General Hollywood History

Miracle Baby

I’ve written a novel. I didn’t plan on writing a novel and didn’t have any ambition to write one. It’s like out of the blue I learned I was pregnant and out popped this historical novel. If you ever read the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, this novel is like that. Except instead of being about real-life characters fighting the battle of Gettysburg, it’s about Warner Bros. in 1942…and features all real-life characters fighting studio battles while they live their lives at the beginning of U.S. involvement in World War II.

It’s called Season of the Gods, which is an allusion to the power held by Hal Wallis as the Zeus of his Burbank Olympos, and all the lesser gods who schemed and feuded in the name of art on the one hand, and commerce on the other. Reactions to date from Hollywood experts who had read the manuscript are positive. All systems are go.

I’ve learned plenty about the craft of fiction in the last year courtesy of this experience. My knuckles are black and blue from being rapped by my editor for using nonfiction techniques instead of fiction techniques. I’d write a biographical paragraph and, WHAP! Right across the knuckles. I’d summarize some episode or other and, WHAP! Another one across the knuckles. Don’t summarize, she’d say. Live the moments. It’s almost like I wrote the novel twice, once the wrong way, and then again the right way.

I knew what I wanted the story to be about, but I didn’t know that once characters come to life, they have minds of their own and suddenly what you thought was going to happen doesn’t happen, or doesn’t happen the way you figured it would. And that led to the most fun I’ve ever had writing, finding out what these people would say or do next.

Season of the Gods concerns how a woman executive named Irene Lee (yes, a woman executive at Warner Bros.) had a funny feeling about an unproduced stage play and approached Hal Wallis about buying it. He had just bought rights to The Man Who Came to Dinner and was negotiating for Watch on the Rhine, so when Wallis hears it’s a stage play out of New York, he asks Lee, “Which theater? Who’s starring?” She confesses it’s unproduced and he says, “No track record? No stars? No press? Pass.” But Lee’s a sharp cookie and develops her own game plan to work the system and get the property in the door. Then she’s involved every step of the way through all the twists and turns and politics and serendipity and genius day by day as the unproduced stage play becomes an ever-more-important component in the Warner Bros. production schedule for 1942.

Irene Lee had served as story editor at Warner Bros. for eight years at this time. She stood five-foot-nothing and weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet, but by age 31 was going toe to toe with Wallis and with the chief himself, Jack Warner. Irene sought to become a producer—which was unheard of at the time, a woman producer—and even after Wallis shot the idea down, she became the de facto producer of her pet project, proving you shouldn’t get in Irene Lee’s way.

Her unproduced stage play arrived at the studio on Monday, December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, and within two months, Hal Wallis had changed his mind about moving forward with it, despite the fact the play had no track record, or stars, or press, and its plot about all manner of illicit sex couldn’t be filmed because of censorship restrictions. The idea and setting were too good to pass up, and the concept could be adapted as a war picture, which was key because the day after Pearl Harbor, the United States and Japan were at war, and a couple of days later came a U.S. declaration of war against Germany.

As the novel unfolds, everyone in Hollywood worries about a Japanese invasion every moment. Were the carriers that had taken out Pearl Harbor going to steam east and flatten Los Angeles? Nobody knew. And, in fact, Japanese submarines did shell the coast in January, so Californians had reason to worry.

Throughout pre-production of Irene’s picture, the Allies were losing the war. It wasn’t until after cameras rolled, after a very long stretch of script development, that the U.S. fleet kicked Yamamoto’s ass at the battle of Midway, and so up until that moment in June 1942, nobody from Hal Wallis and Irene Lee on down knew if their movie would make it to release, or if America would already be beaten. All they knew for sure was that the world needed this story she had found. As the passage of time proved, the world did indeed need it, and continues to need it. Season of the Gods shows how it all happened. I guess it’s sort of one miracle baby describing another miracle baby. Cool.

Season of the Gods will be published by GoodKnight Books, with release on October 3, 2023.

The Masked Man

Dec. 17 update: My friend Walt Powell sent me this treasure: an autographed photo of the Lone Ranger pitching Amoco gasoline in the late 1960s. Note gas pump nozzle in his holster! That day at the Dodge dealership, I did not think to get the Lone Ranger’s autograph; thanks to Walt’s generosity, now it’s as if I did. Thank you, Walt. Hats off–white hats, that is–to Clayton Moore, the Lone Ranger, for remaining relevant during the most turbulent period in American history.

The time I met the Lone Ranger in person, it struck me all at once that he was in color! He wore a powder-blue shirt and matching pants, with a red kerchief around his neck. I was maybe 10 or 11 and Clayton Moore was appearing for Dodge at a dealership only 10 miles from my house, and so my dad took me to meet him. It remains a vivid memory for several reasons, first and foremost because at that time we didn’t have a color TV and so I had only ever seen The Lone Ranger TV show in black and white. But man, oh man, seeing him in color—wow!

The Lone Ranger and Tonto as I was used to seeing them, in black and white.

Now, if you recall (that is, if you’re ancient enough to recall) a Lone Ranger feature film was released in 1981, and at that time they forbad Clayton Moore from appearing as the Lone Ranger for copyright reasons, but his promotional work for Dodge preceded that controversy, and he looked just about exactly like the hero from television. There he was in the mask, white hat, and blue outfit, with two gleaming chrome-plated Colt .45s.

It astonished me that my dad could stand there and chat with the Lone Ranger as if the Lone Ranger was just a person and not a legendary hero of the Old West. And that Saturday, late in the morning, for whatever reason, there was nobody there to see the Lone Ranger but my dad and me, so there was my father engaged in this serious conversation with the masked man who had bested Butch Cavendish and his gang and so many other villains, which increased my admiration for my dad by, like, 5 billion percent.

Among the things your future Hollywood historian did not ask Clayton Moore, aka the Lone Ranger, while in his presence: What are your best stories from Warner Bros., where you had bit parts in five pictures in 1938? How did you make the transition from WB to MGM, where you worked in a half-dozen pictures in the golden year of 1939? Talk about your rapid rise to become a king of serials at Republic in The Perils of Nyoka, The Crimson Ghost, The Ghost of Zorro, and many others. In the contract dispute when you walked off The Lone Ranger series for a year, did you fear you’d never wear the mask again? What were the differences working on the weekly TV series from 1949-57 vs. the splashy Lone Ranger Warner Bros. feature films of 1956 and 1958? Noooo, none of that. As an idiot pre-teen, I didn’t dare squeak more than “Hi” when my dad introduced me to the Lone Ranger.

The Lone Ranger in color, as I saw him that day.

One of the upper cable channels is back to showing The Lone Ranger and I’ve been DVRing them. The last season was in color, and I’ve been admiring the pretty-good stories and the abundant action. By that last season, they had polished the production to high gloss and Clayton Moore had matured as an actor. In retrospect, however, he was no match for Jay Silverheels as Tonto, a god of a human generations ahead of his time—brave, wise, loyal, and able to match the Lone Ranger’s heroics move for move, punch for punch, and shot for shot. How many times did Tonto save his white friend’s bacon…a hundred maybe over the course of the series. The presentation of Tonto as a hero whose indigenous roots gave him an advantage over friend and foe alike stands out to me today as astonishing and progressive.

My father died in 1982 and Clayton Moore 17 years later. The Dodge dealership where I met him was razed decades ago and I couldn’t even find a photo of the place to post here. And the silver bullet given to me by the Lone Ranger that day, which was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, has likewise been lost to antiquity. All I have is the memory of a Saturday when two heroes met and stood toe to toe, the Lone Ranger and my dad.

Mystery Brothers

Epstein brothers Julius left and Philip right in 1944.
Julius Epstein (left) and his twin brother Phil (right) during their heyday at Warner Bros. They were rock stars before there was such a thing as rock stars and this portrait would have been at home on any 1970s rock album cover.

Full disclosure: I am loath to watch any Bette Davis picture. In my mind, of all the actors who haven’t stood the test of time, she heads the pack. Rules the roost. Stands head and shoulders above the rest. I’m the first to acknowledge her perfection in All About Eve, which I find to be one of few perfect pictures ever. But in general, Bette and I don’t mix well.

This is the price—141 minutes in the dark with Bette Davis—I was willing to pay last night to watch her 1944 film Mr. Skeffington for the first time, having successfully steered clear of it all my life. My interest certainly wasn’t Davis, but rather Julius and Philip Epstein, twin brothers who wrote and produced Mr. Skeffington as their successful follow-up to key involvement in the writing of Casablanca. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with the Epsteins, who are shrouded in mystery and legend to what I feel is the detriment of Hollywood history.

As a researcher, I’m shocked how little survives about these two screenwriters beyond the few stories repeated ad nauseum about their verbal fencing with Jack Warner, their completion of each other’s sentences, and their general brilliance as both writers and wits. They were also individuals with separate lives and families and that part is just gone from the record because they were only screenwriters in a town ruled by the stars, and neither cared to blow his own horn. Nor did they date starlets or write tell-all memoirs. They were in their 30s when they co-wrote Casablanca (for which they shared an Oscar with Howard Koch) and produced Mr. Skeffington. Then Phil died suddenly and horribly of cancer at age 42, leaving his collaborator Julie to go on another 48 years alone. That part of their story rips my guts out because of how close these guys were. Julie said that after Phil died, he never successfully recaptured the collaborative spirit with any other writer. Imagine that degree of loss for not only a twin brother but also a twin creative spirit.

Every line in Casablanca that you know is coming and still don’t see coming is thanks to Phil and Julie. “Waters? What waters?” “OK don’t have a drink.” “That is my least vulnerable spot.” Etc. Sure other writers had their hand in the Casablanca script and made critical contributions, but the wit that greased the skids and propelled the story was theirs. No, Jack Warner didn’t care for the Epsteins, but he knew they were good and agreed to make them producers as a reward for the success of Casablanca. And so, in my investigation into what made the Julius and Philip Epstein tick, I watched Mr. Skeffington.

What struck me was how ambitious this project was as their first attempt at co-producing, this epic spanning 30 years, and the social issues it took on—anti-Semitism, narcissism, mental illness, and finally, Nazism. It’s the story of a flighty woman who’s the belle of the ball in the beginning and turns down suitors right and left but marries a Jewish businessman played by Claude Rains to keep her mentally ill brother from going to jail. Several reels and relationships later she’s an old hag and reunites with Rains who has proven time and again during the course of the picture that he’s much too good for her.

The screenplay rings true as pure Epstein, or at least what I have come to understand of the Epsteins, who were brilliant, creative, energetic, and socially conscious. They threw everything into the story including the kitchen sink and every other fixture in reach and veered from comedy to tragedy so fast you could lose your lunch. Davis is Davis, affected and unbelievable at every stage of the story, so it’s left to Claude Rains and the always able Walter Abel to lug this picture on their backs for a long running time; no easy chore, but they’re up to it. When the inevitable payoff comes, I managed some tears only because Rains made it all work. He’s so damn good.

Bette and Claude. Ever the pro, he lugged the picture on his back.

And OMG Davis; what a ham. I know this is a Warner prestige picture, and Davis naturally got all the studio’s A-picture roles. But this time she was simply miscast as a raging beauty. I never bought her as a “catch” in this picture and found her shrill and unsympathetic from start to finish. The part called for Lana or Rita or Linda Darnell or somebody who could start out radiant and gorgeous, although none of these actresses had Davis’s range to fully execute the maturation of the character. But why was Bette so (frankly) bizarre in this picture? Supposedly, decades later she apologized to the surviving Epstein for being impossible during production of Mr. Skeffington; I only learned this morning the reason for a performance that feels today massively uneven.

Make-up aged Bette and make-up aged (and ever-able) Walter Abel.

The director of Mr. Skeffington, Vincent Sherman, documented its production in his book, Studio Affairs. By the time he wrote this memoir in the 1990s, Bette was gone and the story could be told. After completing the 1943 picture Old Acquaintance that they worked on together, Bette and Vince had been about to embark on an affair (both were married) and her husband, affectionately known as “Farney,” intervened and asked Vince to back off. Bette then felt doubly betrayed by both her husband and her lover when Vince deferred to Farney. One thing led to another and Bette and Farney engaged in a horrible screaming match and soon Farney dropped dead of a brain aneurism, for which Bette blamed herself. Soon thereafter, Mr. Skeffington began production and Davis was impossible for Sherman to deal with—she brought a toxic mix of guilt and resentment to the set every day that made the production of Mr. Skeffington a living hell for the entire cast and crew. For me watching all these decades later, this vibe is evident in the negatives exposed back then. Sherman concludes his chapter on Bette Davis by saying, “For some of her fans, it [Skeffington] has become one of their favorite Davis vehicles. I remember it as a turbulent, frustrating experience; I vowed never again to get emotionally involved with any actress I was directing.”

Watching the film as an exploration of the Epsteins as writers and co-producers, I came away from Mr. Skeffington impressed by their vision and ambition. The picture proved a big success at the box office (according to John McElwee of Greenbriar Picture Shows, Mr. Skeffington made a boatload of money, $1.2M in domestic profit). Despite this fact, Julie and Phil retired from the producer role after this one shot, which speaks to the sweat and blood required to go from mere screenwriters to producers responsible for every aspect of a motion picture. It was for them a bridge too far, and they realized it.

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 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.