moochie.” I guess what I’m saying is the charm factor is high in Forever Young as we see stars of the screen and TV as regular people worth knowing.

So now you’re caught up on what’s been going on with me; I’ve seen Hayley’s comet for the first time and I’m getting up to speed on a talent who is proving, to me at least, quite capable of holding her own with Elvis and the Beatles.

The eyes that launched several Disney ships.

My Head Explodes Every Time

Warrior: Audrey Hepburn by Robert Matzen
Twenty-eight years after first working together, Jimmy Lydon (left) greets Martin Milner’s Officer Malloy … and my head explodes.

Since I was a kid I’ve watched Adam-12, the realistic police show that ran in the U.S. from 1968 to 1975. I still watch it often, having seen some episodes, who knows, 10 times? Maybe 20. A couple of episodes always make my head explode because James Lydon’s in them, like the one in season 7 when Malloy goes to a halfway house to secure a place for an aging ex-con.

OK, very quickly the backstory: Adam-12 chronicles the experiences of Officer Pete Malloy, played by Martin Milner, who trains young Probationary Officer Jim Reed, played by Kent McCord. The kid’s a rookie in season 1 and a wily pro by season 7. At the time the series was made, Milner had been kicking around as a player in various theatrical features and TV shows and had the lead in the popular series Route 66 from 1960-64. McCord was a newbie when Adam-12 began, a find of the series executive producer, Jack Webb. You can still see Kent McCord at autograph shows today, looking great in his 70s. Milner died in 2015 at age 83; Lydon is still with us at age 98.

So, anyway, in this episode, playing the operator of the halfway house is Lydon, whose career went back to child roles in 1939. Most famously, during the war years then-Jimmy Lydon played the title character Henry Aldrich—teenaged son in the all-American Aldrich family (made famous on Broadway and radio)—in a number of feature film adventures for Paramount Pictures. Then in 1946 Lydon was cast in a very big and high-profile film, Life With Father, which would become one of the major hits of 1947, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring William Powell and Irene Dunne.

Making his onscreen acting debut as one of the sons in Life With Father was Martin Milner, then age 15, playing John Day, younger brother of Clarence Day, Jr., played by Lydon.

I cut my teeth on Life With Father. I’ve seen Life With Father so many times I can recite all the lines before the actors have a chance to spit them out. And so, every time I see this episode of Adam-12, when Jimmy Lydon walks out a middle-aged man to shake hands with cop Martin Milner after they had once played brothers onscreen in a very big picture, my mind is blown thinking about the history these two shared on that Burbank set, and what must it be like to see each other again?

They were witnesses as volcanic Mike Curtiz, suave leading man Bill Powell, and elegant Irene Dunne worked together day after day. They experienced the pressure as Jack Warner attempted to transition Broadway’s immensely popular hit Life With Father to the screen with the rights-holders breathing down the filmmakers’ necks every day.

Warrior: Audrey Hepburn by Robert Matzen
Milner and Lydon flank William Powell in a publicity shot of Father Day and his four sons.

What do you think about when you’re Jimmy Lydon with 150+ acting credits and lots of additional work as a producer, and you’ve got a small speaking part in an Adam-12 as an act of kindness from EP Jack Webb, and you’re working with this guy Milner who was once just a kid with no experience and played your little brother in Life With Father? Is it just another four hours on the Universal lot? Hey, how’s it going, Marty? Or do you look at Milner and the memories come cascading back, boom, boom, boom, and he’s still 15 and you’re 23 again and teleported to the Warner lot in its 1946 heyday. Here they are in 90 seconds working together as brothers in Life with Father.

We know Martin Milner and Kent McCord had become good friends by this time, so did Milner introduce Lydon by saying, “Hey, I watched this guy kiss Elizabeth Taylor!” Who wouldn’t be impressed by that? Thinking about all this made me revisit Alan K. Rode’s epic Michael Curtiz biography, which details the difficult production of Life With Father, the 72nd picture in the career of Curtiz and so just a tiny bump in the road for the titan. In it, Lydon gave some great quotes about working in that particular pressure-cooker.

Did Jimmy and Marty share a nostalgic laugh about the time Curtiz drove Lydon and Taylor through take after take of a key scene and on take eight Liz burst into tears and fled to her dressing room with Curtiz in hot pursuit screaming obscenities that he intended to be an apology? “Sonoffabeech, Elizabeth! Don’t cry!” ranted Curtiz. Lydon, at age 90, tells this story in an onstage Q&A with Rode that’s available on YouTube.

Warrior: Audrey Hepburn by Robert Matzen
A page from the Life With Father pressbook reflects the importance of a very young (and very expensive)
Elizabeth Taylor to the production.

Taylor was then age 14 and rocketing to stardom as reflected in the attention she received in the lavish Life With Father pressbook that suggested promotions for the film—many of them involving the natural beauty of Elizabeth Taylor. Jack Warner had traded for her from MGM at great expense even though she had already gained a reputation for being high-strung—her whatever it was, 15 minutes of screen time had cost Warner $350,000 and the services of his contract player Errol Flynn, used by MGM in That Forsyte Woman.

You can see why my head explodes every time, because all these thoughts cascade through my mind witnessing the simple interaction of two actors in a scene shot in 1974 during the last season of Adam-12.

Warrior: Audrey Hepburn by Robert Matzen
Wish I knew what you were thinking, you guys.

Author’s Note: Next time we’ll continue the countdown to release of Warrior: Audrey Hepburn and look at the reasons Audrey decided to take on a gig for UNICEF. It was, for her, no easy choice.

Re-Enter the Dragon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Greg met Larry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stewart’s War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Wonderful time for IAWL

World War II magazine, on newsstands now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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